Place of Freedom

I’m playing keys for worship tomorrow at Bellevue Christian Center, and I’m excited.

Among other great songs, we’re doing a number that is fairly new to us… Place of Freedom from Highlands Worship.

This is such an easy song to pick up and learn, which makes it easy to get past worrying about the music and get into expressing our hearts in worship.

It’s sometimes difficult to get past the technical details, the particular notes and riffs, the structure of the performance: “verse, chorus, verse two, chorus twice, instrumental, bridge, build up, break, chorus with drums only, chorus, ending, soft intimate chorus, real ending”

We go through that, hit every beat, every note, every peak and valley of dynamics… and in the end, did we encounter Christ or enjoy a concert?

Tomorrow, I intend to lift my hands and reach for Him, shout His praise, sing my song like I am unashamed, and shout for joy at the mention of His name.

I’m coming to worship and then to hear from Him through His Word.

How about you? Why are you going to church tomorrow?

Perception, Participation

Have you ever stood in a church service and heard “Thus saith the Lord” — then realized the person speaking isn’t quoting Scripture, but instead is claiming to speak for God?

One controversial concept in the church today is the subject of prophecy, especially among charismatic churches or those that use the term “Spirit-filled.”

Different denominations have their own take, of course. That’s kind of the whole point of denominations, isn’t it? To have their own particular take on everything.

Most mainline denominations claim that prophecy is not for today – as in, “Thus says the Lord: in two years’ time I will do X, Y, and Z.” They look to the Bible as perfect, the complete revelation of God for His people. And they quote 1st Corinthians 13 as their source:

if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away… For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. (NASB)

Other denominations, especially any that emphasize being Spirit-filled or using spiritual gifts, will declare that prophecy is alive and well as a gift of God to the church.

11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13 NASB)

Why, they ask, would we do away with one of the gifts God has given to equip us, to build us up, to help us attain unity and maturity?

But the key question is, “What is prophecy?” And by answering that, perhaps we can avoid some of the denominational debates.

Prophecy comes from a combination of Greek words “pro” – before or forward, and “phemi” – to speak one’s mind. So it can be “fore-telling” what will happen in the future known to God but revealed to man. But it can also be “forth-telling” or speaking forward the mind of God on a given matter. This latter version of “prophecy” is what I want to focus on.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Rev 2:7 NASB)

God is a communicator. We are promised that His people hear His voice and follow Him. (John 10:27-30). Certainly there’s an individual application to that, where we each seek God and He speaks to us in our relationship with Him. But there can also be a corporate aspect to it, where God provides His insights to our church leaders and members in order to guide His people in the world today.

Paul lays out lots of specific guidance for how prophecy works in the Body in 1st Corinthians 12 and 14, and we see the concept of hearing God all throughout Scripture.

For me, prophecy comes down to two things: perception, and participation.

First we need to see what God is doing, to hear what He is saying, to figure out where He is moving. We can’t speak forth the mind of God on any given matter without getting in line with Him. That’s where perception comes in. “Perception is reality” is a stretch, but the fact is we respond to what we perceive. So we have to catch a glimpse of God in order to start the process of responding to Him. For example, consider this comment about the tribe of Issachar:

the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do (1st Chronicles 12:32 NASB).

Second, once we see where God is moving and hear what God is saying, we act. We join Him, and do His will. We participate. Maybe that means a particular brand of outreach, or a timely response to a crisis. Maybe it’s a unique solution to an ongoing problem in our community. Whatever it is, the goal of the people of God is not just to hear the voice of their Shepherd, but to act on that voice and follow Him.

27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. (John 10:27 NASB)

Certainly, denominations will have their debates and their differences. But as individuals and as corporate churches, we can incorporate this understanding of “prophecy” into our worship and our devotion to God. We want to perceive what He is saying, and then we want to participate in what He is doing in the world around us.

Regardless of denomination, regardless of preferred expression of worship, we believe in a living God who speaks to His people – through the Scriptures, through personal devotion and prayer, through the songs we sing, through individual Christians and through the corporate church.

God is speaking. As those who wish to pursue Him, we must have our eyes and ears attentive, and our feet ready to follow.

So, I’m curious: Knowing that each of His children has a unique individual relationship to Him, how do you find it easiest to hear God? In what ways does He most often communicate to you?

Check the Motive

My wife and I were discussing the A to Z, as I was making a list of potential topics. The first one she suggested was “motivation.”

What kind of motivation do you mean, I wondered.

“I always want to get to the heart of things, the ‘why’ behind what we do,” she answered.

Questioning motivation of others is very difficult. We can’t read minds or judge intent. We either take what the other person says, or we believe whatever we’d like about them in spite of what they say. But there’s no reliable way of knowing for sure. So my thought is that making assumptions about the motivations of others puts us in dangerous territory.

But I think my wife has a really good point, so long as we direct the question of motivation to our actions and intentions. Because I read Jeremiah where God tells us that our hearts are deceitful and wicked, beyond our comprehension. So when I feel like my heart is suggesting a course of action, I don’t want to give in and “follow my heart” as the conventional wisdom goes. I want to ask myself, “Why am I doing this, and is this what God would want?”

Think about the song list you might choose as a worship leader (assuming you’re in that position). I know there have been times where I’ve looked at songs based on:
what I like
what’s cool
what’s new
what sounds good
what flows together well

But if the point is to encounter God in the worship, then are any of those standards the most important one? Am I doing what I believe will best lead the congregation to a better revelation of God and His relationship with us?

Or am I concerned with sounding and looking good?

What about the arrangement of songs and how they flow together? I’ve sometimes thought of novel transitions, special instrumentals, or skillful techniques I think would be great on Sunday morning… but do any of those add up to more meaningful worship of God? Sure, we can have a sweet guitar solo, and then we can change keys four times in a rising crescendo until we hit the peak and everything drops off to a moving, quiet a capella melody. But does that glorify God in that moment?

Or is it being done to show our skill, to say “Look what we can do,” to call attention to us in a moment when all eyes and hearts should be fixed on God? My wife asks, is it being done to manipulate people into a “better” worship experience? And is that our job?

As singers and musicians, we may not be in charge of song selection or arrangement, but we still play a pivotal role in the ministry. Our actions can impact the overall team, so our motivations matter. This is an area that can make or break a worship set. If everyone gets up as individuals intent on making sure their awesome skill is heard, then there is no team. There’s just a bunch of musicians trying to one-up each other. When we worry about the team dynamic, we can realize “How do I support the overall sound?”

I might be able to play a great part on the piano, but more often than not, what I need to do is hold down a synth pad… which is boring, uninspiring, lame. A trained monkey can do it. C A F G repeat. Yawn. But that synth pad fills in a hole in the overall sound, and it allows the bass to stand out in the low ranges, and then the rhythm guitar fills in the mid range, and the lead guitar wails out a haunting tone to complement the melody, and the background vocals fill in their harmonies…

And now we have a team where everything is functioning for the benefit of the whole instead of the individual.

Question motivation when it urges you to show off, when something comes to mind that says, “Oh, hey, I could play that part, I could fill in what that guy is doing.”

Vocalists have this question to consider as well. One of my favorite jokes is the Kim Walker “ha-ha” at the end of key lines. @WorshipSoundGuy on Twitter made the joke, “Background vocalist, unless your name is Kim Walker, if you do that ha-ha again, I’m straight-up muting you.”

I doubt many have that burning desire to “ha ha” each time they sing about grace, but what about the vocalizing and stylish flair we can add to our performances? Are we adding it because it adds something to the whole, or because it adds something to how people view us? Just because you can shimmy down the scale and back up again within the space of two words doesn’t mean you should. But sometimes that may serve a purpose. You have to check your motivation.

Let me share a story that captures what I mean here:

I remember one of the first times I got the chance to lead worship for the Sunday morning service. I was so excited. And our church was in the middle of a time where we focused on a very specific style and range of songs: spiritual warfare songs.

Not my favorite.

And there were a few other folk who also thought, “What I wouldn’t do for a good Vineyard song about just loving Jesus.”

So I said to myself, “Great, now’s my chance.” And to the disgruntled folks, I said, “Oh, just wait until next week when I lead. We’ll do all those love songs.”

We start the service, and get through one of the songs. And it’s ok, I tell myself.

We’re in song two, and I’m playing and singing and leading my heart out. And it’s pretty much getting a “meh.” Maybe I tried to start song three, or maybe it was just in the middle of song two, but the official worship leader leans over and whispers, “This isn’t going right. Let’s switch to such-and-such song.”

The song I was most sick of hearing. The song that had nothing to do with how much I love Jesus and He loves me.

I got through the set under her direction and song selection, and walked out of the sanctuary as soon as it was over. I was fuming. So were a few of my disgruntled friends.

This was supposed to be a time of intimacy and love in the worship, not more spiritual warfare and declaration! How dare the worship leader usurp my opportunity to lead the congregation, and redirect our focus to the theme the church was currently studying!

(You probably see all the holes in that logic, but I was mad, so I didn’t.)

I even got into the “us” who loved intimate songs versus the “them” who wanted to do all this spiritual warfare stuff, never considering that “us vs. them” is really really wrong in the church body.
I stepped outside to cool off and not distract from the service.

In the middle of my tirade, one of “my” folks, one of the “us” came outside. I saw her approach and smiled, knowing she’d agree with me.

She opened up with this:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:17, 18 NASB)

Conviction stabbed my heart like a sword of fire. She was kind enough to not lead with the two verses prior, about jealous and envy and selfishness.

The worship leader later sat down with me and let me know she understood. “Dave, you have to remember, this thing on Sunday morning, this isn’t for you. It’s for them. It’s for God and what He wants to do in them. There are so many days I’d love to just melt in His presence and sing love songs. But that’s what I do on my personal time. That’s for me, so that I can come in here and know what God wants to do with them, and follow what He’s saying to the Pastor. I can’t pick songs on Sunday for me. It’s not about me.”

That’s the essence of considering our motivation for what we do as worshipers, especially if we are up front on stage, and even more so if we are leading.

“It’s not about me.”

Three Words

Repetition is sometimes the bane of the worship musician. You probably know the stereotype, the service where the leader and the team are lost in space singing the same chorus over and over.

Let's sing that one more time... I mean four more times... and one more...

Let’s sing that one more time… I mean four more times… and one more…

“I could sing of Your love forever… I could sing of Your love forever…”

No, really, I guess we’re going to sing of Your love forever, because here we go again singing of Your love forever, and now I’m not sure I can sing of Your love forever, we keep singing this line forever…

There are moments of powerful worship where we sense the presence of God and get lost there. And then, maybe one line is enough to capture our attention and express our heart. Maybe a few words are enough. Maybe no words at all.

I was thinking about this as I considered what to choose for ‘G’ in this A to Z challenge. It’s perhaps the shortest worship song ever, centered on God’s goodness.

There’s a key phrase in the Bible for the worship of God. In 2nd Chronicles 6 and 7, King Solomon and the people of God have completed the work of building the Temple, and they hold a massive service to dedicate it to God. They’ve offered sacrifices, and then Solomon prays, inviting God’s presence. Fire comes down, consuming the offerings. The glory of the Lord fills the Temple; His presence falls with such heaviness that the priests can’t even minister or enter. Everyone falls face-down and begins to sing.

“You are good, and Your love endures forever.”

Tobe khehsed o-lawm in transliterated Hebrew.

Three words. That’s it. “Goodness, kindness, forever.” Over and over.

There’s a verse I’ve often heard used to condemn or criticize the repetition that sometimes occurs in praise and worship.

And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Matt 6:7 NKJV.

They point to the prophets of Baal, dancing around, repeating cries for their god to act, going so far as to cut themselves to beg his favor. “How are we any different,” they ask, “if we sing the same words over and over, as though our many words will get God to act?”

But we don’t see people in Scripture praising to make something happen. They praised because God is good and His love endures. And God moved in their midst.

Paul and Silas don’t sing to break the prison walls and loose their chains. They sing because God is good in spite of circumstances.

The psalmists didn’t sing in the midst of their trials and tribulations in order to work some kind of Christian magic. They sang because they trusted in God’s kindness which knows no end.

Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn after the Last Supper (Matt 26:30). The early church had psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Col 3:16). There were often worshipers on the fields of battle leading God’s people – sometimes at His direction, sometimes simply because He is good and His love endures. King Jehoshaphat was promised protection from two enemies that worked together against his kingdom. In light of the promise, he appointed people to worship God, singing four words – “Praise God, kindness forever.” God caused the two armies to turn against each other, and His people did not have to lift a hand. They just lifted their voices.

Praise and worship is part of the spiritual life. But it isn’t about conjuring up emotions or supernatural experiences. It is not about formulas or manipulation. There are no magic words to repeat, no rituals that earn us the presence of God or His power on display.

Worship is about One thing – God. It is in response to one thing – His goodness toward us. It’s a relationship, not an equation.

In relationship, sometimes saying just three words can be enough.

Flavor

I’m chilling in my recliner, putting my foot up (in a cast, post-surgery), and browsing through other A to Z blog challenge participants’ sites. (Here’s a list if you’re wondering how many people are doing this.)

To top off the relaxing atmosphere, I have a cup of my favorite coffee – extra bold Sumatra from the Keurig. Truth be told, the Keurig coffee tastes different to me. I don’t like it as much as a normal pot of Sumatra. But it’s still good, and I’m content.

There’s sort of a maple flavor to it, in my head. When I first tried it, I was deployed to the Mideast. Starbucks used to print a suggestion on the bag about what food would complement the coffee, and their Sumatra suggestion was “a syrupy stack of pancakes before the house wakes up.” The suggestion was perfect, and for the next few days, I kept checking at the chow hall to see if they had pancakes. (Of course, they did not.)

Not everyone likes the coffee. My wife hates anything made by the Keurig. Some of my friends hate the extra dark roast. Some of them, who shall not be named as friends, even go so far as to dislike coffee. (Kidding.)

And that’s all right. Everyone has their favorite flavor, none better than another.

An important lesson in worship is to not treat preferences like doctrine.

Every individual has a preference about music, about songs, about how they seek God. Worship teams are made of individuals, so it’s not surprising that teams end up having a sort of flavor to them as well.

Maybe you don’t like hymns. Maybe you don’t like Gospel, or maybe David Crowder drives you nuts. Maybe Jesus Culture is really irritating with those high synth pads. Or maybe it’s country music that’s the worst. (it is.)

We can all have our tastes. What we can’t permit is for our tastes to turn into judgment against another style of worship and music. When you think of the worst worship style you’ve ever heard, what comes to mind?

I can’t guess for you, but I can tell you mine.

I’ve never been a fan of certain kinds of Gospel. Gospel choirs are awesome, and the way that the choirs blend three or four different parts together into a smooth song, that blows my mind. But when the leader gives vocal cues to every single word before the choir sings it, oh, that drives me nuts.

I am also not a fan of breathy recordings or constant vocalizing. When someone sings the Star Spangled Banner, and the “Oh” in “Oh say can you see” has a dozen notes, I’m already done listening. If it sounds like the person just finished a marathon, exhaling audibly with every word, that doesn’t strike me as “passionate” or “emotional.”

And yet I’ve been in churches with that style of music and seen congregations deeply committed to worshiping God — in spite of all the obvious flaws in the musical style!

Of course, the worship is meant to minister to the congregation, not just to my tastes. More important than that, God’s the One the worship is for, not me. And He’s willing to accept all my clunky notes, all my shallow lyrics, and all my half-hearted efforts. He even accepts the very best I have to offer, like a father hanging a crayon drawing on the cubicle wall or refrigerator.

There’s no right flavor, just as there’s no best style, no perfect choice of song. There’s just giving our best and letting others do the same.

Excellence

There’s always a debate in the worship music community, an either-or choice that every team faces to some extent:

Musicianship versus heart.

“Do we focus on a great musical performance, even if that makes the music seem stiff? Or do we focus on spiritual intimacy and a heart after God, even if our music ends up being less professional or skillful?”

Of course, a lot of the answer depends on the pastor(s) and the leadership of the team.

I’ve worked on teams led by high school band teachers. Not surprisingly, those teams are focused on getting the exact notes right, with every song planned out in advance. The whole team knows exactly who’s playing what at what time, and there’s nothing vague. I’ve had pastors who ensure song lists are planned out months in advance, every detail of the worship set laid out step by step before the service starts. “People come here expecting excellence,” one pastor told me. “So we would never deviate from the plan, because that invites disaster.”

However, it becomes easy for the worship to feel like a show, the congregation merely spectators. When we focus too much on musicianship and structure, there are no surprises… but then there are no surprises. We risk shutting out the very One we’re supposedly seeking. With too much structure, we can’t take note of how the congregation is reacting, or perhaps even where the Spirit is leading. A song might resonate with the Body, people might be responding to God moving in their midst… but we already planned that we would do verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, repeat chorus, four measure interlude, bridge, chorus twice, tag the last line twice, end.

Does that mean we should instead focus on the heart?

I’ve been on teams (and led teams) where structure took a back seat. “I’d rather have someone singing off-key on fire for God, than a talented singer who’s all about themselves.” It takes time and effort, but once a team gets to know each other, the members can usually follow the flow set by the leader, which provides flexibility in the service. If a song is clearly having a meaningful impact on the congregation, the team can hang out for a while. If God’s Spirit is moving in an unexpected way, or if there is a song that complements the message, the team can switch in the middle of the service, to make the most of the moment.

Sounds great! And yet this can also cause great tension and disarray. When things go wrong, it’s difficult to recover. I’ve seen worship leaders stop in the middle of a song and say, “All right, that’s not it, sorry, let’s get this right.” I’ve had pastors tell me after the service, “Whatever that was, don’t ever do that again.” I’ve seen frustration when the band has to flex to a different key or a new song we haven’t practiced. Some members of the team might be spending hours practicing in order to play the planned set – only to have their hard work go to waste when the set list suddenly changes.

Well-meaning worship leaders have aimed for the stars, hoping to create an awesome opportunity to encounter God… and yet the congregation seems unmoved, lost or left behind while we charge ahead in our drive for intimacy. When we focus too much on the heart, there can be very pleasant surprises… but then there are some train wrecks. We risk losing our connection to our fellow worshipers in the congregation, or even in the band.

So what should we do?

I believe we must aim for excellence, and excellence as a worship team means incorporating both skillful performance with sincerity of heart. The team members must cultivate the right attitude and stay tuned in to what God is doing in the service, but they also must practice and play with all the skill they possess. A sense of structure is necessary so that everyone knows what to expect, but a close relationship with the rest of the band provides opportunity to adapt in the middle of the set as the congregation responds to God.

There’s no reason to make a false dilemma out of this subject, as though we must trade one for the other. One might as well ask which leg one can do without.