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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Knowing God’s Will: How do I prepare as a Worship Leader?

I regularly see prospective students who are visiting our campus and who are diligently seeking God’s will for their lives.  Frankly, it is exciting to see how God has brought them to this point and I really consider our time together, many times with parents, friends, or spouses, a divine appointment. Sometimes the student is like a the little cars my kids played with when they were very young. You remember them, don’t you? You placed all four wheels on the floor and then had to drag the car backwards to “wind up” the springlike motor and then let go to see them take off in a quick blast of speed. Some students come in wound up and can’t wait for the semester to start; God has clearly showed them what they need to do. It’s exciting to see that happen.

There are other students who come in sincerely looking for God’s will, but just need to talk things through. They feel like Abraham, God has told them to just “go and I’ll let you know when you get there...” They have made those first steps and are seeking confirmation from the Lord in their life’s direction. At times you can almost see the wheels turning as God opens the hearts and minds to new perspectives. I have compiled some of the questions I ask when God allows these divine appointments and I trust that they will be helpful to pass along to anyone you might think is dealing with a call to worship ministry.

1. How has God been leading you to this point?  Sometimes we just need to sit down and review all that God has been doing. It is so easy to get wrapped up in doing, we forget how we got there. Trace God’s leadership from when you first surrendered to His Lordship until now.

2. Where do you see yourself in five years?  Perhaps this question has only been a vague idea that you would be doing something somewhere, but if you had your best dreams come true, what would it be?

3. Do you know what it takes to do those things?  The person that tells me she has always dreamed of helping the sick and needy overseas as a doctor knows that just loving people and having a willingness to go overseas is not enough; somewhere, sometime they are going to have to have the professional training to be able to be effective.  Training is essential and you should desire the type of training that builds for a lifetime of ministry, not just what to do next week. Showing someone what to do “next week” is like giving them a fish; effective training means that you teach them how to fish for themselves. Yes it takes longer, but the results and rewards are for the rest of one’s life.

4. What is in your hand? Just as God used what was in Moses’ hand, God can use what is in yours. What are those things that really gives you joy, that doing them actually energizes you and you don’t dread doing?  Some people mistakenly think that God’s will is some kind of punishment and we have to do, even though we really dread having to do it.  I grew to understand God’s call to teach as I began teaching and realizing the joy I had in doing it.  Which leads me to the next question...

5. What are you already doing in ministry? Some people have been active doing several things and never really stopped to think that God might be using this as a base or beginning for ministry or other related ministry.

6. Are you obedient in what He has already asked you to do? If we are resisting being obedient in other areas of our life, why would we expect God to keep showing us new directions, when we are not doing what He has already told us to do?

7. Are you willing to do whatever it takes to do God’s will?  Naaman had to be willing to go the Jordan river and dip himself seven times, something that seemingly had nothing to do with his illness [2 Kings 5].  Sometimes part of our preparation will seem totally removed from what we think should be done. Naaman had to give his expectation to the Lord and trust the word of the prophet before God healed him.

These are just a few of the questions I have found to be very helpful for those seeking God’s will and what they should do related to further preparation. Preparation is necessary; and God deserves the best we can offer. I can cook. I use that term very loosely, for I live in the city of New Orleans where food is not just incredibly delicious, but area chefs have superstar status. I can cook, but what I can do is nothing compared to what you would find at any number of our favorites around town. [It’s nothing compared to what my wife can do!] I just don’t have the preparation and training.  God has gifted you with various abilities, and just might be calling you to place those in His hands to become more effective through training. Our desire at the Seminary where I teach is to come alongside of what God is already doing in your life and help in sharpening the tools He has given.  I would welcome any questions, and I certainly would join you in prayer that God would clarify His will and direction in your life.

This is Part 1 of the topic.  See you soon!

Monday, March 23, 2015

What to do when worship is flat, boring, non-engaging, lifeless, cold, or just plain bad.

[This was a question raised by a reader to the blog on "Worship and Entertainment" []

I really couldn't address the issue in the short space for comments, so I decided to broaden it to place it here.   I think this is one of the questions that I get that is difficult to deal with on several levels. I will attempt an answer, and I welcome the dialogue that I imagine it will bring.]

Wow. If I ever write another book, I think I would write it about exactly what you mentioned. The last thing in the world I want you to think is that I have the answer in one neat little package. I don't. I really don't think anyone does. but there are steps toward a solution that we can take.  For general reference, refer to a blog I wrote that touched a little on the subject [ ]

Worship is almost always going to be laden with distractions, some by the devil himself and some by our own making that Satan will use to his advantage to keep us or pull us from genuine worship. I think our first step is to go back and review what biblical worship is: that obedient response to God’s revealed nature and character.  We must understand that we do not initiate worship, God does. The bush was burning before Moses got there.  We join what God has already started when we enter into worship. God puts that desire in our hearts to desire Him, or as Paul said in Philippians, “He helps us want to obey him and then helps us to do want he wants.” [ 2:13]

That will lead us to unconfessed sin, unforgiveness, unwillingness to ask for forgiveness, and a host of other possible things in our lives that would keep us from worshiping.  Once we have confessed and thank God for the forgiveness He offers, we are free to be able to hear the Spirit more clearly.  It is not dependent on our expectations or there may or may not be a deep emotional response. There is a deepening sense of Who He is, What He has done, and more than just a desire to obey, but actual obedience.

Some of the most powerful worship moments were not in services with perfect musicians, incredible singing, and powerful preaching.  Rather, they were services in which the leadership on the platform was offering a “widow’s mite” of talent and sharing, but it was the very best they could offer. It was convicting. It was brutally transparent. It was a sacrifice of praise.

When everything is “bad,” that is, from a human viewpoint, we are left with a choice: Go somewhere else [which, if you are on staff is not probably not an option], or choose to focus on God alone, asking God to help us look past what is going on in front to see what is going on in your heart that might keep you from seeing Him.  Let’s look one step further into your question; I want to look at the words you used, though I have heard them used many times by many people including my students who have asked the same questions:

“...what should our response be in a situation where the worship is described as flat, boring, non-engaging, lifeless, cold, or just plain bad. Lets say the music is terribly off and the leaders appear to just be going through the motions.

Focus on the following words: “flat, boring, non-engaging, lifeless, cold, bad.”  These are words of perception of the listener. They are responses of the listener. When we say someone is boring, we think we are making a judgement on the character or delivery of the person, when in reality we are revealing the response of the listener. Perhaps the person is speaking out of his or her learning style, which is different than the person making the response. We are not called to judge another’s character, nor are we responsible for another’s actions, however we are responsible for our own.  A similar evaluation may be taken from the next sentence of the commentary: “and the leaders appear to just be going through the motions.”  These too, are character judgments that we are not equipped to make, nor commanded to make.  

I have dealt with poorly shared music in several blogs, so I won't rehash that, but sometimes we just need to realize that what is there may be the best they can offer and it just might be the "widow's mite" of offering given to God at that time. Pray for them, but don't criticize them.You might do ten times better than those leading, but at the moment you are not, so just pray for them. If God opens a door to help them and they are receptive, take advantage of the opportunity to share what God is teaching you. However, please do so in a spirit of humility, not as "I'm better and you must listen to me."

So what can we say? Let me summarize and I hope this will be helpful to some extent:

1. Know what biblical worship is. Review it. Make the personal preparations so you can worship.
2. Ask God to help you worship. You know that is His will, and you should do this before the service.
3. Ask God to help you focus on Him, on His Word, His message through the texts of the song and sermon.
4. Close your eyes if need be. [I have found this necessary when those on the platform become distractions themselves.]
5. Begin to praise God for Who He Is and thank Him for What He has done; focus on rehearsing God’s character and nature.
6. Commit to God to be obedient, regardless.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Ten Ideas That Will Destroy Worship

1. Worship is the music. Worship is our obedient response to God’s nature and character; that response can be with or without music. Limiting worship to music implies that those who aren’t so musically inclined can’t really worship. We are commanded to worship, and God would not command what He would not equip us to do. Praying, giving, hearing God’s Word, and much more are all a part of worship.

2. Being able to play and instrument and sing makes one a “Worship Leader.”  Many times people are thrust into a position out of necessity, whether or not they are prepared.  Fortunately, training exists for these impromptu leaders, but if all that happens is filling the position without a biblical understanding of what worship is and isn’t, how what they do fits into worship, and how  personal purity and growth in their spiritual life is an integral part of the whole, then the person may only be filling a position, but not really fulfilling the role of a worship leader.

3. The groups up front are performing, the congregation is the audience.  Worship is not entertainment, since the focus of entertainment is pleasing the listener, but the focus of worship is pleasing God.  Entertainment and worship are on opposite ends of the spectrum. The purpose of worship is God-centered, giving glory to God alone.

4. “After we use a song for a while, we burn it and look for another.”  The danger here is a lack of understanding of the biblical mandate in Colossians 3:16 of using music to teach. It is great to learn new songs, but not to use only new songs. Singing only the “latest & greatest” generally misses the fullness of expression of doctrine and is narrow in focus. We learn by repetition over a long period of time. There must be a building of a congregational memory of songs that they can sing by heart and express the fullness of our faith.  Multigenerational worship is more than just young and old singing the same songs; but each generation mixing life together in all the aspects of corporate worship over time.

5. “I can do what needs to be done; I don’t need to.... anymore.” The absence of a teachable spirit can poison congregational worship. Being able to play the songs of today does not guarantee skill for tomorrow.  There are always areas in which we can grow and improve. God may be preparing the leader for a new assignment, but the refusal to seek help and grow will disqualify the person from the opportunity. [Even with those we train at the Seminary, we desire to instill the heart of a lifelong learner.]

6. “If we build it, they will come”: worship style, etc.  The idea of cultural relevance was right, but trying to make worship style the substitute for the Body of Christ personally sharing Christ is wrong. Natural growth is a result of the organism multiplying itself by reproduction; we dare not make a worship service the primary means by which we reach out to the lost. True growth comes from the discipleship of those who have been led to Christ and mentored into the basics of the faith. False growth comes from  just “swapping sheep” from another congregation because of worship style.

7. “It’s just not worship unless this person/group is leading/preaching.”  When we must have something more than just God and His Word to worship, we are revealing that God alone is not enough. Simply put, we have made that person, group, or whatever an idol in our lives. When Peter, James, and John were with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter was getting caught up in everything, until God’s voice clarified the issue: “Behold my Son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to Him.” and when they looked up, they saw Jesus only. [Matthew 17:1-8] We can easily begin to worship the experience of worship more than worship the Christ of worship.

8. Following formulas more than the leadership of the Spirit. There is a tendency to copy what others have done, even so much as to how a song is shared, without thinking of the context from which it came. Rather than seeking the leadership of the Spirit about the needs of the congregation and how everything fits together with the message to be shared, some leaders just put together what they have heard from the latest conference, without even thinking that the songs were written for the conference and it just won’t sound the same with their group as it did with the 5000 at the conference.  The practice of jumping up an octave on the verse or chorus after a bridge may sound exciting, but the true is, few in the congregation can do it, or if they do, they sound as if they shouldn’t have tried. Everyone is not a tenor or soprano. Leaders must know their congregations.

9. The volume of the music reflects the intensity of the worship. When the dB levels push 90 and above the body will begin to release endorphins as an automatic pain response for protection causing the person to have a sense of a “high.”  Too easily this physical response is interpreted as a spiritual one, resulting in confusion, not to mention that prolonged exposure leads to hearing loss. [This effect is same for an organ playing over 90 dBs as it is for a praise band, for it is not the type of music, but the dB level that is causing the damage.] Unfortunately, the damage is much like a slow growing tumor that is not discovered until the damage is done and is permanent.

10. It doesn’t matter if the congregation doesn’t participate, they can just follow the praise team or worship group in front and let them sing.  The truth is, if the congregation is not following, that is, singing, then the group up front is not leading. Such an attitude can slip into the mindset that the congregation is an audience and those leading into performance. We are to encourage one another as the Body of Christ.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Meditations on the Lord’s Prayer {Matthew 6:9-13}

Our Father in heaven,
Lord, we are commanded, encouraged to look to You,  the Creator of the Universe, in a personal way, as a perfect Father. As good as our fathers might have been, You, as “our Father in heaven” always responds in perfect love, perfect patience, perfect timing, for You alone know what has been, what is, and what will be. You are not limited to this physical world and time, but are in heaven, ruling over time and eternity. Help us not forget this prayer was given by the Son, who of His own will became a man, breaking through time and eternity to walk in the limitations of human flesh that we might see how much You, God love us, and also provide the way to forgiveness and restoration of that personal relationship that we might be able to call You, “our Father.”

hallowed be Your name,
Lord, You alone are hallowed, holy, separate from us, Creator, not creation. Holy is Your name, Your name is the personification of who You Are – The Great I AM, love, the Beginning and the End, the Eternal One, Righteous One, Lord God Almighty; and what You do: Creator, Sustainer, Savior, Redeemer, Rock, Fortress, Teacher, Protector, Provider, Comforter, Counselor, Friend.

Your kingdom come, 
May the way that You exercise rule and authority over all the universe, time and eternity be realized in this temporal, physical life that we experience now. Help us to become aware of that rule, and realize that we will see in more in its fullness when we are finally at home in heaven with You.

Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
We pray that as Your will is a reality and is the natural response in every way in heaven, may it be just that way here on earth as well. That the worship we offer here, would be as the worship we will offer there; that the thoughts, words, and actions we have here will be the thoughts and words we will have there; that our understanding of You and Your will and ways would be as it will be in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.
We recognize that You, God are our Provider, Protector for our every need, and that those needs are constantly with us. Each day, we go to You for the food to nourish our bodies, for the provision of shelter and clothing, for the reassurance of Your presence and approval. May we not seek those things outside of Your hand, lest we accept less than what You would desire and what we truly need.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
You are the only One that can forgive our sins; we are absolutely helpless to do so on our own. The price of that forgiveness came at the cost of the life of Your, Son, Jesus. We seek forgiveness in no other person. In the way that you freely forgive our sins, help us to forgive those who sin against us –  To release to You those who offend us and to trust You to carry out  justice, as the Just and Upright One.  Help us to remember that no one could ever do to us what we have done that brought about the death of Christ; Help us to forgive as you have forgiven us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
While we live in this earthly tent, we know we cannot escape living among those desires and attractions that would lure us away from Your perfect will and plan. Help us to not succumb to shortcuts, and the easy way out, but patiently accept the disciplines of the formation of the character of Christ You are building into our lives.  Set our eyes and thoughts on “those things which are above;” help us to choose to avoid those things that trip us, and those “sins that so easily entangle.” Help us to be able to hear Your voice of warning; speak loudly so that we cannot mistake that it is Your voice that we are hearing. Provide that “way of escape that we might be able to bear it.”

For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever, Amen.
For Yours alone, O God, is that authority to rule over all, the power to rule over all and the glory due for ruling over all as Lord God Almighty throughout eternity. So be it; so it really is.

Monday, November 24, 2014

10 Lessons from Jonah for Thanksgiving

When God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah runs the other direction he heads far East toward Tarshish, on the coast of Spain; Nineveh, the principal city of the Assyrians, was far East in the opposite direction.  Considering that being a Hebrew and walking into the capital city and telling them that destruction was on the way would be like one of us going over to a Middle Eastern extremist group and giving the same message, one can understand Jonah’s reservation. Not only this, Jonah probably wanted God to punish this cruel and wicked nation. The problem was, that’s not what God had told him to do.  God will consistently move to see that His ultimate will is done: “Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.” [1:4]

The other members on the boat were not Hebrews, and when asked who he was, Jonah told them that he was running away from the God that made the heavens, earth, and sea, which was threatening to sink the boat they were in,   Jonah tells them to throw him overboard.  They resisted, but the storm only grew worse.   “Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.  At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.”[1:13-16]

 Notice that Jonah could have resisted and caused the death of all, but he doesn’t. This is the first glimmer of hope that he is having a change of heart.  Notice also that God can use even the bad circumstances to bring others to Himself.  

God sends a fish, granted a large one, to swallow Jonah and he stays there 3 days and nights.  It is there in the belly of the fish that he repents and prays for mercy. His prayer, recorded in chapter 2, is an amazing testimony of faith and trust in the goodness of God, despite the circumstances, for toward the end it turns into a prayer of praise and thanksgiving, even though he is still in the belly of the fish:
“When my life was ebbing away, 
    I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
    to your holy temple.
 “Those who cling to worthless idols
    turn away from God’s love for them.
 But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
    will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
    I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”

 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” [2:7-10]

Jonah could have been upset that though he escaped from the storm, he is swallowed by the fish, but God used this in his life to bring him to repentance. Jonah’s perspective changed: what could have been viewed as only making the situation worse, or no better, is now seen as God having mercy and saving him from the storm.  Repentance and gratitude begin to change his heart toward praise. God again directs and the fish deliver him to the shore.  Jonah was not useful until he became grateful.

God takes the initiative again by issuing the same basic command, almost as if nothing had happened. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.” [3:1-3]

Surprisingly, miraculously the people of Nineveh respond.  One of the greatest revivals in all of Scripture occurs when this entire city repents and seeks God. When the people repent, God responds: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” [3:10] God could have sent an angel, or even another prophet to Nineveh, but doesn’t. Why? God wanted to teach Jonah about love and mercy and how deep His character and love are. He also wanted to show that salvation is for all who repent, regardless how pagan and evil.

Interestingly, the story doesn’t end here. Had the principle lesson been about the revival, the book would have ended, but it doesn’t. We do not have to read much into the story to realize that Jonah really had not paid much attention to the people responding and repenting, but God did. Look at Jonah’s response to God:

“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” [4:1-3]

Jonah goes off farther East, hopefully to watch the fireworks as God destroys this enemy of the Hebrew nation. The Assyrians were a cruel and evil nation, raiding smaller countries around them and turning the inhabitants into slaves. Jonah hated them, and probably wanted to see God’s judgment on them, but God had other plans.

God’s plans for the angry prophet were not quite over. God prepares and gourd vine to grow which shades Jonah from the heat as he waits. Then God prepares a worm to eat the root of the vine, and then a hot dry wind to finish it off. In less than 24 hours Jonah goes from happy to angry over the vine. Listen to the dialogue between God and Jonah and how God teaches him how He cares for all people:

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” 
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” [4:9-11]

Jonah’s priorities were out of line. He cared more for his own convenience than he did for the souls of men. God uses the vine to illustrate Jonah’s selfishness and lack of love.

Jonah is a great little book, but what does this have to do with Thanksgiving?  Precisely that it was at the point of giving thanks, even before he was released from the belly of the fish, that Jonah was in a position to be used as God desired.  The following are some lessons that we need to take away as we read the book:

1. God will accomplish His will. He is willing to move heaven and earth to get it done. He desires that we obey Him willingly, but will use our rebellion against His will to teach us that obedience is always better.
2. Jonah was not useful until he became grateful.
3. God takes the initiative. Nine different times in the story God moves; He is not distant and far away when trouble comes, but rather as close as the nearest prayer.
4. God will bless even the unrighteous to bring them into a relationship with Himself.
5. Repentance and gratitude begin a work in our heart that can help us as we obey.
6. Many times we fail to see how merciful God has been with us. The “belly of the fish” we find ourselves in may really be a blessing in disguise.
7. God can and does use even the most mundane and ordinary things to accomplish His will. Never say that you are not “important” enough, or spiritual enough to be used by God. He used a storm, a fish, a gourd vine, a worm, and a dry wind to accomplish His task: He can use even us!
8. God will use the ordinary around us to reveal where our character does not reflect His nature.
9. God cares for all people, everywhere, for “He is not willing that any should perish.” [Matt. 18:14]
10. Years later, Peter is going to be in Joppa, the very town from which Jonah fled God’s will, and will have a choice to obey, even though it didn’t seem quite right, and he makes the correct decision to obey.

Are you in the belly of a big fish right now?  How will you choose to respond? What can you give thanks for right now?