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

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

I posited seemingly disparate themes to the group:

1.  Music and the Heart of Worship

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

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

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

2.  The Power of Music

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

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

Plato once said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.  Music and God’s Presence

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

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

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

Harold Best says:

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

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

4.  The Scriptural Impetus of Music in Scriptures

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

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

Holding It All in Tension

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

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

Here are some thoughts:

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

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

Good Music versus Bad Music

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

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

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

What of quality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Archives: Five Facets of a Worship Leader

Worship leadership 101: a worship leader does a whole lot more than singing songs in front of a congregation on a Sunday. This is obvious. The task of a worship leader is so much more than that. In fact a worship leader is called to help shape the corporate worship life of a congregation.

Here are at least 5 functions which I believe a worship leader must fulfil:

1.  The Worship Leader as Worshipper

The worship leader must first be a worshipper.  What you do in public should be an outflow of your personal devotion.

Matt Redman once coined the phrase “lead worshipper”. This means that  a worship leader is the first to worship, i.e. the worship leader leads by their example of worship.

2.  The Worship Leader as Leader

The worship leader leads.  A worship leader must be able to influence people into following him.  John Maxwell quotes the following proverb:  ‘He who thinks he leads but has no followers is only taking a walk.’

As a worship leader, you lead two groups of people.  First, you lead the congregation. Lead them by giving them examples of how to express worship to God in a corporate setting. If you don’t lift up your hands, you can’t expect the congregation to do the same.

The second group of people you lead is the band. Make sure you give them a direction and vision for where you want to take the service. Even though I’m not a technical musician, I always approach a worship set having mapped out its ebb and flow; its dynamics and the spiritual direction. I’m also at pains to make sure that I give the musicians and singers a set of accurate chord charts well in advance so they can practise and have some certainty to navigate with me. I do what I can as a leader, then I delegate the more complicated technical stuff to the music director!

As a worship leader, you should also lead confidently.

3.  The Worship Leader as Facilitator

I like the term “worship facilitator” because it makes it clear that the worship leader is not the only person who “does” the worship. The whole congregation must engage and the role of the worship leader is to make it as easy as possible for as many members of the congregation to engage in worship.

This will mean choosing songs that are easy for the congregation to sing; pitched comfortably; properly directing the congregation to participate.  Most of all, it means not making the stage the focus of attention!

4.  The Worship Leader as Pastor

Although the worship leader must be worshipping, they should not get ‘lost in worship’.  It is important to be keenly aware of how people are responding and how the Spirit is moving.

I have always thought that I wasn’t a “pastoring” kind of person, which is why worship ministry is great fit for me. I thought I could simply “inspire from afar”.  But good worship leading is practised in the trenches, especially if you are leading a congregation regularly.  You have to interact with people in the life of the church, get to know them better, talk to them, get a feel for their expectations etc. And serve with them, in cell groups, on mission trips, in prayer meetings.

Too often worship leaders have a sense of contempt for the people – “they don’t understand how to worship”, “why can’t they worship like me”, “if only they did God would really show up”, etc…. That’s called pride.

I heard Andrew Ironside say this once: if you’ve got a few minutes before the start of the service and the sound’s not ready, you have a duty to make sure the sound is good so that the people can worship.  He said that the worse thing you could do in that instance was to pray!

It was a bit of a hyperbole, but you get his point.  The worship leader must love the people he leads.

5.  The Worship Leader as Prophet

A worship leader must continue to break new ground in worship expression, for example, in introducing new styles of worship and new songs.

Why?  Because otherwise, we can rely so much more on tradition and ritual than to really worship God.  Can you imagine waking up one morning and saying to your wife: “Honey, truly thou art beautiful and thou dost smell like the sweet fragrance of a bouquet of flowers”?

The next day, you do the same thing.

And then the next day.

In due time, what was once a sweet spontaneous gesture has become a rote thoughtless ritualistic repetition.

Yet, many of us hang on to tired old familiar songs and expressions even though they have ceased to be meaningful to us, and presumably also to God.

Worship leaders need to continue to keep on the prophetic edge, in the sense of both exploring new songs and new expressions and also in allowing a sense of unpredictability to come into the worship.

But it is also very important to balance the ‘prophetic’ and ‘pastoral’ role.  That is, we need to find the right balance between the desire to break new ground and the desire to take people with us.

So those are the five functions I think worship leaders need to fulfill. Are there more? Share your thoughts with us!

The Lord Gives and the Lord Takes: Approaching Worship With Sincerity

When many worship songs written these days verge on being lyrically flakey, Matt Redman continues to buck the trend in writing singable melodies paired with rich theological meaning.

I love Redman’s song “Blessed Be Your Name” for those reasons. It is poetic, using contrasting imagery in each couplet, and yet forcefully reiterating a truth that in every season of our lives, our response should be to bless the name of the Lord.

Today, I heard someone say that we shouldn’t sing this song in church because it is theologically incorrect. This is the second time I have heard someone say this. The argument goes that God is a God who gives – not one who takes away. There are scriptural underpinnings for this. For example, Romans 11:29 says that God’s gifts “are irrevocable”. And James 1:16 says this:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

So I’m not arguing with that premise. The issue here is whether we should be singing a song like “Blessed Be Your Name“, which itself has a scriptural source in Job 1:20-22:

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:

“Naked I came from my mothers womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

If we accept that God is a God who gives (and who therefore does not take away), this passage reveals two interesting thoughts:

Firstly, the writer of the book affirms what appears to be contradictory: that despite saying that God is a God who takes away, Job was not charging God with wrongdoing. This goes to the theological issue because if God is a God who doesn’t take way, then surely Job was charging God with doing something inconsistent with His character.

Secondly (and more importantly), even if Job has expressed a theological mistruth, this did not affect the acceptability of his worship to God.

And this goes to the core of the issue of why we should continue to sing songs like “Blessed Be Your Name“. Whilst our worship should be grounded in theological truths, sometimes we need to express our worship in raw honesty and choose to praise despite of our circumstances.

Wasn’t this how the Psalmists worshipped? In Psalm 22, David laments about how God who had forsaken him and failed to answer his cries. But then David says “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel”. In Psalm 42, the Psalmist laments about why God had forgotten him in the midst of the enemy’s taunts. And he concludes in v 11:

Why are you so downcast, O my soul? … Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

Approaching God with honesty and sincerity is a protocol for acceptable worship.

John 4:22-23 tells us that God is seeking worshippers who worship “in spirit and in truth”. The word “truth” is from the Greek “aletheia“, which means (Strongs 225):

  1. objectively the reality lying at the basis of an appearance; the manifested veritable essence of a matter;
  2. subjectively “truthfulness”, not merely verbal, but sincerity and integrity of character.

It is one thing to verbally declare God’s truth in worship and yet not mean it. (Jesus condemned the Pharisees for doing so as people who worshipped with their lips, yet their hearts were far away.) It is another thing to worship sincerely and with integrity. This might mean verbally lamenting that God has given and God has taken away, as long as our direction of worship has God at its endpoint. This is the type of worship that is not only acceptable to God, but which God is actively seeking.

So should we be singing songs like “Blessed Be Your Name“? Absolutely! Because it expresses a thought we have all (if we were honest with ourselves) entertained, especially when we have experienced challenges in our lives. In the same song, we express our sincere disappointment (“You give and take away“), yet in faith we declare that our “heart will choose to say, Lord, blessed be Your name“. This is what it means to worship in spirit and in truth.

 

 

Never Once Did We Ever Walk Alone

We always get a bit reflective when we get to the end of the year. And that’s okay because being reflective is often the beginning of gratitude.

I don’t know what sort of year you’ve had, but I’ve had an amazing year! I’ll do a full write-up on 31 December. But no matter what kind of year you’ve had, I want to share this song with you because I believe it speaks to everyone of us, no matter what course your journey took.

Here are the lyrics:

Standing on this mountaintop
Looking just how far we’ve come
Knowing that for every step
You were with us

Kneeling on this battle ground
Seeing just how much You’ve done
Knowing every victory
Was Your power in us
Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say

Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful

Kneeling on this battle ground
Seeing just how much You’ve done
Knowing every victory
Was Your power in us
Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say

Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful
You are faithful, God, You are faithful

Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Never once did we ever walk alone
Carried by Your constant grace
Held within Your perfect peace
Never once, no, we never walk alone

Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful
Every step we are breathing in Your grace
Evermore we’ll be breathing out Your praise
You are faithful, God, You are faithful
You are faithful, God, You are faithful

One of my favourite books of the Bible is Hebrews. I like it because the author interprets the Old Testament through the filter of the works and person of Jesus. It makes very clear what the New Covenant is all about.

Heb 13:5-6 says this:

… Be satisfied with your present circumstances … for He [God] Himself has said, I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support. [I will] not, [I will] not, [I will] not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let [you] down (relax My hold on you)! [Assuredly not!] So we take comfort and are encouraged and confidently and boldly say, The Lord is my Helper; I will not be seized with alarm [I will not fear or dread or be terrified]. What can man do to me? (AMP)

After the author describes how Jesus became the once-and-for-all sacrifice for our sins and made us acceptable and righteous to God, he exhorts us to live up to our holy standing. But just in case you thought that anything you do might separate you from God, he quotes an Old Testament scripture affirming God’s promise never to leave us or forsake us.

How often have we been taught that when we sin, the presence of God somehow leaves us, or our communication lines with God becomes severed, or we cease to come under His protection?

But this passage makes it abundantly clear. God will never leave us. He will not! He will not! No matter what you do!

So take comfort! Even if your year has been a challenge, realise that God was in it and with you all the way. You were never alone! He knows what He is doing. He won’t let you down. He won’t relax His hold on you because He is a covenant-keeping God and our side of the covenant has been well and truly fulfilled in the person of Jesus!

Worshipping in the Dark

We got to church this morning at about 6.30 am to begin setting up as we weren’t able to rehearse in the auditorium yesterday. About 20 minutes into the set-up, it went completely dark except for a couple of dim emergency lights. The power had cut out.

Maybe this was a temporary thing. Someone must have tripped the circuit and all we had to do was flick a switch.

Forty-five minutes later, we began to wonder whether we should all grab breakfast in the hope that when we came back, the electricity would somehow come back on.

We then sat around running through the songlist, trying to make the best use of time whilst waiting.

At about 8.30 am, we were preparing for the worst. I sent a quick text to my wife: “No power at the church”. She responded: “hahahahaa i’ll assume you mean no electricity”. Yes, that was what I meant. Despite there being no electricity, of course there was power!

We had to change tack and simplify the songlist as there were no words to be projected – so the songs had to be familiar to everyone. There was no amplification, so certain instruments became useless. And because there was no amplification, all the musos had to sing as well.

Instead of a band on stage leading the worship, everyone on the team stood in a line at the front of the stage: about 10 voices on the platform with two acoustic guitars – completely unplugged in the literal sense.

When the service started at 9.30 am, our worship leader, Dave Wong said something to this effect: the apostle Peter preached to a crowd of 3000 without any sound system. We only had 800 or 900 in an enclosed space.

What followed was half an hour of passionate singing, most of it coming from the congregation. I think it was the loudest we’ve ever heard the congregation sing. Something always triggers the congregation’s ownership of their own role in worship when the band can’t do it for them.

It reminds me a lot about what happened in Soul Survivor that led to Matt Redman’s penning of the song “Heart of Worship”. Mike Pilavachi, the senior pastor of Soul Survivor, said:

We seemed to have lost the spark.  We seemed to be going through the motions but I noticed that although we were singing the songs, our hearts were far away from Him…. Then it clicked; we had become connoisseurs of worship instead of participants of it.  In our hearts we were giving the worship marks out of ten:  ‘Not that song again’, ‘I can’t hear the bass’, ‘I like the way she sings’ …  We made the band the performers of worship and ourselves the audience.  We had forgotten that we are ALL performers of worship and that God is the audience.”

From that revelation, Soul Survivor got rid of the band and went through a season of re-learning what it meant for the congregation to bring their own worship to God. It was only when the lesson was learnt that they brought back the music, adding fuel to the flame, so the speak. The song “Heart of Worship” was born through that experience. Ever since, the words of that song have sought to lead us back to the place where the music fades and all the trappings of worship are stripped away.

There’s something about simplicity that brings us back to the heart of worship. So much of our worship today had never been seen or experienced by the early church. They had none of the technology, nor the vast hymnody. Yet people connected with God in life-changing ways.

Sometimes I wonder whether all the good of modern worship has become the enemy of the best. When we don’t educate the church properly on how to worship, we can easily let the music, the technology, the band and the worship leader become our crutches. We may not admit that they are doing the worship for us, but we certainly let them bear most of the burden.

Days like today remind us that the core of our worship cannot (and must not) ever be delegated to others to do. As much as worship is corporate, it is also a deeply personal transaction with God.

A lot of people remarked after the service that the worship was great today; that they really sensed the presence of God; that they were amazed how loud the congregation could sign; and that it was great that the whole congregation participated. We said things like “we should do this more often”.

But the sad thing is this: next week, when the electricity comes back on, we’ll be back to doing worship the same way we did before. Until the next time we are plunged into the darkness again…

Five Facets of a Worship Leader

Worship leadership 101: a worship leader does a whole lot more than singing songs in front of a congregation on a Sunday. This is obvious. The task of a worship leader is so much more than that. In fact a worship leader is called to help shape the corporate worship life of a congregation.

Here are at least 5 functions which I believe a worship leader must fulfil:

1.  The Worship Leader as Worshipper

The worship leader must first be a worshipper.  What you do in public should be an outflow of your personal devotion.

Matt Redman once coined the phrase “lead worshipper”. This means that  a worship leader is the first to worship, i.e. the worship leader leads by their example of worship.

2.  The Worship Leader as Leader

The worship leader leads.  A worship leader must be able to influence people into following him.  John Maxwell quotes the following proverb:  ‘He who thinks he leads but has no followers is only taking a walk.’

As a worship leader, you lead two groups of people.  First, you lead the congregation. Lead them by giving them examples of how to express worship to God in a corporate setting. If you don’t lift up your hands, you can’t expect the congregation to do the same.

The second group of people you lead is the band. Make sure you give them a direction and vision for where you want to take the service. Even though I’m not a technical musician, I always approach a worship set having mapped out its ebb and flow; its dynamics and the spiritual direction. I’m also at pains to make sure that I give the musicians and singers a set of accurate chord charts well in advance so they can practise and have some certainty to navigate with me. I do what I can as a leader, then I delegate the more complicated technical stuff to the music director!

As a worship leader, you should also lead confidently.

3.  The Worship Leader as Facilitator

I like the term “worship facilitator” because it makes it clear that the worship leader is not the only person who “does” the worship. The whole congregation must engage and the role of the worship leader is to make it as easy as possible for as many members of the congregation to engage in worship.

This will mean choosing songs that are easy for the congregation to sing; pitched comfortably; properly directing the congregation to participate.  Most of all, it means not making the stage the focus of attention!

4.  The Worship Leader as Pastor

Although the worship leader must be worshipping, they should not get ‘lost in worship’.  It is important to be keenly aware of how people are responding and how the Spirit is moving.

I have always thought that I wasn’t a “pastoring” kind of person, which is why worship ministry is great fit for me. I thought I could simply “inspire from afar”.  But good worship leading is practised in the trenches, especially if you are leading a congregation regularly.  You have to interact with people in the life of the church, get to know them better, talk to them, get a feel for their expectations etc. And serve with them, in cell groups, on mission trips, in prayer meetings.

Too often worship leaders have a sense of contempt for the people – “they don’t understand how to worship”, “why can’t they worship like me”, “if only they did God would really show up”, etc…. That’s called pride.

I heard Andrew Ironside say this once: if you’ve got a few minutes before the start of the service and the sound’s not ready, you have a duty to make sure the sound is good so that the people can worship.  He said that the worse thing you could do in that instance was to pray!

It was a bit of a hyperbole, but you get his point.  The worship leader must love the people he leads.

5.  The Worship Leader as Prophet

A worship leader must continue to break new ground in worship expression, for example, in introducing new styles of worship and new songs.

Why?  Because otherwise, we can rely so much more on tradition and ritual than to really worship God.  Can you imagine waking up one morning and saying to your wife: “Honey, truly thou art beautiful and thou dost smell like the sweet fragrance of a bouquet of flowers”?

The next day, you do the same thing.

And then the next day.

In due time, what was once a sweet spontaneous gesture has become a rote thoughtless ritualistic repetition.

Yet, many of us hang on to tired old familiar songs and expressions even though they have ceased to be meaningful to us, and presumably also to God.

Worship leaders need to continue to keep on the prophetic edge, in the sense of both exploring new songs and new expressions and also in allowing a sense of unpredictability to come into the worship.

But it is also very important to balance the ‘prophetic’ and ‘pastoral’ role.  That is, we need to find the right balance between the desire to break new ground and the desire to take people with us.

So those are the five functions I think worship leaders need to fulfill. Are there more? Share your thoughts with us!

Why the Distinction Between “Praise” and “Worship” Matters

In an earlier post entitled Defining Worship, I introduced Harold’s Best definition of worship as continuous outpouring.

If worship encompasses all of our life, then “worship” is a much bigger concept than “praise”.  In fact, we can think of “praise” as a subset of “worship”.  Robert Webber once said that “worship is a verb”, but I’d like to think of it as worship being a state of being and “praise” being the verb by which “worship” is expressed.

If we refine this thought further, we can say that “praise” is the ignition point, or pilot light, of “worship”.

Think about it this way:  what we do in corporate praise on a Sunday is only the start of how we live a life of worship from Monday to Saturday.  Our aligning of focus towards God through praise should be the inspiration and catalyst for a life of worship demonstrated in how we live for God in the workplace, in our homes and in our communities.

This has a couple of pretty significant implications which I want to explore further in this post:

1.  Who is the Real Worship Leader?

I’m not one to make a fuss about nomenclature, but I remember in the early 90s how those in worship ministry made a conscious shift from referring to the guy on stage as “song leader” to “worship leader” to the more funky Matt Redman-driven “lead worshipper”.

About 10 years ago, I said that maybe a better designation would be “worship facilitator”.  I said this because I thought that the role of the guy on stage would be simply to facilitate the offering of worship for which each member of the congregation was ultimately personally responsible to bring.

These days, I don’t mind what you call the guy as long as you know what role he is fulfilling.  For ease, and because of general acceptance, I tend to use “worship leader” more.  In fact, when I think about it, I am now more inclined to call that guy the “praise leader” for the reasons set out at the start of this post.

But if we understand that “praise” is a subset of “worship”, we need to ask ourselves:  “who then really is the worship leader”?  If worship is the stuff that encompasses all of our lives, then the worship leader definitely is not the guy on stage who leads the singing for the first 30 minutes of a church service.  He is, as I say, just the “praise leader”.

Neither is he the preacher, because whilst the preacher gives instructions on how we worship with our whole lives, the preacher doesn’t see to those instructions being fulfilled during the week.

So if we take this a bit further, the “praise leader” and the “preacher” on a Sunday are only the initiators.  The real worship leaders are those found in the worshipping community – your spiritual mentors; your peers; your family; models of character and attitude – those who see to it (perhaps sometimes inadvertently) that in your daily life, Christlikeness is being formed in you.  In other words, all of us in the church are the real worship leaders!

2.  Fast Songs and Slow Songs

Those of us in worship ministry for a while will remember a time when we equated the fast songs with “praise” and the slow songs with “worship”.  This created an unfortunate dichotomy where fast songs were seen as a means of emotional hype (and belonging to the “outer court” experience) whereas slow songs (in which “worship” occurs) were deep and spiritual and therefore more desirable.

Also partly because the current style of fast songs were harder to execute, I have seen some worship leaders take to the extreme of ever only singing slow songs.

For those of you as shallow as I am, it meant that people got bored during the Sunday services.

If we understand that what we are doing on a Sunday is “praise” and the catalyst for our daily worship, then the distinction between fast songs being “praise” and slow songs being “worship” is no longer valid.  This is a great leveller between fast and slow songs.

So, I would suggest that intimately seeking God in a slow song has just as much significance as exuberant celebration through the fast song.  A cursory glance through the Psalms will confirm this:  we are commanded as much to thirst and hunger for God as we are to clap our hands and celebrate his victories.

Because of this, I now try to give as much “air time” to both fast and slow songs.

One day, when the time is right, I will lead a worship set that consists only of fast songs – for no other reason than perhaps to address the imbalance and to get us thinking.  For that, I’m going to need a drummer with heaps of stamina!

New Stuff (and Some Old)

I had a quick run to the Christian bookshop this morning after breakfast and picked up some stuff.

CDS

  • Passion: White Flag
  • Matt Redman: 10,000 Reasons
  • International House of Prayer Student Awakening: Joy
  • Bethel Music: The Loft Sessions
  • Hillsong United: Live in Miami

Books

  • Craig Groeschel: What is God Really Like
  • John Piper: Let the Nations Be Glad (I’ve always wanted to read this book. It is the seminal volume which links worship and missions and gave us the famous line “worship exists because worship doesn’t“).

Reviews on some of these items will appear in future posts so keep reading!

Pressing In

Wow, it’s been a number of days since my last post. I’ve had a pretty busy week leading up to a trial last Friday. I haven’t conducted a trial in ages so I was a bit nervous, but I’m glad to say that God is good and we won the case, with the Tribunal giving its decision right there on the spot. My client was so happy, he cried! So I thank God for his wisdom and guidance, and now, I can go back to finding some more time to write.

In an earlier post (Encountering Grace), I shared on how re-encountering the grace of God transformed my perspective on, and approach to, worship. In another post (Holy Worship Team, Batman), I shared on how this puts into question how we qualify people in terms of whether they can serve on the worship team.

In this post, I want to explore, in the context of the transforming grace of worship, the concept of “pressing in”.

So, here’s the scene. The service is about to start and the worship leader says something like this: “This morning, let’s not stay on the outside, let’s press in to God in worship.”

Or maybe, halfway through the set, the worship has been a bit “heavy going” and the worship leader says this: “The presence of God is here. Don’t miss out. I want to encourage you to really press in and encounter Him”.

At its most innocent and legitimate, the idea of “pressing in” to God is a picture of our posture and attitude towards God in worship: an individual approaches worship by focussing all of their attention on God and the process of expressing praise to Him. Viewed in this way, it is a legitimate exhortation for every member of the congregation to adopt such a posture.

But more often than not, the worship leader tells you to “press in” because they are frustrated. I say this from my own experience. I don’t know how many times I’ve led worship and the congregation just seems flat. I would start with some gentle cajoling, such as “let’s sing that again from our hearts” to something a bit more forceful: “let’s lift up our praise, let’s really worship Him”. And then, when all else fails, I resort to “*small sigh*, C’mon guys. We have a great privilege of accessing God’s presence today. Let’s not miss this moment. We’ve got to press in….”

In such a context, “pressing in” is another piece in the worship leader’s armoury to try to “guilt” the congregation into worship.

The idea of “pressing in” can be traced to the Old Testament approach to, and progression of, worship. The OT pattern was based on going from the “outer courts”, to the “inner courts” (or holy place) and finally, finishing up at in the “Holy of Holies”. Theologians have suggested that the outer courts represent the flesh (which we can appeal to using “rah-rah” fast songs); the inner courts represents the soul (songs which appeal to the emotion); and the Holy of Holies is where our spirit engages with God.

As a model and theory, this has its limitations.

Firstly, I believe the Old Testament Tabernacle of Moses has been well and truly supplanted by the New Testament pattern. When the Samaritan woman tried to engage Jesus on the correct mode and site for worship, Jesus’ response was startling: in effect, Jesus said that worship wasn’t going to happen at this temple or that temple, using this ritual or that ritual. Rather, He said in verse 24: “God is a Spirit (a spiritual Being) and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth (reality)”.

Secondly, the equating of “fast songs” with the “flesh” seems to suggest that fast songs are less spiritual than “slow songs”. That definitely was the way I used to think. In fact, the first few times I led worship on a Sunday, I used to eschew fast songs because they were carnal songs. If you really want to worship, you should use slow songs. But I don’t think that delineation is fair, nor is it scriptural. If worship involves all that we are, dancing and clapping in a fast song is just as spiritual an expression as bowing in a slow song.

Thirdly, the concept of born-again believers being on the outside is clearly no longer the New Testament norm. Hebrews 10:19-22 says:

Therefore, brethren, since we have full freedom and confidence to enter into the [Holy of] Holies [by the power and virtue] in the blood of Jesus,

By this fresh (new) and living way which He initiated and dedicated and opened for us through the separating curtain (veil of the Holy of Holies), that is, through His flesh,

And since we have [such] a great and wonderful and noble Priest [Who rules] over the house of God,

Let us all come forward and draw near with true (honest and sincere) hearts in unqualified assurance and absolute conviction engendered by faith (by that leaning of the entire human personality on God in absolute trust and confidence in His power, wisdom, and goodness), having our hearts sprinkled and purified from a guilty (evil) conscience and our bodies cleansed with pure water.

This verse actually addresses the issue: we are on the “outside” only because we believe we are. In fact, however, we are under a new covenant with a new priest whose blood (not the blood of goats and bulls that cleanses temporarily) has made us holy so that we may approach God with utter confidence and (as the author of Hebrews puts it) with “unqualified assurance”.

Fourth, and this flows on from the previous point, our sins have been dealt with – fully! Our sins are no longer a barrier between us and God. I used to be taught that my sins separate me from God, so I should always confess my sins and “keep a short account”. There’s nothing wrong with that practice (in fact it is a good practice, but I now believe that our sins don’t separate us from God because He has already imputed into us Christ’s righteousness. So as worship leaders, we used to say, “let’s examine our hearts before we approach God in worship”. But I believe the paradigm should now be the opposite: as we worship, we are transformed.

In Isaiah 6, the prophet said that “he saw the Lord” in worship. The result of that was that he became acutely aware of his shortcomings and the angel came and touched his lips with the coal. He saw God and was transformed. Similarly, in Luke 7, Jesus was anointed by “the sinful woman” in the house of Simon the Pharisee. When you read that passage, you will note that Jesus never stopped the woman from approaching Him in worship. Ironically, it was established religion that said “does Jesus know who is approaching him?” The result of that woman’s worship was Jesus’ saying to her “Your sins are forgiven”.

We don’t cleanse ourselves in order to approach God; we worship and then we are transformed!

How then do we approach God? And how do worship leaders encourage the congregation to engage? I believe the key is in what Matt Redman used to say: “revelation demands a response”. A revelation of the greatness and goodness and faithfulness of God naturally causes our hearts to stir up in a praise response.

Worship leaders should encourage worshippers to focus on the bigness of God, rather than on a person’s own actions and expressions. The latter is a response in works and human effort, the former is a response to the grace of God.

Let’s approach God with a confident expectation of his goodness and grace. Should we still “press in”? By all means. But like the author of Hebrews says, this has nothing to do with our position in Christ and our place in the progression of worship. “Pressing in” should all be about “the leaning of our entire human personality on God in absolute trust and confidence in His power, wisdom, and goodness” because we know we are already forgiven and cleansed and that there is no longer any barrier to His presence. Let us draw near to Him with the full assurance of faith!

Wineskins, Patches and Paradigm Shifts

I think Christianity has been one of the most enduring faiths because of its ability to reinvent itself within the parameters of its core tenets and beliefs. It is a revolutionary faith.

One of the things I love doing is to look at paradigm shifts in the church, particularly in the context of worship. Certainly, the church’s understanding of worship has come a long way, and its expression of worship has taken quantum leaps, even in the last 20 years or so.

Jesus’ parable about new wine and new wineskins is interesting. I have heard many teachings about how we need to change the church’s methodologies (new wineskin) to contain the new wine that God is pouring out.

I have often taught from this passage when I talk about changes in the worship landscape, but I never really understood the first part of the passage about shrinking a cloth before using it as a patch. So I happily ignored that part and hoped no one ever asked me questions about it. (Actually one of the great things about teaching at church is people tend not to want to ask you pointy questions!)

But I think I’m getting a clearer revelation of this passage now and want to offer you some of my thoughts. But first, here is the passage from Luke 5:36-39:

[Jesus] told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.”

The problem I had in the past with interpreting this passage stemmed from an erroneous approach: I always thought the two images (wineskins and cloth) are reinforcing images, i.e. they are two ways of saying the same thing. Actually, I now understand that the key to this passage is in the fact that the two concepts are complementary. The wine imagery tells us about the need for renewal, and the second imagery of the cloth tells us about the method to implement that renewal.

If you are a wine drinker, you will know that really good wine needs to mature over time. New wine can often be harsh with undeveloped flavours. That’s why Jesus says that no one who drinks old wine actually wants new wine, because they say “the old is better”.

Recently a friend of mine opened a bottle of wine which was apparently bottled on his actual birthday 30 years ago. He thought it tasted okay, but whilst I politely agreed, inside me I actually had some doubts. It tasted a bit funky in my opinion. In any event, I think most people know the general principle that when wine gets really old, it turns to vinegar.

So even though most people like old wine, we can’t hold on to old wine forever. It will go off.

Even though the pentecostal tradition eschews liturgy, in fact, we often have a strange reliance on “unstructure” to the point where it can become its own structure and liturgy. In fact, step into most contemporary churches and the service is entirely predictable: singing, followed by announcements and then the sermon. Depending on how “spirit-led” you are, you may get some ministry time at the end too.

No matter how much we like the old, we can’t hang on to the methods, models and strategies of the past. They will become stale and ineffective.

The fabric analogy however, tells us about the way we bring about change and renewal. The patch of cloth from the new garment can’t be used to patch up a hole in an old garment unless the new patch is preshrunk. Otherwise, it will tear away from the old garment. Often, we want to transplant a new idea or a new method onto existing structures without holding back a little. The new idea becomes too radical and a shock to the system for those used to the old, and the radical idea gets rejected entirely.

Twenty years ago, the idea of a woman worship leader was unheard of. (There are still some remnants in the body of Christ who don’t believe that women should lead worship). But then Darlene Zschech came onto the scene. She started out as a strong backing vocalist and she began to write songs which captured the heart of the church. Before long, having her lead worship was a natural choice. Darlene paved the way for women worship leaders to start taking up that mantle all over the world.

Once, a church I knew began to flow into prophetic worship in the vein of Rick Pino. However, the worship leader began the service by singing free worship and then sang one song over and over again for 25 minutes. A good deal of the congregation failed to engage and was lost in the process. Whilst moving the church into prophetic worship is desirable, doing it too quickly when people aren’t ready or educated can result in a church rejecting the new move of God.

This is what Matt Redman refers to when he says that as worship leaders, we must balance the prophetic with the pastoral. Worship leaders must keep prophetically forging ahead, breaking new ground with new styles of music, new songs, new prophetic flows and new artistic expressions. But we must also be pastoral: we need to bring people with us; we can’t go too far ahead that they can’t follow; we need to hold back a bit and let the new cloth shrink slightly, so it doesn’t tear from the old cloth.

True renewal is necessary. Psalm 102:25-27 says this:

In the beginning, you laid the foundations of the earth,

and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you remain;

they will all wear out like a garment.

Like clothing you will change them

and they will be discarded.

But you remain the same,

and your years will never end.

God is the same, but He is always on the move and bringing change.

As revolutionaries, we must love the church, even those who seem to be slightly lagging behind. We need new wineskins to contain God’s new wine. But we must also be careful to preshrink the new patch from the new garment before applying it onto the old garment, lest we tear away from the old garment and destroy it so that even the cutting off from the new garment would have been in vain.