Don’t You Know

A while back I posted about building a spiritual fire in worship ministry, followed by a post on bringing the heat. I used the “fire triangle” as an analogy. To have a fire, you need fuel, heat, and oxygen. Remove any one of the three, and you no longer have a fire. The fuel for worship ministry is technical excellence, the foundation on which we build everything else. The heat is the excellence of heart, the passion and the energy we bring into our ministry.

My worship pastor pointed out that even with both technical and heart excellence, we still require the action of the Holy Spirit in order for worship to be meaningful and effective.

“Apart from Me you can do nothing” – Jesus.

The movement of God is absolutely a necessary part of the “fire triangle” of our worship. And every worshiper I know is well aware of that fact.

What I also note is, so many act like we have to beg God to show up and then hope for the best.

We often use terms like “leading people into His presence” or “taking the congregation somewhere we’ve already been” in terms of going somewhere else to get to God. We speak of inviting or welcoming God’s presence into the sanctuary or place of worship. We ask God to come join us.

We forget:  God is in us.

The big change in the New Testament gospel message isn’t simply that our sins are forgiven. Don’t get me wrong, that’s huge and I’m grateful. But that was a means to an end. Our sins separated us from God (see Isaiah 59:2). The cross does away with them. Our salvation by grace through faith in Christ unites us with God – puts His presence right inside of us, which was the promise all along. Emmanuel, God with us.

Everywhere we go, God is there. Not just in the sense of “omnipresence” like God is invisibly but spiritually everywhere and there’s no place we could go where He cannot (Psalm 139 speaks to this).

No, God is alive and active inside of His people. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit; God is working in us, Christ in us – the hope of glory.

So the question isn’t “Will God show up today?” or “Did we welcome His presence properly?”

The question is, “Did I set my mind on Him? Did I recognize His already-present activity in our midst? Did I come here with my agenda and idea about how things would go, or did I set all that aside with the recognition of His presence among His people?”

One of my pastors spoke of invoking the presence of God on a daily basis – not that we have power to command God to show up, but we have the ability to remember and remind ourselves that God is already here.

He would ask, using 1 Corinthians 6:19, “Don’t you know?” And the question is valid, because so often our words reflect that we’re not appreciating this spiritual reality.

Oxygen is all around us. Sure, there are ways to smother a fire, just as we can quench the Spirit. And there are special moments where God moves in a powerful and unexpected way, breathing on our embers and causing a flame of revival or a deep response to spring up from the smallest fire.

But if we’re committed to living for God, we’re going to be experiencing His presence as routinely as we breathe in and breathe out. He becomes a part of our lives.

<blockquote>”19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NASB</blockquote>

May Collective

A few weeks ago, our church and partner churches got our worship teams together for the monthly Collective – our opportunity to train our minds and hearts for ministry the way we practice our instruments and vocals for performance.

Pastor Mike King shared his thoughts about worship and ministry. Some of it is specific to our church(es) but a lot of it relates to any worshiper or worship team. That’s what I’ve tried to capture here:

Worship teams aren’t resident rock stars, they’re conduits of community. They’re a key part of building connections within the Body. They’re not outside or above or separated just because they get up on stage on Sunday. We’re all going after encountering God together.

Worshipers have to consider identity – do we believe we are at least called to something?
Don’t find identity in what we do, but in who we are.

Mike uses an idea of three buckets side by side to explain this identity:
First, the Character bucket – things that fill you up and define who you are
i.e. devotion time, worship time, time with spouse, with kids, maybe some wholesome hobby.

Next, the Love bucket – glimpsing God and seeing things differently, starting to care about what God cares about, finding out what God says about us.
Knowing the love of God enables us to be a spokesperson of the love of God

Finally, the Mission bucket or Do bucket = what we do, what we’re called to.
We all love the do bucket because it’s easy, it’s what we know to do. Doing things is the default answer to any crisis or confusion we face.

We can’t find our identity in the do bucket. That’s full of what we do. We can’t start with whats. Start with why. Start with vision.

We must not be interested in notoriety, but interested in legacy. What is the impact we’re leaving behind?

Remember that everything we do is – or should be – in response to the greatness of God.

Have we encountered Him? As soon as we glimpse who He is, He reminds us who we are… not who we used to be, but who we’re going to be by grace.

So, with all that in mind, here’s five key steps Pastor King suggested:

1. Change how we view ministry in worship. Own it like you made it, like you mean it. Worship is not just the music pastor’s thing, and we all have to do his work. It’s OUR work. Change takes strong leadership and it’s not fun; we need leaders to step up.

2. Define results. How do you know where you’re going, or what your goal is? How can you communicate what the future looks like if you don’t know? Generally worship teams are way more concerned about spiritual health than ministry performance. Don’t worry about doing things, worry about what we ARE. Understand the vision on the pastor’s heart, then adopt it as yours.

3. Live transparently. Rock bottom is not a place of shame, judgment, disgust–those are the words we associate not with hitting rock bottom but with people seeing us there. We want to present the nice image. Why wait until life falls apart to change? Find accountability. Build relationships. God moving in the church is always challenged. This step is the most important thing we can do. Dangerous vulnerability, honesty, and transparency. If we can’t open the secret closet of skeletons with the people in this room, why are we serving together?

4. Take time to pause, to celebrate wins. For example, after the crazy eight service Easter weekend…. Week 1, celebrate the wins. Week 2, evaluate what we could do better. Don’t just focus on what went wrong, but be glad for what goes right.

5. Pray like you mean it. If you don’t have a prayer life, you don’t have a worship life. Our culture shifted from servants of the King to creating worship stars. Great leaders take people places that they visit often, so if we’re hoping to lead people into God’s presence, we need a personal worship life. We need time spent learning the love language of the King, hearing His thoughts about our world.

Reflection time:
What bucket do we focus on? what are we using to fill each one? what does God want to reroute in our lives?
Who are you?
What has He called you to?
Are you owning His calling in your life?
Are you responding to Jesus because of His greatness?

Needless to say, it was a challenging time of checking the direction we’re headed and the priorities we’ve set. Hopefully some of Pastor King’s comments encourage you to pursue a deeper intimacy with God as well.

The X Factor

No, I’m not talking about Simon Cowell’s show.

I’m thinking, as usual, of worship. Specifically, I’m wondering about how we minister as lead worshipers, those folks up front in the church, playing and singing, and hopefully pointing the congregation to Jesus.

x fac·tor

Noun
  1. A variable in a situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome.
  2. A special talent or quality.

What is that “X Factor,” that special something that makes the difference between satisfactory and superb?

For one, the superb worship leader isn’t trying to be superb. It’s not about him or her. It’s about God, the team, and the people.

Part of that special quality is observing and responding to needs of others – making it about God and the congregation, ducking out of the way. Saying “Come along with me” and charging ahead while being aware enough to realize when no one’s coming. It’s easy to get caught up in powerful emotion, to be swept away in the worship. And sometimes we can feel like everyone’s there with us, when in fact, the folks in the congregation are looking at watches and reading bulletins. Of course we can’t please everyone, but we can go too far with what pleases us.

Communication is also a key part. We have to be aware of what’s going on, and a lot of that is what the leadership is sensing. Paying attention to non-verbal and verbal cues keeps the worship in proper order. Communicating vision and direction to the team keeps everyone going toward the same goal.

Beyond that direction, there’s an ebb and flow to the music, a crescendo here, and a fade there. Sensing the spiritual dynamics of the service can create space for free worship, the unstructured corporate response of individuals to the love of God. Being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the team ties in with this. We start to understand that certain members might be able to add to a specific song, or musicians playing less common instruments will better minister in a particular song. So once again, we build room into a set, we add flexibility to the rigid in order to create a better experience.

I think the X Factor comes down to a right understanding of availability and adequacy. Worship is a God-thing. We can’t even really do it without His help, because it’s a response to His revelation. It’s not possible for us, of our own willpower and skill, to make worship “adequate” enough. God brings the adequacy – He does the work. But we do have to be available; we do put all our skill and energy at His disposal, to glorify Him and minister to His people.

We put everything on the figurative altar of worship, and God turns it into something meaningful.

So ultimately, He’s the essential quality, the One who makes all the rest come together and matter.

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.

Beliefs: Worship Vocabulary

I’m currently enrolled in a Chinese Mandarin language refresher course. About six hours a day, five coworkers and I sit in a classroom, practicing reading, writing, speaking, and hearing Chinese. We get homework and additional material to review, much of which is vocabulary lists of unfamiliar words.

The vocab review is absolutely essential to success.

I can know how all the grammar works, how all the sentences get put together, and so on. I can speak perfectly, with no accent and accurate tones. I could write beautiful Chinese characters that look like calligraphy you might buy at a store. But If I don’t know the words, I won’t understand much, and nothing I do will make sense.

Give it a shot. What does this mean to you?

耶稣基督爱你。

If you don’t know the vocab or haven’t learned the language, you won’t get the message, let alone be able to communicate it yourself.

For the worshiper, that’s where beliefs come in. Our doctrine and our beliefs are the skeletons, the framework that holds up what we do and why we do it. If I accurately understand something of who God is and what God has done, then that is fuel for my worship of God. If I know what Scripture teaches about who I am in relation to God, then that makes His grace amazing.

Songs can’t communicate to us something we don’t already grasp. We won’t appreciate the value if we don’t have the vocab. David Crowder can sing “He is our portion and we are His prize” (John Macmillan, How He Loves).

But if I’ve never seen that in Scripture and never digested the thought that – for whatever reason – God has set a very high value on you and me–

Then that will just be a nice turn of phrase in the song, something to get us to the next rhyme.

But if I look at Matthew 13:44 and see a Savior who sold everything to take hold of a treasure… If I consider 1st Peter 2:9-11 that claims we are a special possession cherished by God… And I see how that passage points back to the Old Testament and God’s covenant with Israel… And then I recall verses like Isaiah 43:3-4 where God promises He would sell the whole world to get His people back… Oh, how sweet Philippians 2:5-11 becomes, where I read about all that Christ gave up, all that He laid aside for the sake of God’s plan of redemption.

When I am familiar with the depths of love revealed in Scripture, and the costs God endured to lay hold of the treasure on His heart – namely you and me – well, that gives me some vocabulary words to use to express my gratitude!

Then when my church sings “Light of the world, You stepped down into darkness” and “Humbly You came to the earth You created, all for love’s sake, became poor…” (Tim Hughes, here I Am to Worship)

Now I get it. Now I can take that song and make it mine, pour my heart and my emotions and all my love and thanks into it, and truly respond in worship to what God has done, not just sing in the musical portion of the service to try and sound good.

Picking “Bible” for the A to Z challenge would have been too easy, but it’s still accurate. The Bible informs our beliefs, instructs us in doctrine. Why? So that we are prepared for evey good work God has called us to accomplish. 2 Tim 3:16-17

Time and again, surveys show a woeful lack of understanding of basic Christian doctrine in the West, especially in this “Christian nation” called the United States. As worshipers, as those seeking to encounter God’s powerful presence, it behooves us to get well-acquainted with some key words and concepts about God and our relationship to Him.

How strong is your vocabulary? I know I’ve got some reviewing to do.

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.