Week 5 Chronicles: The Worship Leaders’ Living Room

In our church, we try an experimental worship format once every quarter, during a month when there are 5 Sundays. The reason for this is that we used to roster four bands on worship, i.e. a different band each week and took the opportunity to try something different when there was a fifth Sunday. We’ve stopped rostering by band, but we still try to push the envelope of how we do worship during these months; to add freshness and to teach the church that worship is more than a band-driven 30 minutes of singing.

Over the last few months, Dave and I have been doing mentoring with worship leaders and worship leaders-in-training in our church. These guys come from the youth ministry, campus ministry, young working adults and adult zones of the church, representing nearly every demographic in the church.

Every time we gather to worship in my living room for mentoring, we usually start the session with a time of worship, followed by some constructive critique for the worship leader – the idea being that we are in safe space and can give useful feedback to help each other improve.

What I had noticed was that every time we worshipped together, there was such a sweet sense of God’s presence. All we had was an acoustic guitar and voices joined together (often with harmonies) and a real sense of freedom – not having to really worry about leading any congregation, but just enjoying God’s presence together.

And then I thought: wouldn’t be awesome if we could transport the times of worship we had in my living room so that the church could experience it too? So the idea came: a Sunday worship set which would be led with all 13 worship leaders in our group accompanied by piano. Simple, pared-back, free-flowing but above all, intimate.

So last Sunday, we had our worship leader’s mentoring group lead worship, with Delany on the piano. It was a beautifully refreshing time, with lots of great feedback from the church.

The set began with Pastor Dave explaining the vision behind the concept, and then we just flowed from song to song with space for plenty of free worship before ending on a couple of declaratory hymns. We experienced, as Matt Redman once called it, “the friendship and the fear” – intimacy and awe.

Here are a few thoughts from last Sunday (as well in the planning leading up to the session):

1.  Whenever you try something different, it stretches your faith.

When I announced to our group that we were going to do this, I was told it would be difficult. How do we mix 13 voices together so they sound good? And wouldn’t having so many leaders on the team be like herding cats?

In John 6, the crowd had followed Jesus up the mountainside to hear His teaching. Sensing that the crowd was getting hungry, He said to His disciples, “where should we buy bread to feed them?” Philip responded with logic, “even 8 month’s wages won’t get us all a bite!” But I love what Andrew does. He brings a boy to Jesus and says, “Here is a boy with five loaves and two fish, but how far will they go?”

Andrew hadn’t figured it all out, nor did he have complete faith. But he took a forward step. He says in effect, “I’m not really sure, but maybe Jesus, just maybe, you can work with this?” And Jesus does – because He is the bread of life.

Sometimes we don’t have to know how it will all end and what the result will be. God just needs us to do something, anything, to respond to His call.

2.  Sometimes vision is best achieved with good counsel from friends.

I’m not technical. Far from it. I just sense something and go with it; and I can’t honestly hear technical problems. Someone on the team asked me, “what happens if we make a mistake?” and I responded, “well, the only people who will really know and complain about it are already on stage!”

But I remained open to suggestions. I wanted to go with completely no structure, but some of us started suggesting that we should include some structure so that the rest of us knew, for example, how many times we would do a song and so we would know where to build.

Ultimately, the vision got modified and I’m glad we included some structure but still made room for spontaneity.

Be prepared to modify your vision. Sometimes, you don’t see the full picture. Be humble enough to accept suggestions from the people you trust.

3.  The best team is a team of leaders

I always say that all the members of our worship ministry are worship leaders. I don’t think it’s truly sunk in for everyone yet, but that is where we aspire towards.

If everyone saw themselves as leaders, they would take initiative, be courageous and innovative, and not hold back. But we would also be sensitive enough to submit and support.

We experienced some semblance of this last Sunday.

And I loved that the congregation didn’t have any one leader to look to for guidance; just a stage full of leaders until it seemed, there were really no leaders at all, but just the Holy Spirit.

Here is the recording of last Sunday’s worship, artfully mixed by our awesome sound engineer, Senny.

And here is the set list, which by the way, came about literally as the group worshipped together in the living room the Sunday before:

// Sinking Deep (G)
//  Set a Fire (with additional verse by Tae Kim) (G)
//  I See Grace (G)
//  Forever (G)
//  Crown Him (Majesty) (A)
//  How Great Thou Art (A)

Enjoy!

Carefully Curating Your Congregation’s Song Catalogue

 

I love the word “curate”. It used to conjure up images of stuffy old men in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches carefully displaying artefacts in a museum. These days, the hipsters have taken hold of the term, and you can curate almost anything you like – magazine articles, photographs, ideas, images, conversations, recipes.

If you are in charge of your worship ministry at your church, hipster or otherwise, you have the job of curating your church’s song library.

What do I mean by this?

In the past, we used to give the worship leaders at our church free hand to choose whatever songs they wanted to sing. About a year ago, we introduced a catalogue of 30 songs for congregational use. Our worship leaders were told that, for a 25-minute Sunday worship set, they had to choose at least 3 songs from the library.

Ideally, the songs on the catalogue should be carefully curated, to take into consideration a variety of tempos, expressions and themes which reflects the current state of your church’s sojourn. We didn’t have that luxury, so we just identified 30 songs that we were singing at the church at that point in time. Then, every three or four weeks, we would introduce a new song, but as we did, we took out a song from the catalogue so the list always remained at 30.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure we’ve got it right. Maybe 30 songs is too few or too many. Perhaps it is too constraining.

But looking over the last year, I’m really glad we went down this route.

Here are some reasons why I think it’s important for worship leaders to responsibly and prayerfully curate a song catalogue:

1.  Consistency and Unity

Our church has an interestingly broad demographic. Being traditionally a migrant church, with an unusual bias of Methodists, many people were asking us to sing hymns and older worship songs (circa 1990). And yet, there was a group who had grown up in the Australian culture who would have never heard of those older songs, let alone be able to engage with them. This latter cohort listen to Planetshakers, Young and Free, Hillsong United, all replete with electro-beats and midi sounds.

Having a catalogue of songs wiped across, and wiped out, issues of preferences and preferential treatment. It was a means for the worship ministry to bridge the generational gap. Whatever your personal preferences, the church would be committed to singing from the catalogue.

What we found was that we began to move from a culture of singing my songs, to singing the church’s songs.

This also went for our worship leaders. I personally like the worship songs of the 1990s too, because this was a critical period in my own spiritual formation. But having to choose from the catalogue eliminated my own personal bias as a worship leader.

2. Increasing the Band’s Skill Level

Before we introduced the song catalogue, as a musician, you would never know where next week’s songs would come from. You hoped that you knew the songs, but there was a pretty good chance you wouldn’t, because a worship leader could choose an obscure song which was written before you were even born (such as Rich Mullin’s “Awesome God”, with verses!).

That meant that musicians would often have to learn new songs, even if they were in fact, old songs.

Having a catalogue means that musicians can target their practice towards a set of songs they know will likely be used on Sundays. Once they’ve got the 30 songs under their belt, they can continue to learn the new songs which are introduced over time. This levels the playing field, so to speak.

3.  Training New Worship Leaders

One of the most difficult aspects of a worship leader’s craft is song selection. I have always taught that if you can master this skill, then most of the work of Sunday worship is already done before you even step into your rehearsal.

But, in a landscape where new songs are being proliferated all the time, plus all the songs that have already been written, the different permutations of a Sunday songlist are virtually limitless.

On the other hand, if you are required to choose only from 30 songs, some of which naturally go together, and others which don’t, your choice becomes much more constrained. By limiting the permutations, choosing songs becomes a much easier exercise.

This means that as we train new worship leaders, we don’t have to worry so much as to whether their songlist is going to be a train smash. I have watched worship leaders create really bad song lists by the way. Train smash is the right term.

Instead, we can concentrate on worship leaders garnering their skills in stage presentation, flow, exhortation, prayer and leading the band. We remove one of the more time-consuming aspects of preparation.

As a seasoned worship leader who has to lead worship several times a month, having a compact song catalogue has also made it easier for me to choose songs, because I know what songs the church is singing and what they respond well to.

I have said that we are asked to choose 3 songs from the catalogue. Using a songlist of 4 songs, this means that we still have one free choice, just to pay homage to those of us who like to keep a bit of personal freedom!

Curating a song catalogue is therefore not just about putting together a beautiful list so that we can all gather around it, admire it and then quietly applaud. Curating a song catalogue is about cultivating a song culture in your church, right across a broad spectrum of generations, your band and your worship leadership.

One final thought. The old word “curate” also refers to a member of the clergy who has charge of a parish. To “curate” a song catalogue is therefore in essence a pastoral task, ultimately, helping your congregation and worship team to bring their best offerings in praise before the Lord. Have you thought about curating a song catalogue for your church? What songs would go on it?

Time for Breakthroughs

I love what God has been doing in our church lately. The only way I can put it is that God is bringing us into a season of breakthroughs. Glass ceilings are being broken through. Things which we thought could not be done are being done – and so naturally as well, without strain or striving.

Micah 2:13 (MSG) says:

Then I, God [the Lord of the Breakthrough] will burst all confinements and lead them out into the open. They’ll follow their King. I will be out in front leading them.

When God breaks out in front, he clears the way for us to simply follow Him into the open, into new territory.

For me, it began just before the end of the financial year, when our worship team had its team night. Dave Wong, our then worship director, was just about to be appointed worship pastor. Just before that, he and his girlfriend had, through what can only be divine orchestration, been asked to feature on a Sony Asia youtube commercial about long-distance relationships.

Here is the commercial:

And here is the full version of the song used in the commercial, which was actually written by Dave.

The commercial has already had over 540,000 views at the time of writing.

I told our team that it was significant that this happened on the eve of Dave’s installation. It was a prophetic moment for our ministry, because our worship pastor had broken through the song-writing barrier for us. We knew that if Dave could write a song which got recorded by Sony (!), then the idea of our ministry writing songs for our congregation, and eventually recording them, would not just be a pipe dream.

Next, came Children’s Sunday, the culmination of a three day Children’s Church camp. During the camp, the kids (with Cathie and Brandon Clancie) had written a song about Jesus being their superhero! And they led the congregation in the song that Sunday! And more surprising still, an eight year old girl had also written her own song which she performed in front of the whole church.

Not only that, our eyes were opened to the fact that the children could indeed minister as an adult would. I think for many, the limitations that we had put on kids ministry was lifted!

Then last week, our Young Working Adults zone hosted its very first Perspectives Conference: a whole-day conference about Christian engagement in the marketplace. Over 300 people, many from other churches and even unchurched people, came to hear notable Christian leaders in business speak. And we began to dream about what transformation in the marketplace might look like. It is probably the first conference of its type in our city. Yet another trailblazing moment. (I’ll write more about the Perspectives Conference shortly).

To top it all of, on the weekend just past, I had the privilege of leading worship at church. It was probably one of my favourite sessions so far this year. As you may know, I’ve been mentoring worship leaders in our church, and as part of the practical component, Dave and I have been getting them to co-lead worship with us on Sunday.

Last Sunday, I had Sunray Zheng and Ritchell Lim co-lead with me. It took away so much pressure to know that others were sharing the load. And the band just brought it. It was just an amazing time, with Ps Benny coming up to give an exhortation towards the end. The whole worship set lasted about 50 minutes!

Here is the recording:

 

I can’t wait to see what God has in store for us next!

Music in Its Rightful Place: The Importance of Capacity and Context

In our last worship leader’s mentoring session, we talked about the role of music in worship. In the modern worship landscape, music and worship are almost synonymous. Of course, the more informed amongst us are keenly aware of the separation, but often struggle to articulate the difference or to hold the tension.

I posited seemingly disparate themes to the group:

1.  Music and the Heart of Worship

For many of us who were around in the 1990s, the role of music in worship was beginning to reach dizzying heights. The praise and worship movement which began with grassroots, organic musical expression began to mature until we got to the point where we began to exalt musicianship and excellence above heart. Musical servants gave way to worship artistes.

Against this background, Soul Survivor Church’s Mike Pilavachi wrestled with the idea that the church had become connoisseurs of worship, rather than participants in it. So, he sacked the band. Until  the church learnt how to bring its own offering of worship, there would be no musicians on the platform.

Out of this context, Matt Redman’s song “Heart of Worship” was born. It spoke out of, and to, a church in a particular season where worship did indeed become a spectator sport. Pilavachi challenged us to all be performers of worship – for the audience of One.

2.  The Power of Music

Music is inherently powerful, either within the context of worship or otherwise.

We all know this instinctively. When we watch a horror movie, the best way to dampen the suspense and sense of encroaching fear is to simply block your ears. Once that happens, the tension and stress of a scary scene is almost immediately lost.

Plato once said:

Give me the making of the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws, I will control its people.

Historians say that the music of the Beatles, broadcast from the West, penetrated the Iron Curtain and helped spark the collapse of communism. Mikhail Gorbachev said “it taught the young people of the Soviet Union that … there is freedom elsewhere.” The music of the Beatles catalysed a political and cultural revolution. This is the power of music.

Pioneers of church worship recognise this power, too. Lamar Boschman said:

Music is one of mankind’s most fundamental avenues of communication, and one of the most successful because it transcends the conscious mind and reaches the subconscious.

Music affects us; it moves us; and it stirs our emotions.

In the context of worship, the question is: where does the power of music end, and the power of God’s Spirit begin?

3.  Music and God’s Presence

We often hear worship leaders say something like this: “we enter into God’s presence with singing”; or “God inhabits our praises”; or “as we play and sing, the Holy Spirit is going to move in our midst”.

The suggestion is that somehow, musical praise might somehow bring down God’s presence.

We might ask the question this way: did the sound of the trumpet bring down the walls of Jericho?

Harold Best says:

Whenever we assume that art mediates God’s presence or causes him to be tangible, we have begun to trek idol territory. Our present-day use of music as the major up-front device for worship is a case in point. We need to ask ourselves if we, as worship leaders, are giving the impression that we draw near to God through music or that God draws near because of it. Is music our golden calf?

Can we worship without music, and if so, why don’t we? Why do we put ourselves in the way of temptation?

4.  The Scriptural Impetus of Music in Scriptures

Despite the inherent dangers of music and the risk of idolatry, it would seem clear that the Bible mandates the use of music to accompany worship and sacrifice, even if the Bible doesn’t clearly define the relationship.

We see example after example, such as Miriam’s celebration song after the Exodus; David’s establishing of musicians and singers to minister around the Ark; the use of musicians when Hezekiah restored temple worship; Paul and Silas’ singing hymns in the prison. Even the largest book which sits in the middle of the Bible is a collection of sung verses.

Holding It All in Tension

So, how we do hold it all in tension? We know that music is Scripturally-mandated. We know it has something to do with God’s presence. And yet, we know it is dangerous and can often steal our hearts. It causes us to mistaken emotional hype and sensation with God’s tangible presence.

Music must be given its rightful place. Worship is first and foremost about the heart. Music is a tool. But it is an effective tool.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Music gives structure. It unifies the gathered church to sing one melody to one rhythm; it moulds us together out of our disparate thoughts and focuses us back to God.
  • Music engages us. It beckons us and calls us away from our own burdened souls; it moves us emotionally and gives voice to our innermost cries.
  • Music affects us. It moves our faith beyond the realm of the intellect to something which is felt.

Ultimately, music is not the end of worship, God is. Music and the musicians are merely servants.

Good Music versus Bad Music

If music is an important tool (and I think it is), then the question is: what of good music and bad music?

In my church, we are blessed with a pretty decent group of some 50 or so musicians and singers and we are always pushing ourselves to only get better at our craft. You might say, well, if music isn’t the end game, should we care how excellent we are?

And what of the small church down the road with hardly any musicians, all of whom have plenty of heart but less so musical competence?

What of quality?

This is where, as my wife pointed out to me (because she always has lots of revelation) that context and capacity matter.

If music is used to serve the people, as no doubt it must, then we must ask: what people are we serving? If we are serving a church full of musicians in Nashville, then mediocre garage band quality might just not cut it. Even now, amongst our church musicians, some of them get easily distracted with the slightest hint of off-pitched singing or imprecise rhythm. (Thankfully, God has gifted me with musical dullness so I can’t hear all the imperfections!).

On the other hand, a small home group will be much more forgiving on the musical technicalities, and be easily led by a display of heartfelt (but off-tune) praise.

Capacity then looks at what you, as a church, can afford, and what level of skill, as an individual, you can offer. As worshippers, we ought to only give God the best offering we can. If you have more to give, then give more. If you can afford a more lavish set up, then by all means bring it before the Lord as your sacrifice of praise. Don’t skimp on quality or even expense. But be prudent about it. If your congregation can’t discern the difference, then you might be a better steward to deploy your resources to other ministries which serve the congregation better.

I like how Mike Cosper, in his book Rhythms of Grace thinks about the role of music in worship. He uses the catchphrase, “Worship: One, Two, Three”. He says:

  • worship has one author and object, that is God;
  • worship has two contexts, that is, worship scattered as we go about worshipping in our everyday lives; and worship gathered, whenever the church comes together to instruct and edify each other;
  • worship has three audiences: God, the church and the watching world.

When we think about worship with three audiences, instead of One, context and capacity becomes all the more important. We understand that our musical offering is first and foremost service unto God, but we must also hold it in balance as it serves and teaches our fellow brothers and sisters, and then as it draws the seekers amongst us. Seeker-friendly and Spirit-friendly are not mutually exclusive, but part of the one continuum.

Worship for the audience of One was right for its time, but I believe now, faithful musical offering requires us to balance capacity and context to serve three audiences.

We Wait for You (Shekinah Glory)

I’m learning the song “We Wait For You” (by IHOP) as part of the preparations for the Sar Shalom Conference coming up in a week’s time. I’m so honoured to be part of a worship team with musicians and singers from Kingdom Light Church, Nations Church, FCC and New Life Church Fremantle and of course, with Sarah Liberman from Israel leading the worship.

I really like this song because, in a time when more songs are getting more lyric-driven and structurally complex, it’s nice to worship with a song that’s simple, repetitive, full of atmosphere and with a built in cry for more of God’s presence.

We Wait For You is especially good for a prayer setting or for extended worship times.

How Worship Leaders Should Respond to Compliments

In Faith Community Church, Pastor Benny has initiated our mentoring phase as part of our 2-year DNA campaign. Quite amazingly, there is a strong mentoring buzz now in our church with heaps of people getting connected into mentoring relationships.

Yesterday, I had the honour of launching our worship leadership mentoring group with worship leaders from Kinetic, Vibe, Young Working Adults and the Adult Zones in our church, the idea being that we would meet regularly and talk about all things related to worship leading.

It was actually really refreshing, despite a busy weekend, to be able to sit down in an informal setting with like-minded people just to talk about something we were all passionate about!

As we began our first session together, one of the key messages I wanted to get across was the importance of maintaining a heart of worship – that beyond talent, skills and outcomes, we have a responsibility of keeping the right posture of heart in a ministry that is often fraught with danger and hubris.

Tim Hughes once warned:

As worship leaders, are we getting too preoccupied with the sounds and songs we are creating? Is there a danger that we look first and foremost at gifting and talents, and forget the key thing: the heart?

John Wimber said:

The difficulty will not be so much in the writing of new and great music; the test will be in the godliness of those who deliver it.

One of the issues we talked about was how worship leaders should respond to compliments. Quite often, after you have finished leading worship, a well-meaning congregant might come up to you and say: “I loved your worship leading today”. Or “I just want you to know how nice your voice sounded”.

I don’t think we should over-spiritualise it. Imagine if you’ve just grilled a perfectly succulent steak. You are told ‘wow, you cooked that just right. You are really good at cooking steak’ and you respond with ‘no, I did nothing at all. I just stood at the barbie and the Lord moved through my arms and my tongs and compelled me to turn the hunk of meat just at the right time’. In any other context, if someone complimented you, your natural response would be to say “thank you”. So why not respond in the same way? After all, you did spend all that time putting in the effort to make your voice sound better, or to make sure the set flowed well, or to make sure your team played in unity.

One way of holding the tension is to accept the compliment for what you have control over, i.e. improvements in your vocal quality, the cohesion and drive of your team, the depth of preparation etc. In other words, by all means, accept the compliment for the fruit of your effort. But whether people encountered God and the resultant effect of His presence, well, that only happens by His Spirit, because true worship is by the Spirit. That aspect, we can’t take any credit for. God alone gets all the credit for the fruit of worship!

Bill Johnson actually provides an interesting spin on this. He says (in Experience the Impossible at p 179):

Humility is Kingdom; pride is at the root of everything evil. But the pursuit of greatness is not necessarily evil. In fact, it seems that those who spent time with Jesus had latent desires awakened in them regarding their own significance. As a result Jesus never rebuked His disciples for their desire for greatness. He simply redefined it by pointing to a child.

First Peter 5:6 says “therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time.” Here we see the tension between humility and a desire for greatness. Johnson says that whilst being under the hand of God might seem like a frightening picture, God’s hand is actually one of a loving Father – a hand of covering and protection. And that’s exactly what we need as worship leaders (or any leader in the church for that matter!) – covering and protection as we pursue a place of greater influence in God.

We usually have no problem with accepting the need to be humble. Johnson says:

What is difficult for us to handle is God’s response to our humility: ‘that He may exalt you’. What do we do with that? Many of us squirm or say things to undermine the honour given to us. Yet if we do not know how to receive honour correctly, we will have no crown to throw at His feet.

A culture of honour is an important element in the community life of every church. We need to understand how to receive honour to allow such a culture to be propagated. It requires us to be quietly confident about the skills, planning and hard work that we have put into our service, and yet humbly dependent on God for the things that only He can do. And then, like Paul, be able to count all our accolades – the significance in our greatness and influence – rubbish for the sake of knowing Christ more. Then we will truly be able to hold that tension; to walk the paradoxical line of humbled exaltation.

The Power of Narrative

I was at the Perth Writer’s Festival this morning watching an interview with Mele-Ane Havea, the General Manager of Dumbo Feather, a quarterly journal which profiles extraordinary people in the hope that readers will find a sense of purpose and potential in their own lives and bring positive transformation to their communities. Their slogan is “Passion, Purpose, Community”. I love it. Sounds a bit like the Bible and our faith.

Asked about the underlying philosophy behind the journal and why the founder chose to limit its format to profiles of people, Havea said:

Storytelling is an important way to shape the world that we want to live in.

Yes! We influence most when we tell great stories. Stories communicate principles better than treatises. Long after we forget 3 great sermon points (plus 10 subpoints), we remember the stories.

For Christians, we often read the Bible as a legal constitution rather than a narrative. Brian McLaren says it this way:

Lawyers in the courtroom quote articles, sections, paragraphs and subparagraphs to win their case, and we do the same with testaments, books, chapters and verses.

Like lawyers, we look for precedents in past cases of interpretation, sometimes favouring older interpretations as precedents, sometimes asserting that newer ones have rendered the old ones obsolete. We seek to distinguish ‘spirit’ from ‘letter’ and argue the ‘framers’ intent’, seldom questioning whether the passage under review was actually intended by the original authors and editors be a universally, eternally binding law… We approach the biblical text as if it were an annotated code instead of what it actually is: a portable library of poems, prophecies, histories, fables, parables, letters, sagely sayings, quarrels and so on.

There’s much to be said about McLaren’s criticism. One only has to look to how the Bible was used in the American Civil War –  the North to justify the abolition of slavery; the South to defend its practices – both believing their position to be Biblically mandated. (I guess one side got the interpretation right, because God gave victory to their cause!)

I would much rather look at the Bible like God’s grand narrative. God’s story of fall, redemption and glory. Catalogues of ordinary people, living for extraordinary purposes and bringing transformation to their communities. Yes, there were laws in the Bible too, but  these are part of the narrative sweep as God reveals his character to His people and sets out the principles they should live by to reflect that character.

Looked at this way, we will argue less about the text and become more enamoured by the author, His character, His compassion, His genius. We will care less about our positions on principles than our posture and purpose.  We will then truly draw inspiration to activate our God-given potentials as we take our part in God’s grand narrative to transform our world and bring heaven on earth!

A Renewed Unity: Our Worship Leadership Retreat 2015

We had the honour of having our first Worship Leadership Team (WLT) Retreat this last Australia Day long weekend.

So, on the evening of Friday, 23 January 2015, FCC’s WLT and our spouses/significant others drove down to a beautiful house backing onto Melros Beach for a weekend  of chilling, eating, planning, eating, relaxing, strategising, crabbing, eating and just hanging out together.

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Since Dave organised the weekend, crabbing was high on the agenda. After we all arrived, we were off to the estuary to harvest our supper. But first, it had been a long day, so dinner was on the cards. And since Dave organised the weekend, dinner was at his favourite restaurant, Hungry Jacks.

Lucy, our pug, came along for the trip (I did mention that significant others were included). We managed to sneak her into the children’s playground area of HJs using my large frame as a visual shield.

Burgers done, we were off for crabbing.

Senny is our head of sound and logistics, and true to form, we opened the boot of Dave’s car to reveal a fine collection of Senny’s high powered torches.

Crab nets in hand, we descended into deeper water. One of the girls on our team was scared of water but I had in mind the Bethel song that goes “You make me brave / You make me brave / You call me about beyond the shores into the waves.” Amen. The crabs must have been trembling a little too.

It was a pretty windy evening, so it was difficult to see too far below the surface of the water. I came out empty-handed and even the most die-hard of our team only managed to nab a few. Which was fine because through some inexplicable perversity, our bucket had mysteriously floated away so we couldn’t contain a large catch anyway.

Lydia, Caleb’s wife, showed her deft touch with the crab net, scooping up every crab that crossed her path, regardless of size or gender.

Dave managed to catch a stingray which itself is no mean feat given that all the stuff we read on the internet suggested that catching stingray was not worth the pain of being stung.

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It was then back to the house for our little crabs to get their steam bath before the hungry humans cracked their hard exteriors and consumed their sweet flesh.

The next morning, it was scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and truffle butter for breakfast. Truffle butter makes everything taste good. And Ling introduced us to Speculoos – butter made out of cookies. Which really means butter into cookies made into butter again. Sinful!

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After breakfast, Caleb led us in a great time of worship before we began to strategise for the year. Dave launched a bold new vision for our ministry in 2015. More on this in future posts. Needless to say, we are expecting great growth in our team this coming year.

Whilst we were attending to the nitty-gritties of the retreat, the girls were out in Mandurah town getting massages, pedicures and painted toe nails. Senny and I joined them – for lunch after! Some excellent fish and chips at Sharkeys and ice-cream at Simmos later; and then we were back at the house. By this time, Vinny and Mandy had arrived. We are grateful that they came just to hang with us and give us some input into our planning. It was good to have some fresh ideas from outside our team, especially given Vinny’s experience in Riverview.

And then it was time for dinner. Lukey and Delany spent the arvo making handmade ban mian and stock. A delicious way to start the night.

And since no one was around for Dave’s birthday on 31 December (which means he is actually one year younger than he looks!), we celebrated with cake. Dave was of course completely oblivious to the fact that we were celebrating his birthday, since it was nearly a month ago, so he happily sang the birthday song with us until it was increasingly apparent that the cake was heading in his direction. We also celebrated the fact that Delany had just gotten her permanent residency with a bottle of champagne.

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Dave’s birthday wish was to force us all to play Xbox Kinect. We obliged.

The next morning (Sunday), we had a little church service with Joe Wee leading us in worship. And then some more strategising.

Then some of the guys were off to the beach for a dip and me and Ling were off to get an assortment of pies from Miami Bakehouse for lunch. After lunch, we watched a DVD. Ling and I ducked off quickly to get some more groceries. When we came back, everyone else had nicked off to the beach with Lucy, leaving Dave asleep on the floor all by himself. Because we never abandon our leaders.

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After a stroll on the beach, it was time for a BBQ, with the centrepiece being Dave’s stingray and Lydia’s sambal paste.

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Not content with the haul of crabs from the previous night, Dave and Caleb were determined for another round of crabbing. Whilst we were all tired, somehow through pure leadership influence, they managed to convince Addie, Sharon, Pam, Lukey and Delany to go along.

Monday morning came around way too quickly. After doing some packing and cleaning, we watched our last DVD with a foreboding sense that our awesome weekend away was coming to an end. But not before a round of fish and chips at Ciccerellos and more Simmos ice-cream.

Psalm 133 says:

How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,

Running down on the beard,

Running down on Aaron’s beard,

Down upon the collar of his robes.

It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.

For there the Lord bestows his blessing

Even life forevermore.

For me, more than the planning and strategising, the weekend away was about our team spending time together and enjoying each other’s company. It was apparent to me that we were truly “for each other”, championing our cause together and experiencing an unprecedented sense of unity.

In teamwork, unity is sacrosanct.

In this Psalm, David says that unity is like anointing oil that flows from the top down. Oil lubricates and reduces friction and makes things work. I believe that this year, the things that we have planned to do and the goals we’ve set will be achieved with ease because of the Holy Spirit’s anointing – an anointing that flows freely because of unity. Things which might take us three years will be able to be achieved in two years. Things which might take 12 months will only take 6 months!

David also likens unity to the dew of Hermon falling on Mount Zion. Hermon is the highest point in the north of Israel, the source of the Jordan river. Because its peak is often in the clouds, it is a rich and lush mountain. Zion on the other hand is arid. So the picture here is one of fruitfulness. Where there is unity, even the most arid of environments will become fruitful.

So, as leaders, clever and strategic programming is one thing. But beyond this, we must fight to protect unity. We need to guard each other’s back. We need to watch the things we say to each other, even if said in innocence. Because where there is unity, the Lord will command the blessing!

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Dirty Worshippers, Holy Worship – Part 2

In my previous post, I talked about how a holy God still uses, indeed privileges, messed-up people to serve Him. In this second and last part of the series, I explore the theological foundations of such a paradox.

So, why do I say that in the context of worship ministry, our qualifications for those who serve should be musical skill and good attitude, rather than personal holiness? (I am not saying of course that people shouldn’t grow in holiness. We should! – because it is a sign of an ever-growing relationship with God).

The first thing we need to understand is the role of a priest. In the Bible, a prophet is someone who is God’s mouthpiece. He represents God to His people, to give direction, comfort or correction. A priest, on the other hand, represents the people before God.

Hebrews 5:1 says:

Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin.

This is why in Old Testament times, how Israel fared as a nation was dependent on the quality of her high priest. If the high priest was good, then the nation was blessed. If the high priest was bad, then Israel suffered the consequences.

Obviously, no high priest was ever perfect. The writer of Hebrews goes on to say that the high priest himself was subject to weakness and so had to offer sacrifices for his own sin as well as the sin of the people (verse 3).

Thankfully, we now have a High Priest who is incorruptible, who lived a perfect life and now sits at the right hand of God. He is a High Priest, not of the order of Aaron, but of the order of Melchizedek; who did not inherit the lifeblood of Adam’s line but who was beyond and before Adam. This priest, the writer says is (in Chapter 7, verse 16):

one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.

So, as Jesus is, so are we in this world (1 Jn 4:17). In other words, just as Jesus is perfectly righteous, so are we seen as righteous by God in this world. What a reassuring thought!

This was actually foreshadowed when the law was instituted in the book of Exodus. There is much to be said about the significance of God’s design of the high priest’s garments (which we won’t have space to cover). But in relation to the headpiece, God gave these directions (Exodus 28:36-38):

Make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it as on a seal: HOLY TO THE LORD. Fasten a blue cord to it to attach it to the turban; it is to be on the front of the turban. It will be on Aaron’s forehead, and he will bear the guilt involved in the sacred gifts the Israelites consecrate, whatever their gifts may be. It will be on Aaron’s forehead continually so that they will be acceptable to the Lord.

Notice this: the gold plate on Aaron’s forehead has the words “Holy to the Lord” engraved, not written, on it. Engraving speaks of permanence. It cannot be erased or be taken to with liquid paper. This means that God’s standard of holiness is eternal and uncompromising. But, as Aaron brings the gifts of the people before God, God sees the mark of holiness on Aaron (it is “on Aaron’s forehead continually”). As a result, the priest absorbs the guilt of the people and the gifts are acceptable to the Lord.

At the end of the day, the gifts of the people aren’t holy and acceptable because the people were holy, it was because God saw the gifts through the high priest.

So today, as a musician, preacher, usher, connect group leader, event organiser, church barista, finance guru, rubbish-picker – the efficacy of your offering has nothing to do with how good you are. They are acceptable to God, and efficacious, because they go through our High Priest, Jesus, the only high priest who is forever perfect and righteous! This should give you the confidence to serve God no matter how you might feel about yourself, or what others might say about you. See yourself as God sees you; put your gifts (whatever they may be) in His hands; and let Him use them for His glory!

Dirty Worshippers, Holy Worship – Part 1

In this two-part series, I explore the wonderfully reassuring paradox that imperfect, messed-up people get to use their gifts to serve a holy God; yes, even to serve on something as hallowed as the worship team. In this Part 1, I reflect on the question: who is qualified to serve? In the forthcoming Part 2, I will look at this issue from the theological perspective of how Jesus as our High Priest has made our offerings holy to God.

I believe that an apprehension and understanding of the grace of God will transform the way we approach Him in worship.

In this context, I want to pose the question: who is qualified to serve on the worship team?

In the olden days, we used to impose a high requirement of “holiness” (I’ll explain later why I’ve put this in quotation marks). Generally, a person wanting to join the worship team had to show some proficiency in music, although ultimately, it was mostly about character, faithfulness and a proven “track record”. One of the things we used to do to test a new recruit’s suitability was to put them on a so-called “lesser” duty (it should be apparent why I’ve used quotation marks here) such as operating the AV and see if they stick it out. This is even if the person was a complete tech-noob.

This created a couple of unexpected problems. Usually, the people on the worship team were seen as “a cut above” every one else, creating a culture of exclusivity, thereby breeding resentment amongst the rest of the congregation who were obviously second-rate in holiness stakes. The second problem was that some people on the worship team, whilst exhibiting loads of character, had very little musical or vocal skill. The lesser-skilled people invariable dragged down the musical quality as the team played to the lowest common denominator.

Yet, there is a third problem. And that is that those who were on the worship team felt a keen pressure to keep up appearances of holiness, making it difficult for them to live transparently and authentically.

An understanding of transforming grace changes the way we look at who is qualified to serve.

My former pastor used to say this: “No one is good enough to serve”. What he means is that, of ourselves, we are not worthy but we are made worthy through Christ. I prefer to look at it from the opposite angle and say “everyone is qualified to serve by the grace of God!”

If we look at it this way, standards of holiness should no longer be a measure of whether a person is good enough to be on the worship team. Rather, musical skill and ability become the main qualifying criteria.

You might ask: “doesn’t that create its own exclusivity problem?” And the answer is “yes”, but no different a problem to any other ministry. An usher in the welcome ministry should have a personality that draws people in and have a winning smile. That’s the usher’s gift. A preacher should be good at preaching. A teacher should be good at teaching. And a worship musician should be good at playing music.

Rather than elevate worship ministry above other more “menial” ministries (and in fact, in my view, no ministry is “menial”, it’s just that we have to change our perceptions a bit), we should elevate all ministry to its rightful place of worth. In that sense, I think that we should want worthy and holy people serving in all our ministries at church.

That leads me to the question of what it means to be “holy”.

Some people argue that the worship ministry, following the Old Testament model, requires a particular level of holiness. They point to the fact that the presence of God is so holy that the High Priest who has even a trace of sin will be struck dead in the Holy of Holies. They point to the story of Uzzah, who was struck down when he touched the Ark in 1 Sam 16 and the fact that David was only able to bring back the Ark when it was lifted on the shoulders of the Levites.

The way I see it, the new covenant of grace changes the system. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that where there is a change of the law, a change in covenant, there is also a change in the priesthood.

First Peter 2:9 tells us that all of us are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation”. This means that all of us are now holy. All of us are priests and ministers before God.

This brings me to the question of what it means to be holy. “Holy”, as I understand it, means “set apart” (hagios in the Greek). It is a particular posture and status, not a set of behaviours and actions.

That means we are all holy, no matter what we’ve done.

Think about it this way: if holiness consists of actions, then we had better make sure that all who serve on the worship team are 100% pure and without sin. We all know this is impossible. If this is in fact the requirement, no one would achieve it. This means that God will not inhabit the praises of His people; the unholiness will hinder the flow of the Spirit; worse still, those who purport to touch the Ark (the presence of God) will risk a sudden and untimely demise!

Holiness as a status is a different concept. We have done nothing of ourselves to attain that state. Rather, Jesus the Lamb without blemish took our place and his righteousness was imputed to us. So irrespective of anything we do, we are holy not by our own works but because of what Jesus has done.

What about the verse that says “Be ye holy, as I am holy”? Well, I think that is saying that as God is set apart, and as we are set apart, let us live up to the standard of being set apart. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are already holy. We just need to act it out.

There’s a verse in Exodus where God struck down the Egyptians with a plague. But the Bible says that the Israelites were spared and it says that God distinguished between his people and the unholy. Did Israel do anything to receive that protection or was it simply by virtue of their being God’s chosen people?

In the same way then, I want to suggest that all those who serve on the worship ministry are already holy. This is so even if they are still struggling with some very overt sins. (My only qualification to this is the verse where Paul warns us not to stumble others; so for that reason, I might not let everyone join the team. Even then, there are those who sing or play badly and they can stumble in a different way!)

Going to even greater extremes, the modern worship movement has several stories of now prominent worship leaders who began serving in worship ministry even before they had formally crossed the line of becoming a Christ-follower (that concept of when a person crosses the line is of itself worthy of exploration. I believe however that these people, by becoming part of the worship ministry, were already “on the way”). Lincoln Brewster and Henry Seeley come to mind.

I have heard Henry Seeley share on a number of occasions how he used to sit in the back of youth group utterly disinterested until Russell Evans got him to start playing the keyboard.

In one church I visited in Japan, they used to get the unchurched in to perform the music as a means of outreach!

I couldn’t say that in any of those cases, God’s presence was diminished because of the make-up of the worship team!

So then, what qualifications should we set? A good attitude is important because you want people who can work well in a team. But I think the main distinction remains one of musical ability. Let’s face it. The worship team is not more special than the rest of the congregation. Everyone should be worshipping anyway. The only difference is that they can play music, sing well or dance beautifully. When that becomes the defining qualification, then the quality, the excellence of the musicianship will begin to improve dramatically. Excellence will be the hallmark of the music team, coupled with the powerful sense of God’s sovereign presence responding to the praises of a group of holy people gathered to worship.

Originally published as Holy Worship Team, Batman.