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How to Grow and Develop as a Worshipper: Changing With the Times

When I presented a mindmap for this blog to our worship team and asked them which topics they were most interested in, four of the five who responded requested something under the “Growth” header. Three of those four picked this topic specifically. I know that five people is a relatively small sample size, but an overwhelming majority in any sample size is enough to get me to write a post that people seem to want.

Of course, it is also possible that they only picked it because they wanted to see what I would do with a bubble labeled “The Times,” so I keep that as a possibility in the back of my mind, as well. I simply choose to believe that they picked this topic out of desire instead of sheer curiosity.

Curiosity, though, is a great way to broach this subject. What is it about ‘changing with the times’ that piques our interest? It’s a phrase that is uttered by the young berating the old. It is uttered among the old, berating themselves. Heck, it’s even uttered among the middle-aged, proud of themselves for migrating to a new social media platform. Why is this phrase so prevalent in our culture?

I think we are slightly obsessed with ‘changing with the times’ because we have a desire to be relevant (see footnote 1). Relevance is not strict adherence to ‘out with the old, in with the new’ policies. Relevance is the best of the old, the best of the new, and the best of the middle-aged. Relevance inspires us and celebrates the freshness of new art and reverence of old art and places value on both new and old work by how applicable it is to life today. Relevance, by definition, changes with the times, and we are called to change with it.

The trick, of course, is changing well.

The alternatives to changing well are as horrible as they sound: not changing at all, or changing badly.

Not changing at all leads to stagnation. Example: for a while, I helped out at a church where the worship team hardly ever drew newcomers through the door because the congregation was comprised primarily of one group of people who really dug that specific genre or groove that the team liked to play in (I’m looking at you, 80’s fat-beat cover bands). So unless newcomers to that place happen to be avid fans of reggae / black gospel / 80’s rock ballads / dubstep / chamber choirs, limiting yourself to one style or one group of musical role models limits your outreach opportunity.

Worse yet than that, though, are the brave but absurd few who hear the ‘next big thing’ that ‘all the kids are into, you know,’ and try to dominate that space in the worship industry. In business and in music, very little goes worse than endorsing and replicating something you’re unfamiliar with. As the internet popularly says, it “flies exactly the way a brick doesn’t.”

I was at a worship conference in 2001 (still in high school, mind you), and a prominent worship leader was there. Everybody was stoked: he had become popular in the late 80’s with a worship song that everybody knew, and the excitement in the room was palpable. He was rumored to be working on a new project, and he had the attention and expectations of the entire conference. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the newest and biggest thing happening in the entire music industry nationwide was techno (you see where this is going). Of course, he remixed a few of his top hit songs and led worship solo with a laptop and some outboard equipment. He literally mixed pre-recorded tracks and DJ-turntabled live for 35 minutes. If memory serves, he didn’t even sing much. Most of the vocals were all tracked, as well.

It. Was. Terrible. I’d never seen so many people sit down during a performance in my life, and I’ve played a punk rock gig at a nursing homes. It was an almost-desperate attempt to stay relevant in a changing musical landscape, otherwise referred to as ‘change for the sake of change,’ which to my knowledge has never turned out favorably. Change is necessary for growth, but techno praise is a change that the church at large simply could not accept.

Because the trick, of course, is changing well.

The Art of Borrowing Influences

I’m part of a modified ‘mastermind’ group for artists. Usually, mastermind groups are business owners and thought leaders trading ideas and support, particularly for business ventures. They’ll offer to review each other’s new books before they publish, share experiences behind similar product launches, etc. to learn from each other’s mistakes and successes, as well as pitch new ideas to gather feedback before something flies or flops.

In our group, we forgo most business conversation (our ‘meeting minutes’ consist of who’s bringing the coffee next time and who else is bringing finger foods) and instead of business ideas, we bring fresh art pieces to trade feedback and constructive criticism. We have four visual artists, three crafters, two songwriters, two poets, and one lone-star animator (who primarily gets “oohs” and “aahs” instead of criticism because we are all amazed at the mechanics of the work).

I personally participate as a songwriter, and some months I’ll get about a week away from the meeting when I realize that I haven’t created anything in weeks. No lyrics, no melodies, no lightning-strike of inspiration and ingenuity… nothing’s come to me all month long. In those times, I’ll usually work on covering a song that utilizes a skill I haven’t mastered yet, or utilizes a skill that I’ve developed that gets used in a different way. For example, (pardon all the links ahead: I really want to see an artist like this get saved. I absolutely love his work. I just want to see these skills used vertically) I am not always good at singing and playing ‘lead’ at the same time, but I saw an incredible acoustic artist who played beautiful rhythm and melody parts simultaneously on one guitar and I decided that this was a skill worth developing. So I watched videos of the original artist playing the song that captivated me and learned how to play the song, myself

Inevitably, a new song within the next few months will have an element of the skill I spent my time developing, and the group recognizes the time spent on song covers as valuable skill-honing that allows greater variety in future works.

To that end, one of our poets does a lot of work with a poetry website that features ‘challenges’ regularly: to write in the style of a particular poet, or to write nothing but sonnets on a particular topic, or to use only one punctuation mark in the entire poem (a la e.e. cummings). He finds the structure of continuously writing outside of your own style incredibly valuable.

Similarly, one of our visual artists (who may or may not exactly be my wife) insists that she cannot paint original work without looking at something to reference (not true at all)(baby you’re amazing)(#biased #dontcare). She says that she does her best work when she’s looking at something else to shape her lines or blend her colors. However, over the last year, everyone who sees her artwork agrees that she’s created more intuitive and ingenuitive pieces with unique hues, lines, and perspectives than she did when she first joined the group. I know I’m been getting off track here, but she did this incredible thing with a bird seeing another bird from above, you know, a literal ‘bird’s eye view’ that was just, holy sparrows, I mean, how does a person even think of how a bird might see a bird…

There’s something wonderful, beautiful, and powerful about the art of copying art and how the process grows us as artists. Emulation is the key, I think, and choosing the people and ministries we allow to influence us is paramount to our ability to be relevant to our people.

The Art of Fighting the Power

In that vein of thought, I have a bone to pick with you if your idea of relevance in worship consists of spamming your congregation with your team’s versions of the top tracks on Christian radio today. There are two major problems with relying on Christian radio to bring you selections for congregational worship: first, they are not the right kind of songs, which I will explain later, and second, they are some/oftentimes harmful. I have to make this clear: you are being marketed to. The vast majority of the songs that are put in front of you on those stations are songs designed and engineered to make you happy and pander to your sensibilities. I know this. I’ve worked with two writers at one of the nation’s largest Christian songwriting firms. They know that the Lord loves a cheerful giver and gosh darn it they are desperate to keep you cheerful and tuning in.

I apologize if I seem harsh, but I approach Christian radio the same way I approach literature and Disney Movies: critically (see footnote 2). Most of what you hear on Christian radio is about how God is great and my life is great and everything around us in all of creation is just great because duh, God is so great. And I don’t know if you’ve looked at the lives of pretty much anyone around you lately, or even the life of, like, Jesus, or eleven of the twelve disciples, or Paul, or really just about anybody in the Bible, or in West Virginia, or the majority of Planet Earth, but health, wealth, and all things prosperity are not exactly 100% of what my Bible says about the reality of living your life in Christ. Check your translation. No? Hmm. Strange. Almost… almost like that’s done on purpose… like there’s a lesson there…

I am simply set against anything facetiously positive, or anything that implies outright flippancy. So many ‘popular’ Christian songs over the last decade promote a righteous indifference, a manner of laughing it off because “He’s watching over me,” or He’s “on my side,” or “nothing can stand against” me… and that’s not what my Bible says. At least, not in the sense that I don’t have to do anything besides have enough faith. Not in the sense that everything’s going to just be A-OK perfectomundo now. Never, ever trust anything that makes me or my family want to say “lol wutever God’s got it haha Satan u r teh suck U LOSE lol!!!” Stop it. Stop letting your guard down. Stop listening to anything that encourages the combination of your spiritual journey and your ministry with a “hakuna matata” mindset (again, see footnote 2).

Please stick with me, because this is important, and this is what I mean when I say that what is served to you on Christian radio is the wrong kind of song: there are two types of worship songs, horizontal and vertical, and while both technically have a place in your worship journey and service, one of them is meat while the other is milk, per se.

Horizontal worship edifies the body of Christ, the church, the believers. Horizontal songs highlight how good He is, or what He’s done. Horizontal songs tell stories. A timeless example is “Amazing Grace.” Beautiful words, powerful meanings, a wonderful celebration all around, but it’s still the story of what God has done in my life, not a prayer or supplication lifted straight up to Him. Horizontal worship is third-person.

Vertical songs, on the other hand, reach straight up to the ears of God and tell Him how we feel, what we need, or how much we love (or want to love) Him more than ever. Vertical songs invite Him to dance with us, to sing with us, to laugh with us, to cry with us, or re-affirm His promises to us. Vertical songs are conversational. Their trademark is the use of the word “You” with a capital Y. Vertical worship is first-and-second-person.

Guess which types of songs get an 80/20 split on the radio? And guess which types of songs I fight for to maintain at least an 80/20 split in my church’s worship services? That’s all I’m going to say. It is not the primary focus of your job to talk about how awesome He is. 

The Art of Growing With the Times

It is your job to find songs that say what your congregation needs to say. It is your job to find songs that our God, our King, our Love longs to hear us say to Him. Your song repertoire determines the relevance of your ministry to those with ears to hear.

Likewise, it is your job to let go of songs that no longer line up with the goals of your ministry and the heart of your people at this time. Sure, keep a chord chart or two handy in a file just in case a special circumstance arises where that is just the perfect song for what needs to happen in that service, but by the time you have access to five-hundred-plus songs at the touch of your fingertips, you have to admit that you may be reaching so far out to have the right songs that you’re really reaching right over the more-obvious fits, and we also have to admit that something like that is entirely possible. I sometimes get so wrapped up in looking for new music from obscure sources that I forget that we already have a song that we know and don’t have to work for so hard.

Conversely, though, I’m embarrassed and ashamed to admit that I too often think “oh, this song will be fine for this service” or “the message of this song is close enough,” and it’s maybe, maybe a week later that I’ll hear a song on Spotify or (shudder) the radio that I know I’ve heard at least ten times before, and I can already pick out the chords just from hearing it so often, and it would have been perfect to pair with that message if I’d just opened my ears and given the decision more than a grand sum total of ten seconds worth of thought, and that’s one of two major reasons I needed to sit down and write this post:

We’re too comfortable staying the same, and

We’re too scared of failing at something new, so we stay the same.

I, by no means, am perfect in my worship leading and team development strategies. I do, however, remain playful and curious. I incorporate kazoos on a semi-regular basis. I brought my grandmother’s accordion and selected a volunteer from the congregation to play a harmonic third and fourth back-and-forth for a song that only has two chords for the whole thing. I re-wrote a secular song into a worship tune, had a violinist play mandolin (they’re tuned the same, who knew?!), and had the entire youth group (at summer camp, with wooden floors in a giant hall, great acoustics) stomp, pat, and clap the big drum part. That one was a monumental disaster…

But that’s okay because we experiment, we tinker, we find what works and run with it, just sprinting down the trail until we run out of breath, then we stop and collect ourselves and try something else. Something good for your people can run for months, for years, even, and sometimes it will fall flat on its face from the start, and that’s okay. The key is to never stop guessing, never stop improving, never stop stretching the limits of how funky the music can get, or how crazy the accompanying instrumentation can look, or how loudly you can get them to sing with you when you pull an awesome little bait-and-switch, building up a repeating bridge and cutting the music halfway through a line so the congregation is half-screaming “deeper than my feet could ever wander, and my faith will be made stronger in the presence of my Savior…” Never stop. Never, ever stop.

Because when you stop, you allow complacency, and a complacent ministry has no place in the Kingdom of God. There, I said it. Remember that time when Jesus said “well, I’ve got a few disciples now… eh, we’re good, I’ll just wait to be crucified and pay for the sins of mankind.” No? Check your translation. Still no? Dang, I couldn’t remember where that happened either. Just wanted to be sure.

Or, wait, wasn’t there that time that Jesus said “READ LUKE, CRIMINEY, I’VE HEALED ENOUGH PEOPLE TO PROVE THAT I CAN DO IT NOW, SO WE’RE DONE WITH ALL THE HEALINGS,” like, in Revelations or something, right? No? Go check it. Now, nope, I don’t believe you looked. Go look again.

So why on earth do we get complacent? Why do we build a skill set and a repertoire and a team of capable musicians and settle everybody in for the tamest roller coaster in the park? We could get everyone on board the Thunderbolt but we queue up for the Teacups and wonder why people leave the fair.

Growth is necessary. Growth that is relevant to the needs of your people is doubly necessary. And because there is nothing new under the sun, I’ll leave you with a timely thought from a Nobel-Prize-winning poet, who is truly the voice of a generation, and whose words echo the necessity of growth in your worship ministry:

Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam

And admit that the waters around you have grown

And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you is worth savin’,

Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’…

 

– Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”

 

Be blessed, be bright, be well, and do good work.

-j

Footnotes

(1) In fact, I had originally planned an entire separate post on relevance in worship ministry, and the longer I dwell on these subjects, the more they merge. I think every aspect of the art of worship is connected; I’m simply finding more and more connections as the words spill out of me, and the idea of relevance really permeates most of the topics that I intend to cover. So if you were looking at the mindmap and looking forward to another post about worship relevance, I’m sorry. Things change. I’ll try to make it up to you by making this post as mentally savory as possible, like bacon when you were expecting just biscuits, or a full massage when you were expecting just a neck rub. Just enjoy it.

(2) Disney princesses set up our nation’s little girls with unrealistic expectations and dangerous moral lessons: throw away everything you’ve ever known and run away from your family if a guy is cute enough and he’ll magically love you and marry you and you’ll live happily ever after (Ariel). Fancy clothes and a flashy smile mean he’s definitely not a hood rat and is totally worth ditching the fam and exploring a whole new worth with (Jasmine). This topic has been covered extensively online. My point is that Disney is cute and fun to sing along with but you can’t take it seriously, and that’s exactly how I approach Jesus FM, Incorporated.

Also, entirely unrelated, here is a song called “Jesus On the Radio” from one of the best bands in existence. Have some happy ears for two minutes. There’s a banjo. Go. Listen. Love. Cry a little. It’s going to be okay.

In Defense of The Band

Don’t get me wrong — I love worshiping with a full band.

And I think it’s funny how we all think of a “full band” as different things. Depending on the church you’re coming from, a host of scenarios could come to mind. In my church, a “full band” means we have guitar, bass, drums, a keyboard/piano, and at least two backup singers. I’ve visited churches where a “full band” meant a diverse strings section, and I’ve visited churches where a “full band” requires a percussion kit separate from the drum cage in addition to a full  brass section (as Joel 2:1 says, “Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the LORD is coming; Surely it is near”).

I’ve been in a church where the associate pastor apologized to first-time guests for not having a “full band” because half of the choir was out sick, and I’ve been in (many) churches where it was finally a full band when the guitarist bought his little brother a bass guitar to go with his electric (usually a solid black Ibanez Gio or a sunburst Squier Strat) and their cousin’s new drums. And bless their hearts, all three of them sang loudly and joyfully. Maybe not skillfully yet, but certainly joyfully.

I have loved them all. And I do love them all. And will I always, always love them all.

Because even in the case of three young family members looking like a post-grunge garage band belting and screeching out renditions of “Ocean’s Floor” (Audio Adrenaline) or “Blessed Be Your Name” (Matt Redman), there is usually a consensus of semi-amused-but-mostly-proud-and-admiring response from the adults watching, just happy to see a younger generation pouring out their hearts for God. I think even the most cynical of believers looks at them and sees it better for them to be studying modern worship music than any of the negative (let alone adulterous) messages of the secular music world of any decade.

And if there is such a real-world thing as magic, (pardon the nerdy hundred-dollar words ahead) it never makes itself more clearly evident than that perfect moment in a parted choir mid-decrescendo, bringing a cacophony of notes to restful simplicity, for the collective sigh of the audience as they come to rest is a tool of and to both the mind and the spirit. That moment waves over us like a wand, literally in-spiring a sense of tranquility and rest in a manner unparalleled by literature or most physical art. (note: for an example, skip ahead to this part of a choral arrangement of Robert Frost’s poem, “Choose Something Like a Star,” further explained in the P.S. at the end of the post)

Lo, even in the case of the most tone-deaf parishioner, a horn blast accentuating “His name,” *blart!* in the middle of a chorus sounds downright admirable, and it creates a response in the listener which says, in short, “yes!” There is something about a joyful noise that inspires and resonates within us. Joyfulness is almost always exuberant: it is loud, it is bombastic, it is grand, and it is dang hard to convey by yourself, musically.

A “full band,” regardless of what that means to you and where you come from, evokes a response in you when you listen, and that response is exactly what all art is made for: both the admiration of the product and the ellicitive rising of our souls to touch the artist’s metaphorically outstretched hand across any time or distance.

The artist says “here is the result my work!” and the patron of the arts says “yes, well done! Here is my admiration!” I have ever been and will ever be a defender and champion of art and her artists, of the process and the pieces, the work and its result. I celebrate the maddening and enriching foundry and crucible of ideas and their dross, and  to me there is little on this earth that is more beautiful than an art which is appreciated by a single soul, even if just for a moment. Every Sunday morning, you are the soul that sees the result of hours of practice and a lifetime of development from a myriad host of honed talents. You see, the artist creates and offers, then we appreciate and receive, and it is the philosophy of this site to admonish artists simultaneously towards humility and skillfulness.

I simply argue that you are and should be an artist, as well.

Psalm 67:5 says “Let the peoples praise thee, O God; Let all the peoples praise thee” (emphasis mine). And yes, before you heckle me for cherry-picking, “peoples” can be translated as “nations,” but I argue that a nation’s praise is not its Bon Jovis or Elton Johns, its Hillsongs or its Housefires. The nations are their peoples, all of them, so stop being argumentative and join the song.

“Let all the peoples praise Thee.” Not just the worship leaders, all the peoples (I’m going to drop the ‘s’ now for clarity’s sake). Not just the backup singers, all the people. Not just the radio artists, all the people. Not just them, you. I want all the people to praise Him. Are you a person? Are you and yours good people?  Then open your mouth and praise Him. Open it. Open it right now and say “I love You, Lord.” Say it. If you’re at work, whisper it so the people nearby don’t think you’re a freak (but kudos to you for reading Christian blogs at work, that’s terrific, really, I’m flattered).

Open your mouth and do it again. Praise Him right now. If you’re about to stop reading in disbelief, then you need this more than you think. And to be honest, this blog probably won’t be for you, because I’m here to encourage action on your part. I want you to worship, actually. And actively. Acutely. Accusationally, even. Affirmatively. All-encompasingly. So if you’re going to become a better, more fulfilled worshiper, I want you to do it right now. Part your lips, grin just a little bit, and tell the God of the universe that you love Him one more time: “I love You, Lord.”

With that act, the artist in you rises a bit because someOne has heard your art, has heard your heart, and responded with a bit of a grin of His own. Your voice is recognized. Your voice is valued. And it will no longer do to sit back in your pew (sorry, couldn’t resist the rhyme) and passively accept the worship in front of you. The stage is no longer in front; the stage is in your seat, and you are on stage when we worship. You’re part of the band, now. I argue that the stage has been, for far too long, too much like the theatre: a place to sit back and watch the action. I argue that the whole sanctuary is the stage now.

Let all the peoples praise Thee. That’s you.

I love bands. I love worship bands. I love having them, I love being part of them, I love leading them, and I certainly-and-quite-possibly-mostly love not leading them. Bands elicit a response, and I am grateful for that as an artist, but I fear that the response we get is oftentimes too physically distant from the points of action and the thing that we call worship in our churches begins, just begins, to idolize the talents up there while I take my humble seat back here and applaud my restraint for not lifting my voice too loud and ruining the experience of others around me who are trying to observe that ephemeral journey that a full band can make us feel a part of when we just listen. Or, we keep our voices down to a respectably-audible-but-not-overwhelming level when they turn loudly into a well-known refrain so that we can all sing along without standing out, but we return to “listening mode” when they quell the volume lest we miss their well-rehearsed decrescendo and that popular “voice in the wilderness” ending to the song.

Let all the peoples praise Thee. Praise Thee. Not appreciate Thee and those that Thine hath risen to microphone-assisted degrees of worthiness.

I’m asking that when you go to church this Sunday, that you look at the words on the screen, and the worship team starts playing, mean the words from the depths of your heart. And if you can’t mean them, I want you to know that it’s okay. Just try to mean the words. That’s all.

And look, if you want to, you can stop reading here, or skip down to the end. I’m about to go off the rails a little bit, so really, it’s okay. This week, just go try, and I’m happy with that, and later we can get into why I want you to vocalize your worship instead of just encouraging you to live a lifestyle of worship, or do all you do to the glory of God, et cetera ad nauseum. I mean it, we’ll get into that later. So you can now go about your day and I won’t feel bad for a second. But if you have a couple more minutes, stick with me a little longer and hopefully we can share a little more of a heartbeat together for this thing we call “worship” in the corporate church. I’m going to indent this part that I think is really important but it’s optional for you if you’re short on time.

Are you ready? Are you still with me? Okay.

Before we part ways today, I want you to think of worship in a completely different manner through a short, short exercise. I want you to picture two different scenarios where characters would be forced to respond to the phrase “I think I love you.” After some extenuating variety of circumstances, someone has just confessed their feelings, and now we have a character responding to the speaker.

The first scene I want you to think of is someone new to the confessor’s day-to-day life: let’s say, for example, two high schoolers. There’s a cute guy in the cafeteria, he plays sports but he keeps his grades up, and his hair is always just right, and after a few days of less-than-totally-inconspicuous ogling, a cute girl walks up to him in between classes and says “I think I love you.”

Picture that guy. Be, for a moment, that guy. He doesn’t… know her? Maybe they’ve passed by each other a few times, but have they ever really spoken before? I mean, she’s got a sense of style, she seems nice, but… who is this, walking up to him and confessing love? Or worse yet, has he seen her before but he, maybe knows about her because she tends to jump from fling to fling, never really settling down with anyone? Who is this girl, really? In the middle of the hallway, stopping him with a timid little smirk and blurting out “I think I love You?”

Now picture another scene. A middle-aged woman working her 9 to 5, making her ends meet and having met an interesting, sweet guy in a small group somewhere. They hit it off, make time for each other outside of group, have coffee some evenings, maybe go for a walk in the park and chat once in a while. They’re definitely interested in each other, but neither has made it clear what any of this means, and one evening he walks her home after escorting her to a non-committal chick-flick that all of her co-workers bailed on, and a light drizzle starts to come down, and before he leaves her doorstep, he turns in the mist and looks up at her, not smiling but not not smiling, you know? And he looks her in the eye and takes a deep breath and says “… I think I love you.”

Is there a mutual hope built on months of shared experiences together? Didn’t she wonder about the depth of his sincerity just last week when he was reading her an interesting paragraph from book club’s monthly pick because she might find it relevant to a situation she’d described? And most importantly, how does she feel, looking at him with water droplets gathering at the edge of his imperfect hairline, having uttered a phrase that could change them both irrevocably?

And between our high school flirt and our increasingly-drenched well-meaning idiot didn’t check the Weather Channel that morning so he left his umbrella at home next to the hanging magazine rack with two-year-old issues of Rolling Stone, who really means the words they said? And who says the words because a relationship with that one would be, like, totally cool?

And then which one are we, singing “You’re a good good Father, it’s who You are… I’m loved by You, it’s who I am…”? Are we making God out to be some high school hunk, almost overwhelmed by our naivete, semi-nervously chuckling “uh, you don’t… really know a thing about me yet…”

Or are we asking God to break into a smile and run down the steps and jump into the rain with us and swing around laughing and hugging and stepping into that imperfectly-shaped puddle in the sidewalk sharing a hotly-debated sloppy wet kiss because they’ve been waiting for someone to finally mean it?

So this Sunday, if your worship team sings Hillsong United’s “Hosanna,” go get excited when they get to the bridge, and let your heart bubble up and force some joy out of your mouth, singing:

“Heal my heart and make it clean, open up my eyes to the things unseen.
Show me how to love like You have loved me.
Break my heart for what breaks Yours; everything I am for Your Kingdom’s cause,
As I walk from earth into eternity.

Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest!…”

And if they don’t sing that song, go request it, ’cause it’s good. Dang, it’s good.

Or if they sing the old hymn “Come Thou Fount,” dwell on the words as you pray/sing (can we make up “pring” as a collective choice? Can we “pring” worship? No, that sounds cheesy and awful, scratch that) the first verse:

“Come, thou fount of ev’ry blessing! Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.
Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.”

Then, suddenly, ask Him to

“teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above! Praise the mount,”

and have a lightning-rod moment split between revelation and conviction as the next words rush in,

I’m fixed upon it,” oh no am I really fixed on the mount? “Mount of Thy redeeming love!”

Resolve yourself to become fixed upon the mount once more, and continue pouring out your worship, because you see the words and you mean them, and that makes all the difference.

The artists on stages everywhere this Sunday will go on with their songs, being heard and appreciated by us and the Lord. But now the artist in you will pause to feel the smile radiating from the lover of our souls who hears your praise, hears your voice, hears you standing in the rain saying words that can change everything, and He is beckoning you in deeper and deeper still. Today, you are the band, you are the people, and you. will. praise.

 

 

– j

 

 

P.S. – The star sits high above the earth, unaffected by the muck and mire below. It simply burns bright enough to be admired from afar, and that inspires us. So we join the song at the point of the star asking us to rise to its level, “it asks of us a certain height.” And then (I’m going out of order to tell the story, here): “we may choose something like a star to stay our minds on and be stayed” when “the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far.” The mob, as evidenced by the dissonance, is tense, tightly packed, and almost riotous, particularly when they go “too faaaaaar.” But when “we may choose,” we find harmony, and that harmony rests is in our choice: “something like a star,” and we are almost, almost at perfect rest, if only we didn’t have to finish the song. It’s that moment, that little breath that we take as the choir sings “something like a star,” that breathes rest into us like magic. That’s what I want you to feel. Altogether, it’s a beautiful song and you should read the original poem, itself, and read about the poem, and then sit back and enjoy the full presentation sometime.  Randall Thompson did a phenomenal job turning the poem into a choral arrangement, and I am proud to have sung this arrangement, myself. Enjoy.   – j

Sheer

When my mother’s only child would throw a fit, she handled it in a way that other parents in her circles had not thought of: she sang what we sometimes refer to as “choruses” over the wee babe. In particular, there were two that she defaulted to. One of them goes:

Lord, prepare me
To be a sanctuary
Pure and holy,
Tried and true

With thanksgiving,
I’ll be a living
Sanctuary
For You

I believe that my formative years benefited greatly from the prayer of this song: “God, make me Your temple, and I will gladly be it.” There is both beauty and reverence in continually asking Him to prepare us, continually asking Him to make us tried and true, and continually promising to be His sanctuary with a grateful heart. There is, however, one other chorus she used to sing over me, and that was this:

I love You, Lord
And I lift my voice
To worship You
O my soul, rejoice

Take joy, my King
In what You hear
Let it be a sweet, sweet sound
In Your ear

I have dwelled on that song for most of my life. In particular, asking Him to take joy in my voice, my worship to HIm, has been a prime motivator. Even if my style is askew and my band members break strings and the artists lose perspective and the congregants sit down, at least let my worship ring true and please the heart of God. If nothing else, at least let my heart be in the right place.

For years, I have claimed this.

I have claimed this while adding band members. Adding artistry. Adding styles and tones and drive and blend, EQ and delay and reverb and compression, volume and pressure and complex compositions that weave and flow and mix and match, and I add and I add and I add, all the while singing “I love You, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship You…”

And for what? So it sounds “better?” Better to who?


The atmosphere in the sanctuaries I visit has changed in the last decade. At first, the choruses reigned supreme, both honoring our hymnal heritage while offering fresh breath to the congregations by uttering thoughts and words without the rigidity of print and file. Then the contemporary worship songs came in and the choruses took the back seat that hymns had kept warm, while hymns meekly crawled into the trunk, waiting to be pulled out in cases of emergency.

I want to be clear: the problem is not contemporary songs. The problem is the attitude that contemporary songs are conveyed with.

When Keith Green wrote songs such as “To Obey is Better Than Sacrifice,” local worship teams picked up the words and the chords (muttering to themselves, “A simple walkdown! Turn on the 4, resolve to the 1, hit the 5 and repeat! Genius!”) the pianist typically held no ambition of playing as marvelously as Keith. The focus was on playing the chords, simply, and letting the congregation meekly sing along as the voice of the Lord resonated in all of them:

To obey is better than sacrifice
I want more than Sundays and Wednesday nights.
Cause if you can’t come to me everyday,
then don’t bother coming at all…

This is, of course, merely within a hundred miles of what happens to their hearts as they sing “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful” and ask Him to “please light the fire that once burned bright and clear.

Today, we sing songs from Passion, For King and Country, David Crowder (in all of his iterations), and other popular, modern-sounding, full-band-production music that rivals many secular bands who sing about little more than relationships, how great America is, how angry they are, relationships, how much money they make, and relationships.

Our popular worship artists sound amazing.

And we do our best to sound amazing like them.

Our sanctuaries get louder, and even when they aren’t louder, they are more full of sound. I ran sound for a larger congregation last month and had a lady approach me afterwards saying “I felt like I was inside the music for the first time.” I was consulting with that church because their sanctuary has been sounding a little ’empty’ since they changed worship leaders, and lots of people have been sitting down during worship portion of the service. When polled, many responded that lately they could hear themselves singing, and they don’t like their voice as much, and they are worried about people around them hearing them sing badly, so they sit down and enjoy the worship service.

Like a concert.

But I love You, Lord, and I lift my voice…

We can fix the problem of empty-sounding rooms. We can pan and compress and reverb and fly speakers at angles; we can do all of the math and all of the testing and all of the positioning to make sure that the worship team’s trademark sound adequately fills the room so that no one has to hear themselves sing less-good than the professional volunteers on stage.

Let it be a sweet, sweet sound in Your ear…


With worship, as in many areas of my life, I am dissatisfied with the premise. I debate whether to approach my boss for a raise when I could change jobs and make a considerable amount more; I face the wrong premise. I reason back and forth between a single cheeseburger or a double (or the beautiful triple, even), when we all know that a hearty grilled-chicken salad with honey balsamic dressing would be vastly better for me. Again, I’ve limited my choices to two bad one’s because I asked the wrong question to start with.

I fill the room with skill and talent and that gorgeous acoustic ‘sparkle’ so that there’s very little room in a listener’s brain for the Spirit to speak. That’s the wrong premise.

I work up this really amazing tom-driven drum beat for the bridge of that new John Mark McMillan song so the people feel the edge of a driving beat and drive themselves forward in worship… which is probably more of an adrenaline rush than a Spirit touch, so that’s probably the wrong premise.

I buy the right pedals to make that perfect sound so our guitar leads sound just like they do on the album and people will recognize our hard work when they hear something just like it was on the radio.

It’s. The. Wrong. Premise.

For many of us, the song is old-hat, but Matt Redman had it right all those years ago when he wrote:

When the music fades, and all is stripped away
And I simply come
Longing just to bring, something that’s of worth
That will bless Your heart

I’ll bring You more than a song, for a song in itself
Is not what You have required
You search much deeper within; through the way things appear
You’re looking into my heart

I’m coming back to the heart of worship
Where it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus
I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it
When it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus

I find myself needing to be reared in. I find myself gently reminded to focus. I find myself needing to strip away the shine and the fluff, the sparkle and drive, and bring Him what Ben Gibbard calls “farmer chords.” The tug at my heart is for simplicity, for soliloquy, for nothing fancy or well-made to cover up the tremble of my voice, the slightly-out-of-tune D string, the sheer honesty of what little I have to offer at His feet. I feel bare and altogether vulnerable without showing off what I’ve worked years to develop.

And this is not at all about how I feel.

“Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.”  – Matthew 3:10b

Do you want to be chopped? I don’t want to be chopped. Please don’t chop me, Lord. I want to simplify, I want to reduce, I want to take the rest of it all away.


 

The opposite side of the same coin, though, is that I don’t want my simplicity to be terrible and distract others from worship, either. I want to pursue the art of invisibility, the practice of not making people follow me, but the path of traveling to His gates and into His courts together. I want to worship where my voice is a small guide in the chorus of praise instead of the booming lead that all must follow.

Calling our goal the “middle path” is a bit of a misnomer; I lean in the direction of a stripped-down sound, but I want to be tasteful, as well. I want to be a sweet, sweet sound in Your ear.

This site is dedicated to the pursuit of leading worship transparently. I want to break down productions and make them simple. I want to dig into the built and make it raw. I want to get splinters on the edges of our worship together.

In truth, I am not ready. I am, however, willing to start.

Come with me. There’s a world of clarity ahead.