Encountering Grace

In order to truly worship, I believe that we need to apprehend the grace of God.

Now, most of us in Christian circles have some idea of “grace”. It is by faith, through grace, that we are saved. In fact, grace is probably one of the key distinctives of the Protestant movement. Yet, I believe that we don’t really understand or live in the fullness of grace.

The coming revolution in worship is anchored in a revolution of grace which is already beginning to pervade the church. In the context of worship ministry, it affects everything: how we approach God; who can serve on the worship team; the content of our songs.

I first came across grace theology more than 10 years ago. I was a university student at the time, and some friends of mine had just graduated. Some of them had gone to Singapore to work. One of my friends ended up settling into Joseph Prince’s New Creation Church. I soon found out that one of the things New Creation Church was teaching was that you don’t need to confess your sins to be forgiven. Without much further investigation, I was ready to label the church heretical and I had some words to my friend about why she should find another church.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not really that fanatical. But such a teaching flew in the face of everything I had been taught since I was a young Christian. In fact, within weeks of becoming a Christian, I had to memorise 1 John 1:9 (“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins…”) as a key text of the Assurance of Forgiveness.

Then, an influential leader in our church started spruiking grace teachings (primarily from Joseph Prince) and tried to convince me that what I had believed about 1 John 1:9 was wrong (incidentally, I know now that there are more pivotal arguments in favour of the gospel of grace and arguing 1 John 1:9 as the starting point isn’t probably the best idea to convert anyone). Of course, I dismissed him the best I could, but I think he left enough doubt in a number of us that led us to start investigating grace further.

I have since heard other people preach on grace and I have also read books and listened to sermons by Joseph Prince.

I am now firmly entrenched in the grace camp…. Well, sort of.

I agree mostly with the grace teachers. But at the end of the day, grace theology is just that – theology. And theology is just a man-made grid to interpret Scripture and experience. So, I’m not really an apologist for grace theology. I like seeing things through eyes of grace; I like how a realisation of grace has changed my life and my way of thinking, but I think grace speaks for itself and doesn’t really need anyone to stand up for it. I’m not really fussed what people think about 1 John 1:9, or whether Romans 8:1,2 teaches that “there is no condemnation”, period, or that “there is no condemnation” only for those who walk according to the law of the spirit.

But if I were to err, I would rather err on the side of grace.

Grace is particularly transformational if you grow up in a culture of performance. That was the case for me growing up in a charismatic church in the 90s. Back then, our church still had some residue of the strictures inherited from the fundamentalist, holiness movements that was a tributary of the charismatic renewal. There were lots of extra-biblical rules. Drinking (as in alcohol) was frowned upon (even if you don’t get drunk). Guys and gals weren’t allowed to hold hands. In fact, they couldn’t even share a house. A holy Christian did their “quiet time” every morning and memorised Scripture. They also go to every conceivable meeting the church put on.

Whether it was the intent of the church or not, I grew up with a performance mentality. By that, I mean the need to do the right things to earn the favour of God.

How did that play out? If I was leading worship that week, I made sure I behaved myself, confessed all my sins, kept an extra short “account”. If I did all of that, I could be sure that the worship on Sunday would be awesome. The whole church would be blessed on account of, uh, me. If the worship tanked, then there must have been some unconfessed sin which I hadn’t dealt with.

I now understand that God is a lot bigger than my sins. Actually, I think that the church is more bothered by sin than God is. God has already done all that is necessary to deal with sin. We started by grace, not by works, and we continue by grace and not by works.

When I came to a realisation of the grace of God, suddenly there was glorious freedom. I stopped feeling like I had to earn God’s favour. Just as he freely gave favour at the point of my conversion, I believe that he continues to freely give favour in every part of my walk with him.

I’m much more relaxed now when I lead worship. Instead of focussing on me, I now come with a confident expectation that every time the church gathers, God is ready to meet his people, even if his people aren’t quite ready to encounter him. I come knowing that God is ready to bless so that we can be a blessing. I come knowing that, regardless of what the worship team does, God is ready to intervene in and transform the lives of his people.

Encountering grace is truly liberating!

And as a postscript, I am now a fan of Joseph Prince. We visit New Creation every time we are in Singapore.

How Great is Our God – World Edition

Revelation tells us that at the end of the age, every tongue, tribe and nation will worship around the throne.

“How Great is Our God” is one of my favourite songs because it spans the generations.  But more than that, it is a song that has spanned cultures and languages because of its simple declaration of the greatness of God.

Listening to the World Edition prophetically prefigures the picture of a glorious church where there is neither male, female, slave, free, race, colour.  As was famously declared by Bartleman in the Azusa Street Revival, “the colour line was washed in the blood”.

You will be moved as you listen to this.  Look out for some notable worship leaders, including Sidney Mohede singing in Indonesian and Marcos Witt singing in Spanish.  Great stuff.

Surround Yourself With Those Who Celebrate You

Worship ministry is never a one-man show. You can be the best singer, the best musician or the best worship leader. But all it takes is for the PA guy to turn-off your sound and you’re done.

I visited a church once where just before the start of the worship set, the sound guy was playing some background music from a CD. As the worship team got into their positions, suddenly the sound guy turned off the background music. Then silence. He should probably have gently faded out the sound. Mistake number one. I think this took the worship leader by surprise. She turned around to the team and said (wuite irritably) “Why does he always do that??!!” It was loud enough for me to hear and I was sitting in the back row! That was mistake number two; and it was a major mistake.

Why? The sound guy should probably have been corrected, but not in front of the whole team, let alone the whole church.

Like Paul’s exposition in 1 Cor 12, we need to realise that we need each other. Each part of the team has an important and crucial role to play and we need to remind ourselves of this all the time.

But because we are interdependent with our team, we should also ask ourselves: what sort of people should we let in to our inner circle?

When I was leading a pioneering team a couple of years ago, we formed a “Think Tank” of passionate, respected worshippers as our leadership group. I valued all of their views and opinions even though I didn’t agree with everything.

At work, my boss hates it when I agree with him. He thinks a bit of disagreement is healthy. Especially so when we are trying to work out a legal problem; understanding the opposing arguments helps us to formulate our case better. I agree with him (!).

Socrates used to teach that a “thesis” should be balanced against an “antithesis”, leading us to the “synthesis”.

So when working in your team, always be open to different ideas. My music director was a case in point. Every now and then, he would whisper into my ear that the song I had chosen for this weekend was too unfamiliar or difficult for the congregation or the band to pick up. Sometimes, I’d follow his advice. Sometimes, I’d take in on board and still go ahead with what I had planned because I had a purpose in choosing that song.

What is important is that the disagreement isn’t personal. At the end of the day, everyone in our team knew that we saw the best in each other and we wanted the whole team to succeed, both corporately and on an individual level.

I’m still reading Joel Osteen, so here’s another thought from pp 135-136 of Everyday a Friday:

Is your inner circle of friends holding you back? Are those closest to you with you but not for you? If you find that it takes constant effort to win their support and encouragement, they likely don’t understand your destiny.

The Scripture says, “Do not throw your pearls before swine” (Matthew 7:6). You could say your pearl is your gift, your personality. It’s who you are. When you get around true friends, people who really believe in you, they won’t be jealous of your gifts. They won’t constantly question who you are. They won’t try to talk you out of your dreams. It will be just the opposite. They’ll help you polish your pearl. They’ll give you ideas. They’ll connect you with people they know. They’ll help push you further along.

Do not waste your time with people who don’t value your gifts or appreciate what you have to offer. That’s casting your pearl before the swine. Those closest to you should celebrate who you are and be happy when you succeed. They should believe in the very best of you.

Recently, I was coordinating the worship on an intercessory boat cruise as part of the city-wide Commonwealth Prayer Initiative (when CHOGM was in town). One of the worship leaders I invited to take part in it was a guy I had met some years ago. A pastor in the city had connected me to this worship leader because I was wanting to see if we could set up a worship leaders network in the city. This worship leader was part of such a network in Singapore.

I remembered how we spent hours just sharing about the vision and the possibilities. But it never went much further than that and I got too busy doing things in my own church.

The boat trip rolled around and I got to reconnect with this worship leader. We were waiting that day to load up the boat and we were having a quick bite of lunch on the pier. I asked him, “What is missing in the worship landscape in Perth?” and he said, “people who knew how to lead worship and intercession”. I asked whether there were people in Perth who could do it and he said he could think of two: him and me. I was surprised, but I was also encouraged.

To reach the destinies that God has given each of us often takes a lot of faith. Even now, when I think about the possibility of starting a worship network, I am filled with doubt. But I know that I have at least one ardent supporter!

The fact that I got to lead worship on this boat trip was also due to the support of my former worship pastor, who was on the organising committee. She must have thought that I was the right person for the job to have asked me!

Now, we don’t need the approval of people, because we have God’s approval. But it’s encouraging and uplifting when you know there are people who support you, encourage you and celebrate you.

So when you build your team, surround yourself with those who celebrate you; who seek the best for you; who believe in you; and who believe that they will play a part in your reaching your destiny. They don’t always have to agree with you; but even when they don’t agree with you, you know that they will always be there to cheer you on.

Breaking the Competitive Spirit

I’m learning so much from reading Joel Osteen’s book, Every Day a Friday. It’s a book all about living with the right attitude and so much of it is applicable to those of us in worship ministry.

Today, I want to look at the spirit of competition. My next post will deal with the sort of people you want on your team.

I think worship leaders tend to be naturally competitive. As much as we’d like to deny it, it’s a ministry where your skills and talents are on show.

When I first started in worship ministry, I couldn’t sing very well. In fact, when I was in school, they wouldn’t let me sing in the choir because my voice wasn’t quite “ready”. In our team, we used to have heaps of brilliant singers. One guy I sung with used to be able to sight read notes and sing in Latin. And then there was this other singer. You just had to ask for a note and he could sing it for you pitch-perfect.

Actually, when I think about it now, I’m not that great a singer still. I can hold a pitch, but often I get caught up in the moment, lose concentration and go flat.

Joel Osteen shares a great thought about Saul and David in 1 Sam 18:7 (Every Day a Friday, p 133). After David had defeated the Philistines in battle, the women began to sing “Saul has slain his thousands, David his tens of thousands.”

Saul became angry and jealous. First Samuel 18:9-10 (Msg) says:

This made Saul angry—very angry. He took it as a personal insult. He said, “They credit David with ‘ten thousands’ and me with only ‘thousands.’ Before you know it they’ll be giving him the kingdom!” From that moment on, Saul kept his eye on David.

David and Saul could have been a great team. But their relationship began to deteriorate. And in the end, so did Saul’s hold on the kingdom. It seems to me that David had such an attitude that he would never have wrested the kingdom away from Saul. He would never have “touched the Lord’s anointed” (a verse, which by the way is often taken out of context in Charismatic church culture) and he would have been an invaluable resource to have at Saul’s disposal. Instead, Saul’s attitude made it impossible for David to serve under him.

Osteen observes:

One of life’s tests requires learning to celebrate the successes of others. You may be tempted to be jealous or critical when someone rises higher, passing you up, whether it’s in the office, on a team or in an organisation…

The real test as to whether God continues to promote you is how well you handle the successes of others. Can you celebrate what God is doing in their lives and not be jealous or critical, or feel you are in competition with them?

When John the Baptist was baptising people, a certain person asked him “Who are you?”. His response was telling: “I am not the Christ.”

As worship leaders, we need a healthy understanding of who we are, and who we are not.

Whilst the temptation still arises from time to time, I am becoming more secure as to the giftings God has given me. I accept that I’m not the best singer. I don’t have much of a musical ability. But I celebrate the unique talents God has given me.

In fact, someone said to me the other day they thought I had a great voice. I told them that actually, that’s not my thing. My gfit is as a worship architect. I have a great sense of envisioning the flow of a worship set from start to finish; I was good at linking songs, thoughts, themes and prayer together. This person said he thought I also knew how to say the right things to exhort people during a song. I was good at that too, and I accepted the compliment!

Knowing and appreciating your place in the body is an important attitude. But even more is the belief and the hope that those who work with you; who train under you will one day exceed you.

A couple of years ago, we were leading a pioneering ministry of some 30 singers and musicians. Early on, my co-leader and I told the team that we hoped that, a couple of years into the gig, we would rotate the leadership. We saw leadership potential in our midst and we knew that it was entirely possible that that potential would soar beyond our own.

I believe God is accelerating the generations. The next generation could well be savvier, more interconnected and more forward-thinking than my generation. I hope to keep up; when they surpass me, I’m going celebrate and support those who will reach further than I could ever have. And I hope that with my support, they will go further than they could have on their own.

Turning Off the Sound

In his book Everyday a Friday, Joel Osteen shares about how, when he was in charge of producing his father’s TV broadcasts, he would sometimes turn off the sound to see what the guest preacher was communicating through his countenance.

I like that idea.  I wonder how many worship leaders (if they were muted) would have a countenance that draws people in; that is inviting.

One day, I will try this on myself.  I’ve already had a couple of still photos taken of me, and I think I often look like I’m grimacing.

As worship leaders, our on-stage “performance” (whether you like that word or not) is an important element of what we do.

The next question then is whether we can learn to put on the right countenance, even if this means, as Joel Osteen puts it, “we fake it til we make it”.

A New Chapter

It is always difficult to start something.

The starting of a thing often sets its future course.

But life is often more about the journey.  The grace of God is greater than the best of our starts.  So no many how we start, there is always the comfort of knowing that His grace is sufficient for the journey.

So to start again is exciting.  It’s the abandoning of the familiar in favour of wading into unfamiliar ground.  This process always involves more faith.

I’m looking forward to the new chapter.

On 24 July 2011, after 21 years (for me) and 10 years (for my wife) in our home church, my wife and I felt the call to move into new territory.  We weren’t really sure where God was leading us, but we have spent the last few months now seeing what God is doing amongst the churches in Perth.

What we’ve seen has surprised and encouraged us.  Later on, I will share about my sense of the worship landscape in the city.  But it’s been amazing to see the move of God amongst the churches in its various manifestations.

We’ve also had the privilege of taking part in a city-wide prayer event in the form of the Commonwealth Prayer Initiative.

Even though we had doubts when we stepped out, like Peter we sensed the voice of Jesus steadying our steps and keeping us from sinking.

We’ve also sensed a call to unite churches in worship.  Can it happen?

Two thousand and twelve promises to be our best year yet!