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.

6 Principles for Preparing an Effective Songlist

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The first time I led worship was when I was 14 years old. I was in a small youth group with 6 guys and a token girl. The girl didn’t hang around for too long because all the guys ever wanted to do was play basketball.

Back in those days, worship cassettes were getting really popular. I had my copy of The Lord Reigns by Bob Fitts. It was my only worship cassette, so I learned every song on it.

One day, the youth leader asked me to lead worship. I was secretly thrilled, whilst maintaining all the air of humility expected of a good Christian.

The guys used to carpool (actually, van pool) to youth group and so I had my first and only rehearsal with the guitarist on the ride to the old Perth City Mission building, where the youth group met.   I gave him a list of 10 songs (all extracted from The Lord Reigns). I didn’t realise he didn’t know about six of those songs.

When I got up to lead, it didn’t turn out like anything on the cassette. We did a song a couple of times each, sometimes acapella because the guitarist didn’t know the song. I couldn’t even remember which song came next. It was a disaster, but it was a learning experience.

It’s been awhile since that first worship leading experience when I was 14 and with the 20 or so years that I have had the privilege to lead worship, once in a while I get the opportunity to teach on worship. One of the most common questions I am invariably asked is: “how do you choose the songs?”

I think a lot of people presume that the songs are found in a special room in my apartment called “the secret place” where I go “beyond the veil” to “download” the “songs from heaven”. Some people think that worship leaders only come up with songs after an extended time of prayer and fasting.

I hate to burst bubbles, but the process of song selection is not as mystical as some people think. In fact, it is quite a natural process.

Sometimes, I might come across a song that really speaks to me and I feel that it is the right song to be sung for a worship set and then I just start constructing a song list around it. Other times, I am worshipping at home on my guitar and a flow of songs just comes to me and that becomes my song list. On occasion, the worship session is rolling around and I’ve got nothing. So I just cobble a few songs together in faith and hope for the best! If I’m really desperate, I might pick up a songbook and skim through it to see what appeals to me.

At the end of the day, there is no “hard and fast” rule.

In this article, I want to share with you some of the parameters that I use to help me choose songs for a worship set, whether it’s for a Sunday service or for a cell group. The important thing to note is that half of the work of a worship leader is already done well before the actual worship set itself.

A well-constructed songlist can often “work itself out” so that the worship leader can almost step into the set and go on “autopilot”. That way, when the worship leader is actually leading, far less concentration is required to make sure the songlist is executed properly to more importantly focus on what the Holy Spirit might want to do during a meeting.

So here are some guiding principles to choosing good songlists:

1. Pray!

It might sound like a given, but so often, we take the process for granted. I remember when I first started worship leading, I used to put a lot of effort into praying and seeking God and worshipping before I could come up with a songlist. Looking back, I realised that I was being overly religious: going through particular motions in the hope of getting a particular result. My notions of God have changed since those days: now I believe that God wants to speak to me in every moment and in any place, so I don’t really need to go through a convoluted ritual to somehow “birth” a songlist. The risk in this approach, however, is to become so blasé that you don’t even involve God in the process.

A friend of mine utters a very simple prayer as he prepares: “Lord, what is it that you want your church to express to you this Sunday that will really bless your heart?” I love that childlikeness and I believe that God honours our approaching Him with boldness and simplicity.

Such a prayer also makes us think about the congregation or cell group and how to pastor them into God’s presence: something we need to remind ourselves of more and more as worship continues to risk crossing the line into consumerism, entertainment and a musical showcase.

2. It’s Not About Me! Sacrifice Personal Preferences

Quite often, we can construct a songlist around our preferences. We can become so conceited that we start thinking: “does this song suit my vocal range?”, “I don’t really like that song” or “this song will really show off my beautiful voice”.

We need to set aside those preferences. Often, I will do a song because I feel that it captures the heart of the people towards God in a particular season even if I personally don’t like the song or I don’t sound good singing it. My job is to capture the church’s expression of praise to God, not to show off or pander to my own likes and dislikes. In fact, worship shouldn’t be about me at all! That’s the furthest point we can be from the throne of God.

3. Focus on Flow

This is a lost art! When I started learning about leading worship, Hosanna! Music put out lots of worship cassettes which captured the flow of a worship meeting. Kent Henry used to record albums where the starting song flowed seamlessly through free worship, prayer, Scripture reading all the way through to high praise without interruption.

These days, worship albums are more about showcasing artists than capturing the atmosphere of worship.

We should approach a worship set like a seamless journey that tells a story of our approach to God. So for example, there should be thematic unity. God is so infinite and varied that we could never sing about every aspect of His nature in 30 minutes. So choose one or two thoughts to centre around, e.g. the love of God, intimacy, His power and might, His presence, comfort, healing etc. Just make sure that the themes aren’t diametric opposites because a sure way to kill the atmosphere is to go from “Jesus Loves Me This I Know” to “Mighty Warrior”.

Key selection is also important. Choosing songs in the same key allows you to move seamlessly into the next song without having to rely heavily on clever musical interludes. It allows the worship leader to have various entry points into the next song and to even move back and forth between two songs if necessary.

Once you have chosen the songs, you should be able to pretty much visualise the flow of the worship session from start to end. This also helps you to communicate better with your musician(s) during rehearsals so that you can plan your transitions well.

4. Create Tension and Release

Our culture is one of story and narrative. A good story starts with an introduction, followed by a complication, climax and denouement.

Similarly, a worship setlist should bring the congregation on a narrative journey. The songs should tell a story with increasing intensity before giving way to encounter and resolution.

  • Long, wordy songs (such as hymns) create tension. Short, simple songs bring release.
  • A new song brings tension as the congregants concentrate to learn it. A familiar song brings release as they close their eyes and sing without concentration.
  • Songs in a minor key create tension. Songs in a major key bring release.
  • A lot of structure creates tension, but creates a springboard for the release of free, open worship.

Too much tension creates stress; too much release leads to disorder. A right balance of tension and release in a worship set will engage and lead the congregation into a spiritual journey of encountering God.

5. Make Room for the Holy Spirit

We can be clinical and plan everything to a tee and then hope for the Holy Spirit to move. Or we can “plan to be spontaneous” by not overloading the set so that there is some inbuilt time buffer within which we can allow and expect the Holy Spirit to move.

When I first started leading worship, I thought that on average a song might last 3 to 4 minutes, so, for a half-an-hour set, I could probably fit about 7 songs in there easily. Boy, was that a mistake! I just ended up rushing through everything without giving anyone (let alone the Holy Spirit) any chance to breathe.

For a 25 minute set, I recommend about 3 to 4 songs (or at most 4 songs plus one short chorus to finish). Within that, allow for free worship; allow for times for the music to play; allow for the Holy Spirit to inspire you to give a word, exhortation or prayer.

6. Include Various Expressions of Worship

When I first led worship on a Sunday, I had a disdain for fast songs. I thought they were shallow and emotional. No, the real spiritual songs are the slow songs. That is when you really pour your heart out to God.

I have since realised that, in fact, all songs directed to God in worship are spiritual! The Psalms indicate that it is just as valid to worship God with dance, shouts and celebration as with intimate cries of the heart.

So now, I don’t shun fast songs. In fact, I think they are necessary and to not do them is to deprive the church of a very real expression of praise.

Further, fast songs are an important tool to engage and bring people with you, especially because when people first come to a meeting, they are not emotionally prepared to engage with God. A fast song will often help get them onto the same page before releasing them to express worship to God in their own way!

Of course, there may be times when you might feel God doesn’t want you to do a fast song, but I have the fast song on as a default setting unless directed otherwise.

So those are some of the parameters that guide me when I choose songs for a worship set. I hope they have been helpful! Remember, if you can put together a good songlist, half of the work is already done!