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?

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It’s For You

I talked a bit about great worship leaders in the last post, but now I want to focus on the body.

One of the phrases we often say about worship music in the church, and indeed the various acts of service or worship we perform throughout our lives, is: “It’s not for me, it’s for God.”

And of course, that’s a laudable humility (ironic, no?) that ensures we don’t focus on being in the spotlight, being the center of attention. Our devotion is meant for God’s benefit.

But worship is absolutely meant for us as well. As in, it is right, it is expected, it is proper, it is a duty.

Sometimes we find those aspects of church life or ministry that we want nothing to do with, and often we use the excuse that “that’s not what I’m called to” or “that’s not where God is leading me.” But certain things are universal; they apply to every believer.

God doesn’t have to “call” us to a life of communication with Him, although some will always be more comfortable with that than others. We are all expected to pray to some degree.

God doesn’t have to “lead” us to study His Word. Our desire to know Him and have our minds renewed should do that without some special unction of the Spirit, though certainly there are some who feel more at home digging into theology and Hebrew-Greek lexicons.

God shouldn’t have to “move” us to worship either – even singing should come ‘naturally’ as a believer. Singing is strongly encouraged throughout Scripture, especially in the Psalms and in the New Testament. Consider Paul’s exhortations that everyone should come with a psalm, a hymn, a spiritual song. He suggests that through singing, we can teach each other more about God. (Check 1 Cor 14:26, Eph 5:18, James 5:13, and the following.)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. (Colossians 3:16, 17 NKJV)

Verse 17 – whatever you do in word or deed – captures the essence of worship. We see in Romans 12:1 that our spiritual act of devotion is to be living sacrifices, offered to God for His purpose.

I’m not talking about only the music we play and the songs we sing at church. I’m talking about the way we live our lives everyday, everywhere. That form of “worship” is for everyone, no special ‘calling’ required.

When we stand up to sing a hymn, when we pass the offering plate, when we listen to the Word preached, and when we sit at our desk at work during the week, we’re meant to be worshiping – doing everything for the glory of God.

Worship isn’t just for God, nor is it for the “worship team” or those who minister in various ways. Worship is for every believer, and so, without any doubt, worship is for me and you.

Strong Language

Continuing the A to Z blog challenge, we come to ‘T’ for which I have chosen theology.

As worshipers seeking God, we must have an understanding of Who He is and what He says. We need words for how He interacts with us and the qualities He displays. Theology provides us with that language, and gives us a much-needed standard (as near to a standard as one can get with matters of faith) which keeps us going straight.

We are to be people of truth – another strong contender for the T blog – since Jesus declared that those who worship the Father must worship in spirit and in truth.

Theology is the active study of that truth, the search and observation of God’s interactions with humanity, the organization and classification of thoughts and concepts about God. It’s the ‘science’ of religion, supplying clear vocabulary, enabling in-depth discussion and further study.

Research by people like George Barna and David Kinneman show a Western Christianity that is dreadful in its lack of theological foundation. There are far too many of our brothers and sisters running around proclaiming maturity after years in church pews, but with little to no grasp of core biblical truths. People would claim to follow Christ and yet hold to teachings that directly contradict Scripture.

It’s like kindergarteners playing house, trying to imitate the grown-ups around them.

I’m talking about myself in so many ways here. If I think I’m above all that, and I have such better understanding, all I’m doing is making myself the spiritual emo kid standing off to the side watching everyone else with contempt while remaining completely uninvolved in anything productive or beneficial to the kingdom. So I’m no better, nor am I claiming to be.

Disciplined efforts to learn more about God – not just through personal experience but through systematic study of the established truths of Scripture – this is part of what I believe it means to worship in truth.

We don’t just rely on haphazard encounters with God. We also benefit from intentionally engaging God’s Word with the perspective of teachers in the Body and the works of spiritual giants in the past. That way, we’re not learning every so often as we go about playing church, we’re building our understanding in the same way that 2nd grade material builds on 1st, and 3rd grade lessons require a grasp of the 2nd grade teachings.

The writer of Hebrews speaks to his audience about their need for basic teachings, and indicates that a discipline of practice will help believers mature properly:

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14 NASB)

In the same way, Paul talks about taking full advantage of the gifts provided to the church:

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, (Ephesians 4:14, 15 NASB)

Strong theology gives us powerful words that fuel our worship. As we realize more and more who God is and what He has done for us, we find more reasons to draw nearer, more cause to praise Him, more passion to help us chase after Him.

And when we find Him, overwhelmed by the reality of His love, we worship in response to the truth.

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.”

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.