Bringing the Heat

“I’d rather have someone sold out in passionate pursuit of God who can barely hold a tune, than some concert-level professional with no spiritual intimacy.”

I’ve been writing about building the fire of worship in ministry, starting with the needed structure of technical excellence as fuel. 2nd Samuel 6 has been my source text for this topic.

The next leg of that fire triangle is the heat, or in the case of worship, the heart.

The previous post looks at 2nd Sam 6:1-10 to see what happens when we don’t have the right structure in place in worship. But structure and musicianship is not all there is to quality worship ministry, just like arranging wood in a fire pit doesn’t actually give us a fire.

Starting in 2 Sam 6:11-23, King David makes a second attempt to bring the Ark back to Jerusalem, and this time, he starts it right. The appropriate people are carrying the Ark by the poles built into its frame. No ox cart is involved. On top of that, sacrifices are offered every few steps, and the King himself steps up to lead the worship and praise.

Here we see David’s heart in a right position before God and the people. Most of my thoughts here come from what Pastor Herbie Thompson shared with the Bellevue Christian Center worship collective for June – credit where credit is due.

Herbie pointed out that David leads by example in three ways which reveal his heart for God. First off, David worships with liberty.

Technical excellence calls for us to take worship seriously, but heart excellence calls us to be liberated and willing to set aside what seems proper. We must sometimes abandon dignity for authenticity in our worship. As worshipers in the view of others – whether on stage or in every day life – our expression of what’s on our heart provides an example and permission for others to follow.

What does that look like practically?

– Many traditional churches teach dancing is bad or at least dangerous. But when I read accounts of worshipers dancing before The Lord, I realize that it’s ok to permit my body’s movements to demonstrate the emotion in my heart that words cannot fully express. It’s not about my skill in dancing, it’s the fact that my heart moves me to dance before Him even as He dances over us (Zephaniah 3:17).

– I didn’t know I could get angry with God until I read the Psalms and saw worshipers expressing anger and frustration to God. Now I can be more honest in the hard times.

– We sing songs that speak of bowing down or kneeling, of raising hands in surrender, or of jumping for joy. It may not look ‘professional’ but my heartfelt physical response matching the words I’m singing – that tells others that they can do the same in church or in their everyday life.

– We often have times in between songs where we encourage the congregation to express their heart to God using their own words. If we never show what that looks like, if we never risk stumbling over spontaneous praise for fear of how it might appear or affect our reputation for technical excellence, then we’re not giving permission for the people to express their hearts freely.

Our structure has to be in place, but we can’t be bound to what’s written in a schedule or what’s printed on a page. We have to be willing to operate in liberty, so that those we’re leading can learn how to worship liberally.

The heat we bring to worship is also expressed by using all our might. David didn’t hold back in his dance and celebration. He didn’t encumber himself with the robes of the king or the heavy crown – he put on a functional priestly garment and got footloose. His physical and nonverbal actions communicated exactly what his mouth was saying.

How often do I bring that level of heart into my worship, in private or in public? Do my gestures and movements and expressions communicate the same as the words I sing? Am I singing about joy with a strained look on my face, or playing piano gritting my teeth as I try to get every note right? Am I singing a song of humility and brokenness with a wide grin on my face?

And am I giving it my all, or am I holding something back? Our expressions of worship may be the only tool someone has to figure out what worshiping God means. Do they see me bring half-hearted effort as if I have somewhere I’d rather be? Or do they see me give everything I’ve got, shouting praise till my voice is raw, because He’s worthy?

Pouring all of ourselves into worship teaches others how to do the same.

Finally, David worships with his title. He gets up as the King and he shows the people how important worshiping God is. “If the King is doing all that, then God must be important. If the King is dancing, and offering all these sacrifices… if the King took off his robes and crown and set aside his dignity to worship God, then so should I.”

David made it all about God. David took what seemed like the most important thing about him and turned it into worship of Him. Like the elders in Revelation 4 throwing down their crowns before the Throne of God, David shows the people that it isn’t about the King of Israel, it’s about the God of Heaven and Earth.

David correctly shows that the title is not as important as the testimony. His actions will be respected by those who saw him set aside his dignity for the sake of worship.

With titles and dignity, we can go one of two ways. We can turn them into another aspect of how we worship God, or we can use them as an excuse to take away from our worship of God. Michal goes that route in vv. 16-23. She goes off on David about how “the King” has distinguished himself – her primary concern was for his title, not for his heart toward God. She becomes a spectator instead of a participant, judging instead of joining.

It challenges me because it’s so easy to watch and critique instead of engaging in worship. “I wouldn’t do it that way. I would have played this song instead, it fits better.” When I find myself in that position, I need to watch out!

So, in all of this, I reflect on three questions:

What holds me back from liberty in front of other people? (Is it fear of their reaction, is it concern for my reputation? Is it shame or perceived unworthiness?)

What do I hold back in worship that keeps me from giving all my might?

What are the titles I hold that I deem most important, and how do I turn those around into amplified expressions of worship? (i.e. father, husband, manager, coach, writer)

Technical excellence and heart excellence are what we bring – the fuel and the heat. Next I’ll look at the last leg of the triangle essential for maintaining fire: the oxygen of the Spirit.

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Iron Worshipers

The Avengers features a confrontation between Captain America and Tony Stark (Iron Man) where Cap calls Tony out:

Cap: Big man in a metal suit. Take that away and what are you?
Tony: Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist.

But the question almost seems to form the basis of the plot of Iron Man 3. Without getting too much into spoiler territory (and without too much fear, since you’ve probably seen it if you’re interested at all), the basic theme is Tony Stark discovering the answer to Cap’s question.

Does the suit make the man, or does the man make the suit?

A few weeks ago, our church worship team was practicing the setlist before the service, and we got to a point where we were practicing worship instead of simply preparing the musical performance. When we finished, we came together for a moment of prayer. One of our awesome guitar players named Jordan shared a picture based on Iron Man 3.

In the movie, Tony comes to realize that it’s not the suit that matters; it’s his internal drive, his passion, his ability to think about problems, and so on. All the special stuff that makes Iron Man a hero is found inside Tony Stark. The armor may change, but it’s secondary to the character of the individual within.

Jordan reminded us of the various forms and structures worship has gone through over the years, from the time of the priestly ministry at the Tabernacle, and all the special pieces made to surround the Ark… to the time of David’s Tabernacle with its constant worship, where the psalmist King went so far as to invent new instruments to praise God… and historical moves in the church, with liturgy and chanting, then organ music, then contemporary bands… to hooking up computers with programmed arrangements that create a completely different musical dynamic…

Worship equipment and paraphernalia have changed and will continue to change. But the ultimate essential piece of “equipment” necessary for worship has always been and will continue to be a willing and humble heart passionate for the glory of God.

Big band on stage with the lights and all the instruments. Take it all away, and what are you?

We’re worshipers.

That thought has stuck with me for a bit now, bouncing around in my head. I like it because it marries what we do as musicians – all the technical figuring out chords and rhythms and arrangements – with what we do as worshipers – the heart crying out to God to show Himself strong in our midst. Often these are thought of as being in opposition, but they’re really two sides of the same coin.

Or two sides of the worship triangle. You may remember the concept of the “fire triangle,” which shows the three parts of a fire that are necessary for the fire to burn:

    Fuel – something has to be there to burn
    Heat – it has to be hot enough for the fire to keep burning
    Oxygen – the chemical reaction requires oxygen to take place

Take one out, and the fire dies.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to look at 2nd Samuel 6 as a source text, and I’m going to post about what I see as a worship triangle:

    Musical excellence – the structure and arrangement of fuel for the fire
    Heart excellence – putting ourselves in the right attitude to pursue God
    The Spirit – the wind, the air, the “oxygen” required for the spiritual reaction

Take one out and the worship fails.

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.”

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.