Driving as much as I do I sometimes get into a jam trying to pick the perfect time to fill up with gas. Different dilemmas present themselves along the way. Sometimes the quandary is presented by virtue of sheer schedule crunch. Although it has only happened once, I did find myself in a real panic one Sunday morning as I headed out of my subdivision and was thinking just how much time I had to get to Athens Tennessee for a Sunday service when two things hit me. The first was the real panic-inducer because it just then struck me that Athens was Eastern time zone, and of course I live in Central. Yikes!! I just lost an hour – pedal to the medal! Go Murano! Go! The second panic point was realization that the gas tank needle was oh-so-close to the “E” mark. I began to think about the roads I was traveling so that I could pick the perfect time to fill up that would surrender the least amount of time. Of course, when I pulled in to the Shell station and slid my fleet card at the pump the pump’s computer said, “See Cashier.” Ugh! Really? So much for convenience. I eventually made it to the church in time for the service, but I was more than a little frazzled by time of arrival, and fully anticipated a couple of THP units to be awaiting my departure from the church parking lot. Another time I was driving back from Gatlinburg after the Tennessee Ladies Chorus had sung for their first Missions Get-Together several years ago. In this instance I had the privilege of having my sis, Teresa riding with me and we got to talking….and talking….and talking. I noticed when we left Gatlinburg that I needed gas, but thought I would fill up when we stopped for lunch. I had the perfect spot in mind, stopping at Puleo’s for a nice brother-sister lunch and then I would stop and fill up. Timing would be perfect. And it would have been….except I got to talking and forgot. Oops! So we are headed down I-40, and sure enough. No sputter, sputter…..no cough…..just suddenly powerless. I missed the perfect time to fill up and now I was paying the price. Thought I would have to walk and borrow or buy a gas can. Highway Patrol pulled up, offered a ride and to use his plastic tank, which I agreed to. Little did I know I had to ride in the back and first spread eagle across the hood of the patrol car so he could frisk me – “state law” he said. I think I saw three vanloads of WMU ladies heading back to West Tennessee pass by while I was spread out like a hood ornament. Could only imagine the stories being shared in churches during those reports from the weekend, returning only to spot the Worship Leader being tossed in jail. Not the perfect time to fill up.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. There are various reasons and pressures that may distract us from the perfect time to fill up. Same is true for renewing your spirit and refreshing your knowledge of resources, spiritual tools, and embracing networks of relationships that can help strengthen your resolve in life and ministry. Now and then we all need a fill up. While there may not seem to be a perfect time, Summer likely presents some opportunities that deserve your attention. Consider areas of your own need.
- Spiritual enhancement – extend times in scripture, read devotional writers who challenge you spiritually and engage your mind and spirit
- Organizational tune-ups – many of our systems of organization and leadership come unraveled in the hustle and bustle of weekly demands. Worship music ministry of any sort must have organization. Summer often provides a great time to re-think the plans for Fall and either tweak or re-do the organization for better development
- Theological knowledge – too often we think of theology as the responsibility of the senior or preaching pastor. People get their theology largely from what they sing. Heavy responsibility boys and girls! Be careful what you place on worshipers’ lips. Strengthen that expertise in Summer by delving into good theological reads. Better yet, network with fellow worship leaders to compare notes and share findings
- Conferencing for the best – look over what all is available to you for Summer conferences from Lifeway to Baylor’s Alleluia to publishers to college or seminary offerings. This could be a good time and good way to fill up
- Family nourishment – vacation is important to nurture your family relationships and spend time you often cannot find during heavy seasons of ministry. Use the Summer to renew your marriage, your parental skills, and just spend time hanging out with family for the sake of filling up the love bank.
- Musical growth – learn some songs without pressure of performing next week, re-visit old friends that have stretched you musically in the past and spend awhile remembering why. Listen more in the Summer and nurture your joy of the musical art for its own sake, then let it once again serve as reminder of God’s creative genius and formation within your spirit.
- Find old texts and rework as needed to bring new life. “Sing to the Lord a new song” can include an old song that finds new life.
- Of course I hope you will all enlist your leaders and join us at Brentwood Baptist on August 7-8 for the Music Ministry Leadership Conference, which will be one of the best ever.
If I can help in any way this Summer, let me know. This Summer I actually plan to pull over a little while myself and ask the Lord to “fill me up.”
Sunday I began leading music for a revival at First Baptist Church Woodbury. Pastor Hunter Hay apologized for calendaring issues that led to the revival week beginning on the Sunday of senior graduation recognition and end-of-the-year children’s music program. I told him, “no problem,” and I meant it. I am here to serve and I hope to offer encouragement to choir, leaders, church family, and I pray the Holy Spirit will work among His people to renew and refresh hearts in worship and ministry. Granted, the morning service was packed rather full and we only got to sing one hymn other than the invitation, but the week is young and the Lord is sovereign.
As guest preacher, Gerald Thomas, capably noted Sunday evening, a theme of faithfulness was struck on Sunday in which passing the heritage of faith is paramount. Visited in several ways in sermon, song, and testimony, a striking component for me was the involvement of the children in their presentation of Living in the Light music presentation after using Growing in Grace curriculum for the children’s choir year. Songs clearly rooted in biblical truth, many including direct phrases from scripture verses, demonstrated what takes place in a children’s choir setting over the course of a year, and had potential to show parents and leaders the high value of holding firm to this important ministry. May their tribe increase!
If I might share a personal word of how things came together in my own spiritual worship on last Sunday I want to then draw attention to broader worship applications that I pray might strike a chord in your own setting. Through past days of Music Camps (Camp Carson and Linden) I have connections with people in the Woodbury church as they faithfully involved their children and youth in those opportunities over the years. The children’s choir Sunday was led by volunteer, Terry Brewer, who was leading in the early 1990’s when I first connected to the church. Two of his grown children are now serving, Claire played piano for the children’s group Sunday, and Rhett serves the church as Minister of Music. I saw Adults and children Sunday who recognized me from Kids Choral Connection and Youth Project, and expressed excitement that their choir was leading in worship. A couple of the children who had speaking parts Sunday had also been part of KCC, and now were receiving graduation hymnals, indicating they are moving forward from children’s choir to youth choir next year. These glimpses of days gone by, reflecting on music camps when Claire and Rhett were the size of the children now in the loft at Woodbury Sunday, and remembering ways their talent was discovered and fostered in those settings, all served to stir my spirit of determination to continue providing opportunities so that upcoming generations including my own grandchildren and their grandchildren would know the joy of praising the Lord in song. Hearing familiar scriptures on the lips of these children Sunday reminded me of my own Sunday School teachers and Bible Drill leaders who patiently helped me as a child to learn and grow. I thought of choir leaders who helped me learn songs that let me sing the Bible, and express and practice my commitment to their truths, even before I had any idea that such formation was taking place in my mind and heart. Reflecting on these days brought a thankfulness to my spirit Sunday in worship. Renewing worship brings about remembrance and reflection.
Sunday worship also connected me beyond the immediate physical location as I proudly thought upon friends and fellow musicians, Dora Ann Purdy and Terry Taylor, who serve to bring the Growing in Grace curriculum and music together. I knew that in those same moments that we were worshiping in Woodbury they were in leadership rolls at Forest Hills and Tusculum Hills in Nashville respectfully. Of course, such thinking also led me to ponder all of our worship music leaders across Tennessee and whisper a prayer again for their (your) effectiveness, sense of the Spirit’s power and presence, and confidence in the gifts God has given with which they/you serve. I then had visions of worshiping brothers and sisters in the churches of Rome, Naples, Florence, Arezzo, and Pestoia come to mind followed by consideration of the chapels of Wales, the churches of Rio, and Iowa, and Montana. Sunday worship connects the parts of the body, not only in the singular location, but beyond to worshipers who gather around our state, the world, and those who are gathered in the very presence of Jesus as we all will be one day. Renewing worship expands our horizon beyond the immediate physical location to connect us to the Kingdom whose ultimate end is the worship of our Triune God.
Sometimes calendaring for worship gets crowded, even through what seem to be mistakes or mishaps. Trust in the Lord! He brings together past, present, and future to meet in worship. In worship a future is unveiled “where God’s sovereign will reigns supreme and His love conquers all. In that sense the future is already accomplished. Christ is risen. His wedding feast has begun. There is nothing we or anyone else can do about it.”
 Michael Walters, Can’t Wait for Sunday: Leading Your Congregation in Authentic Worship (Wesleyan Publishing 2006) 214.
How often should our church join together for worship? Well, the song says “the more we get together the happier we’ll be.” Anybody buying that? For that matter, is that the purpose of gathered worship, to make us happier? From time to time this question of how many weekly worship services are best arises as I receive calls concerning aspects of a church’s worship life and/or an aspect of music ministry. To be candid, I do not have a pat answer and find the question often seems more focused on something other than worship. The focus may well effect the worship life, and certainly often effects the music ministry or some other ministry, but the question of how frequently should a local congregation gather together for worship is an important one to consider on its own. As I said, I do not have a pat answer. In fact, I am not of the persuasion that this is at all a “one size fits all” issue. So, like other similar issues that may not have a clear biblical imperative, I think it is good for church leaders to transparently converse with each other as to pros and cons of different practices, recognizing that we influence one another through our words and impressions, and thus need to enter such a discussion carefully and prayerfully. That said, I really want to toss this question out to you and ask for your reply for all to see. It could be as simple as “we meet Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday” or it could offer explanation of changes in recent years and subsequent effects. The more responses the better. Just leave as a comment below.
Here is where I am coming from. Having been a church staff member for many years, I know that Sunday evening worship can be a drag on the system (personally) and is often challenging to the family of every staff member, especially pastor and worship music leaders. I also know that youth choirs, discipleship training, and other important ministries have been greatly effected by leaders’ response to the “yes or no” of Sunday night church, Wednesday schedule, and/or additional gatherings of the church that include some form of worship, or as opportunity for worship training and preparation. I have observed that entrepreneurial efforts of books like Purpose Driven Church and Simple Church have greatly effected many leaders and subsequently their churches, even when misinterpreted or misapplied as fix-all solutions to complex sets of issues. As the church has moved in and out of programmatic methodology it is easy for important practices to get lost. This is especially true in a culture that reveres individualism to the point of idolatry. Sometimes pastors who lead with a CEO style mentality misconstrue building community as if it was like building a corporation. In such a mindset much is made of image and perception. Needless to say these are important factors, but they can easily substitute an artificial ethos for the reality of the situation.
What do you think?
One of the many things I love about sharing life and ministry with Tennessee Worship Pastors is when one of you shares a joy or affirmation from your own worship ministry. Tonight I opened an email from our dear brother, faithful TMC member, and longtime bivocational worship ministry leader at First Baptist Church Greenfield, Jackie Vaughan. Without breaking any confidences or embarrassing anyone I will just tell you that J.V. shared with me an email from someone in his music ministry for whom Jackie and Amy have been a very special blessing. As I read through what was shared I was reminded of some dynamics that are powerfully impactful in the course of life and ministry.
- In the midst of our ministry week in and week out more is taking place in the lives of those we serve than we ever know at the time. We ask someone to sing in the choir, join the instrumental ensemble, or take responsibility in a children’s music project at just the “right time” that they needed some encouragement to participate at a different level. Again, we may have no idea at the moment, but the way in which ask, the fact that we, as a leader, turned attention to them, demonstrates a caring that conveys encouragement beyond the fact of the request itself.
- The spiritual power of ministry in worship music is not confined to the music-making itself. While we certainly preach and teach of the effect of the music-making and foster understanding of how that art expression serves the liturgy of worship, proclaims the gospel, and ministers peace into the lives of people, still there is more taking place. The lives of individual choir members are being formed by the text and music. Relationships within the church family are growing deeper as emotive expressions are shared, harmonic balances grow to more than sound, and rhythmic vitality becomes a symbol for marching together on the journey of faith. In the midst of our teaching and interacting with text, music, and fellow music-makers, we discover healing in our own lives, deepened care for those around us, and strengthened resolve to proclaim truth.
- Affirming those who minister to us and with us and who have had an impact on our lives can be a powerful thing for both thankor and thankee. It was in the more careful study of worship at Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies (IWS) that I was confronted with living a eucharistic life. That is to say, a life of gratitude. A worshiping life is lived in that spirit. Certainly we praise the One who paid our debt, and give thanks, but we also can find the Lord’s giving through those who have authority over us, those who minister to our needs, and those who teach and disciple us in large or small ways.
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. (1 Thes 5:12-13)
Likewise, as the one on the receiving end of gratitude from time to time, such as was the case in the message Jackie shared with me, we are strengthened and emboldened by such encouragement. Hearing someone share what God has done through you is powerful to remind us that all we do matters, and more importantly, who we are matters.
A resonant spirit of gratitude among the body of Christ is a powerful dynamic that can fuel our worship, enliven our praise, and generally accomplish something of what is exhorted in Hebrews 10:24, “And let us consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Thanksgiving and Prayer
3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace,[d] both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness,how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:3-11)
OK, you who know me are well aware that like most grandparents I am always looking for opportunities to inject stories and pictures of the grandchildren. There is a reason they call them grand you know. And while I am posting a picture of my oldest grandson, and could profoundly boast about his character, personality, and reflect the joy he brings to this granddad’s heart, that is not the purpose of this blog or of this post. Instead, I want to boast in Jesus Christ, to bear testimony to God’s faithfulness, and exhort all my brothers and sisters to never give up the powerful posture and practice of fervent prayer.
From the moment we knew our daughter was expecting her first child I began to pray. My first prayers had to do with the health and welfare of our daughter and protection for the baby. As the days of her pregnancy passed by I began to pray beyond the physical and emotional issues and pray that this child would one day come to know Christ. It was the forerunner of the prayer that continues this day for each and every pregnancy and grandchild. Once our oldest grandson was born and the joys of holding him, watching first steps, laughing at every antic we deemed cute at the time, Ebbie and I were awestruck with how much meaning grandparenthood added to our lives. We talked about it (I know, we still do) a lot. We built a play-gym complete with sandbox in the backyard for cryin’ out loud. As time has gone on we have eventually surrendered the few Saturdays we have “free” to soccer, basketball, and t-ball, now baseball. All well worth every minute.
I have to admit, though, that I experienced a change about three years ago, and it began with my oldest grandson. When he visits our house overnight we have a routine of reading Bible stories, then telling stories, saying prayers and (eventually) going to sleep. Of course, I loved the hugs, the laughter in response to my hokey antics, and sense that I was endearing myself to my grandson. All good things. As I considered the real essence of life lived as worship, however, I was convicted that worship has priority in familial relationships as well. Prayers for Coen’s salvation in God’s timing grew more intense. I was highly sensitized to questions, attitudes, and opportunities to speak of what Jesus has done for us. I will never forget one Sunday at First Baptist in Nashville when the ordinances were observed in worship. That night’s bedtime was a windfall of seed-planting, and spirit nurturing. Too young to understand, yet not too young to have a sense of faith awakenings. What’s more, my own faith was in God’s sovereignty and timing.
About a month ago I got a call from my daughter. Sharing joyful tears over the phone I heard the news. My grandson had prayed a prayer for salvation. He was trusting in Christ and asking that Jesus be Lord of his life. Glory! I must admit I was thrilled (and proud) that he wanted his “Poppy” to baptize him, and it was no doubt last Sunday was one of the greatest joys of my life. It was also, however, a reminder of God’s absolute faithfulness, and of the need to pray without ceasing. It was a refresher on what is important in this life, and how worship is an all the time posture in life and living, not just a weekly event. I am grateful to Pastor Tim Stutler and the people of Goodlettsville Cumberland Presbyterian Church, where our son-in-law serves as youth pastor, for their support and joining the celebration of praise. I am also thankful to be reminded of my own baptism as a young child, and find my heart singing today the hymn of baptism;
And as we rise with You to live,
O let the Holy Spirit give
The sealing unction from above,
The joy of life, the fire of love.
Come, Holy Spirit Dove Divine
Words by Adoniram Judson
Lord, may we stir the baptismal waters more and more as the message is problaimed “that wounds which mar the Chosen One bring many sons to glory!”
There is little disagreement among Tennessee Baptists that we have churches in desperate need of revitilization. Reports are now telling us that 90% of our churches are either plateaued or declining. Now having pastors, other church leaders, or church members say, “Here’s one!” is a different matter. Strangely, it seems that there is a disconnect between recognizing a problem, and recognizing our problem. In other words, we have a very difficult time owning this issue of needing transformation in our own church. Yes, statistics tell us there is a problem in our churches. However, I am hopeful that you, like I, desire an evaluative look beyond statistics. I am convinced that looking differently at these matters will yield far different results. The really difficult thing is that measurability is much less attainable when we begin to explore aspects like a change in the spirit of worship services, deepening relationships, meaningful fellowship, biblical follow-ship, and other characteristics that are much more intangible. In the case of gathered worship it is in this less tangible arena that assessment takes place. Relentless numbers-minded folks will still turn to statistical measurements and rely first and foremost, if not solely, on questions answered by how many. How many attended? How many visitors? How many? How many? I was once working with a statistician on a worship project related to congregational singing involvement, and the first words from his mouth were, “How many are singing?” Please do not misunderstand. The “how many” questions are important and undoubtedly display some reflection on deeper matters. In matters of transformation and renewal, however, we simply must plough more deeply to try and discover more of the thick description, if you will, of what is happening among members of the congregation. Along the way, there may well be points at which we become dependent on what might be simply called, “a sense of things.” In the long run we may even find that some churches who show numerical strength are not necessarily experiencing renewal. Likewise we may find that some churches without significant numerical increase are nevertheless in the throes of great revival as the Spirit takes hold in the spiritual transformation His people.
This is where music and response and participation come into the picture. Worship music leaders may not be able to definitively say following a worship service, this many or that many people were singing. They may not be able to numerically compare one week’s experience to the next. With heightened awareness and timely questions, however, those responsible for planning and leading in worship services are quite likely to be able to offer some sense of the spirit of congregational worship. Most important, these same leaders including preaching pastors and music leaders can make comparisons as to how well a congregation is following admonitions of God’s Word. Pastors and Worship Ministry leaders should be relentlessly attentive to the design of biblical corporate worship, and provide some grasp of how well a congregation is participating in that worship. By expanding this group of assessors to include other staff ministers, deacons and elders, and other church leadership for open and honest evaluation as to how a congregation is following the claims of Christ we may begin to get a stronger sense of where a church is in relation to being renewed.
Please note I am not saying that because a congregation raises its decibel level in its worship singing it is therefore in transformation. What I am saying, however, is that a congregation showing clear signs of renewed commitment to remaining true to biblical demands including faithful worship on terms and in ways revealed in God’s Word is a mark of renewal. And for those who question the centrality of worship in this question of revitalization of a church, consider these quotes from author, pastor, and theologian, Warren Wiersbe from his book, Real Worship: It Will Transform Your Life.
On the priority of worship in transformation:
Separation apart from worship can become (and usually does become) a brittle piety that breeds arrogance, legalism, and an isolation from both the world and the church that, in my thinking, is not biblical. (15)
I began to realize that evangelism divorced from true worhip can become merely a program tacked on an already overloaded ecclesiastical machine, or, even worse, a struggle for statistics and results. Isaiah became an evangelist after attending a worship service in the temple and seeing God ‘high and lifted up.’ Evangelism is an essential part of the church’s ministry, but it must be the result of worship, or it will not glorify God.” (16)
How did the missionary venture begin? Even Paul’s missionary call came to him while he was sharing in worship in the church at Antioch. When missions is divorced from worship, the human need can become more important than the divine glory.
Worship is at the center of everything that the church believes, practices, and seeks to accomplish. (17)
Genuine revitalization in our churches will center in genuine Christian worship. Furthermore, genuine renewal of the church’s worship is a sure sign reflecting the work of the Holy Spirit of God.
In recent weeks I have had the privilege of being involved in events that focused on renewal. From worship renewal weekends with individual churches to a regional bivocational pastor and wives retreat the theme of revitalization is as prevalent as the equivalent need for its effect. I am grateful to be assigned to the Church Revitalization Task Force team at TBC, because renewal is very much a centerpiece of the ministry to which I believe I am called. I must hasten to say, however, that this should not in any way be construed to imply that I have lots of experience, I know a bunch about what to do and how to do it, and therefore I am some kind of renewal expert. To the contrary, I am convinced that one of the very shortcomings that has us in such need of revitalizing is that we too often search for the proverbial magic bullet that will bring about new life among our people, and we begin to stare at other churches, other leaders, even other fields of vocation. Before we know it we may begin to busy ourselves in activities that are like the quip, “rearranging the furniture on the decks of the Titanic.” If churches could be revitalized by changing the music, preaching more sermons, developing new marketing strategies, reworking the website, or engaging in social media presence, then most of our churches would be renewed already.
A cardinal principle of renewal is well-stated by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in the reminder that worship renewal is not something we achieve, or for which we strive, but rather is a gift of God, and thus it is something for which we pray. The natural instinct of our Puritan work ethic tends to fight against this reliance principle. Senior Pastors and Worship Ministry Leaders feel a responsibility to what is and/or is not happening in the worship service. Coupled with an ambition to succeed, we can find ourselves striving at quick fix methodology that is rooted in marketing strategies, entertainment enticements, and lose our place in understanding our complete dependency on the only power able to bring about true transformation and renewal, the Holy Spirit.
In 2009 New Orleans Seminary President, Dr. Chuck Kelly led a chapel service and released a paper calling Southern Baptists “The New Methodists.” At its heart the contention of the address proposed that Baptists lost our way by our focus on methods to reach while letting discipleship take a back seat. Kelly’s remarks are in no way a slur on another Christian denomination, but they do point out our penchant for trusting our own efforts rather than relying upon the Spirit’s power while remaining faithful at the basic activities of evangelism and discipleship. While we in worship ministry might add gathered worship to the short list, I believe such can also be the given that undergirds all efforts of the church’s mission and ministry. In worship, gathered and in solitude, we re-orient to the proper perspective upon which evangelism and discipleship will be built. That is to say we re-position ourselves to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), and we remember our complete dependency on the finished work of Jesus, and in the face of our needs we are reminded of the centrality of the Gospel and pray for faithfulness in taking up the mantle of our place in God’s great story of redemption. It is in the midst of our praising and rehearsing the story that we stoke our grateful hearts to burn anew with zeal for the mission God has called us to in our context.
Sunday is Resurrection Day, and church pews will likely be more full than normal. I pray you and your church will find great celebration in the music and message of Easter. Let’s sing and proclaim the Resurrection message in a power beyond our loudest amplifier, biggest organ stop, full orchestra dynamic. Let’s pray the transforming power that raised Jesus from the dead to turn lives around, breathe new life into our willing souls, and free us to lives of worship that prepare us for the worship of eternity in which we will sing the everlasting song and crown Him Lord of all! Should that resurrection power permeate our ranks we will then see the revitalizing of our churches for which we hunger.
I once heard a friend say that one of the Baptist theme songs was “Anything You Can Do We Can Do Twenty Years Later.” That is usually good for a chuckle or two even when I tell it, at least from leaders who have engaged in the challenging task of trying to assist churches through change. There are lots of ways that we find ourselves trying to help our churches in and through changes, whether as a staff member serving an individual church, or one engaged in ministry assigned to assist lots of churches in an association, region, or state. Like it or not, we all face change. Greek philosopher, Hiraclitus is credited with positing that change is a central force in the universe. Plato quotes this dude with memorable quotes like “everything changes and nothing stands still,” or a favorite of mine, “you could not step twice into the same river.” Have to think a second on that last one.
So, let’s go with the idea that change is a given. In fact, when it comes to church music and worship the truth is that we have always been in a state of change. I contend that in relation to styles we have always been morphing into something new and incorporating new and different material, adding to what already is. Granted, those changes at times may have seemed to come oh so slowly, and it may have seemed along the way we found ourselves woefully behind the times, but it also seems to behoove us to always be asking what that even means, and what values concern for such implies. Seems to me the church may be too ready to assume that being “behind the times” is automatically bad, inferring that catching up to the times is always what we need. With cultural change steamrolling at mind-numbing speed there is hardly time taken by church leaders for true assessment of our context and to prayerfully determine how abrupt and to what extent our environments need to change. When we adapt to accommodate the culture by bringing aspects of the culture into the church and its worship, then we also bring the value systems associated with those adaptations. Let’s take, for example, the adherence to marketing strategies based upon commercial models focused on prospective consumers. We seek to give people what they want in music, environment, casualness, and then are surprised when they continually expect to have their wants met in those same areas. Someone has said, “What you use to win them is what you must use to keep them.” If change is the constant, then I guess that means continual change becomes our driving force. And so we have conferences and resource materials with titles like “What’s Next,” and “Next Level,” or “Push Forward.”
Obviously, part of keeping up with the times has to do with the music we use in worship. We change from the old to the new which quickly becomes old. The snowball effect is overwhelming. Try as we might, it is nearly impossible to keep up with the rate of new songs. Likewise, demonstrating our prowess of the almighty new, the people we are trying to lead cannot learn and incorporate the number of new songs at the rate they are given. And so we are confronted with the law of diminishing returns. In the effort to keep up with the times and give people what “they want” (which is really what we, or a marketer thinks they want), we are experiencing less singing participation. We have now begun training children up in this same pattern by giving them more choreography than singing. As I work with churches in relation to worship renewal a challenge is to get past assumptions that if we just modernize the music and overall environment then renewal will come, and lots of new people with it. I often hear “we have just not kept up with the times,” or worse yet, that sentiment as an accusation pointed toward others in the church.
Lest you think I am sitting here in my office with dialup internet service, or an IBM Selectric typewriter – younger guys it’s a 1960’s thing – I am not calling for return to days of old, there is no going back. What I am trying to do is call for a very careful, thoroughly prayerful, assessment of methods and materials that come our way, and intensely thoughtful theological scrutinizing of those materials and methods. As you review lyrics and run into questions remember this mantra, “when in doubt ask your pastor and/or other theologian.” If written song keys or melody lines present challenges for your musicians, they will surely present bigger hurdles for a congregation to grasp. That does not mean throw them out necessarily, but it may well mean you take plenty of time to teach them to congregation.
Here’s the bigger thing. If not careful we give the impression that updated environments, methods, and materials including songs and music can bring life transformation to the church and by extension individuals. It cannot! No song ever changed a life. Only the Holy Spirit can change a life, and send renewal. New songs and other changes may come with the renewal, but Spirit is always first.
I recommend you read Trevin Wax’s thoughtful blogpost titled, “The Disciples’ First Assignment: Do Nothing,” an excerpt from a book by J.D. Grear, Jesus Continued: Why the Spirit Inside You Is Better Than Jesus Beside You
I simply must tell you about last weekend’s joyful experience with Pastor Gregory Lindsey, Worship Leader Linda Mabe, and the Mill Springs Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Tennessee. A few months ago I agreed to come to Mill Springs to lead one of the Worship Renewal through Congregational Singing Weekends that I have been promoting and conducting for the last few years. From the moment I met Pastor Greg I was impressed that he was an under shepherd with a burden for his church family to know the renewed joy of singing their worship. Last weekend that sense was confirmed as I was immediately struck with his clear desire to offer his people an opportunity for revived worship through singing. We began immediately to discuss many of the variables that affect the congregation’s capacity to engage in song.
I will not extend this blog by expounding a play by play description of the weekend, but rather I want to focus on the high value of a pastor’s role in fostering healthy worship singing which I am convinced is a critical component of any effort toward renewal in Christian worship. The experiences of last weekend with Pastor Greg have just re-emphasized to me how crucial and filled with prospect is the enthusiastic involvement and support of a senior pastor to the congregation’s participation in congregational singing in worship. What’s more, I have been reminded that singing both fuels worship on one hand, and reflects that genuine worship engagement is taking place on the other.
Let me brag a bit about Pastor Greg. Here is a senior pastor who gets it! First off it is crystal clear that Greg loves the Lord with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. Secondly, it is clear that he has a deep abiding love for the people of his church that he is called to serve, and the community in which he lives. It is likewise clear that springing from these deep commitments this pastor remains devoted to God’s Word, and to functioning and leading within the teachings of holy scripture. He understands that this is a hedge of protection not only for him, but for the people he leads. Secondly, from that teaching Greg understands the high value of biblical music-making. It helps that he is a musician himself, but this pastor actually demonstrates a clear grasp of the high value of congregational worship singing, and it shows. For example, he demonstrates a grasp of what congregational singing sounds like. He knows the difference in energy generated by electronic devices verses the power of a roomful of believers engaged in passionate worship singing. He knows the difference in a song that may make us feel good and those that help to engage head and heart. (1 Cor 14:15) He understands that listening to a worship band does not equate to God’s people singing His praise together. I shared with Pastor Greg and with Ms. Linda the handout we had received in a Breakout session at last year’s Tennessee Baptist Convention Summit from our friend and passionate hymnist, Keith Getty. What Keith has to say in that piece, “Five Ways to Improve Congregational Singing,” begins with something that struck Brother Greg.
Pastors not only have a duty to be involved in preparing for the time of congregational singing, they also have a responsibility to personally model and demonstrate the importance of it. We need pastors who constantly delight in their congregation’s singing and the musicians who serve them and who also joyfully and authentically participate themselves.
Keith’s call for pastors to “be intimately involved in the language being placed in the congregation’s mouth, for that singing ultimately affects how they think, how they feel, how they pray, and how they live,” is a clarion call that I fear far too many pastors too easily shelve, preferring to figure out a shortcut to entrepreneurial success. The quick fix world of our day and our culture pushes us to look for a new trick, some adornment that we convince ourselves will change the demographics of our congregations, fill our pews and enliven sad and sick souls and their interest in offering praise to the Triune God. Instead we are often fostering abject disengagement, music that is too loud for the human voice to be heard above it, “leaders” who give off vibes of performers looking more for acclaim than to facilitate the song of the redeemed on the lips and in the hearts of God’s people gathered.
At Mill Springs the music leader is a young lady who grew up a P.K. (Preacher’s Kid), does not profess to read music, but has a lovely voice, plays chord on the keyboard, has pulled together a band of singers and instrumentalists, and demonstrates a kind and gentle loving spirit, and people follow. In the relationship of pastor and music leader there is a patient and appropriate work of unity seeking to help the people of Mill Springs to express their song of worship. In this environment I am convinced the Lord is renewing the sounds of His praise to ring loud and clear from a hillside close to Cherokee Dam, outside Jefferson City, Tennessee. Thank you, Pastor Greg, Ms. Linda, and Mill Springs Baptist Church for allowing me to come alongside for awhile and see the work of the Lord in your midst. You have reminded me again that the Lord will indeed “tune our hearts to sing His grace.”
Early in my tenure with TBC I perceived a decline in active worship participation in many of our churches. Through that assessment I sense that the Lord put me on a path of prayer, study, and concern that we have a serious need for worship renewal in many of our churches. I do not think it coincidental that our churches have been tagged with the “plateaued or declining” status reportedly attached to more than 80% of TBC churches and the subsequent need for revitalization. One of the Five Objectives in the vision adopted at the Annual Meeting last November addresses revitalization of 500 TBC churches over the next ten years. Given my ministry trajectory it is little wonder that my heart so readily and fiercely resonates with the that objective. While priority is placed on seeing these churches baptize new believers, I am also convinced that renewed worship will be both an aspect of the revitalization process and also an evidence that rejuvenation is taking place as we see the Lord at work. I believe churches will once again sing the sweet, sweet song of salvation, and we will know it.
Last Thursday I got to sit in on one of Wayne Causey’s class discussions at Belmont with his undergraduate students. He shot me a text message inviting me to join, knowing that I had been in doctorate sessions with Constance Cherry at the Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Wayne’s class discussion Thursday centered on readings from Dr Cherry’s book, The Worship Architect. I jumped at the opportunity because I am adapting some of my metaphors in worship renewal discussions to match up with her four structural walls of worship, and plan to use this in efforts toward worship renewal. I wanted to hear the students interact with the material, and I wanted to interact with them. Plus I got to hang out with Wayne a little while on a Thursday. It was very informative and encouraging to hear 18 -21 year olds’ observations of some of what happens in worship. As has been the case every time I have had similar opportunities to address and interact with students at Union, Carson Newman, our seminaries, and other schools, I found plenty to garner hope for a bright future of thoughtful worship leadership.
The particular section toward the end of the book that was being addressed at length in Wayne’s class was the section on style. As we discussed these I felt they deserved to be highlighted for those of us leading churches in worship and praying toward renewal. The premise in Constance’s thinking is her definition of worship style.
Style in worship is the way a certain faih community expresses the content of its worship (liturgy) as a result of a its given context.
She gives Five Myths about Worship Style that merit prayerful review by every Worship Leader. She prefaces these myths by emphasizing that “style alone cannot carry the weight of worship renewal. Style isn’t big enough or important enough or universal enough to do that.”
Myth 1: Style Is Content
Content is the material of worship, the essence of Who it is for and about, and the materials and actions that facilitate our corporate conversation with God in Christ – things such as reading and hearing Scripture, praying, singing, witnessing, affirming the truths of the Christian faith, communing at the Table, presenting offerings, presenting ourselves, silence, and so forth. Style, on the other hand, is not what we do, but the manner in which we express what we do. It may deliver content, but is not content itself. *Renewal in worship is never accomplished by changing the style.
Myth 2: Style is Structure
Structure has to do with ordering the content of worship. It is the shape of the communion with God in Christ. It gives logic and order to our gathered conversation with God. Style, however, is the language and manner with which we converse. *Renewal will never come from restructuring worship or changing the style of the structure used. The historic structure (gathering, Word ,Table ,sending) can be done in a myriad of styles.
Myth 3: Style Has Only to Do with Music
Style is much broader than music style alone, but rather encompasses many aspects of worship. It includes the version of scripture used for readings, and the language of prayers. Style includes atmosphere, architecture, technology, accepted attire, and so forth.
Myth 4: Style Has the Potential to Bring People Together
Nothing related to worship has been quite as divisive as style issues in the last several decades. Finding the right style will not bring people together in unity and peace. What draws people together is being in community with other Christians – the gift of God’s grace.
Myth 5: Style Impacts Church Growth Positively
This is a myth promoted with millions of dollars through an industry developed in an effort to capitalize on financial opportunities of churches experiencing decline and hungering for a “magic bullet” to grow their church like someone else’s church in someone else’s context. There is no study that shows that the use of a certain worship style will result in church growth. Studies of growing churches worshiping in various styles resulted in demonstrative responses expressed in words like exciting, celebrative, joyful, expectant, warm, spirit of revival, exuberant, spirit of revival. This was the case in formal and informal settings indicating the spirit of the worship is more important than its style or the type of music used. *Church growth will not be accomplished simply by a change of style in music.
For full explanation and rich material on worship planning and structure I highly recommend this book by a wonderful thinker and excellent communicator. Meanwhile, pray for renewal in our worship and in our churches.
 Constance Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics 2010) 227.
 Ibid., 223