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!

Reflections on Cindy Ratcliff’s Visit to Perth

It has been an amazing start to the weekend, first with Cindy Ratcliff’s ministry to the worship teams from different Perth churches on Thursday night, and then with the Just Worship event last night at Metrochurch, during which Cindy led worship.

My wife and I were really thrilled because at the end of the evening, we got to take a photo with Cindy and her husband Marcus. Our good friend and worship leader, Joanna, also got into the photo!

What really blew my mind was the fact that Cindy, her husband and their team didn’t have to come to Perth. But not only did they come, they did so at their own cost. Why? Simply for the purpose of, as Marcus Ratcliff puts it, “to leave a deposit”. I wasn’t exactly sure what they meant by the “deposit” and in what form exactly it took, but here are some thoughts and principles which I felt were deposited in me as I reflected on the last two evenings:

1.  A Call for Worship Ministers to Prayerfully Plan the Journey of Worship

As I mentioned in my previous post, when I first heard the We Speak to Nations album (Lakewood’s first live release), there was a real sense of capturing the atmosphere of worship rather than a showcasing of new songs.  

During last night’s worship, even though Cindy did do a few new songs, there was a planned focus, flow and progression in her worship set which, in my view, is missing in many churches today.  I could be wrong on this, but in my experience, a lot of worship leaders are still putting songs together which don’t necessarily mesh thematically or flow in tempo and feel.

We need to recover the sense of worship as journey.

2.  The True Mark of Leadership is Humility and Servanthood

Because I’ve been making all this fuss about Cindy Ratcliff in the last couple of days, some people were remarking that maybe I had put her on a pedestal.  Perhaps… But I think we have a lot to learn from her about leadership.

Cindy leads a worship team of 1000 people, some of whom are recording artists and world-class musicians, yet she comes across as level, easy-going, normal and above all, humble.  There was never any hint of her coming across with a sense of entitlement.

It reminds me of Philippians 2:5-11:

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever…

Behind every leader that God elevates is the spirit of servanthood.

3.  It Happens to the Best of Them

I often get annoyed when little technical things go wrong.  But last night, about 30 seconds into the first song, the projection of the words failed.

I have seen worship leaders react in a number of ways when things like that happen, but Cindy’s approach was completely seasoned by humility.  After the first song, she welcomed the crowd and very seamlessly made the point that the technicians were doing their best to get the words up, but she encouraged us that even if the words don’t come up, we should try our best to sing along and she will prompt us with the lyrics where appropriate – because after all, we were there to worship God together.

When things like this happen, they often reveal the attitude of our hearts.  Do we get frustrated and annoyed? Or can we let go and do our best in the situation before us?

4.  Excellence, Heart and Faithful Ministry

I’ve been pressing this point of late, but I believe that excellence in ministry is not an afterthought or a secondary requirement.  I see excellence and the heart of worship as two sides of the same coin.

And when the two combine, a powerful synergy is created.

I have worked with bands where because the music isn’t tight, everyone has had to work extra hard to carry each other (this is a difficult concept to articulate, but if you’ve been part of a band, you’ll know what I mean). I’ve also been in bands where the musicians are technically excellent, able to support and cover each other, and where musicians are humble enough to let others soar at opportune moments.  In those times, a worship leader doesn’t have to do much, but you begin to realise that everyone on stage is, in effect, leading worship together.  It’s the difference between my coming out of a worship set feeling exhausted, and coming out of it feeling light and invigorated.

The musicianship was of a such a calibre last night.  Even though there were only 3 musos and a bass track, the music just enveloped you and made it easy for you to engage with God.

5.  Worship Meets Justice

I love “Just Worship” events because as far as worship is concerned, it’s where the rubber hits the road. It’s about worship which pleases the Lord, not just singing him nice songs in an electrified atmosphere to make ourselves feel good, but where worship and justice intersect.

Micah 6:6-8 says this:

How can I stand up before God
and show proper respect to the high God?
Should I bring an armload of offerings
topped off with yearling calves?
Would God be impressed with thousands of rams,
with buckets and barrels of olive oil?…

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
take God seriously.

The Contemporary English Version says that God demands that “we see that justice is done”. Justice completes our act of worship. In worship, we bless God so that He blesses us, so that we, in turn, might be a blessing.  This is the cycle of worship.

So, I am glad to say that in an atmosphere of powerful worship and encounter last night, those who gathered raised $20,000, every single cent of which will go to Telethon to help children with medical needs in our community.

I am grateful to God for sending Cindy Ratcliff and her team to deposit something into my heart, and into our city, which I’m sure has left us all transformed.


Sushi and the Art of Worship Leading

Over the weekend, I watched a documentary about the world’s greatest sushi chef called Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Whilst I like to stay on top of food trends, this was the first time I had ever heard of Jiro Ono.

Jiro is an 85 year old sushi master who owns a 10-seater restaurant in the Ginza subway station in Japan. Week in, week out, he repeats the same routine of sushi making. He doesn’t like to take holidays. He only takes a break to attend emergencies, such as funerals. His whole life is consumed by the obsession of making sushi and to constantly make better sushi.

Which is why his is the only sushi restaurant to ever be awarded three Michelin stars. And yet, there is no wine list, five-star table service or even a washroom inside his restaurant. Patrons may book up to 12 months in advance to sit there for half an hour to eat 20 pieces of sushi per sitting at the equivalent cost of $300. This makes Jiro’s restaurant the most expensive Michelin star restaurant in the world.

Until I watched this film, I never thought of sushi-making as an art form. But in Jiro’s mind, what he creates today needs to be continually surpassed by what he creates tomorrow.

After 50 years of relentlessly pursuing his craft, he says “I will continue to climb trying to reach the top… but no one knows where the top is… Even at my age, in my work, I haven’t reached perfection.”

What does Jiro’s sushi dream have to do with worship leading?

Having watched the documentary, I was impressed with this lesson: never think that you have arrived because there’s always more to learn. It is a posture of humility which is the foundation of great leadership.

Last year, I left a church in which I was serving for over 20 years. In that time, I was deeply involved in the leadership of the worship ministry. I have to admit that when you are in a very secure position for a long period of time, you can become quite arrogant. In a way, I thought that I had it all figured out. I thought I was one of the most competent worship leaders in church. Okay, I never said this out loud, because that would be pride. But inwardly, that was probably the attitude that I had.

In the last few weeks, I have discovered things that have shaken me from my lofty heights.

I now attend Faith Community Church. And the level of musicianship is awe-inspiring. Last night, as part of the support acts for Jayesslee’s Perth concert, some of the FCC worship team performed some songs and I had to say, I thought their performances rivalled the main act! And I thought, wow, these guys haven’t even reached their peak yet and they are going to be the next generation leaders of FCC’s worship ministry!

And then, there is Converge. I have had the privilege to work with some musicians and worship leaders from other churches and they are absolutely out of this world.

And I have been humbled. I don’t think I would even dare place myself anymore on the higher end of the bell curve. Somewhere in the middle is probably more fitting. Definitely, what I have learnt from working with other churches is that it changes your perspective. There are always going to be worship leaders better than you! If nothing else, working with other churches inspires you to look beyond your own church world, to realise there is so much more out there and so much more you need to learn!

I think that as worship leaders, we cannot ever rest on our laurels. We need to keep learning, improving, climbing the mountain as it were and understanding that we never know where the top is. If we approach our ministry heart first (not skill first!) then we will always be in relentless pursuit of excellence and improvement.

1 Cor 3:9 ff (MSG) says this:

…You are God’s house. Using the gift God gave me as a good architect, I designed blueprints; Apollos is putting up the walls. Let each carpenter who comes on the job take care to build on the foundation! Remember, there is only one foundation, the one already laid: Jesus Christ. Take particular care in picking out your building materials. Eventually there is going to be an inspection. If you use cheap or inferior materials, you’ll be found out. The inspection will be thorough and rigorous. You won’t get by with a thing. If your work passes inspection, fine; if it doesn’t, your part of the building will be torn out and started over. But you won’t be torn out; you’ll survive—but just barely.

What sort of materials are you building with? Good quality, excellent materials, or second-best materials of inferior quality? We may not ever become the best, but we definitely should be offering to God our best. His sacrifice deserves at least that much.

If I’m still leading worship when I’m 85, I hope that I’d be able to say that I’m still climbing, not knowing where the top will be.

Heart First

I have just finished reading Wayne Cordeiro’s The Irresistible Church. It’s a great book and particularly relevant to me as I had spent several months looking for an “irresistible church”. Here, I extract Cordeiro’s third trait of an irresistible church:

The third trait of an irresistible church, a church God loves to bless, is living heart first. It’s the opposite of living image first. It means working and serving God with true passion. It means living with an intrinsic desire to travel the pathways down which God invites us.

I am not suggesting that competency within a church isn’t important. Heart and excellence are not mutually exclusive. In other words, it is not either/or. It is both/and. A common tendency is to use heart as an excuse for being sloppy. But when we live heart first, excellence usually follows.

Cordeiro then goes on to describe how at his church they stripped away the programs that relied more on image than heart. And he continues:

I do not want to suggest that programs or maintaining programs is the enemy of the church. In years past program has almost become a dirty word in some church circles. But programs are only organised forms of ministry. They are not wrong. They are needed. They can be useful tools. The important distinction for us to make is that a program does not always equal ministry. Just because a program is in place, it does not necessarily mean that lives are being impacted for Christ.

The danger comes when our programs outgrow our hearts. Usually in the beginning of any ministry-oriented initiative, we lead with our passion. We take more risks. We develop things with a sort of raw energy. Yet once a program is implemented, the temptation exists to slip into autopilot. We rest, thinking the program will continue to endlessly produce the same results. The problem is that our hearts start to depend on the programs. We can have programs going, but no heart behind them.

I love what Cordeiro writes here. Let me bring this into the context of worship ministry.

First, the issue of excellence. Worship ministry is a prime ministry in which the dichotomy of heart and technical ability is played out sharply. For some reason, lots of people like the attention of being on the worship team. And lots of people think that because they sing in the shower, they are ready to sing on stage! (In fact, I used to think I had an excellent voice because of the way everything echoed in the shower. Now that I’ve been in worship ministry for many years, I am acutely aware of how much more my voice needs to improve!). So just because people have “heart” and desire, does that mean they should serve even though they are not technically competent?

Cordeiro’s point is deft: heart and excellence are not mutually exclusive; excellence usually follows after heart! I think that we need to properly balance this. I always think that if it wasn’t for people being lax with standards to allow me to join the worship ministry, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Being given that opportunity though, I was determined to live heart first and develop my skill as a worship leader and to improve.

The second point Cordeiro makes is programming. Whenever you are part of an organisation, it is impossible to do things without planning. At one level, I sort of think in an ideal world, the Holy Spirit would speak to everyone simultaneously and simply lead us together in unison without the need for prior planning. I’m not really sure why He doesn’t do that (maybe we don’t have enough faith!) but in my experience, most ministries function through vision, strategy and planning.

At the strategic level, this means that worship ministries should set goals and plan how to develop their members in pursuit of both excellence and spiritual depth. At the level of Sunday worship, the worship leader should visualise the set, plan transitions and dialogue with other stakeholders of the meeting.

But the caveat is that we must not rely on planning. We shouldn’t go on autopilot and disengage our hearts. After laying the foundation of planning, we must take steps of faith as we rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us. And we need to make sure that our hearts are fully behind our programs. That’s what it means to live, serve and minister “heart first”.