Get Off My Lawn!

Recently, I was involved in an online discussion about the state of worship music. Most of those in the conversation were worship leaders of my generation. They spoke of the glory days, of worship experiences gone by. A few lamented that modern worship has become overly polished and programmatic. Others complained about a younger microwave generation, who had no patience to wait on God. I am overstating a bit to make my point, but the conversation was somewhat reminiscent of the scene from Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, where his lead character mutters to a group of young gangsters through gritted teeth, “Get off my lawn!”

Finally, one who I would consider a grandfather statesman of the group, a grizzled veteran who was a pioneer worship leader in the 70s and 80s, weighed in. He simply said, “I just want to hear the thunder of His voice in worship.” What he meant was that he didn’t really care what or how we sang, so long as we experienced the power of His presence. For me, that was the end of the conversation, and the beginning of a season of meditating on a theme that I feel is really important to the future of worship and of the Church.

It wasn’t too long ago, in the early 1990s, that my generation was a newly-minted crop of worship leaders. We left Bible College full of the Word and the Spirit, armed with new skills and an anointing that would impact the Church of that day. Not surprisingly, it was difficult for our spiritual fathers to accept us. These new worship songs weren’t like what the local church was used to singing. It was a bit uncomfortable for the seasoned saints during our “wet behind the ears” days. It was if they were saying to us, “get off my lawn!”

Sounds pretty familiar when we look at today, doesn’t it?

As I went through this season, I was led to read through the book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. In the very last verse of the book, there is an interesting passage that foreshadows the ministry of John the Baptist:

“He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.

Luke’s gospel confirms this calling through the angel Gabriel’s message regarding the ministry of John the Baptist, that his ministry is not only to call people to repentance and baptism, but also to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and children to their fathers.

When we look at the world today, we see multiple generations of people who have been abandoned either physically, emotionally, or spiritually by their fathers. The results are devastating. We see the ravage of fatherless homes not just in the inner cities anymore, but also in the ‘burbs.

In the Church, I would posit that there is a similar epidemic. There is a lack of true spiritual fathers who are willing to impart a spiritual legacy in the next generation of Kingdom servants. Generation gaps and cultural rifts occur, I believe, when we do not impart the things entrusted to us  on to others.

Fatherless churches can lead to worship wars in which sons and daughters struggle against figureheads, and figureheads alienate their sons and daughters by failing to impart a legacy. Note the intentional usage of the word “figureheads,” because there is a difference between being a figurehead and a father. Based on the entirety of Malachi 4:6, I’m not certain that God is likely to bless these types of dysfunctional relationships.

As one who has experienced the mantle of leadership in the Church, God has been challenging me fulfill the role of a spiritual father. Like Elijah, it is critical for the leaders of my generation- and not just ministers- to accept the father role in the family of God. If we carefully read the passage regarding John the Baptist’s ministry, it is noted that he will serve in “the spirit and power of Elijah…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” We may not feel like Elijah or John the Baptist, but the principle applies.

Perhaps you’re in a situation where those younger than you aren’t teachable. It’s not just a malady of the Millennial generation- it’s always been the case that youth brings overconfident self-reliance. I would encourage you to continue to love as a father would, extending grace where you may not deem it to be deserved.

To those young readers who are in need of spiritual fathers (and mothers!), I encourage this: Be flexible and teachable. The older generation’s worship styles may seem “hokey” to you, but to many, it is something from which you can learn. Remember that your generation’s artistic expression is always subject to the message of the Cross. When we exalt “our worship expression” over that of others, it becomes something that God never intended. Realize too, that in a short amount of time, a generation younger than you will arise with their own worship songs and emphases, and it will be up to you to embrace them and entrust those things you have learned.

When Elijah was taken away by the Lord, his protege Elisha cried out, “My father! My father!” Elijah’s ministry was blessed doubly through Elisha because of his willingness to be a father to him, AND because Elisha chose to learn from his spiritual father.  May the fathers of our generation turn their hearts to their sons and daughters, and may the sons and daughters turn their hearts back to their fathers!

I would be remiss not to say that this post has been really challenging for me to write, because there are many implications for my own life. I hope that you will prayerfully embrace this biblical model of ministry whether you are a father, or son, or daughter. God’s lawn is a pretty amazing place where we are all invited; there’s no need to tell anyone to get off of it!

 

God’s Not Nervous in the Service

We’ve all been there. It’s Sunday morning, and as we proceed through the worship service, there might be a typo on the projected lyrics on the wall. Perhaps there’s a botched transition between songs, or, heaven forbid, there are moments of “awkward” silence as we transition from one worship element to the next! A mentor once offered me some sage advice early in my worship leading career. He said, “God’s not nervous in the service, Brian. It’s us. We are the problem.” The context of our conversation was the common fear that we might offend the Holy Spirit or turn people off to the Gospel if we didn’t get everything just right in the execution of the worship service.

As I ponder the current state of worship, I have seen two extremes propagating in Christian corporate experience. These extremes are not bound to a denomination or congregation. In fact, I’ve seen both extremes in the same congregation, from one Sunday to the next!

First, I have been in many churches in the last few years where the production value was so slick, so programmed down to the very second, that I wondered to myself to what end are we doing this? Who are we trying to impress? Please note that I believe in excellence, planning, and removing opportunities for distraction, but I also have learned that ONE SECOND in the life-transforming presence of God is more effective than 60 minutes of highly-shined, technically-flawless production. If we are afraid that nonbelievers in our midst are going to walk out on us because the “show” wasn’t perfect, then perhaps we’ve missed the point.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have also worshiped in churches, often Spirit-filled or charismatic congregations, where a lack of preparation was masked by a spiritual veneer of utter dependence on the Holy Spirit to bless our failure to seek Him during the week’s preparation. It was as if the worship leader and worship team just assumed that they would pick up their instruments and microphones and that instant Pentecost would break out!

Of course, these are extreme examples. Experience dictates that we will experience varying levels of commitment to performance and/or spontaneity.

In the end, though, what does God require from a Biblical standpoint? I believe that Jesus distills worship down to its essentials in John 4:23-24 when conversing with the Samaritan woman:

“[T]rue worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” 

This is a very familiar passage, but I’d like to emphasize three points:

First, God is looking for worshipers. It doesn’t say that He’s looking for worship styles. The Samaritan woman tried to steer the conversation toward the equivalence of a “contemporary vs. traditional” worship style argument, mostly because Jesus had lain bare the secrets of her heart. Jesus sidesteps this empty religious argument by simply saying that the Father is just seeking worshipers- not worship styles.

Second, God desires to be worshiped in spirit. Yep, those spontaneous Charismatics have a piece of it right. Worship is to be energized and vibrant, inspired and inhabited by the Spirit (Gr. pneúma) of God, emanating from the depths of our own pneúma. When the people of God gather to worship in spirit, powerful things happen: the name of Jesus is glorified, the Church finds grace when they celebrate together at the communion table, hearts are prepared to receive the Word, and interestingly, the hearts of sinners are melted in the presence of the Lord. These are all the work of the Holy Spirit through us!

Third, God desires to be worshiped in truth. The Greek word for truth here is alētheia, which the contemporary reader of that time would understand to be “synonymous for ‘reality’ as the opposite of illusion.” There is no varnish, no slick veneer in true worship. It is authentic and sincere. True worship has no fantasy regarding imitation of the world’s standards of production and excellence. Let’s be honest- we may strive for excellence, but most local churches do not have the resources to compete with the production value that the world offers. By keeping things authentic, worshiping in alētheia keeps our hearts humble and in a position to receive from God.

The answer then, is that as worship leaders, instrumentalists and vocalists, pastors, and tech ministry members, recognize that it is incumbent upon us to prepare for the worship service. I believe that in each worship service, God has purposes that He wants to accomplish. There are broken hearts that He wants to comfort. There are sinners who need to be convicted. There are strongholds that need to be broken. There are believers longing to express gratitude to their God. There are hungry souls who need to be fed the Word. But most of all, He seeks worship in spirit AND truth.

My first pastor in the ministry, Ben Brumback, impressed upon me the importance of preparation time during the week. He would say, “if you don’t bother to listen to God during your planning time, He’s probably not going to speak to you if you come to the pulpit unprepared!” This saying always keeps me grounded in Spirit-led preparation. I ask the Lord to direct me during seasons of preparation, but equally, I am open to changes as the Spirit leads during the service.

Over the years, there were many times when I would spontaneously feel led to throw in an unplanned song, share a scripture, or utter a prayer that was not on the rundown sheet. I knew that the tech staff and musicians might feel a bit awkward for a moment, but those spontaneous moments where the Spirit of God takes us off the printed page are the sweetest, because I know in those moments that lives are about to be impacted by the grace of God! In those “awkward” moments, I am reminded that God’s not nervous in the service, because He has PURPOSE in the service! If my obedience to His leading results in one life being changed, then His purpose is being established in our midst, and our worship has been in spirit AND truth.

 

 

Joy’s Strange Timing…on “Good” Friday?

The last few months have been a challenge for me from a health standpoint. Between neural issues, continuous sinus infections, severe vitamin D deficiency, and now an attack of a-fib, it’s been the trial of my life. I’ve always been blessed with amazingly good health, so this is definitely a switch. I’m grateful for good medical care- and even more grateful for the Great Physician.

In my last post, I mentioned that I felt that the next movement in worship would be characterized by a fresh infusion of joy.  (I differentiate joy from happiness for the sake of this article, as they are two separate, yet similar, states of mind). This three-letter word has been percolating in my brain through all of my personal struggles. It is really, really difficult to experience joy when things are going poorly. We tend to berate ourselves for our lack of faith, our inability to trust God, or our incapability to rest in Him.

I suppose that it’s human nature to struggle in those difficult times. I am reminded of the response of the Israelites when trapped between Pharaoh and the Red Sea. They complained bitterly to Moses. And then, God showed up! Once they crossed over to the other side, there was a wild celebration of joyous worship with Moses and Miriam leading the way. Like many throughout the Bible, they waited until God moved miraculously to worship and experience joy. It’s easy for us to judge their lack of faith, but not much in human nature has changed in the few thousand years since then.

In my recent contemplation regarding joy, the Lord has been bringing me back to Hebrews 2:9 and Hebrews 12:2. These are powerful passages that speak of Jesus’ ability to see joy on the other side of imminent, intense suffering:

But we do see Jesus…now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

The phrase “for the joy set before him” has always been strange to me. There was nothing joyful about the cross. It was a cruel death of shame reserved for the public humiliation of criminals. And yet, Jesus saw two things worth enduring the suffering. First, He knew that His death and resurrection were the only way to bring reconciliation of man to God. Second, He knew that it would mean the restoration of His rightful place in heaven.

In the garden of Gethsemane, He agonized over what He would suffer. The narrative portrays an intensely human moment in the life of Jesus. And yet, knowing the joy on the other side, He acquiesced to the Father’s will, and experienced fullness of joy in due time.

It is truly human to struggle with “feeling” joy during a trial. In those seasons, the challenge is to worship, to accept the will of God, and perhaps, also to engage in spiritual warfare. The sufferings that we face can be tempered by knowing that on the other side, there will be joy in the faithfulness of God to deliver. Ultimately, believers will experience complete joy at their death. It is the promise that we have from the Word- and the reason that we can call Good Friday, “Good.”

What’s next?

One of my recurring prayers over the last few months has been to seek God’s understanding of what His purposes are in these days in congregational worship. One of the lasting worship leaders of our time, Kent Henry, espouses the assertion that a new generation of worship is born every 15 years or so. I can’t disagree. In my lifetime, there have been several distinct worship “movements,” or “seasons of worship”, with different emphases (both good and not so good) revealing a kernel of truth about God’s purposes.

In the midst of this prayer of mine, over the last few weeks, I have been consistently been drawn back to a passage in Isaiah 61. This passage has led me on a chase through the scriptures as I sought to understand its impact. Isaiah 61 starts with a very familiar Messianic passage that we understand was fulfilled by Christ. The end of the chapter, verses 10-11, are my focus. It is generally accepted by scholars that these two verses are Israel’s response to the promise of the Messiah:

I delight greatly in the Lord;
    my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
    and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the soil makes the sprout come up
    and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness
    and praise spring up before all nations.

There is so much in this passage, but to summarize, we have the prophet Isaiah speaking for Zion, declaring delight and rejoicing for having been given hope of salvation, restoration, and right standing before the Lord, especially in a season of judgment. The last bit of the passage, though, is my focus.

The passage is apparent that God’s purpose is to cause “righteousness and praise spring up before (in the view of) all nations.” The words of this passage speak of something new coming to life. In this context, it is the renewal of right standing with God and new expressions of worship. True worship is always accompanied with a right heart. You can’t separate the two. True worship also makes an impact on those who do not believe- the nations. Israel’s mission was to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” representing God before the nations. This mission was extended to the church through the work of Christ.

As we enter the spring time of the year, we are beginning to see the tender shoots of flowers beginning to sprout up from the ground. Soon, little gardens will be planted in suburban back yards. It’s always amazing to me to see this miracle where there was no apparent life, but now there exists a young, new expression of God’s creation.

As the flowers of the field are of a cyclical nature, so are seasons of worship. I strongly believe that the current season of worship expression is wrapping up, having fulfilled God’s purposes for it. I won’t get into detail with this current paradigm, but one of the strengths of this season is that it has exposed the worship of God to the world, very much in keeping with God’s intent for His people. How many times have we seen one of these reality TV singing talent shows be blown away when an anointed musical servant makes a musical declaration of faith over the airwaves- and they have not been cast in a mocking light? It has been unprecedented, for certain.

With this in mind, my prayer is that a new sprout of worship will grow from the seeds of this passing generation, with a heart for God and for the nations. Adjoining my prayer is that the next generation of worship will be infused with a fresh sense of joy. I feel that this is essential to what comes next. Our days are filled with the world’s anxiety and dread. I believe that the church and the world are craving for songs and expressions of worship that inspire joy. My second prayer is that it will be indwelt with a deeper understanding of the presence of God. My consistent message in ministry always has been that the Lord can do more with one second in His presence than we can accomplish in our lifetime. When we pursue afresh the presence of the Lord, then truly, believers will be transformed, and unbelievers will be confronted with the living God!

A Character Model for Worship Leaders

Revelation chapter 4 gives us a no-holds-barred view of worship in heaven. The imagery is fantastic, similar to something out of a Tolkien or C.S. Lewis novel. God is at the center of it all, surrounded by 4 living creatures, 24 elders, then encircled by thousands of angels.

Of interest to us are the 4 living creatures, each possessing a different appearance. These creatures play a central role to the worship of God throughout the book, inspiring spontaneous worship at times. We’re told, “whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne, the 24 elders bow down and express worship.” Although these creatures take on other roles in the narrative, they primarily function as instigators of worship (think: worship leaders!), as we understand from the text.

The narrative tells us that each creature has a different appearance. One has the appearance of a lion, the second, of an ox, the third, of a man, and the fourth like an eagle.  Similar creatures are described by Ezekiel in his vision.

I make no claim to be an expert on the apocalyptic genre of the Bible. I’m not certain that even the “experts” get it all right. What I do know is that from a Biblical perspective, each living creature does represent (symbolizes) some characteristic of Christ from which leaders of worship should strive to emulate. Let’s take a look at each living creature, and see what might be drawn from each.

The lion is a bold conqueror who protects his own. Revelation 5:5 describes Christ as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, signifying a victorious leader of his people. Judah, fourth son of Israel and Leah, received his father’s blessing as the leader of his brothers. It was most likely an unexpected patriarchal blessing, but in similar form, God’s callings are often unexpected. We may be tempted to walk out that calling with timidity, but as one called to engage God’s people in worship, it is critical not to be afraid to lead. Operate in the full authority that Christ has given you. You have been authorized with a task to lead God’s people into His presence. Don’t shrink back or fear– be bold!

The strong ox is symbolized as a servant throughout the Bible. Valued for its ability to plow ground, the ox’s humble role in an agrarian society also denoted its value. I can think of no greater example of a servant than the example of Christ, who “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5-8). Remember the servant nature of your calling. When you are consistently on the stage, under the lights, it is easy to get distracted by the praise of men, which inevitably leads to arrogance, pride, a haughty spirit. Instead, be an imitator of Christ by practicing true humility in keeping with repentance!

The human speaks of the humanity of Christ and His empathy for the human condition. Fully God, fully man, Hebrews assures us that Jesus is not a “high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.”  Demonstrate human empathy for those who serve in your ministry. Pastor your volunteers. They are not assets to be used for your ministry, but they are God’s people, entrusted for a season into your care. You will give an accounting of them before the Lord. Invest yourself in them with great compassion!

The eagle operates from an on-high, transcendent perspective. He is able to see what is happening as he soars throughout the earth. This is something of a prophetic role. Jesus operated in this role throughout His ministry. In John 5, he declares matter-of-fact that he only does “what he sees his Father doing.” This demonstrated the outflow of His prayer life, which empowered Him for ministry. The worship leader similarly must live a lifestyle of worship, bathing in the Word and prayer. In those times, the Holy Spirit will give insight how to handle difficult situations, what words to speak to people, and yes, unleash that prophetic, creative flow. It takes time and dedication to develop our relationship with the Lord. When we neglect that spiritual connection with the Lord, we became stale, dead, utterly disconnected from God. A disconnected life relies more on talent than anointing, a very dangerous place to be. Live in God’s presence!

God’s model for instigators of worship is a beautiful one. My prayer is that you will apply these central characteristics of Christ- our Prophet, Priest, and King – to your life and ministry.