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Monday, December 19, 2011

Worship is not a "Program"

[Not long ago, Rev. Jerry Bass a former pastor and a local hospital chaplain, and I were sharing about worship, a subject in which we both are passionate. I am grateful to him for the genesis of these thoughts.]

One of our problems in so many of the published multi-week studies is that we want to take a process and turn it into a program. Programs are fine in their place, but sometimes great truths and principles learned through trial and difficulty are summarized or simplified into a program so that more people could participate or that what was learned could be “massed produced.” The idea has great intentions: if a dear brother or sister learned these principles that changed their lives, what might be done so that everyone might learn the same things? The problem lies in the things that are “lost in the transition” from principle to program.

How are things lost? Let me give one example. Let’s take a simple Bible study lesson. For far too long we seem to have confused “content understood” with “content applied.” Just think of the average Sunday morning Bible study class: the typical teacher fights to get through all the material, that is, “the content,” and then finally admonishes the class to do what the Scripture says. Many of our church members have logged in so many hours of “Bible study,” that if they had been given for credit they would have had multiple doctorates by now. Yet, many times, they will spend their entire lives as “students” in some class and never go on to become the teacher or mentor to another person. What is missing? There are multiple answers to the issue because it is not just a simple problem, but many times the teacher never really explains how to apply the particular truth being studied and what it really looks like when it is lived out on a day to day basis. To make things more difficult the Bible study may have been “content heavy” to begin with and weak on the application.

You might be asking yourself by now, what does this have to do with worship? If we are not careful we will take the truths about worship and attempt to force them into some kind of program. There are no “5 easy steps to perfect worship.” God refuses to be placed in a box. The truth is God initiates worship, not us. There are some biblical truths that we must obey, but these are not “steps.” Worship is our obedient response to the revealed nature and character of God. Worship requires preparation. What we seek in worship is not an “experience,” but relationship with God. When we seek an experience in worship, more than we seek the Christ of worship, we are worshiping how we feel, not the Lord who gave His life for us; it is a subtle form of idiolatry.
In that obedient response God draws us to Himself.

Biblical worship can never be reconstructed into a program. The principles in Scripture are there, but we must be careful to avoid the temptation to reduce everything to “5 Easy Steps.” Obedient responses are seldom “easy,” and it is too easy to get caught up in a checklist of “dos and don’ts,” rather than the awesomeness of holy God. As I complete my own book on worship, I am writing this to myself, lest I miss the point and try to push a program, rather than share the principles of the process.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Reflections on the Year

I started the semester with “Ten Things I Wanted My Students to Learn This Semester.” While I had goals for the students with whom God had entrusted to me, God had things He wanted me to learn, and in many ways it has been life changing. This year has been a difficult one, which included the passing of my father in January and other major struggles throughout the year. There have been many passages from God’s Word that have been instrumental in this year’s survival, but I would like to focus on just a few.

A song that ministered greatly to our spirits this year has been Dr. Benjie Harlan’s paraphrase of Psalm 139 entitled “Know My Heart,” which was recorded by the ministers of music of Louisiana. Out of the notes of this anthem came the assurance of God’s presence and His watchful eye. There were many times this past year when all I could do was listen and cry. Maybe the first lesson God was trying to teach me this year is God not only is aware of what I am going through, He is there, His Spirit lives in me.

Philippians has always ministered to us in so many ways. There really isn’t space to reprint everything God has taught us from Paul’s letter. Let's at least look at 4:4-9:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Just a few points:
-Rejoicing is an act of the will, not emotions.
-There is a choice to respond in gentleness.
-There must be a constant awareness of the presence of God
-We must exchange our fears for gratitude and prayer
Then God’s peace guards our hearts.
-We must learn to direct our thoughts, choose to focus on
what is the real truth of the situation,
and focus on what is good.
-We can take encouragement from godly mentors.
Then God’s peace will be with us.

Another passage that has been helpful has been Psalm 73. Again, I won’t try to go through the entire psalm, but just focus on a few points. The psalmist is questioning why it seemed that good people suffer and evil people don’t. We don’t have to read far in any newspaper or other news source to be able to identify with the psalmist. Why doesn’t God just wipe these evil people out? [This is not the place to try to deal with the problem of suffering and evil. There are some wonderful resources, such as Ravi Zacharias and his apologetics ministry that I would encourage you to follow.] The basic issue is there are times when the things that are happening around you do not seem fair or seem consistent with the character of God. In those times we need to ask to see things from God’s perspective. The psalmist, confused over such problems, finally enters the temple to mediate on the nature and character of God and realizes that [1] God is still in control and [2] He will bring things to a final justice. His final conclusion is found in Psalm 73:28: “But as for me, God’s presence is all I need. I have made the sovereign Lord my shelter, as I declare all the things you have done.” [NET]

We begin and end with trust in God’s nature and character, His presence, His love, and the promise of His provision. So if I were to summarize what God has been trying to teach me this year it would be found in this statement: “Responding as He desires is more important to God than what I may be going through, for His desire is to make me holy, not happy.” Our true happiness can only be found in Him. God doesn’t leave us on our own, He is with us, He loves us. Remember the promise of Isaiah 43:2-3: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior”

When all else seems to fail, we need to go back to the truth that we know: God is love, God is in control, what may happen will be for His glory and my ultimate good.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Blinded Worship

One of the projects I assign students a project to plan worship services in both contemporary and blended formats. Not long ago a student submitted one of these projects with a typo in the title: “Blinded Worship.” Of course the student intended to say, “Blended Worship,” but the error began to stick in my mind. How many times have we participated in a “blinded” worship service, that is, one in which no one knows where it is going, not even the one leading. No planning. No preparation, –just flying blind, throwing a bunch of songs together and seeing what happens. Things might end ok, but it was certainly not a result of the methodology of the leader of worship, rather the mercy and grace of God.

Blinded worship can come from more than just a lack of proper planning, it can be a result of the leaders being blind to what is going on around them. I was talking recently to a couple who were sharing about a particular disastrous worship service they had witnessed. The saddest part of the story was that one of the leaders was oblivious to the situation. Personally, one of the most difficult things for me to do on a Sunday is worship with all the other things that have to be done and coordinated just so everyone else can worship. This is not a complaint, just a reality. I have to really focus on worshiping. At the same time, I must be aware when things are deteriorating, I must know what to do to fix the situation before it causes problems for everyone. Blinded worship leaders never see it coming, don’t forsee the dangers and don’t plan ahead.

Blinded worship can come from more than just a lack of proper planning, or being blind to what is going on around them, it can also be a result of the leader being blind to his or her weaknesses. All of us must have quality personal time with God on a daily basis, but as leaders in worship we must constantly be trying to improve our technical skills as musicians, as well as our communication skills with others and in front of the congregation. A “blinded” worship leader is one who is blind to the need to keep growing in musical skills, and blind to learning how best to communicate effectively and concisely, so that the congregation doesn’t feel like they have stood through two or three mini-sermons before the pastor stands to speak. “Setting up” or introducing a song can quickly turn into something that sounds like a frustrated preacher wanting to get his opportunity to speak, rather than a preparation for the message of the song. I share with worship leaders “to look in the program and see if your name is down to preach the sermon, if it’s not there, then don’t.” A blinded leader is also one who refuses to admit personal issues. Many times this stems from a leader who is insecure on the inside, but outwardly portrays an attitude that they know how to handle everything. Unfortunately, this attitude prevents the person from being open to getting help they so desperately need.

One of the best solutions for these kinds of “blindness” is a spirit of honesty, humility and transparency as well as a trusted friend with whom you can confide, pray, and receive the feedback that is needed. I praise God for many pastors and friends God has sent my way through the years as well as a loving wife and children who helped so me some of my “blindness.” I pray that God will provide for this need for those that might be struggling with this now.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Discipleship and Worship

Would it make a difference in our churches if, as part of the discipling of new believers, we invested a significant time in teaching a biblical understanding of worship?

This question has been front and center in my mind recently, and I find myself mulling over its implications. I realize that there are many really good materials already in existence designed to help new believers in their daily walk. Many of these actually incorporate some basics of worship as part of the material on how to have a daily devotional time with God. I praise the Lord for them, but what I am talking about is a little more in depth. We tell new believers, and even those who are well established in church life, that worship is important. We encourage them to worship daily and to participate in corporate worship, but do we tell them how to do it and show them what it looks like?

Once someone accepts Christ as Savior and Lord, we must bring them along side another believer to help them learn how to have a daily walk with the Lord, to learn how to begin to discover for themselves the riches of God’s Word and how to pray; to help them become part of a local body of believers and be nourished in fellowship and encouragement; to help them learn to discern how Satan beguiles us with temptations; to help them learn the importance of daily surrender of the will, surrender of goals, to seek His direction, to give and to realize that part of the mandate of a relationship with Christ is to carry the Gospel to every tongue in every land. We must teach them. We have to. Not to disciple a new believer is like having a baby and leaving it in the kitchen to learn to feed himself. We must do these things.

As part of these essentials of the faith, shouldn’t we include a biblical understanding of what worship is and is not? Shouldn’t we include how to prepare for worship, both personal and corporate? Shouldn’t we show them how and model worship for them?

What would happen if we did include such training? Is it possible that we could raise up a generation of believers that base their worship experience on an obedient response to God and not emotions? Is it possible that we could raise a generation that is not dependent on a specific style of music, because worship has been confused with what is being sung? Would it be possible to raise a generation of believers that does not confuse entertainment and worship?

I think the worship wars could have been avoided in part, entirely, if years ago a deep overall understanding of what worship is and is not had been taught. As I look back at many of the worship controversies in church history, many of them might even have been avoided. Biblical worship unifies and brings together. One of the reasons that Rehoboam placed the golden calves at either end of the newly divided kingdom was to keep the ten tribes from returning to Jerusalem to worship, because he feared that worship would reunite the people. The picture of worship in heaven is people from every tribe and nation [multicultural] and all ages [multigenerational] around the Lamb on His throne [one central focus]. Worship in the church should be much like the spokes on a wheel, different yet all connected to the hub; true unity in diversity.

Worship is too important to hope that somehow new Christians will learn what to do, or that it is enough to tell people that they need to do it. Including the practical aspects of worship as part of discipleship would help us develop a more holistic approach in training new believers and aid in the stopping the spiral of dissension and splitting that has been so pervasive in our past. I firmly believe that when we get both our heads and our hearts right about worship, we will see both the growth in outreach and growth in unity among the members.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

His Yoke is Easy... But What About Ministry?

Matthew 11:28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Look at Matthew 11:28 again from the Amplified version
"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden and overburdened, and I will cause you to rest. [I will ease and relieve and refresh your souls.] 29Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am gentle (meek) and humble (lowly) in heart, and you will find rest (relief and ease and refreshment and recreation and blessed quiet) for your souls. 30For My yoke is wholesome (useful, good--not harsh, hard, sharp, or pressing, but comfortable, gracious, and pleasant), and My burden is light and easy to be borne."

Who of us in ministry cannot hear these words from Christ, longing for some rest. “Over scheduled, over committed, snowed under,” — these are but a few of the expressions that come out of our lips. Before we look into the specific applications of passage, let’s remind ourselves of the context.

In Matthew 10, Jesus summoned the 12 and gave them instructions before sending them out. As they were leaving, he addressed the crowd and told them about the John the Baptist and his ministry. He then denounced the cities that had rejected his message and prayed the well known prayer [11:25-27]:

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

Then, to address those around him he then said: “Come to Me...” Notice what he had just said: “and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” For Jesus to say only those whom He chose could see the Father, and then say “Come to Me, all...” opened the door for everyone or “whoever will.” The door of salvation is open to those who hear the open invitation.

Jesus’ invitation is for all those burdened, weary, tired. [Know anyone that fits that description?] Jesus calls out to the worn out, but what is His promise? “I will ease and relieve and refresh your souls.” What a promise!

After teaching all week, Wednesday evening choir practice, and playing catch up with around the house things on Saturday, Sunday starts at church early and ends late. Many times coming in from church means a time of collapsing in a recliner, and trying to get some other things done before going to bed. I know that I am not alone in such a schedule. Bivocational ministers, as well as those in full time positions often feel like they can only come up for air between activities. We need to come to Christ for rest, but how can we have it? We can’t just stop at that part of the verse, we must go on. Jesus makes a statement that seems out of place and it is the condition for finding rest: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

You might ask, “What does a yoke have to do with rest?” A yoke was made for work, but this is not just any yoke, it is His yoke. Scripture says His yoke is “easy,” or one that “fits perfectly, one that is “useful, good--not harsh, hard, sharp, or pressing, but comfortable, gracious, and pleasant, and My burden is light and easy to be borne.” The yoke was placed on a beast of burden to plow and to pull heavy loads. Rightly placed, the strain of the load was evenly distributed and allowed more effective results. Putting on God’s yoke, His will done His way fits rightly, brings rest, or “relief and ease and refreshment and recreation and blessed quiet.”

What does that mean? It does not say that there would not be any work or that there would not be any burdens. Jesus calls us to take “His yoke” and to “learn from Him.” We can understand that “taking His yoke” is doing what He has called us to do. The qualification is that we do it as He would do: we must learn from Him, who in His nature is gentle, and humble, then we will find rest for our souls.

When we begin to take up His yoke, to do what He has called us to do and follow in obedience, our normal response is to barge on ahead and just do what needs to be done. It is easy to live in such a way that the goal justifies the means to achieve it. Jesus’ words seems to cut directly across such attitudes. For His example was to do the work as a servant [humble] and without complaining or being harsh [gentle].

As we respond in obedience to what God is calling us to do, we must learn to do it with a learner’s heart, gentle and humble, not complaining, etc. It is easy to see the negative, in fact, for some of us that becomes our focus. One way of refocusing our attention from the negative is to give thanks and consciously focus on what God has provided. We must ask God to help us respond in gentle and loving ways.

How can we say that His yoke is “easy?” A better translation simply means “fits perfectly.” As we are doing what God has called us to do, we will discover that it is not a burden, but a joy. We can actually feel energized rather than worn out. Eric Liddell, who became an English missionary to China, was also the central figure of the movie, “Chariots of Fire,” and won the gold medal in the Olympics for his running. He once told his sister, “God, has made me for China, but God also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. ” When we are doing what God has called us to do, in His power, and in His character, we too can feel the pleasure of the Lord.

One of my greatest joys and privileges is to teach the worship classes at the seminary. I can be tired, and worn out, but when the opportunity to share the truths of God’s Word about worship, about Who He is and What He has done arises, I can honestly say that I can sense a new energy that I did not have before. Yes, it is the grace of the Lord and His power, but it is also the fact that it is his yoke that is fitting perfectly for that moment.

What are we to do? What does it look like?

1. We must go to Him. As we are serving God, it is easy to get so wrapped up in so many things that they become a burden. We get frustrated, upset. –“Here we are trying to serve God, and look how bad all this is...” In those moments of weariness, He is calling out to us to “Come to Him.”
2. We need to focus on Him, and not the negative things around us. Not to ignore problems, but refocus on giving thanks to God for what He has done.
3. We must ask God to remold our character after His, and respond as He would respond. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart”
4. We need to ask for the Spirit of God to help us, to accomplish what He has called us to do, and not take on what He has not. No one can do it all. We can get so involved that we cannot do anything well. Discerning what God want us to do also involves discerning what He does not want us to do. We need the help of His Spirit to avoid these problems. Sometimes we are worn out because we are doing good things, but not the best things, or those things for which He has called us.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Waiting on God

Waiting on God is never an easy process. We live in a “I want it now” culture and a world where information is instantaneously available on our mobile phones. Whether it is waiting in line, or at a traffic light, our impatience readily reveals itself when we have to wait another 30 seconds. Another reality is that God is timeless. He spoke the universe into being from nothing and exists outside of the limitations of time and space. Through Jesus Christ, God broke through these limitations to reveal Himself and provide the means by which we can come to know and have a relationship with Him. Everything God does is complete, perfect, and right, for it is His very nature to do so. Scripture says that “in the fulness of time, God sent His Son...” that is, at the exact moment, not a day later or earlier, but at the perfect time. God is aware of our limitations, since He made us.

God works on a schedule and timetable much different than ours; – much different than ours. Which leads us to think at times that He is not aware of our situation. – After all, if He knows everything, why do we have to tell Him and ask Him about our needs in prayer? I make no claims to be able to understand how God works, or to have all the answers. In fact, the very reason that “waiting on God” is the subject of this blog is because I am struggling with it myself. Some much could be said, but let’s remember that God doesn’t want us to ask Him for our needs and tell Him about our condition because He is unaware. He does so that we might realize our continued need of Him, and to build His nature and character into us. (I realize much more need be said, but it will have to wait for another blog.)

One of the passages of Scripture that comes to me when I think about “waiting on God” is Isaiah 40:31: “but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” So I began to study that and related passages for help. (In the process, I did find an interesting article on the subject by J. Hampton Keathley III [] that gave some great background on the biblical understanding of the word “wait” in the Old and New Testaments.) There are several words that are translated “wait,” but the idea in the Old Testament most often is “look patiently, wait, hope, expect, look eagerly, wait expectantly.” In the New Testament the word is most often used related to the return of our Lord. As I continued to study the passage, I looked for the context of Isaiah 40, the chapter of comfort, and focused on verses 27-31:

27 Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”? 28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

Notice that in verse 27 the people find themselves in trouble and begin to question not only “Does God know?” [My way is hidden from the LORD] but, “Does He even care about our circumstances?” [my cause is disregarded by my God]. When we are in distress we often think that God has forgotten us. We think that if God were watching out for me, why would I be going through this difficult period? Remember Mary’s question to Jesus about her brother Lazarus’ death: “Lord, if you had been here, he would not have died..” That is to say, “You didn’t come when I really needed you and now look what has happened!” The truth is that we are never out of His sight. Look at Psalm 139:

1 O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. 5 You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. 13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, 16 your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. 17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you. 19 If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! 20 They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. 21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you? 22 I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies. 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

After addressing their misconception about God, God reminds them “who” He is in verses 28-29: “28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” When in the midst of a difficult time it is easy to forget who God is. We need to go back and remember what the real truth is about God. Yahweh [LORD] is the relational God, the everlasting God, who has always been here and will always be, He is the Creator of the universe, and creates out of nothing, the All Powerful One who never gets tired. He understands and knows everything. He gives strength and provides for the needs of those who seek Him. Failure to seek and wait on God is saying that God is not sufficient for the problems we face.

Verses 30-31 reminds the people to remember who they are: “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope [wait] in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” The reality of human existence is that we get tired, we get old, we make mistakes. That isn’t a possibility; it is a fact. BUT, those that wait, hope, look eagerly, and wait expectantly in Yahweh, will renew their strength. They will continue to go on, sometimes like eagles, sometimes running, sometimes just walking, but always making progress. Not from their own strength, but from Him who creates out of nothing. That’s good, because we have nothing to really offer; we bring nothing to the table.

Look what the sons of Korah said in Psalm 42:1-5:“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? 3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” 4 These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. 5 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” The word for “hope” here is the same as “wait.”

What can we do when we feel we just cannot go on? What can we do when we feel that God has forgotten that we exist? We “wait” on God. How? For starters go back over what Scripture teaches:

1. Go back to the truth of the situation: God knows me and loves me. Read Psalm 139 and John 3:16 out loud two or three times. Read them slow. Think about what God is saying.

2. Go back to the truth of Who God is. Name His attributes, His character qualities, His names. He is Creator of the universe, creates out of nothing, the All Powerful One, He never gets tired, He understands and knows everything. He give strength and provides for the needs of those who seek Him.

3. Go back to the truth of your own weakness. Only a fool would pretend that he or she never makes mistakes and never has problems, or never grows tired of the circumstances around them.

4. Go back to the truth of God’s promise to those that seek, hope, and wait on Him. The ability to persevere in difficult times is not dependent on us, but power of God’s Spirit in us. It is an act of faith, an act of the will, not emotions. Thank God for Who He is. Thank God for what He has done in the past. Praise God for His unchangeable nature and call out to Him presenting your needs and concerns, but in faith, asking for His perfect will. Believe God to act. Then, “look patiently, hope, expect, look eagerly, and wait expectantly.”

As we learn to wait on God, we grow in our relationship and faith in who God is and leave a heritage of testimonies of God’s faithfulness for those around us.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Worship Leaders: How to Help the Singer with “Stage Fright”

Working with small music groups in ministry is a joy and a challenge. There is an immense amount of joy in being part of the spiritual growth and encouragement to believers as well as an instrument in sharing the message of the Gospel through music. At the same time, we realize that we are working with volunteers who might have some experience musically, but very few actually have professional musical training. One of the most common problems that I have found with these volunteers is the singer with stage fright, being shy or being overly nervous when he or she has to sing solo in front of a group. How can we help these who are involved in the ministry to overcome the anxiety that can hamper their ability to function effectively? Allow me to share five things that I have found to helpful and trust that they will be helpful to you as well.

1. Realize that our worth comes from what Christ has done in our lives, not from any abilities that we might have. We live in a performance based culture where human worth is based on how much talent one might have or how well one might perform. The value of the individual is equated with his output. One of the problems with this line of reasoning is that we become valuable only as long as we are useful or more useful than others. Such a pragmatic view sees those that have little talent, old, disabled, etc., as less than valuable and are a burden on society. They really have little, if any, real value.

When Christ comes into our lives, He gives us eternal life, forgiveness, and true worth based on His own nature and character. Our value comes from what He has done in and through our lives, and we are freed from cultural limitations and expectations that defines our worth. Whether I can sing as good as someone else, or play an instrument as well as someone else doesn't really matter; what really matters is who God says I am: a child of His. I no longer have to compare myself to others to see if I measure up, because my audience is God, Himself, and He has accepted me through His Son. We have no reason to fear not measuring up to the standards of someone because we have already been accepted through Christ Jesus.

2. Be well prepared. There are no substitutes for the hours of practice. Preparation includes many things: spiritual preparation, mental preparation, as well as the preparation that comes from hours of correct practice. Singers that are nervous because they don't know their music from lack of rehearsal have a reason to be nervous. However, adequate preparation can help alleviate those insecurities. Distractions can come at inopportune moments and the singer who is the least bit unprepared will forget words, etc.

One thing that I have found helpful is to have the person sing in front of a mirror. Although it may be uncomfortable at first for the singer, singing in front of a mirror is generally enough distraction to show how well they know the music and is good practice in how to deal with distractions as they come.

3. Sing small sections as a solo first. Before giving a big solo to an inexperienced singer, help them ease into a solo role by letting them sing a short solo as part of a group song. This can help build confidence burden of being responsible for an entire song.

4. When the singer is going to sing solo, especially for the first time, let them practice in the place where they will be singing, but with no one else around. Let them get used to the area and begin to feel comfortable being out in front and not just part of a group. This may take several rehearsals for them to really begin to relax.

5. Encourage, encourage, encourage!
You will be helping and evaluating them during these practice sessions and it is better to find three things to compliment before you even mention one thing they need to correct.

A word of caution. If the Worship Leader cannot find anything to praise them on, then he or she is responsible in at least two ways: [1] they chose the person to do the solo in the first place and should have known better, and [2] they need more training in working with volunteers.

Dr. Frank Stovall, an outstanding voice teacher at Southwestern Seminary while I was a student there once said in class, “if you are teaching a student voice and cannot find anything on which to compliment the student, you have no business teaching voice.” I have never forgotten it. We as “teachers” may have issues of our own that need to be corrected, such as pride, or trying to prove to the person that we know more than they, etc., and need to be more sensitive to the needs of those with which God has called us to work. Look at the posture, their breathing, their enthusiasm, their attitude, etc., but find some things that they are doing and encourage them.

I trust that these suggestions will go a long way to help you when working with volunteer singers, and that God will be glorified in your work and ministry.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Seven Things I have Learned from our Cuban Brothers and Sisters in Christ

Those that know us well know that we served 20 years with the International Mission Board of the SBC, and since coming to the Seminary here at NOBTS, have the privilege of some 15 trips to Cuba, serving in teaching in our respective areas. Although we do teach, the reality is I believe they have taught me more than I have shared with them. As we prepare to go again I am reminded of what God is doing and fill my heart with joy. There are many more, but I would like to briefly share seven:

1. Jesus is Lord and God is in control. We can trust Him, He is faithful.
2. God will supply our needs.

Knowing these truths is basic to our walk with the Father, seeing them daily lived out in simple faith is life changing. “Contentment with godliness is much gain.”

3. Mega resources cannot guarantee worship, nor are they necessary for real worship.
4. Real worship is not dependent on keeping up with the latest trends.

So many times I have heard the phrase, “ if only we had ____....” and fill in the blank with “a new building,” “new equipment,” “a praise team,” etc. I have seen first hand that Jesus is enough. We can throw all the money in the world at technologies, and other things, but nothing can replace someone with an obedient faith that is committed to God and to worship Him and share God’s love with others.
Having these other things is not bad, but too often we fall into the trap of trusting in the externals to do what only God can do.

5. The prayer offered in faith is powerful and effective.
6. Worship is about God alone.

Time after time I have observed times of prayer, not to approve plans already made, but earnestly seeking the Father’s direction. Being a part of brothers and sisters in Christ praising God for who He is and thanking Him for what He has done and is doing, focusing on Him alone to meet needs is an experience I will never forget. Some of the most accomplished musicians I have ever met serve the Lord in Cuba, yet they know that “worship is not the music.” I have seen so many of these musicians committed to high standards of excellence, not willing to offer to the Lord anything less than the best they have to offer, yet they understand that worship is not entertainment. Worship is about God alone.

7. The Joy of the Lord is my strength.

I have observed real joy and deep fellowship. I have laughed literally until I cried and cherish the precious times God has allowed us to share. They have made us feel like we are family. They have shown me a new depth of joy in the Lord.

I realize that these are not unique to a group of individuals in a single locale. There are many places where any or all of these truths might be evident, but I share these from my own recent experience, and am indebted to believers there.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Future of Worship Leaders

Once upon a time in a land far, far away churches never had any problems getting a worship leader. In the center of the town was a magical tree, called the “Worship Leader Tree” and all a church had to do was go to the tree and say, “Oh Tree, we need a worship leader, please give us one!” Out from the tree came a young energetic worship leader, trained in singing, playing the guitar, leading groups, and knowledgeable of all the new songs and most of the old ones.

We all know that such a tree does not exist, yet if we are not careful we are acting as if it does by failing make the preparations necessary so that there will be men and women adequately trained to lead worship. Perhaps the biggest area of neglect lies in the lack of children’s choirs and those trained to lead them. Because public school music programs are generally one of the first targets of budget cuts, and many grade schools have no real music program whatsoever, churches have become the last stand for early music preparation. The development of learning to match pitch and sing with a melody are basic, yet the most crucial time in the life of an individual to learn these things is precisely when it is not available.

Lowell Mason, the composer of the melody for many hymns, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” was the first to start music in the public schools in Boston, and he did so to help the worship in churches. The singing and leadership in the churches at that time was deplorable to say the least. Mason knew that if he, as a director, would only be able to help one church, but if he could teach children in public schools, he would be able to have a much greater influence. School administrators were very hesitant at first, thinking that only a few people were gifted enough to be musicians and that singing was not for everyone. It wasn’t long after Mason’s experimental group proved otherwise that the movement exploded across the country. It is now hard to imagine a time when music was not a part of the fabric of a child’s growing years, but we are approaching that time.

With public school music on the decline and fewer churches providing opportunities for children to learn to sing, such as children’s choirs, we are growing a generation of believers that are being conditioned to just “listen,” but never learn to “sing,” much less “lead.” So much focus has been placed on one and two day workshops that “train” worship leaders, that many churches have completely overlooked where these future leaders are formed: children’s choirs. A wise ministry is one that has a planned process for leadership training from the children on up through adults. Teaching children how to sing and making it an enjoyable experience lays the groundwork for children to want to continue in a youth choir or an ensemble. As these children and youth learn how to lead in worship by sharing in the service with their songs, we lay the foundations for the worship leaders for the near future.

Large churches may have more resources for this ministry, but there are many more small congregations than large ones and even if we can begin with two or three children, we will be able to reach more children in more areas. Leaders spend a large amount of time with their choirs and praise teams, but rarely think of the long term consequences of not teaching children and youth. It is almost as if we believed that there were a “magical worship leader tree.” I am praying that God would raise up worship leaders with the vision of a ministry that is bigger than just what is visible with the group, but that is committed to raising up a new generation of believers who understand what biblical worship is and to teach it to children and youth. I am praying that God would move men and women past their comfort zones to seek the training necessary to help these children and youth and that from the youngest to the oldest we would be able to worship in Sprit and truth.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

ATVs: Three Qualities that Make the Difference in Leading

An “ATV” may be an “All Terrain Vehicle,” but in leadership it stands for authenticity, transparency, vulnerability. There are many other character qualities that those who lead worship must have, but those that deal with people skills are some of the most crucial. Let’s look at these one by one:

Authenticity: The idea is that is not simply a copy, but the real thing, it’s genuine. I remember seeing stamped on the inside cover of a Bible I had as a child “genuine leather,” indicating that it wasn’t some sort of plastic, but the real stuff. Leaders who are authentic are the “real stuff” as well. How they act in public is the same in private. Recently I accidently dropped some coins and failed to hear the familiar “ring” of real copper and silver hitting a hard floor. Picking them up it was obvious that they were not solid, but a mixture of inferior metals. They had the appearance of the real thing, but were not of the same quality. Godly leadership “rings true” regardless where it is and with whom it relates. What they know from Scripture is what they practice. Character and integrity are not just subjects talked about, but practiced.

Transparency: Willingness to share weakness and admit wrong seems on the surface to be counterproductive. The idea here is not that the person is perfect, since only Jesus Christ is the only one on this Earth that has ever been and will ever be perfect. All of the rest of us are not. So, we are not talking about perfection, but the ability to recognize one’s on limitations and the humility to be open to share those weaknesses with those whom God has called us to serve. When we fail to admit our weaknesses, we only fool ourselves. Those around us generally are painfully aware of those areas in our lives in which we fail to function properly and many times are suffering under the situation. True leaders not only recognize and admit their weaknesses, but bring along side of them those that are strong in those areas and do not feel threatened.

Another part of transparency is the willingness to receive criticism and be informed about blind spots. When our son was taking a drivers education class the instructor made a statement that our son shared with me later. The teacher said that the blind spot in the typical vehicle is big enough for an 18-wheeler to fit in and not be seen. That is a startling fact, but just as big are the “blind spots” in our own character. How many “18 wheelers” of unloving attitudes, pride, unforgiveness, to mention a few are lurking near us ready to cause ministry collisions? If we are not open to hearing about our blind spots, or do not have those with whom we can receive such information, it is only a matter of time before things come crashing down.

We must always be wise in our transparency, for the time and place for such openness is just as crucial as the act of sharing itself. However, this should not be an excuse to avoid being transparent, especially within a group that we accountable.

Vulnerability: Vulnerability is closely linked to transparency, in fact one cannot exist without the other. For there to be true transparency, one must be willing to be vulnerable. It is risky. All manner of fears come to our minds: What will people think if I tell them that I have trouble with my prayer life? What will they think if I admit weakness in other areas? Transparency and vulnerability allow others to see the human side of leadership and help “take them off the pedestal,” allowing identification to take place. Is this biblical? Let’s see what Paul has to say in Romans 7:19 “ For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” If the apostle Paul was honest about his life, should not we be as well? Is it worth it? I think the choice is obvious: We have a choice to remain disconnected from those around us, or we can become bridges and models of how to apply the truth of Scripture in our lives. Godly leaders are authentic, transparent, and vulnerable because the command to make disciples requires it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Worship Leaders, Control Freaks, and Other Leaders

Planning services, rehearsing music, checking on set ups, checking sound and lights, – the list of what those that lead worship have to do could go on and on. Some of these activities are things that are our primary responsibility, while others are things that have been absorbed for lack of someone else to do them and they end up on our plate. Most of these deal with working with other people. How we deal with those who work with us in all these tasks reflects how effective of a leader we are.

There are four types I would like to mention: the Micro Manager, the Avoider, the Whatever, and the Enabler.

The Micro Manager is a well-known leader type that must have his or her hand in every aspect of every part of the ministry. Many times this person has talent in several areas and concludes that it is much easier to “do it yourself” or feels that he or she must change something on every plan before a final stamp of approval can be given. It is not unusual for this person to go back and move microphone stands two or three inches, run back to the sound board and “tweak” EQ s, even though there is someone operating the equipment. Suggestions may be received, but only after personal additions have been made. Success is defined in terms of “how well everything is controlled,” more than how well Christ’s character and nature is lived out. Sometimes this person has a fear failure or a fear of being replaced by someone else might be able to do the job better. This person lives with the frustration of having to work with “so many incapable people,” who would not function properly without supervision. Confrontation is not an issue, since the Micro Manager knows he or she has the final word. Those that work under this type of leader are rarely encouraged for a job well done, knowing that whatever they do, there will always be “just one more thing” that has to be added before it is acceptable.

Another type of controller is more subtle: the Avoider. The Avoider controls by not making decisions, or waiting for things to “take care of themselves.” While this might seem on the surface as the opposite of the Micro Manager, it is really just another way to control what is going on. If specific decisions have to be made, the Avoider will put off making the final decision until it is too late to do anything thing else, or nothing else can be done, because none could act without the approval of the person in authority. The Avoider is a professional procrastinator, is almost always late in arrivals, and puts off getting the music charts to the musicians in time, contacting necessary people, etc. The Micro Manager controls by over making sure that every single detail is to his or her specifications. The Avoider controls through default. Confrontation is avoided or ignored at all costs. Those that work under the Avoider are frustrated because they often see what could have been done if only given advance notice or the authority to complete task given the necessary time.

The Whatever leader
is really no leader at all. “What ever” sound comes out is fine, after all this is just church and the people here are not really informed on what the best songs or how they are supposed to sound. There is no sense of excellence in offering the best one has to offer, and this person is generally a “good old boy [or girl]” that gets along with most everyone. Not surprisingly, this type of leader rarely stays anywhere for any length of time.

The Enabler
is just that. This type of leader empowers those that he or she works with both the skill to accomplish the task in an effective manner and gives the authority to carry out their task without having to go back and seek permission for minor modifications. The Enabler has planned ahead and knows what pitfalls to avoid and had made alternative plans in case everything starts to unwind. The Enabler is not threatened with the success of others, but rather rejoices when a member of the team does well, because he or she knows “it’s not really about me,” but about giving bringing glory to God. It is a joy to work with the Enabler, since ideas are listened, and the best plan is carried forward, whether or not it was the Enabler’s or not. The Enabler is also an encourager for those that are having difficulty accomplishing their tasks. The group knows they will not be embarrassed because the Enabler will not let them go on to present a song or program that is not ready or sounds bad.

One sign of a good leader is willingness to hear criticism and not issue revenge or “payback.” Sometimes those under us do not feel the liberty to share these blind spots for fear of reprisal, resulting in poor morale and the group not performing to its most effective manner. One goal all worship leaders need to embrace is that of continually working to improve our leadership skills for the honor and glory of God.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

What Does Worship Cost?

“But the king replied to Araunah, ‘No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.’ So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen and paid fifty shekels of silver for them.” [2 Samuel 24:24]

The story of David’s sacrifice to appease the hand of the angel of death in 2 Samuel 24 is captivating on several accounts. David is not a young man here, but an older king, maybe even going through a crisis of evaluating his life and trying to add up his accomplishments. His request was one to fuel his pride and ego: “How big is my kingdom?” Even Joab tried to mediate and deter this foolish action, but to no avail. Scripture simply says that the word of the king prevailed. When the act was all but done, David’s conscience was struck with the guilt and he confessed and asked for forgiveness for what he had done. The prophet Gad delivered to him the three choices God offered: 7 years of famine, flee 3 months from enemies, or 3 days of a plague. David threw himself upon the mercy of God, and the plague started. Some 70,000 people died because of the foolishness of David’s ego trip.

In 2 Samuel 24, David had sinned, had confessed it as sin, had asked for forgiveness, but the consequences of his sin remained. Much like disobedient little boy whose mother had run out of things to try to help her son learn obedience, told him that from then on, every time he disobeyed she would put a nail in a door. The child paid no attention and continued in his disobedience. One day, however, he was overcome when he passed by the door and saw it covered with nails. Realizing the gravity of his actions, he told his mother he was sorry, that he would not disobey anymore, and to please take out the nails. The mother agreed, and some time later the little boy came crying up to his mother saying, “but, mother, the holes are still there...” When we sin the consequences remain. For David, he died with the blood of thousands of his fellow Israelites on his hands. He confessed, and in obedience went to offer a sacrifice for this sin, following the commands of the prophet.

The place of the sacrifice was the threshing floor of Araunah. When David encountered him and explained the situation, Araunah offered to give him the oxen and wood for the sacrifice, but David responded, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” He paid him and made his offering and the plague stopped. However, that really isn’t the point on which I want to focus.

David’s sin was more than just pride, he failed to realize that his legacy was not to be found in his great actions, but in his character. Yes, he killed Goliath, and defeated his enemies and made the preparations for the Temple, but what God considered as the greatest heritage was that he was “a man after God’s own heart.” [Acts 13:22] It is easy to try to evaluate a ministry, a life in terms of the “great things done,” but miss the most important: that of integrity and godly character. When Luke was summarizing David’s life in the book of Acts, he did not pull from all his mighty acts, but from the very thing that made David favored in the eyes of God.

But the question remains, “What does worship cost?” For David, it was much more than the 30 pieces of silver to buy the threshing floor and oxen. David had to come to the point of surrendering his legacy to God. True worship costs giving up one’s reputation to God. We cannot rightly worship if we try to hold on to our attempts to create our own kingdoms, and define who we are in terms of what we do and not whose we are. In worship we must trust God to bring about a legacy and a heritage that is lasting and glorifying to Him alone. All of David’s victories could be misinterpreted as great acts of a great man or warrior, but a heart that seeks after God, a heart that longs to be obedient to God brings glory to God and is unmistakable. Worship costs the right to define our own reputation by our accomplishments. Worship also costs personal sacrifice. There are no short cuts to sacrifice. It is always painful, or would not be considered a “sacrifice.” Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice for us so that we might not face eternal death, but have eternal life and a relationship with Him. Out of gratitude and awe of His grace and love, we worship Him. In that sense, there is no “sacrifice” that we could offer as great at the one offered already for us. But there will always be a cost.

The temptation of measuring the ministry by the numbers is constantly present. Growth can be an indicator of how healthy an organism is, but not always. Cancer cells have an enormous capacity for multiplication, but by no means can be called “healthy.” Churches whose growth is principally from other churches do not always represent a healthy church, if there is not at the same time regular conversions from non-churched people. Healthy ministries provide both for continued outreach and discipleship or mentoring ministries that help bring new Christians to spiritual maturity. The danger of basing self worth on the externals of numerical growth should be obvious from David’s example, not to mention that God is the one who “brings the increase,” not us. As we focus on a loving obedient response, God may or may not choose to extend the numbers, but regardless the fruit will be an obvious result of God’s increase, not human manipulation.

David’s example for us is to not try to define our lives in terms of our own accomplishments, but in terms of our loving obedience to God, and loving obedience always has a price. The reality is that failing in the area of worship has an even greater cost, one of lost opportunity, lost relationship, lost purpose, lost joy, and lost fulfillment. We can willingly surrender our “sacrifice” and receive the joy of identifying with Christ, or choose to hold on to those things that can never give the lasting peace or pleasure we thought they would bring. The question is “Are we willing to pay the price for what worship costs?

Friday, September 16, 2011

How to Handle Criticism Constructively

Feedback comes from everywhere. We know what to do when it comes from a sound system, but we’re not always so successful when it comes from people. What can help us? Here are five considerations to remember when it comes:

1. Don’t shoot the messenger. Whether it comes unexpectedly, almost out of the blue, or you see it in the eyes of that person as they are walking down the aisle, remember: Don’t shoot the messenger. There is an unfortunate tendency in ministry to “shoot the messenger,” that is, to eliminate or discredit those that bring complaints against you as a leader or what you are doing. A sure sign of a weak leader is one that takes out the frustration on the bearer of issues being brought to surface.

It will probably be one of the hardest things you may do that week, but don’t give in to the temptation to “get even.” There is a possibility that what they are saying really reflects only their misinformed opinion, or that this person has done this with every staff member, every leader for the past ten years. In that case, there are some issues that are much bigger than you are equipped to deal with and that a trained counselor may be needed. However, most of the comments we receive are not those kind, but from an honest desire to address a need that someone sees and brings it to your attention.

Look at the negative news as a little red light on the dashboard of your car: something has happened that needs your attention. Even if the comments are not totally valid, remember the prayer of Dawson Trotman: “Lord, please show me the kernel of truth hidden in this criticism.” For both the person sharing the comment and those receiving it, it is good to also remember the following: “Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet.” Don’t be surprised that you make mistakes, until we get to heaven, it will continue to happen. [See] Later, I’ll include some positive steps to take.

2. Don’t take negative comments as personal attacks.
Sometimes it is helpful to distinguish between complaints [negative comments about a specific action] and criticism [attacks against character]. Personal attacks often come from some kind of offense, while complaints often come from unfulfilled expectations.

3. Don’t sink your lifeboat. When someone brings up a negative comment about your work or the work of someone for whom you are responsible, not to consider what is being said and pay attention means you may be ignoring the very thing that could save you from bigger problems later on.

4. Don’t keep doing the same thing. When the negative comments keep coming because no attempt to has been made to correct the situation, the situation can turn from comments to crisis or even divisions in the fellowship. A creative leader must find ways to address the problem, and remember that the Holy Spirit of God is the Spirit of Creativity.

5. Don’t be defensive and start labeling those making the comments as the enemy. Satan is our real enemy and we can easily allow our minds to begin to interpret every word said or written as an attack on what we are doing. Division is one of the Devil’s most effective tools. We need to be cautious in using words like “always” and “never” when talking with these people.

Those are five “don’ts,” but what are some things we can do?

First, remember what Proverbs 27:6 says:
“wounds from a friend are better than kisses from an enemy.” A diamond can only show its brilliance when its rough edges are chipped away. Learning to deal with issues in our lives can truly be helpful and make us most useful and effective. C. S. Lewis states, “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”

Second, learn to really listen.
Repeat back to the person bringing the comment in your own words without trying to evaluate whether or not what is being said is truly valid or not. Begin with, “Let me see if I understand what you are saying. I hear you saying that...... [repeat comment in your own words].” This will help clarify what is being said, but also indicate to the person you are really listening. Sometimes, that goes a long way in getting to a solution. Once someone feels like they have truly been heard, it is easier to be able to explain your reasons for what has been done. Jumping to the defense and trying to judge motives [You’re just saying that because you don’t like....”] can only cause more hurt and regret.

Thirdly, evaluate the comments with a godly mentor.
Only surrounding yourself with those that agree to every suggestion you give and who never provide helpful critiques or share with you blind spots or mistakes is dangerous and unhealthy. Plan to incorporate any changes that might be necessary. Ask for God’s grace to respond in a way that pleases Him and wisdom in knowing how to do it.

So much more needs to be said, but I trust that this will help get you off on the right foot.

Monday, September 12, 2011

When you don’t have time....

There are 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week, 720 hours in a 30-day month and 8760 hours in a year. One of the most common complaints is the “lack of time” to do some activities that we desire and need to do. Learning the discipline of managing time is never easy and there are always just enough “curve balls” thrown our way to get us off track to want us to throw up our hands and give up.

Contrast this with how Jesus went about his work. First of all, it was in the “fullness of time” that God sent Jesus into the world. For hundreds of years the prophets had foretold the coming of Messiah, but God waited until the time was right. Jesus, though he understood God’s plan and stayed in the Temple when others had left to go home, returned with Joseph and Mary and was obedient to them. Most likely after Joseph died, Jesus stayed to take his responsibility as the eldest child and care for Mary, and though he knew God had called him to redeem the world. He patiently waited until he was 30 and it was time for him to act. When crowds gathered to be healed, Jesus did not always remain, but pressed on, following God’s time table and plan. Yet, Jesus was interruptible, when the woman with the hemorrhage touched the hem of Jesus’ robe, He stopped, and responded to her needs. When it seemed as if Jesus was too late [the death of Lazarus], His schedule would not be dictated by the cry of the urgent, but by the design of his Father. His own death and resurrection were all completed in the time and way planned before the world was formed. Jesus is Lord of time and eternity.

Though we are not Jesus, we can learn from how he lived and worked to help us with our use of time. We are called on many times to do more than we really can, and many times when we should decline such requests, we go ahead and accept, perhaps with some faint hope “that somehow it will all get done.” Work and ministry seem to always demand more time than allotted, seem to always expect more than what may be reasonable or even feasible. The needs are great and the cry to meet the needs become louder than our reasons for refusing. Learning to maintain healthy boundaries is generally made more difficult when those who design our the responsibilities fail to have healthy boundaries themselves. Unfortunately, accomplishing the task becomes more important than the person involved in doing the task and results in casualties and the needless sacrifice of personnel in the name of achieving a goal. There are matters of life and death, but not everything we do needs be classified in that manner. How do you distinguish between what is important (priority) and what is basically for the preference of the person requesting our help? There are no simple answers. Here are some considerations:

1. Determine what is important and what is most important. Just listing out what needs to be done can be revealing, and sometimes overwhelming. But, after we have listed the tasks, label them in some way that ranks them in order of importance: whether by numbers, letters, or some other way you devise, but label them. After they are labeled, reorganized, so that the most important is at the top of the list.

2. Start working on the most important first. There are many priority and time management helps available and this is not to substitute for them. Take some initiative and check some out and do them. You will always learn something. It sounds simple, but staying focused on a job is not. It is easy to be focused on a particular job and a phone call (or some other distraction), can push us to drop what we are doing and to start another task that is less important, but “should only take a short time.” [famous last words...] Even if it really does only take a short time, it has become more important than the critical issue at hand, because we allowed it to be so. To make your Priority check list more sustainable, try building into your schedule time for “short projects,” when it really is possible to do them in a short period.

3. Avoid the “little foxes that spoil the vines”. We all have things we like to do before we tie into a project: check email, or look at a favorite website, catch up on the headlines online, etc., but many times these little things become time wasters. We get involved in one link that leads to another and another, until the crucial time we had is gone. Set a timer if you have to, but force yourself to jump in and begin. As it has been said, even the longest journey begins with the first step.

— What about interruptions? Many of our interruptions are from colleagues or unplanned visits or calls that must be handled in some way, so how do you respond and not be unchristlike? These might help: When someone asks you if you have a minute and you are obviously working on something, welcome the person, listen to their concerns, jot down some notes, and explain that you are in the middle of a project and will address it as soon as you finish, or at a specific time. Most people will understand and appreciate the transparency and the fact that you took notes and will trust that you will do what you said you would. If you are not at a point that you can stop, be honest enough to let them know, but set a time to hear them later. Again, most people will accept that and if it really was important will want to get back with you, or realize that it wasn’t that critical and can check with someone else. Some people will barge right in and never ask if it is an ok, or if you have a minute for a question. These people have little understanding or sensitivity to others and you might have to be a little more candid and tell them that you really can’t talk right now, and if you can, try to be as polite as possible.

What about interruptions from someone in authority over you? When the person interrupting is in a position over you, it is generally not a wise thing to tell them to leave you alone and let you work. Their priorities are also yours, at least to a lesser extent. If they already have you on an important project, take notes on the new task and then ask them in a non-threatening tone of voice, “I am in the middle of _____ project that you requested, which of these do you want completed first? You are showing your willingness to do the work and allowing him or her to tell you which is more important, rather than you trying to figure it out on your own. If you have two or more people above you asking for some thing, go to your supervisor or someone and explain that you are willing to do these projects, but are just not sure which should come first. Obviously, dealing with these issues is very complex, but I trust these suggestions can help.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What to Do When You Really Mess Up

Try as we might, even with good intentions, we will all make mistakes in the ministry leadership. We all have “clay feet”, we’re a part of Adam’s race and on this side of heaven we will on occasions make wrong decisions, say something that offends, or do something that we should not have done. Obviously, some of these things are more serious than others, such as moral failure or unethical behavior, but right now I’m not thinking about those.

When [not if] we say or do something that brings offense there are some things we must do if we are to be obedient to God’s calling on our lives. These are true for all believers, but especially for those in leadership positions, as James 3:1 says about those who would teach are under a “stricter judgement.” Allow me to suggest some things that will help:

(1) Realize that you are not perfect, that you will make mistakes, and even though they might not have been intentional, they can and do cause offense. There has only been one person who ever walked on this earth that did not sin and that was Jesus Christ. Outside of Christ, everyone has and will sin. This is not an excuse to ignore the feelings of others by hurting someone’s feelings and then brushing it off as if it did not matter saying, “well, no one’s perfect.” Such an attitude is contrary to the commandment of love we are to have for one another. At the same time we are not to pretend that as a leader in worship we are exempt from the commands of our Lord to forgive, and seek forgiveness just because of our position. Most of the time the wrong is not one-sided, that is, the other person or persons share in the responsibility of the error, but that does not negate the obligation we have to make right our part of it.

(2) Few things reveal poor leadership quicker than the inability to admit wrong and unwillingness to take the initiative to make things right. This inability sometimes stems from feelings of inadequacy, and pretending that we’re something that we are not. Pride is also an issue, for in admitting wrong we believe that our self image is threatened. However, biblically, our self image comes from what Christ has done for us, not what we can do for ourselves. If we build our self image based on what we can do or on our natural ability and talents [even though it was God that gave those as well], we will feel threatened every time someone questions what we do or say. Freedom comes from realizing and accepting that our worth comes from Jesus Christ and what He has done for us.

(3) There is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. [I’m sorry I can’t remember exactly where I heard this the first time, but I will share it since it has been helpful to me.] God offers forgiveness to all; what Jesus did was open to all. In forgiveness, God releases us from the punishment our sins deserve; Christ paid those on the cross. As we forgive others, we release to God the right to punish others for what they have done to us. For us to be reconciled to God, we must accept His forgiveness and repent of our sins, that is, admit to God that what we have done is wrong and ask His forgiveness. In our relationships, we can forgive, that is, we can release the deserved punishment to God, but reconciliation can only happen when the person who caused the offense admits wrong and asks forgiveness. Part of asking forgiveness must include a change of behavior, and even restitution if need be. Until then, there is no safety in the relationship and reconciliation is not possible.

When we offend, we must realize that though our brothers and sisters in Christ may forgive us, even without our asking, there will not be reconciliation until we do our part and admit wrong and ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness may be granted, but it will take time to rebuild trust. Trust is earned. Trust can only come when the offended party feels safe.

(4) We can be right and still do things in the wrong way. You might have had the experience of trying to put the wrong key in a lock. But you can also have trouble when you even have the right key, but try to force it beyond its limits and it breaks. Sometimes from inexperience we attempt things and everything just seems to go wrong. At those moments we need to ask ourselves some questions like, “Is this the right thing to do, but the wrong time to try to implement?” “Am I saying the right things, but with an attitude that is arrogant, or prideful?” Lack of sensitivity to timing and tone of voice can cause even something that may be “right” to come across “wrong.”

(5) We must be willing to listen to those with different opinions.
Solomon was the wisest man of his day, if not of all time, yet, even he had advisors. We know that from the error his son, Rehoboam made by not listening to them when this descendent was to take over after Solomon’s death. Which begs the question, “If the wisest man in the world needed and used counselors and advisors, shouldn’t I seek counsel as well?” The temptation is to seek out only those who echo your own personal preferences. Another sign of weak leadership is the failure to hear from differing viewpoints that might reveal potential problems that “yes men” would avoid sharing. Only a foolish person would believe that they might foresee all possible issues of a given situation. Willingness to listen and accept opposing ideas not only shows true humility, but can also help you as a worship leader to avoid future failures from insisting on a given direction without full counsel.

We will all make mistakes, some bigger than others, but here are some considerations to help overcome them so you can continue to have an effective ministry.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Using the Choir in Worship

In a day when it seems like worship leaders and praise teams take a prominent position in worship services, is there any room for choirs? I would say, "Yes!" Let me share some things that may be being overlooked as we consider the utilization of choirs as an effective part of worship.

(1) The central focus of worship is not the "leader," but God. I realize that this seems obvious, but sometimes so much emphasis is placed on the person leading that the people leading become the "stars of the show." I am not saying that the individual leading is portraying such an attitude, but many times those in the congregation perceive themselves more as an audience than the Body of Christ. Having a choir to help lead can help diminish the perception.

(2) The use of a choir is biblical.
David organized worship to utilize choirs, and they were a common part of worship in the Temple. Nehemiah used a double choir in the dedication of the rebuilding of the wall. Since the early church grew more out of the synagogue style of worship than the Temple, choral participation was not as common. In addition, the early church was dealing with severe persecution, so making “a joyful noise” wasn’t the safest worship practice of the day if you were celebrating worship hiding in the catacombs. Choirs came back into use after the persecution stopped.

(3) The use of a group obviously utilizes more people.
Worship is our obedient response to God’s revealed nature and character. Working with a group to help lead in worship means we get the opportunity to teach what biblical worship is and mentor this group in carrying those truths into the corporate worship service. Of course it take more planning, more work to find the appropriate pieces, extra time to rehearse the music, and a tremendous amount of effort to enlist those that can sing. It is much easier to find a song and sing a solo. Frankly, since choirs are generally consist of volunteers, the “sound” may not be as professional as a soloist. However, when done correctly, the director is multiplying his or her ministry on a scale not possible as a soloist alone. God has called us to make disciples and one aspect that we need to include in that definition is worship discipleship, or teaching and mentoring what worship is and how to do it.

(4) Choirs give opportunity for those who will never be soloists to aid in worship leadership. Worship leadership that is only left to the “professionals” bypasses many who have sincere hearts, but only average talent. Choirs give those people an opportunity to do something together with others that they would never be able to do alone. For some, singing in a group may be the only ministry they have. Having a choir that is active in worship leadership helps those who might only have “one talent” participate with those who were given “ten talents.”

(5) There is a powerful dynamic when a group comes together to worship.
I have also heard notorious stories of choral singers who look as if they are half-asleep while they sing. [I fault their own personal preparation and the director for such things.] What I am talking about is a spiritual dynamic that reflects the unity of the Body of Christ: many members, different parts, but all working in coordination under the same leadership. I remember vividly the first time the “Coro Unido” [United Choir] came together to sing when we were missionaries in Panama. Seventy-five brothers and sisters in Christ from all over the country [most of whom could not read music, but memorized their part by rote] came together to proclaim the gospel in song. The air was full of excitement, and anticipation; their sound was powerful. Never before had anyone seen an evangelical choral group so large. It was an unforgettable moment for us all.

(6) Age group choirs become the seed bed to raise up new worship leaders.
One of the concerns I have is the lack of emphasis on teaching children and youth what worship is and how to sing. Worship leaders just don’t fall from the sky. Choirs can give an opportunity to have an active participation in worship leadership, and at the same time begin training for greater worship leadership in the future. The church that only emphasizes its praise band is neglecting the training and ministry of its children and youth for service.

(7) Singing together helps grow community among believers. Some of the richest relationships I have shared in my life have come as a result of sitting next to someone in a choir. Rehearsal time of the choir I now direct is one of the highlights of my week. We laugh, we sing, we pray, and we have even cried together. We learn to bear each others’ burdens.

I know there are many more reasons and considerations, like the impact of choirs in mission trips and sharing the gospel, but here are a few to ponder and I trust to encourage you to get in a choir if you aren’t already or form one if you don’t already have one. Choirs shouldn’t be the only consideration, but certainly needs to be considered.

In using a choir, here are some quick helps:
A. Rehearse the music, don’t talk.
Some directors waste more time talking than rehearsing the notes. Say what you have to say, then get back to work. Don’t beat a song to death; work on the most difficult parts and easier sections, then go on. Each rehearsal the members need to sense that they have accomplished something. Be free with sincere compliments, not just flattery. When they get it right, let them know!

B. Have a plan. In our congregation, the choir will sing at least 45 of the 52 Sundays, not including special programs for Easter and Christmas. – That takes a lot of music. So, how is it done? Here’s one way:
• Select the music you want to use for at least 3 months at a time
• List them out as 1-12, then rehearse 1-5 for a few weeks [at first], investing more time in the song to be sung on a given Sunday.
• The following rehearsal, focus on 2-6, singing # 2 the following Sunday.
• Keep up the system of rotation and your choir will have several weeks on each song and a new song entering into the rotation.
• When you begin to rehearse # 12, select the next 3 months of music.
• Repeat at least 50% of what you do during a given year.
This system not only helps plan your rehearsal time, but allows for some of the choir members to be out and still be able to sing, since they would have had several weeks to learn the music. I have used this system for years and it has been both simple and effective. Repeating a song allows you to build on what you have already learned.

C. Plan on using the choir on a regular basis. Choir members want to sing, that’s why they come. When they feel like they are not useful, they will stop coming.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Solutions for Worship Leader Burnout

One of my favorite Old Testament characters is Elijah:
-he prays and it doesn’t rain for over three years,
-blesses a widow’s oil and flour so that it lasts during the time there is not any rain,
-raises the widow’s son from the dead,
-prays again and the rains return
-calls down fire from heaven and brings about a revival of the worship of Jehovah to an entire nation.

On the mount of transfiguration, Elijah is seen with Moses, all talking to Jesus. The forerunner that was to announce the coming of the Messiah is said to come in the spirit of Elijah. He is seen as a model prophet, God’s spokesman, boldly declaring the truth regardless of the consequences.

Yet, even in the life of this great man of God, we see a glimpse of what can happen to any one of us if we are not careful. In I Kings 18, we see that God sends the prophet to show himself to Israel’s evil king, Ahab, even though Ahab has been looking to kill him for three years. Elijah calls for a showdown between the prophets of Baal and Jehovah God on top of Mount Carmel. The story is well known, so I won’t go into detail here, but only to say that Elijah the challenge required that whichever one could call down fire from heaven would prove himself as the true God. It must have been quite a sight to see the 400 prophets of Baal dancing in a frenzy, cutting themselves, calling on their god, tearing down the altar Elijah had set up for his sacrifice.

After several hours and no fire, Elijah finally gets his turn. Calling all the people together to prove he has no tricks up his sleeve, he calls for water to be poured on top of his sacrifice. He prays a simple prayer and God sends fire that burns up even the stones around the altar. He then has the 400 prophets of Baal killed, the people swear allegiance to Jehovah alone and God is glorified in one of most celebrated stories of the Old Testament. However, it’s what happens after this that I would like for us to focus.

Ahab’s wicked wife, Jezebel, sends word to Elijah that she is out to kill him, so the prophet flees for his life to Beersheba, some 90 miles south, where God feeds him. After rest and more food, he then travels another 200 miles or so to Horeb [Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the commandments], all of this in 40 days. He goes into a cave to rest and God asks him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The prophet replies, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” God then tells him to go stand before the Lord on the mountain. There is a strong wind, but God was not in the wind, an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake, a fire, but God was not in the fire. Finally, there was a gentle whisper, and God repeats his question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah repeats the same answer.

Wonderful insight can be gained by emphasizing different words of the question: WHAT are you doing here? [implying he was doing what he had been called to do] What are YOU doing here? [Elijah, you are my prophet, my model for the people, I called you, you are mine] or What are you doing HERE? [of all places, what has caused you to fear that you would run and hide?]. Among other things, Elijah was experiencing burnout. He lacked rest, he was physically and emotionally exhausted, and felt like he was all alone with no one even caring whether he lived or died.

I would encourage more time mediating on the passage and questions, but for now, just look as some observations:

-Elijah had just experienced a major spiritual victory in his life. Sometimes, such victories make us forget how susceptible we are to other problems and we tend to think of ourselves as “super Christians,” above the normal fray of trial and temptation. Such thinking makes us forget how dependent on God we really are.

-Elijah was exhausted and hungry. Lack of sleep, irregular eating habits can cause severe problems.

-Elijah was unable to see the larger picture of what God was doing. He only focused on his situation and what was immediately around himself. His viewpoint is only negative, he cannot break free of his thinking everything is bad.

What was God’s solution:

- Food and rest: twice God provides food and rest before he sets out on this journey.

-God gets him away from the situation

-God shows his power and flexibility: He doesn’t always have to respond in the same way

-God makes the prophet look at his situation differently by asking him questions

-God shows him the larger picture, that there were over 7000 that had never bowed to worship Baal, that he was the not only one left.

So what does all this have to do with Worship Leadership? It’s obvious, isn’t it? You may have had one of the most memorable worship services or programs of your life, yet afterward you feel completely worthless. Perhaps you feel like you just want to give up, that nobody cares, no one even knows how much you do, and that everything just seems to be failing all around you? You may be in burnout. What can you do?

Ministry schedules are brutal at times, since rehearsals depend on the availability of volunteers and their schedules. Planning, organizing, dealing with poor budgets, inadequate equipment, or people that don’t get along with each other, all take their toll on emotional energy, sapping the strength needed to complete tasks. Many times, leaders themselves are bi-vocational and are holding down a full time job, providing for their family, besides investing countless hours in worship ministry. They stay up late, have to get up early, and getting the proper amount of rest is the last consideration on their agenda. What can you do?

we cannot be all that God has called us to be if we fail to be good stewards of our physical bodies. Proper rest, adequate diet, exercise are not just something for the few, but the basics for everyone, especially those in leadership. Show me a person failing in these areas, and I’ll show you a person who is also failing in leadership areas as well.

Second, plan some time to “get away” from the situation on a regular basis. This doesn’t have to be a major vacation, but at least some time when you have some time to refocus, mediate in God’s Word and pray, away from the daily demands of your position. This certainly can be done with the entire family, and better than leaving the spouse to take care of the kids alone.

go back and review your call to ministry, how God has brought you to this point. Spend some time listing the things your are grateful for that God has done. Seriously, write them out. Take the time, then read them out loud. Ask your spouse and kids to add to the list. What a great family project this could be!

Fourthly, ask God to help you see the bigger picture. What is God doing around the world? Where is He moving in power, even in difficult situations? Remember that He is in control and He will have the final word and judgement. We can trust Him, even when things are seemingly hopeless to us.

get up and be obedient to what God has called you to do. Literally, get up and go do something He has commanded: helping someone in need, visiting someone in the hospital or at home, the elderly. Do not just “stay” where you are. Again, many times these are things you can do as a family. One more thing: Plan the next "get away" before you finish.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Truth, Bonhoeffer, and Worship Leaders

I recently finished reading Eric Metaxas’s, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet,Spy, the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many are familiar with the Lutheran pastor’s famous book, The Cost of Discipleship and his teaching that although God’s grace is free, it is not cheap. The biography, however, is just that, a biography and not a simple retelling of his written works. Over and over throughout his shortened life [he was executed by the Nazis just days before Allied forces reached the prison camp where he was being held], Bonhoeffer’s life revealed the importance of not just knowing about God’s Word, but living it out. Truth was to be lived out, not just debated. The book was a great read, but it was more than that, it was convicting.

As I read about his uncompromising life, I was reminded how many times as leaders of worship we are tempted to compromise. The temptation to compromise on personal preparation for worship and planning, to explain our laziness with “half-truths,” to avoid confrontation of our weaknesses, pride, and personal failures only leads to deeper problems. I am also aware that these issues are not restricted to worship leaders, but anyone in the ministry.

I don’t think that compromising is blatant at first: life, family, ministry, other responsibilities overwhelm us and things begin to fall through the cracks. Our natural tendency is to excuse ourselves from these little failures and move on. However, if we never stop and take an honest inventory of our lives, attitudes, or responses, we may be setting ourselves up for more failure and eventually are “forced” into a compromising situation. We need to stop and ask the hard questions: Have we taken on more than we really should have? Are we responding emotionally because what is irritating us about someone is really a response to a similar weakness in our own lives? Have we failed to understand the boundaries God has placed in our lives? Are we unwilling to share the responsibilities or receive advise as to what to do? Are we too prideful to admit that we need help? Obviously, the list could go on and on.

I know for many there is a temptation to define our worth by what we do, rather than by what God has done for us. An attack on our performance becomes an attack on our very character. We become defensive. We begin to rationalize our actions with “half-truths.” But wait just a moment. Stop. The truth can never be a “half-truth;” half-truths are simply lies sweetened with the appearance of “right” to complete the deception. There is price to pay for truth, but the greater price is paid by those that settle for less.

God’s grace is unfathomable. His forgiveness is beyond understanding. He is there even in those times when we have really blown it. God has taken the initiative with His love and grace; we must respond with confessing the truth of our actions and attitudes. Satan will give a hundred reasons for not doing it, and the end result will be the same: eventually the “real” truth becomes evident and the price to pay is greater now than ever before. One compromise only leads to another. We must stop and confess, that is, “come in agreement with how God sees the issues” and commit ourselves to living in integrity. Only as we commit ourselves to refuse to compromise the truth in living out God’s Word will we leave a testimony and heritage that glorifies the Lord.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

10 Things I Want the Students to Learn This Semester

1. The central focus of worship is God, not themselves or their feelings about it. The question is not, “What did I get out of worship today?” but “Am I prepared to meet and worship Almighty God and offer Him praise, honor, and obedient service?”

2. Worship is our obedient response to God’s revealed nature and character. Worship is not the music. Worship is not a feeling, though feelings may be a by-product. Worship that does not result in obedient response is unfulfilled worship. It’s like telling your spouse that you love him or her, but never show any do anything that relates that love.

3. One’s physical presence in a worship service does not guarantee worship.
Our physical presence is necessary, but we must be actively engaged, mentally focused on the purpose of our being in worship.

4. We are personally responsible for our preparation for worship. Distractions will arise, but in the end, whether we worship God or not is a choice we will make. We will not worship God by accident; it is an act of submission of the will.

5. Corporate worship is not a group of individuals having simultaneous quiet times. God has called the His Bride and Body “the Church.” Yes, it consists of individuals, but we must function as the body functions, co-dependent on each other and above all, dependent on the Head, who is Christ. The Church at worship is the Body of Christ united for the purpose of public submission to His absolute authority over life. The Body unites in worship and departs into all the world to make disciples.

6. Praying “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” also means we desire to worship here on earth was we will in heaven.
Our model for worship comes from Heaven: people from every tribe and nation, from all generations in worship around the central focus of the Lamb on His throne. Heaven is not about my finally getting every thing I want, but finally having all my wants focused on everything God desires.

7. God’s Word is the ultimate authority from which we make decisions: more than history, tradition, human intellect or personal experience.
In every decision we make, we must ask ourselves on what basis did I make this decision and realize that what God’s Word teaches is the final authority.

8. Leaders in worship cannot lead people where they have not been.
Having the title of “Worship Leader or Worship Pastor, doesn’t make you one any more than bringing a bicycle into a garage makes it a car. Those that lead, must be obedient practitioners of worship, models of what biblical worship is.

9. Thanksgiving and gratitude are essential components in worship.
If we are not careful, we will begin to think that we deserve God’s blessing, that we forget the immense amount of little things that He provides, not to even mention Christ’s sacrifice and the gift of an eternal relationship with Him. An attitude of entitlement is a polar opposite of what worship is all about. Gratitude is specific and continuous.

10. Unconfessed sin blocks one’s ability to worship.
This side of heaven, we will not be sinless. Our position in Christ is forgiven, but while we live and breathe here on earth we will have the capacity to yield to the temptations of our old nature. Our eternal destiny is secure, but we can break the fellowship with God by deliberately doing, or not doing what He commands. Just as we would not want a surgeon to do surgery with tainted instruments, God will not choose to accept our “tainted” worship, until seek His forgiveness, confess and repent.