Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Transitions in Worship

"Nothing endures but change." (Heraclitus)

We've all heard this saying, although usually in one of its more modern forms: "Change is our only constant". And it's true. The longer we live, the more we see ample evidence that change is not only inevitable, but also relentlessly consistent.

Change is often difficult to embrace, because as much as I love adventure, it turns out that I love adventure on my own terms.

But to avoid change is to stagnate. Like scum on a pond. There's no current or undertow carrying us wildly to and fro, and the surface is tranquil and un-moving, but lack of change and pond scum seems closely connected. (Is the metaphor of pond scum poignant or repulsive -- you decide.)

Someone approached me after church this past Sunday to ask, "So, are you excited about your new role?"

My honest answer was, "Not today. But I will be."

The reason for my answer was that we were saying farewell to our church's worship leader and his young family that day. Sam and his young wife Milena have been faithfully serving in worship at The Well since the very beginning of the church plant, over six years ago. They have been faithful to follow God in first moving to Kelowna to take the position, and they are faithfully following God's leading -- like Abraham, not knowing exactly where they're going -- as they leave.

And now I'm stepping into the vacancy that Sam leaves. Is it exciting to be leading worship again? Of course! Ever since I could form my earliest chords on the guitar, I've been involved in worship and worship leading. It's as natural to me as breathing.

(Sam & yours truly)

But I'm going to miss doing it with Sam. And Milena, his wife. Seeing their two little girls running up to hug their daddy's legs during pre-service rehearsals. Laughing and learning together in our Tuesday night home group. They leave a legacy and a hole in numerous ways.

The impending change, that is now upon us, probably explains why I've been blogging so much on worship these past few weeks. I've been backing up various worship leaders around town ever since we returned from Tijuana over three years ago; being the worship director in a church is not the same as playing bass or guitar for a worship leader.

So, YES, I am excited for this transition in worship. And YES, it's a bittersweet moment as we all watch a talented and faithful young family embrace their own transition.

Change really IS our only constant. But if God's behind it, then change is good.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Through a Glass Darkly

(also posted at ThinkTheology.org)
I've been thinking recently about a couple of things to do with worship:
  1. What happens when we worship?

  2. What is the role of the worship leader in light of that?
The first question was suggested by a friend. And as I considered how I'd answer, I realized that the question of "what is the role of a worship leader" was the obvious follow-up.

I'm familiar with those who think that, if our praise is done "right", then God will set up shop in our church. They believe that God is looking for a place for His glory to dwell.

Their rationale is from Psalm 22:3, that God "inhabits the praise of His people" -- the only problem being that their entire view is based on the King James Version. Other translations don't have the same wording. It's a bad idea to create an entire teaching based on an out-of-context verse; it's equally dubious to create a theology of worship that is dependent solely on one translation of Scripture.

If you were to adopt this mindset -- that God "lives" in the praise of His people -- then the role of the worship leader is to somehow create the ideal atmosphere that God can inhabit. You can imagine the pressure on such a worship leader if things don't go as planned; either they are doing it "wrong", or the congregation must be. Either way, there's going to be some coercive pressure put on just about everybody.
I find it odd to think that the same God who graciously sacrificed His own Son on our behalf while we were still His enemies (Romans 5:8) would turn around and be so O.C.D. about with-holding the blessing of His presence during worship unless WE do it "right".


We've all experienced those times in worship where the omnipresent God suddenly feels "present" in a way that goes far beyond His usual omnipresence. Many a worship leader has experienced that moment during a song where they are suddenly overcome with emotion as they lead. If we could take a poll at the moment, there would be many similar stories of feeling "something more" of God's presence during worship. These are precious times.

And subtly, the role of the worship leader can shift in some peoples' minds (including their own), that somehow recreating similar conditions will produce similar results. The resulting treadmill can become quite performance-oriented as the pressure increases to have regular occurrences of this felt Presence during weekly worship times.

However, I think the role of worship leader is actually something entirely different.

I'll be the first to acknowledge that this isn't the usual Bible verse that comes to mind when discussing worship, but bear with me:
"When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city.

"'Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?' the servant asked. 'Don't be afraid,' the prophet answered. 'Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.'

"And Elisha prayed, 'Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.' Then the Lord opened the servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha." (2 Kings 6:15-17)
Nothing changed in this scenario except the perception of the servant. The presence of the angelic protection didn't come as a result of Elisha's prayer; it was there all along. The difference was in the ability of the servant to see.

The role of the worship leader is not to magically incant the presence of God through the right selection of songs. Nor is it his/her role to whip the people into a frenzy where the level of enthusiasm at least mimics the emotions often felt when God is truly present, in hopes of a new experience.
I'd like to suggest that the role of a worship leader is to help people focus their thoughts and hearts on the Jesus who is always present, but not always perceived.
Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus may manifest Himself in a wide variety of ways, but the focus of the worshippers is not on what that looks like, but on recognizing and honoring Jesus for who He is.

Getting back to the original questions:
  1. What happens when we worship? We become more acutely aware of the presence of Jesus who is always present.
  2. What is the role of the worship leader? Through song, Scripture, and exhortation, to help pull back the veil of our everyday mundane lives and "see" Jesus afresh.
Like Elisha, those of us who lead worship should pray on behalf of our congregations, "Open their eyes, Lord, so that they may see".

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Medium Worship is the Message

Our home group has been going through the book of Colossians for the past couple of months, and there are some incredible themes throughout this short letter from Paul.

Last night, we were looking at the passage about putting off the "old" things, and clothing ourselves in the "new" (Colossians 3:5-17).

What stood out to me, as we worked through the passage, was how much it applies to worship, and particularly the number of times that Paul repeats the word "thankful" in describing what it means to "clothe ourselves" with the new.

It was also fascinating for me, as a worship leader, to see how much emphasis Paul also puts on the role that singing plays in disciple-making and spiritual growth.

We often separate the function of "teaching" from "singing". Worship is understood (or at least practiced) as the congregation's community-based expression of thankfulness, adoration, and love towards God. Teaching is also a part of worship, although not all the community participates in the same way.
("Listening" is as much participating as "speaking", after all. Just sayin'.)
But in one little verse (3:16), Paul unpacks an intriguing idea of how "teaching and admonishing" can occur in the gathered Body (church gathering, home group, etc.):
"Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly
  • as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through
    • psalms,
    • hymns,
    • and songs from the Spirit,
  • singing to God with gratitude in your hearts."
We all understand that worship is more than just singing; all of life is (or can be) acts of worship. We get that. It makes sense, and it avoids our tendency to compartmentalize our faith into neat little boxes.

But as we read Colossians 3:16, we find a very unique and profoundly important place for singing songs: as worship, as admonishing, as teaching, and as part of discipleship. Not just as a prelude for the teaching. According to Paul, the singing IS the teaching. Songs from the Psalms, songs (hymns) that we write, and also songs from the Spirit.

And to re-emphasize the heart-attitude of thankfulness in this passage one last time, Paul ends with a verse that many of us are very familiar with:
"And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." (Colossians 3:17)
This is how disciple-making takes place. Not the only way, of course, but a way that we need to take maximum advantage of. Repeat as necessary. As often as it takes.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Worship Loop

(also posted at ThinkTheology.org)

(photo: David Faulkner)
I once heard a conference speaker suggest that 85% of pastors think that church exists to "train disciples to evangelize", while 85% of the congregation thinks that church exists to "meet my needs". (Can you say: "cross-purposes"?)

When it comes to the weekly worship service at the average church, I believe a similar dynamic is often at work:

Worship leaders (on behalf of the rest of the leaders) enter the service under the impression that the Body is gathering to worship God after a week of "doing the stuff" in their personal lives, with their families, and among their friends and co-workers.

And often the weary congregation views church like the antique gas pump at left: an opportunity to get re-filled after another draining week.

Some thoughts on the apparent discrepancy in worship:
  1. Approaching the worship service as a "Holy Spirit refilling station" is not necessarily a sign of spiritual immaturity.
    It could be, of course, if the average person treats worship in a narcissistic "it's all about me and my needs" manner. But there is also a very real and positive dynamic in play when hungry and needy people come into God's presence.

    In my memory, some of the most profound worship times I've had the privilege of leading have been with groups of people who are acutely aware of their need for life transformation.
  2. There is a definite sense of celebration as the Body gathers following another week of ministry, whether in small groups, project-oriented teams and individual acts.
    This is the worship assumptions worldview that most leaders function from. Ideally, this is how the Body would gather: overflowing with thanksgiving and adoration for the God who has, is and continues to work in their daily lives.

    There is a difference between worship times that attempt to manufacture a party atmosphere, and celebrations that come from a place of genuine and overflowing thanksgiving.
  3. The Worship Loop is the recognition that both dynamics (and a range in between) are always present in any given worship time. One flows into and out of the other; there is no need to create a worship dichotomy between them.
    This is where the many worship/church leaders make mistakes: either by expecting/demanding that the entire congregation is (or should be) approaching worship from the same heart position, or conversely, preferring and teaching that only one of these options is truly valuable.

    The reality is that people come to worship for a wide variety of reasons -- some nobler than others -- but as they meet with God through their worship of Him, they do have their needs met, enabling them to enter a new week spiritually full and refreshed, in order to return the next week with thankful celebration. And get refilled even in the midst of the celebration.
It's not an either/or situation. It's not even both/and. It's an infinity loop.

An infinity loop of worship, need, celebration, and service.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

None. Zip. Nada.

I recently watched a video on leadership challenges for the 21st century, and I found it to be that rare blend of challenging, well-articulated, and encouraging: Skye Jethani's keynote address last year.

I highly recommend watching the entire video. It's not a new issue, but Jethani is one of the best single-source items I've ever come across.

But within the video, Jethari shared a concern that really grabbed my attention, and inspired that I write about it.

It's the issue of passing on to each generation a clear understanding that, in Christ and because of Christ, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1).

In the video, at one point Jethani talks about a conversation he had with a group of college students, when they suggested they would like to talk about sin in their lives. Turning the topic just slightly (not wanting to hear their specific confessions in a public forum), Jethari had them share, one at a time, their response to this question:
"In the midst of my sin, how does God feel about me?"
Pretty basic question for a bunch of college students who had been raised in Christian circles and churches, right?

Without exception, each of these young Christian adults (some with tears) gave basically the same answer: "God is extremely disappointed with me."

What I found amazing about this story from 2013, is how much similarity it bore to something I used to do with youth groups 25 or 30 years ago:


I would go around the group with two questions (usually took up the entire youth meeting to do this):
  1. If you could ask God any ONE question, what would it be?
  2. The answers wouldn't all be identical, but generally around 90% or higher would be some form of "if God is good, why is there evil and injustice in the world"?
  3. If God could ask YOU any one question, what do you think He'd ask?
  4. With almost no exceptions, the answers could be summed up identically to Jethari's story: "God feels disappointed when He looks at me." Some of the comments would be about "why are't you doing more" or "why don't you trust Me" or "when will you get serious about your faith", but the bottom line was the same. 
    Their guiding perception was that whenever God looked at them, His first reaction was disappointment (if not impatience).
There are at least a couple of ways you could interpret and respond to this intriguing parallel between Jethari's discovery last year, and mine from the mid-1980s.
  1. The critical finger-pointing church-basher approach:
  2. Shake your head in long-suffering exasperation and deliver a well-rehearsed rant on how the institutional church just "don't get it", and use this as another bullet in your church-killin' arsenal.
  3. The pastoral recognition of opportunity:
  4. Every generation needs to "own" its own faith. Every generation will be bombarded with lies and twisted thinking about God and their relationship to Him. Every generation therefore needs deliberate, repeated, very intentional teaching about their Identity in Christ.
Each generation feels the same desperation in their struggle with sin that Paul rants about with such great anguish and passion in Romans 7:15-24:
"For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing... What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?"
And each generation desperately needs to hear Paul's stunning and life-giving conclusion to this very same passage, emphasized with a sense of hope, thanksgiving, and wonder:
"Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord... Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death." (Romans 7:25-8:2)
There is no condemnation. God isn't disappointed with you. God looks at each of us through the completed work of His Son and our Savior: Jesus Christ.

Every generation needs to hear this. Loud and clear. It's an opportunity to bring freedom, encouragement, and life.

There is no condemnation. (Can I get an "amen"?)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The End of the Story

also posted at ThinkTheology.org
I was on the phone earlier this week with my pastor, and I mentioned that I was writing a homily on John 11: the raising of Lazarus.

"No sweat," he commented. "Everybody knows that story!"

Exactly. Everybody knows the story. We know the ending even before we begin to read the chapter. We can even picture our favorite movie or TV version of the story when Lazarus comes out of the tomb.

Sometimes, it's the most familiar stories that are the hardest to write about. It's a similar problem for movies like Titanic: how do you tell an interesting story when everybody already knows that the boat's going down to Davy Jones' Locker?

You have to slow down and focus on the human element. We all know the Titanic went down, but there were a huge number of tragic human stories that we don't normally think about. Titanic was such a huge success, as a movie, because it told very human stories about the tragedy. We learned to care about the characters, which made the we-already-know-the-boat-will-sink ending take on a new significance.

We all know the ending of the story in John 11: Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead, and many will put their faith in Him as a result. But like any true story that we already know the end of, we need to slow down and consider the human element in order to begin to see it through their eyes.

John invests several verses at the beginning to make it very clear that Jesus had a well-established and deep friendship with Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. John reminds us that it's the same Mary who once poured perfume on Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair. Unlike other miracles, when Jesus met the person for the first time (the man born blind in John 9 or the invalid at the Bethesda pool in John 5), these were close friends. Jesus had a great deal of affection for them, and they knew they could count on Him.
Yet Jesus waits, because like the rest of us, He already knows the end of the story.
But His disciples don't, and they get worried that Jesus isn't taking the situation seriously enough. At the same time, they aren’t in a hurry to go anywhere near Lazarus' place, and questioned the wisdom of going there in light of previous bad experiences.

You can imagine their (short-lived) relief to hear that Lazarus was "asleep"; now there's no need to take the risk of going there. You can almost hear the sudden "you coulda heard a pin drop" silence when Jesus bluntly tells them that Lazarus is dead, and they were about to embark on another road trip.

Two incredible little tidbits are found here in John 15:14-16:
  1. Jesus is setting out on a journey to heal Lazarus, yet He includes the fascinating phrase: "I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe." Lazarus will benefit from Jesus' miraculous ministry, yet Jesus is also "glad" that this will result in God's glory (John 15:4) and that by it, His disciples would believe (which is incredible because, after all, they already believed to some extent, or they wouldn't be His disciples).
  2. Thomas, who we so famously refer to as "the Doubter", utters what sounds on the surface like a very defeatist, fatalistic comment: "Let us also go, that we may die with Him." But hold on a second: is this a statement of fatalism, or is it instead a statement of loyalty and identification with Jesus that is so profound that Thomas is the guy rallying the troops to follow even if death is the cost?
So they set out.
Jesus already knows the end of the story. The fearful-but-loyal disciples are following along, expecting to join Lazarus in death in the very near future.
Enter the sisters:

Jesus arrives in Bethany, and Martha rushes out to meet him. She says two important things that show her belief in Jesus: she remarks that Lazarus would not have died if Jesus had gotten there sooner, and that even though he was dead and buried, she believed that Jesus could still do something about it.

Was she complaining? Chastising Jesus for taking so long? Or were both statements born of her deep faith in Jesus? We simply can't tell from the printed word what Martha's tone of voice or facial expression was. But anyone who has buried a loved one knows the sense of mourning and bereavement that her family was going through; she was in pain.

Jesus' words about being the Resurrection and the Life bring a simple but profound response from Martha: In words reminiscent of Peter's famous declaration (Matthew 16:13-16), Martha replies: "I believe that You are the Christ (the Messiah)." Even in the midst of her grieving, she can make such a profound statement of faith.

Mary comes running to Jesus after Martha tells her that He's arrived. Mourners follow her as she rushes to meet with Him. Again, we do not know her tone of voice as she says, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died," but we know that she is an emotional mess, as is the rest of those who came with her. They are all in tears.
Jesus already knows the end of the story. Yet the sight of such grief and mourning causes Him to begin to cry, too. Their emotional pain touched Him deeply.
But there were also the naysayers and critics in the crowd, questioning how this Galilean rabbi could heal the sick and yet not prevent Lazarus' death. After all, Jesus was known to heal even from a distance (Luke 7:1-10).

So, here we have several groups of people standing around Jesus, with the recently deceased Lazarus entombed nearby:
  • the disciples, still unsure if they would see another morning themselves, yet probably moved by the sight of Mary and Martha’s grief; after all, they knew the family, too
  • the sisters and their circle of mourning friends, grief-stricken and in tears, still daring to hold on to faith that Jesus could still intervene
  • the doubters, also in teary-eyed mourning, unable to keep themselves from becoming cynical about this so-called rabbi
And Jesus already knows the end of the story. 

But first, He prays to His Father. Out loud, so those around Him could plainly hear. "I know You have heard me… I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, so that they may believe that You sent Me."

And now Jesus reveals the ending: Lazarus rises from the dead and exits the tomb. There is shock on the faces of some, tear-stained cries of joy from others, deepening faith in the disciples, and the glory-to-God response of the Jewish people who began to truly believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah they'd been waiting for.

Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life. The One with tears rolling down His cheeks, even as He uttered the words "come forth". The One who knew the end of the story before the beginning, yet was still deeply moved by the emotions of His friends. And the Jesus who could raise the dead, and by so doing, glorify His Father by proving that He was, indeed, the promised Messiah.
"Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in Him" (John 11:45).

Friday, April 4, 2014

Empty

I thought about it -- posting some kind of prank on April Fool's Day -- but I don't think anything could match what Brother Maynard & I pulled off a few years back.

The closest I could think of was incorporating some kind of Walking Dead or Zombie Apocalypse image. And it actually does fit with this blog post. I've wanted to write more about an increasingly common occurrence in worship: the empty (do I dare go so far as to call it "dead"?) worship rituals that seem devoid of actual worship.

Now, don't get me wrong. I really enjoy corporate worship times. Large church gatherings, small groups, worship "jams" with a myriad of instruments and a minimum of structure, or even driving down the highway all by myself with the music cranked and the windows down. As my daughter Jordan has written on her own blog, worship is and has always been a big deal in our family.
Which is probably why the recent shift towards (what appears to be) empty worship bothers me so much.
Wendy, my talented and beautiful wife, noticed it recently as she photographed a large youth conference. The worship leader actually had to gently chide the crowd a few times about how loud they were talking during the quieter songs, or texting and showing each other online videos while their peers were trying to worship.

Other bloggers have noted how people can have their hands raised, eyes shut, loudly singing along with the worship, and then instantly start chatting about what restaurant they want to have lunch at before the last chord of the song has faded.

And then -- SNAP! -- like a light switch, they're assuming the same "worship position" as soon as the first chord of the next song sounds. Repeat multiple times.

Is it because of what some have lamented as "worship-tainment", where the high-tech light shows, pounding rhythms that drown out the sound of the congregation, and frantic video back-drops for the lyrics have created more of a rock concert than a worship time? Sometimes, I think that accounts for some of it.

I can't help but wonder, though, if what's behind the increasingly-hyped approach to worship times (especially targeted at the younger generations) is utilizing the forms -- raising hands, for example -- because "that's what people do in worship", without engaging the heart behind the gestures or forms. They have mistaken the passionate worship expressions of people blessing and being blessed by God, and thought that it was simply loud music, high energy, and "getting into it".

And a new church phrase was created: "creating worship experiences". Read that again, slowly.
Creating worship experiences.
With enough volume, a kickin' talented band, a light show, twitchy video lyrics on multiple giant screens, I can create an experience for you, absolutely. In oldskewl terms, unfortunately, we used to  call that "emotional manipulation". Raising your hands doesn't make it worship. It's just part of the learned-behavior vibe.

Listen, I'm not down on contemporary worship styles, nor the use of technology, or art, or candles, or whatever. I love corporate worship times, in all shapes and sizes and styles.

In fact, I love it so much, that when I see people going through the motions -- even exciting, high energy motions -- I am grieved to think that I'm in the presence of zombie worship: it looks alive, but it's really dead. 

And it will consume you if it can.