Taxi Rank Tribulations and the God Who Restores Time

In my post The Year of His Restoration, I said that this year, God will restore time that we have lost. And when God restores, He does so in quantity, quality or both.

This afternoon, Ling and I ended up in the Singapore CBD to buy dinner for her parents. Getting stuck in the CBD at peak hour however is no laughing matter.

We debated about the best way to get back home. I thought that we should take the train closer to home and then catch a bus. My male logic said that trains didn’t have to compete in the traffic jam and the schedule was certain. Ling wanted to take a taxi.

We ended up at a taxi rank with only four other people in the queue. It looked promising. But as time passed, it became apparent that this wasn’t a popular pick up point amongst taxi drivers.

After waiting about 40 minutes, I said to Ling that we should cut our losses and take the train. She prayed and looked expectantly down the road.

By this time, we were at the front of the line.

She said, “We are already at the front of the queue. We are first in line.”

“We might be first in line, but we are first in a line of nothing! Come on, let’s go to the subway,” I muttered tersely.

“But what if the next taxi comes just as we leave?”

“It’s fine. Just go and don’t look back.” (I thought I could demonstrate my biblical prowess and therefore the correctness of my position with an allusion to Lot’s wife).

“Here’s a taxi coming!”

“That one is on call. None of the taxis are stopping here.”

“You pray!”

(I stayed silent. I was too annoyed to pray).

“There’s another taxi turning into our street.”

“This is the last one. If it doesn’t stop, we are leaving and catching the train.”

The taxi immediately picked up someone further up the street.

“Okay, that’s it! Let’s go!”

Ling stood still, obstinately fixing her gaze to the start of the street.

And just as I was ready to turn around and walk away in frustration, a taxi with a green light on the roof miraculously cruised up to the rank.

Ling opened the door, I looked down and humbly climbed into the taxi and we were on the way home. She managed a smile as to say “aren’t you glad I stuck to my guns”, whilst resisting the impulse to gloat.

Even though we lost a good 45 minutes or so, the Lord redeemed our time. We got home in the same amount of time we would have taken had we caught the train. We didn’t need to walk, change train lines, transfer to a bus, and get caught in the rain. Instead, we sat down and rested in air-conditioned comfort.

And in an ironic twist, as we got onto the freeway, we noticed a decal on the taxi drivers’s windshield – the New Creation Church logo!

I’m sure the Lord had a bit of a chuckle over this episode. It took a woman of faith to persevere in prayer. And I was blessed despite my lack of faith!

A Relaunch

As a new season has begun and this is the Year of His Restoration, I have decided to give my blog a new look.

I began writing this blog on 4 December 2011. Click here to read my first post. At the time, I had been in a transition phase, having left a church in which I was serving for 21 years. It felt like I was crossing the Rubicon. And I had no idea what was ahead of me.

Over the last three years, I have tried to share the things I have learnt in worship ministry as well as my own personal journey in my walk of faith. I have written nearly 250 posts, had 45,000 views and around 900 followers. My posts have been shared over 1,350 times. I hope they have reached a wide readership.

If you have been following this blog for a while, I hope that it has helped you somehow. If you have just recently gotten on board, I encourage you to read through some of the older posts too as a lot of what I said then is still relevant today.

Looking back, I am so grateful to God for the journey He has taken me on and for planting me in a beautiful church with an awesome bunch of people. In particular, I am so glad to be part of an amazing worship ministry which continues to press on to the next level. I’m surrounded by some of the best leaders around!

I have updated the look of the blog so it reads more like a blog than a ministry webpage. I think that this will make it easier to engage and follow. All my other resources such as my audio messages will continue to feature in other parts of the site, but the main emphasis will be the blog posts.

Please bear with me over the next few days as the site makes its transition!

I will be trying to post more regularly as the Year of His Restoration unfolds and also revisit some of my old posts.

I hope that you will be blessed as you read! Let me know what you think of the new look!

The Year of His Restoration

Every year when I’m in Singapore, one of the things that has now become a bit of a custom is for me to attend New Creation Church’s Vision Sunday which is held on the first Sunday of the year.

It’s not that I’m not into my own church’s vision, because I am. (In Faith Community Church this year, we are moving into the phases of Mentor and Release and I’m definitely positioning myself for that). I have noticed however that most church pastors cast a vision which is intended to set the course of the church’s activities, programs and culture. Joseph Prince’s visioneering is actually quite different. He sets a course which, for me, is almost always personal.

So I quite like the idea of tracking with my church’s corporate vision, but also seeing how the prophetic course announced by Ps Prince plays out in my life.

In my previous post, I declared that God was unfolding a new season. In the song “New Season”, the lyrics say this: “All that was stolen is returned to you a hundred fold / Tried in the fire but you’re coming out gold / Cling to His hand, to every promise take a hold / It’s a new season!”

In this post, I want to elaborate on what that new season looks like in light of Joseph’s Prince’s vision for 2015: the Year of His Restoration!

The underpinning verse is Isaiah 42:22:

For this is a people robbed and plundered;
All of them are snared in holes,
And they are hidden in prison houses;
They are for prey, and no one delivers;
For plunder, and no one says, “Restore!”

This is the year we say “Restore!” where we have suffered loss! It is not man who restores, but God! And when God restores, it is always greater in quality or quantity or both!

Things that God will Restore

Here are the things that God will restore:

1. God will Restore the Years that the Locusts Have Eaten

Joel 2:25-27 says:

So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locusts has eaten…

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
And praise the Lord your God,
Who has dealt wondrously with you;
And My people shall never be put to shame.
Then you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel;
I am the Lord your God
And there is no other.
My people shall never be put to shame.

I don’t know about you, but I have lost time. There have been times over the years when I have not walked closely to God. I have wasted time being idle instead of fulfilling His purposes; I have wasted time in sin, being angry, or insubmissive, or being disobedient to God.

In the natural economy, time can never be got back. But God can and He will restore the years that were lost!

2. God will Restore our Souls and Minds

In Psalm 23, David says of the Good Shepherd that “He restores my soul”.

God will restore us emotionally where we have felt drained. He will restore our minds so that even though we grow older, our minds will function just as well as in the days of our youth!

I have often felt that my memory isn’t as good as it used to be – for example, I used to remember song lyrics really easily and now it’s a lot harder. I look at my worship director, Dave, for example and wish that I could be as sharp as him in memorising lyrics. Well now, instead of lamenting my fading powers of remembrance, I say “restore!!!”

3. God will Restore Our Health

Jeremiah 30:17 says “For I will restore health to you and heal you of your wounds, says the Lord.”

The word for “wounds” refers to long term conditions, which means that God will restore us from sicknesses we’ve carried for a long time.

The past year has been a testing ground in the area of health! This year, I declare “restore!” and believe for restoration of the membranes around my eyes, that they will strengthen and thicken! I declare “restore” for my physical health and the health of my family members!

The Way God Restores

Now, here’s the clincher. In the Bible, God’s restoration always exceeds that which was taken.

Pastor Prince exposited from the law of Moses in Exodus 22:1 which states that when a man steals an ox, he must restore five oxen for an ox. In Leviticus 5:14, when a person sins agains the holy things of the Lord, he must make full restitution and add one-fifth (or 20 per cent).

So the party that is injured ultimately gains in the time of restoration.

And Prince made this really interesting point. Because of the fall of man, God gained more through redemption than He ever lost through the Fall. Whereas before He had one begotten Son and man with whom He fellowshipped, through redemption, many more were adopted into God’s family!

And because of the Fall and God’s redemption, mankind gained more than it ever lost:

  • In the Garden of Eden, there was long physical life, but now we have eternal life.
  • Everything in the Garden depended on obedience, so man’s tenure was insecure. The Tree of Knowledge was always there and sin would always be a possibility. Through redemption, our security is based on Christ’s perfect obedience!
  • Adam was a steward. But through redemption, we are more than stewards – we are joint heirs with Christ.
  • Adam had the earth. But we have both heaven and earth!

What an amazing thought! I’m so grateful for God’s restorative purposes in my life!

The key to God’s restoration? It’s in resting in Him. When we rest in Him, He works. As in Psalm 23, God leads us to still waters and feeds us in green pastures. And when we rest in Him, the Psalmist says, He restores us!

I’m so excited for the things that God will do in my life this year. Even though the past year had met with its challenges, I believe that this year, God will restore the things that were stolen, in my time, in my health, in my soul, and in every other aspect of my life.

This year, in 2015, I am declaring “Restore!”

 

A New Season in 2015

Happy new year friends!

Two thousand and fourteen has been a bittersweet year. There has been some good stuff and also some not so good stuff.

As I reflect over the past year, I am thankful for my amazing church, Faith Community Church and what God has been doing in our worship ministry. Some of the highlights include growing our team’s technical skills; an increasing sense of His presence in our worship; and an amazing leadership team who have together taken the ministry to a new level.

I’m grateful for the opportunity for our team to do new things, push boundaries and continuing to grow outside our comfort zone.

I’m also grateful for increasing fruitfulness in my work as a lawyer, both within my own firm and also in the broader profession and a personal re-orientation in what it means to be a marketplace minister.

But 2014 has also met with some personal and family health challenges. Towards the end of the year, I had a tear in the membrane at the back of my eye which led to some fluid leaking into the middle of my eye. Praise God that three injections later (directly into the eye which was pretty traumatic!), my vision is clear again.

In November, my father-in-law also had a major operation to install a heart pump. Most doctors have never heard of this in Australia, but in Singapore, they have been just under 50 cases of the procedure. Even though his heart was weak, the rest of his vitals were in order so he was able to receive the pump. Now, he is stronger than he has been all year! It did result in my wife being in Singapore for the last 2 and a half months, so I have had to fend for myself (whilst looking after Lucy our pug!). And just as I was leaving for Singapore last month, Lucy had a corneal ulcer which covered most of her eye. (We are really grateful to Cindy our vet who has been looking after Lucy in our absence).

Whatever season you went through, I am believing God for you that 2015 will bring in a new season in your faith.

When I’ve gone through difficult times, I would play this song “New Season” over and over again and declare the truths it presents over me. Here is a video I found of the song (as originally recorded) with Ps Michael Pitt’s powerful exhortation at the beginning:

Here are the lyrics:

It’s a new season, it’s a new day
Fresh anointing is flowing my way
It’s a season of power and prosperity
It’s a new season coming to me

Verse 1:
The devil’s time is up no longer can he bother me,
‘Cause the Creator of the universe He fathers me,
and it’s transferable my children’s children shall be free;
it’s a new season

If you don’t know by now, you need to know it’s jubilee,
Where debts are cancelled and your children walk in victory.
It’s so available to you right now just taste and see,
it’s a new season

Verse 2:
The new millennium presents a new horizon,
And no greater time for us to make a choice and take a stand.
All that we need, is resting in His hands;
it’s a new season

All that was stolen is returned to you a hundred fold,
Tried in the fire but you’re coming out gold.
Cling to His hand, yes, to every promise take a hold;
it’s a new season

May these promises hold true for you in 2015

I am declaring Deuteronomy 28:1-13 over my life and yours:

“Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the Lord your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the Lord your God:

“Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country.

“Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, the produce of your ground and the increase of your herds, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks.

“Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.

“Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.

“The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before your face; they shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways.

“The Lord will command the blessing on you in your storehouses and in all to which you set your hand, and He will bless you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you.

“The Lord will establish you as a holy people to Himself, just as He has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His ways. Then all peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you. And the Lord will grant you plenty of goods, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your ground, in the land of which the Lord swore to your fathers to give you. The Lord will open to you His good treasure, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season, and to bless all the work of your hand. You shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only, and not be beneath, if you heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and are careful to observe them. 

These blessings are available now to us because of Jesus’ perfect obedience and His righteousness imputed to us. He has taken the curses of the law that we might receive the blessings of obedience. We are blessed not because of our own merit and works, but because of Jesus’ finished work!

So whether 2014 was full of triumphs and victory or moments of discipline and recalibration, may 2015 be your best year yet as you step into your new season!

Week 5 Chronicles: Exuberant Praise

30Nov2014

Week 5 Chronicles is an occasional series on experiments in worship formats.

Every church has its own worship style and tradition. Whatever form your expression of worship takes, I believe that true worship must be exuberant.

Why?

Because we serve a God of superlatives. His worth is matchless. And his sacrifice for us was extravagant. Romans 8:32 says this: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

Luke 15 portrays God as the prodigal Father, wasteful in his actions towards a son who had wished his father dead and who should have deserved the scorn of society.

If this is the God we serve, then I think this calls for a matching response in our worship and adulation.

This is what Mary did in Luke 7. She brought a sacrifice which many called wasteful.

David danced with all his might. His wife called him undignified.

When you worship extravagantly, the world notices. It elicits a response. Some will be inspired. Others will cast judgment. An extravagant sacrifice is polarising.

Is there room for silent contemplation as a form of worship? Absolutely. Habakkuk 2:20 says:

But the Lord is in his holy temple;

Let all the earth be silent before him.

But that is only the starting point. Immediately following this, Habakkuk 3 records the following:

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth:

“Lord, I have heard of your fame;

I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord.

Renew them in our day,

In our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.”

In the Amplified Version, shigionoth is translated as “to set to wild, enthusiastic, and triumphal music“. When was the last time you heard some wild worship in church?

Second Samuel 6 says that when David brought the ark up to Jerusalem, the procession was accompanied with shouting, and David was leaping and dancing. When King Solomon dedicated the temple in 2 Chronicles 5, there were so many musicians that I’m sure the sound of worship couldn’t be contained with acoustic padding (an accessory conspicuously missing from the temple furnishings)!

I would hazard a guess that God’s preferred worship volume is loud!

For those of us from a more conservative background, let’s start where we are. If lifting up hands is a bit of a struggle, push through into that expression first. Do the “carry the TV” before you go for the full “battle axe”.

But my encouragement to us is to keep pushing the boundary of extravagant expression.

Last Sunday was our last Sunday meeting in our usual auditorium for a few months whilst it undergoes renovation. Our worship director Dave decided that we should do a service focussing on exuberant praise. The idea was for the worship team to model what this meant for the rest of the church. Our lighting team introduced the haze machine and some intelligent lights called “Intimidators” (nice!). And we deliberately hit hard on the jumping, dancing and shouting. One of our singers said that they felt a bit uncomfortable at first, but after seeing me and Dave going for it, it would have actually been awkward to hold back!

Passion is infectious. And I hope that last Sunday’s worship infected our congregation with new found passion in their praise.

Here’s the recording:

So keep teaching and modelling exuberant worship for your congregation. When we get to heaven, there isn’t going to be medium praise. It’s going to be singing in a loud voice “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!” (Rev 5:12).

 

 

 

6 Principles for Preparing an Effective Songlist

Hymbook

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!

Beyond Production?

Beyond production

I’ve been reflecting recently.

It’s been over a year now since Dave Wong and I took over the leadership of the worship ministry at Faith Community Church and it’s been an amazing journey so far. We’ve enjoyed building relationships, casting vision and seeing the ministry become more cohesive.

For me, one of the greatest achievements over the year has been the fact that our teams have improved musically. There has been a stronger focus on technical aspects and in improving our craft. Even in our working together with the multimedia ministry, our church services have become more tightly programmed and visually more polished.

But getting to this stage on our journey has not been without its challenges. We’ve had to pay the price of practising harder. Many have been stretched. Many have been stressed. We are still grappling with that darn metronome clicking away in our in-ears.

In the midst of this, we need to ask the following questions:

  • Have we become so good at production that we have forgotten how to produce worshippers?
  • Have we become skilled at creating experiences without facilitating encounter?
  • Are we just bringing about inspiration without seeing transformation?

These are sobering enquiries. And important ones at that.

Tim Hughes has this to say in July’s volume of Worship Leader Magazine (at 42):

Now I’m all for more creativity and excellence in the church. I long to see local churches becoming hotbeds of creativity, exploding with life and colour with great art breaking through to influence culture and society in profound and significant ways….

But in all of this, as a leader of worship, the question I keep asking myself is this, “Am I attempting to create an experience in worship or facilitate encounter?” There’s a big difference. I’ve attended numerous events where the production and creativity was exceptional. I got swept up in the emotion of it, but on reflection, it didn’t seem to make much of Christ, and it didn’t lead me to an encounter with Jesus. The truth is, an experience is fun, but an encounter will change you.”

I agree with Hughes’ point – we need to seek encounter, not experience. But the question is: what is encounter and what does it look like?

In 1 Kings 19, after triumphing over the prophets of Baal at Mt Carmel, Elijah fled Ahab and found refuge in a cave. There, God told him to stand on the mountain where he would encounter the Divine Presence. For Elijah, the presence of the Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire. It came in a gentle whisper.

In Genesis 3, a washed-up and worn-out Moses found encounter in the fire – a bush that was alight, but yet not consumed.

And in Acts 2, the encounter for the disciples was in a mighty-rushing wind.

Often, we think that encounter happens only when we strip away all the musical instruments and we peel everything back to the core of simplicity. For others, it might be in the midst of unrehearsed open worship, with ecstatic, spontaneous Spirit-inspired utterances and prophetic unctions. And for others still, it might be in the lights and sounds of electronica.

To be honest, I don’t really know the answer. But I believe God can and will encounter us no matter what the setting. He desires to do so more than we know. As worship ministers, we can only choose to minister faithfully. If we believe that worship is bigger than just the music we make (and it is), we must also say that creating excellent music (and backgrounds and stage props) is itself our worship.

We might say it this way: worship musicians shouldn’t come on Sunday to get their devotional fix. Instead, their worship on the Sunday is getting the music right so that we help others in the congregation to bring the best devotion they can. Put another way, our pursuit of God in worship should require us to bring our best in technical excellence for His glory.

The issue therefore is one of intent and direction.

Certainly, there are greater trappings that will try to derail our direction the bigger the production. But it doesn’t have to. As I’ve often said: why not both? In fact, if you think about the questions I posed earlier, the first part of the equation is our responsibility; the second part is God’s. We become both better at production, but God is the One who produces the worshippers. We can create the experience, but only God can bring the encounter. We can inspire, but only the Spirit of God transforms.

Recently, I led worship in our Sunday morning church service where there was a strong sense of the presence of God. It was a worship set that was high on production. Click below to listen to the recording.

Two days later, Luke and I led a quiet worship set for our Worship Ministry members. Just Luke on acoustics and me singing. It was so low on production that I printed out big lyric sheets and stuck them to the wall with BluTac. And in the midst of that time, we ministered in words of encouragement and prayed for each other.

Both times were precious with worship and encounter. And I believe that in both finest whispers and earthquake, God was there!

7 Things I’ve Learnt About Serving God

Recently, my church (Faith Community Church) has been going through a season focussed on being equipped for service. It is an important emphasis, because a telling sign of a healthy church is a high volunteer participation rate. With all the talk about service, and the mobilisation of church members into different ministries, I have been distilling a number of thoughts about service over the last few weeks.

Here they are:

1.  Service is Worship

In Romans 12:1, Paul talks about offering our bodies as living sacrifices because that is our reasonable act of service. The word for service in the Greek is latreuo which is used interchangeably with worship.

This means that we need to get our priority and focus right. Service is not about us. It’s first and foremost about God and His glory. Understanding this gives us perspective on why we serve and minimises the importance of how we serve. If we get this wrong, we fall into the realm of idolatory.

In the context of a worship team, this means that serving doesn’t necessarily mean being on stage. You can serve by helping to set up gear. This is as meaningful and significant as an ecstatic electric guitar solo in the middle of a prophetic moment.

2.  Service is by Grace

God gives us gifts by which we get to serve Him. It’s a privilege.

In the Greek, the word for “gifts” is charismata. The root word is charis, or grace. We didn’t deserve the gift, nor did we earn it. So we are really only able to serve because God empowered us to do so. It starts with Him, and it ends with Him.

Ps Jon Quay says, “the only service that is acceptable is that which is not reliant on our own power.”

3. Keep Fanning the Gift into Flame

In 2 Timothy 1:6, Paul tells Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you”. This is the first of his final charges to Timothy.

Let’s not take the gifts for granted. Keep fanning them into flame by using them. And keep fanning the gifts of others into flame through encouraging our fellow brothers and sisters.  Where you can, create the opportunity for them to serve – be secure enough to lift others onto your platform, even if they end up exceeding you in influence!

4. We Serve Both in the House and Outside the House

With all the talk of service, we tend to think about ministry within the church. I am glad that in recent years, we have discovered the important role marketplace ministers play in the kingdom of God. The removing of that separation between clergy and laity has been a significant step forward in the church’s recovery of her transformative mandate.

There’s one more frontier to cross, however, and that is the exclusivity divide. Whilst we have now rediscovered the role of marketplace ministers, we can’t help but compartmentalise ourselves. Our thought process goes something like this: some of us are marketplace ministers; others of us are ministers within institutional church.

But think about your average dad who goes to work everyday to earn a living. He does this to serve his family. When he comes home, he doesn’t say “well, I’m done for the day. I’ve worked 8 hours in my job, so I refuse to do the dishes or put the kids to bed. That’s someone else’s job!” At least we hope he doesn’t say that…

The same goes for us! We might be focussed on marketplace ministry, but this does not preclude our serving in church ministry and vice versa. We can serve both in the house and outside the house!

5. Let’s Stop Focussing on the Stage Gifts

Frankly, as a worship minister, I’m tired of people putting so much focus and attention on the so-called “visible” or “frontline” ministries. It puts too much pressure on those in such ministries to perform. And by “perform”, I mean “act in an inconsistent way because of people’s expectations”.

The way I see it, there is only a question of functionality and fit. We should in fact put equal importance on all other ministries and even those types of service which aren’t readily categorised as ministries.

Paul says in Romans 12 that we have different gifts: if it is teaching, we should teach. If it is to lead, we should lead. If it is to encourage, we should give encouragement.

I have yet seen anybody in the church appointed the HOD of the Encouragement Ministry. This is because those who are skilled and anointed as encouragers are difficult to organise into a structure and they easily fall outside of church-growth metrics. Yet Paul puts encouragement pretty much on the same level as leadership!

6. We are All Dirt

That’s right! You are a dirt bag!

When God created humans, he didn’t choose to make us out of precious elements. He formed us out of dirt! Paul says we are “jars of clay”. Nothing fancy or in fact inherently worthy.

The only reason we are worthy is because we are God’s dirt! It’s like a tennis ball. A tennis ball’s inherent value is close to zero. But put one in the hands of say Roger Federer, rub some Federer sweat on it, and suddenly the ball is capable of raising significant sums of money at a charity auction.

People often want our gift. They want our contribution. They want to use us because of the results our gift can produce. But they can’t handle our dirt.

Only God can take both our gift and our dirt and use both to glorify Him! So don’t try to serve to please people; serve to please God!

7. There is Only One Reward for Service

The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 is often used as a lesson for those who use their gifts well. If you serve God with your gifts, then you will be rewarded with more, like the servant who took his five talents and made five more.

Now here is my first thought on this: the talents or gifts in this parable isn’t a gift in the legal sense. The master didn’t give the servant a present for the servant’s own use and benefit. Rather, the servant was expected to use the talents to generate more talents, not for the servant, but for the master! This speaks of stewardship. In the legal sense, the servant was a trustee of the talent for the master’s benefit.

Secondly, the servant who did more didn’t get more reward; in fact, he was ladened with more responsibility. The master said, “You have been faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things”.

If God has given you a lot of talents and giftings, he expects you to shoulder a greater responsibility!

But notice this: the second servant also received the same reward even though he only had two talents. There is only one reward in this parable, and it is equal irrespective of whether the servant generated five more talents or two more talents. The reward is to “share in the master’s happiness”.

When I serve God, I’m not hoping he builds me a big mansion in heaven. After all, in a perfect state, I won’t care how big my mansion is. Heaven wouldn’t be heaven if there was jealousy, covetousness and comparison. My motivation to serve must be for one reward only: that I might enter into my Master’s joy! May that be your motivation too!

 

Week 5 Chronicles: Acoustic Worship

Acoustic worship

Today, I want to start a new occasional series called “Week 5 Chronicles”. In my church, we organise worship teams in four bands. Band 1 plays on the first Sunday of the month, Band 2 plays on the second Sunday and so forth. Every three months, however, we have a fifth Sunday of the month for which no band is rostered. We’ve now been using Week 5 as an opportunity to experiment with different worship formats.

If you attend a contemporary church, chances are your worship will involve singing 2 fast songs and 2 slow songs, accompanied by a band situated on the stage, led by a worship leader. The size of the band will often depend on the size of your congregation, but the usual setup will include singers, guitar, keyboard, bass and drums.

The congregation would face the stage and stare at a screen on which the lyrics to the songs are projected.

There’s nothing wrong with this and it seems like it has been the preferred format for congregational worship since the advent of the praise and worship movement.

But you’ve got to ask the question: where in the Bible do we find such a description of the church’s worship? In fact, whilst the Bible informs and reveals principles of worship, the New Testament is almost deliberately silent on format. This, at least, suggests that there is an almost boundless freedom in the way the church today is able to express its worship, be it in the Charismatic “in-the-spirit-spontaneous” worship, indigenous chants or liturgical high church mode.

The Week 5 Chronicles series then is an attempt to bring you on our church’s journey in experimenting with different ways of doing congregational worship. We’re not compromising on principles, because the cross of Christ and God’s glory must always remain central to our worship. Hopefully, however, it will inspire you to see that worship can be done in different ways and encourage you to “mix up” your church’s worship expression.

Change is actually a good thing. I know of one church which deliberately changes the way it does its services, even when it’s working well. This teaches the congregation to be flexible and willing to embrace new things.

Last Sunday, we stripped it back a little and did an acoustic, chapel-style set. The stage was set up with a lit-up cross at the centre, and a small group of musicians (electric guitar, acoustic guitar, cajon, keyboard and singers) sitting in a semi circle around the cross. The set up had the cross between the musicians and the congregation so that cross was (in effect) in the centre of the gathering.

For a while, even as our music team has been growing in technical excellence over the last many months, I’ve wondered whether our church has really understood the real meaning of worship, of bringing their own sacrifices, that ultimately, it didn’t matter about the music. Paring back the music was an opportunity for the congregation to hear their own voices fill the atmosphere with praises to God. It was a reminder that, sometimes, we can mask our praises underneath the sound created by the few (the musos on stage) whereas God has always been after the heartfelt offerings of the many.

So here is our songlist from yesterday’s session:

// This I Believe (The Creed) (G)
// When I Survey The Wondrous Cross (G)
// Scripture Reading – Phil 2:5-11
// This is Our God (Chorus only) (E)
// Broken Vessels (Chorus only) (E)
// This is Our God (E) (Reprise)
// No Other Name (E)

And here’s the recording:

What other ways have you tried to do your Sunday worship services differently?

Why Some Christians are No Longer “Born Again”

For the longest time, the church has misused the term “born-again”. Evangelical Christians have long used that term to refer to the conversion experience, probably because it appears a couple of times in John 3 in close proximity to Jesus’ famous words in verse 16 (“For God so love the world…”). If John 3:16 is the ultimate summation and crown of the Gospel, then obviously being “born again” must refer to a person’s conversion to Christianity.

Such an understanding of being “born again” actually undermines and misapprehends the whole process of spiritual formation – it assumes that conversion is a “once-off” event rather than a process worked out over time.

Don’t get me wrong: some people do have sudden conversion experiences. The Saul-to-Paul-Damascus-Road thing comes to mind. But then what about the journey that Paul undertakes (including a period in obscurity) before he finally becomes a great spiritual powerhouse and influencer? That takes time!

I, for one, could not tell you when I became a Christian. It just kind of grew on me. I started going to church and over time, integrated into the Christian community and learnt more about God and started to put my trust in Him. Over two decades later, I still haven’t arrived. And so when people ask me when I became a Christian, I can point to a date written in my bible, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the real date I became a Christian. To be honest, there wasn’t a moment; it was more like a process.

I think that’s why the early church spoke of Christianity as “the Way”. You start going on the Way, and you continue on the Way. This is better than seeing conversion as a “line” of decision that you must cross. What if you start believing in Jesus but haven’t yet “confessed with your mouth”? Are you still saved? What is the formula?

So, I think the idea of being “born again” as a conversion experience is way too simplistic.

Last Sunday at Faith Community Church, Peter Tsukahira preached a mindblowing message about “Change” which gave me a completely new perspective on John 3.

He said that traditionally we look at Nicodemus as a confused old man who was too embarrassed to approach Jesus publicly, so he came to Jesus in the dead of the night so that no one could see him.

Actually, in the context of the passage, Nicodemus was shown to be a powerful man. Verse 1 says that he is a Pharisee and a “member of the Jewish council”. At the time, the Sanhedrin was delegated power by the Romans to rule over Jerusalem. The main ruling party was the Sadducees. The Pharisees could be considered the opposition, so in today’s parlance, Nicodemus was a powerful member of the opposition party.

And Nicodemus’ approach to Jesus wasn’t to satisfy some niggling religious curiosity. He addresses Jesus in verse 2, saying “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come fro God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” At this time Jesus was already popular with the crowds, so what Nicodemus was doing was actually buttering up Jesus so that he could broker a deal with Him. He was saying “we could work together and shift the balance of power”.

Instead, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again”.

This statement takes Nicodemus by surprise. What Jesus was in effect saying to Nicodemus was that if the kingdom of God was to be realised, it would take a different mindset. Nicodemus wanted to see the kingdom of God as a political force and institution – perhaps together the Pharisees and Jesus could overthrow the Sadducees and who knows, even the Romans – but Jesus was saying that Nicodemus needed to adopt a new paradigm because everything was going to change: the temple, the priesthood, the nation. But it wouldn’t be a political phenomenon – it would begin in the hearts of people.

So, according to Peter Tsukahira, to be born again means to “start over”. To be “born again” is an entry point to a life of unpredictable change; to be carried by the wind of the Spirit which blows wherever it pleases.

God is always doing something new, and we need to jump into the flow of those new things.

Tsukahira makes this observation about the 24 elders constantly and repeatedly bowing before the Lamb in Revelations 5. They surround the throne, gazing at God. And every moment for eternity, as they look at God, they see something new and even more magnificent, and it causes them to again throw themselves down in adoration. Therefore, to be in the presence of God is to experience continuous change.

That day, Nicodemus, having encountered the presence of Jesus, started on a new journey. It culminated In John 19, where we see Nicodemus at Jesus’ tomb. He had brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body. In the end, Nicodemus worshipped!

And this is why I say that a lot of Christians are no longer born again. They might have been once. But they have gotten comfortable with their Christian walk. They are content with more of the same and more of the old. Churches love the comfort of tried and true familiarity, rather than the faith adventure of risk-taking and forging new ground. The wind of the Spirit is blowing, God is doing new things, and yet, we are not prepared to take new steps of faith to keep in step with Him.

As we encounter God’s presence over and over, may we always see something new and more magnificent than before and be prepared to start over as He leads.