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.

Building the Fire

I was a bit of a pyromaniac as a kid.

I might have burned several toys over the years. I may have used a lighter and hairspray as a makeshift flamethrower to kill bugs in our basement. I possibly was involved in dousing an indestructible metal Tonka truck in gasoline, but I’m pretty sure that was my brother’s idea.

I did set a dumpster on fire, but that was purely by accident.

But at camp I learned how to build and maintain a fire. Fires need three things: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Set up the fuel correctly, and you ensure that oxygen can flow through once you get the flames started. Set it up haphazard, and you potentially smother your fire. Most importantly, if you build it right, you can keep it going.

Worship ministry is similar. It starts with fuel, a foundation of technical expertise that gives us something to build on.

In 2nd Samuel 6, we see a few pictures of worship around the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of the presence of God. And the first is about this technical expertise.

Once King David secured his throne, he turned his attention to God’s presence. David wanted the Ark in Jerusalem, and went to retrieve it. He brought 30,000 men, all of them ready to praise their hearts out. They put the Ark on a new cart, and they started a celebratory procession to bring God’s presence back to the city of the King.

But the Law was clear about the way the Ark would be moved. It had poles fitted into rings on the corners (see Exodus 25) and had to be carried by the Levites (Deut. 10:8). The use of a cart was forbidden.

So the cart is jostled, and the Ark moves, and Uzzah, one of the guys walking along next to it, reaches up to make sure it doesn’t fall over. I mean, that would be pretty embarrassing, right? If the holy Ark fell in the dirt along the road?

Uzzah dies on the spot. The celebration stops. David says, “How can this Ark come to me?” and he sends the Ark off to a nearby house instead.

David had all the passion in the world, surrounded by a crowd praising their hearts out, and it wasn’t enough without the right structure.

Last Sunday, my wife and I were discussing worship. She noted how worship ministries often seem like a pendulum, swinging from emphasis on the right heart and attitude to emphasis on impeccable performance and musicianship. I’ve heard it said, “I’d rather have a struggling musician playing with a heart after God than have a concert-quality musician who’s in it for themselves.”

But we miss the point if we look at this as a dilemma, as though you can only have either technical expertise or passion for God, not both.

We can throw some folks together on stage and go after God with abandon, and it might be a powerful moment. But it’s not a sustainable model for a worship ministry.

I could set things on fire as a kid… but I didn’t know how to build a fire that could be kept burning.

The fuel for our worship “fire” is technical excellence. It’s the structure we set up, the way we arrange and organize all the parts of the ministry.

We can call it practice, musicianship, or competence. But it goes further than notes played on instruments or words sung by voices. The sound crew, the lighting manager, audio/visual technicians, administrators who organize songbooks or communicate schedule details – any group that plays a part in the technical details has to be involved in the overall development of skill for the team. They all have to be involved in this process of growth and maturation because any one of them can create a positive or negative impact during the ministry time.

For our church, this means changes like incorporating a click track to play in our earphones so that everyone can (hopefully) stay on tempo. It means getting the different instrumentalists and vocalists (and sound crew, and A/V crew, and lighting crew, etc) together to hone each other’s skills. It takes time and effort and commitment.

I used to think heart was all that mattered. I led worship based on feeling and a sense of what I hoped was the Spirit’s leading. We might practice a set on Thursday, but by Sunday morning, I would change the set because another song felt better. Or we’d practice a song in one key, and then I’d come in on Sunday and change keys so the songs would transition together better. We had a small team of adaptable and skilled musicians who would essentially shrug and say, “If you think so, sure.” Then they’d play so well it was like we planned it that way months in advance.

We had a trumpet player join. He warned me he was getting back into playing after years, but he would try his best. And I thought he did quite well, adding in here and there to complement the band.

I didn’t learn until weeks later that he was taking the music home Thursday and painstakingly transposing all the songs to the right key for his trumpet so he could spend hours practicing what we played. When I changed things on Sunday based on “heart,” I was essentially putting him on the bench for those songs. On top of that, I was disrespecting the hours he spent honing his craft every week to be able to participate.

I thought all the structure was stifling, and the refusal of organization liberating.

But the structure makes a ministry that can burn strong and keep on burning.

Take away one side of the fire triangle, and it goes out. Take away the technical excellence, allow it to atrophy, and the fire of worship ministry is extinguished.

Next, I’ll look at the other side of that pendulum – heart excellence, the “heat” to our fire.

Running Toward Need

Today is ‘N’ in the A to Z blogging challenge.

I thought for a while about new songs, but it didn’t feel like the right topic. My concern isn’t just for those of us who are on worship teams or who have a passion for worship music. My point from the beginning of this is that worship is not merely the musical part of the Sunday service, but the way we live out our faith in the day-to-day mundane details of the world around us.

I was going to write something special about the Boston Marathon event, because in my mind the response of the many to the injured and suffering was a beautiful example of how God calls us to live as worshipers.

After the explosions, it has been oft remarked, you see people running not from but TO the need. They’re not concerned for their own safety, they’re running to help others. It’s been reported that many runners finished the race and continued on to the nearby hospital to give blood for those wounded. We saw first responders and average citizens rushing into the smoke to help strangers.

And I thought about what I write, about this focus on God’s presence and how precious that is to many of us. We seek to draw nearer to Him, to find Him in the midst of chaos in our lives, to get close in spite of knowing how it will change our lives.

But what do we know of this God we pursue?

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalms 34:18 NASB)

Brokenness and humility attract God’s attention.

The Lord upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down.
The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. (Psalm 145:14,18 NIV)

Consider who God declared righteous: not the religious man who praised his own holiness, but the sinner who beat his chest and cried for mercy… not the religious leaders who sought flaws in Jesus’ teachings, but the sinful woman who washed His feet with her tears.

Consider on whom God has fixed His attention, to whose treatment He has tied His judgment. He declares to the people of Israel and to the church that we must look to the fatherless, the destitute, the weak and needy.

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17 NIV)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27 NIV)

If we are worshipers, we must not only be attracted to the presence of God. We must be driven toward need. What concerns God must concern us. What He loves must become what we love, and where His gaze goes, so ours should follow.

I’m proud to know brothers and sisters in Christ who pour out their lives to provide for the practical needs of the destitute in other nations. I’ve met people who serve in China, India, the Philippines, Cambodia, various countries in Africa, and so on. I’ve heard men and women speak about discovering the slave trade in the communities where they serve, and how they have been used to pull thousands of young women and small children away from that life. I’ve seen medical care offered free of charge, food provided with no strings attached, homes built or repaired as an expression of love and concern.

There are worshipers who not only see God but also see where His eyes are fixed, and they charge in, often at great personal expense, sometimes at great personal risk, in order to extend a hand to the broken, the needy, the orphan, the widow, the wounded.

The selfless runners and responders in Boston display humanity’s best intentions, and rightly move our hearts.

How much more should those who chase God also be reaching into the chaotic world around us? God calls His people to exemplify Him, to represent Him. And He is close to those in need.

May He find us running to their aid.

O Lord, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear
To vindicate the orphan and the oppressed, So that man who is of the earth will no longer cause terror. (Psalms 10:17, 18 NASB)

A to Z Challenge

Happy April Fools’ Day!

The A to Z Blogging Challenge

The A to Z Blogging Challenge

As an April Fools’ joke, the Air Force is making me go back to work today.

As a non-April-Fools joke on myself, today is the start of the April A to Z blogging challenge!

I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about worship, and some key aspects for lead worshipers on an individual and corporate scale.

For the first entry, let’s talk about Attitude.

Paul writes:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5 NASB)

And take a look at what precedes Paul’s direction about attitude:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3, 4 NASB)

Worship, whether personal or corporate, is never for me nor about me. It has to be about others as I follow Christ’s sacrificial example.

We don’t sing to show off, or serve to get the praise of men. We can’t be about whatever blesses us, whatever satisfies us, unless we are blessed and fulfilled in meeting the needs of others.

Worship is about worth-ship. It’s an act that serves as a declaration of someone’s value. If that someone is us, then we’re not worshiping God or ministering to anyone. We’re making idols and worshiping Self.

That’s not worship. That’s pride.

“God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6 NASB)

When we seek our own interests, we risk not just missing God’s best but attracting God’s direct resistance. We want to chase the storm of God’s presence, not invite destruction!

But when we seek the interests of others, we step into the grace zone, where God’s power supplies us with the ability to do more than we expect or imagine.

The songs we sing, the music we play, and most of all, the acts of service we perform – those are done for God and for others. That has to be our attitude, or else we better not call it worship.

Got attitude? That’s fine, as long as it’s the right kind.