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Tuesday, June 28, 2011


When my wife was expecting our first child we arrived from the doctor’s office with his best “guesstimate” of a due date. From that moment our lives began to change; almost everything seemed to revolve around that time. We were busy in the ministry of our first full time church and involved in the process of appointment for missionary service. Yet, as busy as things were we were continually looking at “the date.” Yes, we knew that our baby would probably not come on that date [she actually came a week early], but there was a specific time on which we could focus. That “ending date” was really a “new beginning” that we still enjoy with both of our children.

However, many, if not most of life’s major difficulties do not come with a doctor’s guesstimate as to when the trial will end. I am by nature not very patient. God was so gracious in our years overseas to lead us by the hand and take those beginning steps in how to wait on Him. Almost everywhere we turned it seemed like we had to wait on something. We entered the country in which we would serve about 6 months after a revolution and the grocery stores were bare of many items. To get the basics of rice, beans, sugar, etc., we had to stand in line and wait for the rationed amount that would be our allotment for the week, all the while knowing that we would have to do the same thing the next week and every week there after. There were many other things, but you get the idea. I felt that most of my life was done waiting, and that I was waiting more than I was “ministering.” Fast forward 30+ years to the present.

I cherish my wife’s insight into Scripture and recently she made a comment that really hit home since we are again going through a difficult time. Kathy had been reading in Genesis about Joseph’s response to his brothers after Jacob had died: “What you meant for harm, God meant for good.” [Gen. 50:19] “When Joseph made that statement,” she shared, “he was already on the other side of the trial.” This began a discussion from which I would like to share. Now Joseph is one of the Old Testament characters that is virtually without flaws compared to most. God blesses him in Potiphar’s house and even in Pharaoh’s prison and through out his long ordeal and years and years in prison, no where is there any indication that he was not faithful to God. Joseph pleads for help in getting out to the cup bearer for whom he interprets a dream [Gen. 40], but is forgotten for another two years. When he makes that statement to his brothers, he is second in command, only after Pharaoh, himself and has wealth, position, power, comfort, etc. What had happened in the meantime?

How did Joseph keep his faith in God for all those years in prison, knowing that he was there unjustly, suffering the same fate as those who had indeed deserved criminal punishment? Remember, he had no Bible, save the stories that which Jacob might have told him growing up. He could have easily said, “Yes, God helped my father, but what kind of God is he, that he can’t even protect me and why would he allow me to get stuck and die in this place!” I think one of the keys is that he believed what he had been shown by God in dreams when he was young. He remembered the dreams that his brothers would one day bow to him. He might not have understood all of what that meant or how God would bring it to pass, but he did have that memory. Joseph had faith. His faith is even mentioned in Hebrews 11:22. Another key to his success was perseverance: he just kept on doing what he was supposed to do, even when it wasn’t easy. He did not give up or give in, he just kept on going, believing and God rewarded him.

So what does all this mean for those that my be worship leaders or leaders in general? You may feel as if you are trapped in a situation and cannot get out. Remember Joseph. Remember God’s call on your life. Get up and get out of bed. Do what God has called you to do and keep on. He may lead you somewhere else, but He may desire to develop your character there. Ask for the grace of God to continue to be faithful. Keep on believing in the One who called you. Give Him glory as He brings you through!

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Prayer from Psalm 23

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

Yahweh, the Holy Covenant Keeper, Lord over all, –You are the One who watches over me and desires a relationship with me. I lack nothing, because You, Lord are everything. You, the Creator knows Your creation.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.

There are times when I need to be made to stop, to lie down, to rest and take note of all that You have provided. Your provision is ample, abundant, perfect. Taking time out to rest I can realize that the path that You lead me on is best, that going my own way only leads to more trouble. My very being is refreshed, renewed. Your reputation is at stake as I take this journey; all that is done is done for my good and Your glory.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

My relationship with You does not mean I will not encounter those who would destroy me, or cause me harm. Yet, even if my life is forfeited, there is no fear in death, because You have conquered it. Death is no longer the specter lurking in the shadows of my fear, but a door to Your very presence. And even there, You accompany me, I enter not alone. During these most difficult days, it is the rod of Your correction, Your Word and Holy Spirit that convict me of my sin that helps me stay on the path that You have ordained. It is Your staff of encouragement that calls me to Your side when I have fallen. Your love knows no bounds, Your comfort is beyond understanding. Fear melts in Your presence.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

You have already made the preparations I need for the journey. To my surprise, You place them in sight of the very ones who would destroy me. You are not bothered by their taunts, You are God. You provide in their midst, so that the testimony of Your greatness and provision is in the very face of those that vainly attempt to destroy it. You have set me apart to Yourself; You have restored and refreshed my spirit. The joy of Your presence overflows on those around me.

6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Your nature and character will permeate my thoughts and mind; they will rule my actions. The greatest privilege will be that of spending eternity in Your presence, where You live and reign eternally.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Finishing Well

When the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, among the myriad of signs, posters, and phrases that literally cover the region, one caught my attention more than the others: “Finish Strong.” That became a mantra of sorts for quite some time. The dust has settled, but I still am musing over the phrase, for reasons I’ll explain later. This is certainly not a new phrase or new idea, since years ago when Covey’s Seven Habits of Effective Leaders was dominating the scene. He encouraged everyone to begin with the end in mind, to literally think of what you would want people to say at your funeral. Although thinking about your own funeral is not a subject upon which many would want to dwell, his point was well taken: you will be what you have been actively working to become. Perhaps another way of saying this is: “the best time to plan your trip is before you start; the best way to arrive at your destination is to know where you’re going before you leave.” Few of us would get in our car and drive without any thought of where we would end up. Yet, one of the greatest dangers in worship leadership, in any leadership, is not looking ahead and not finishing well.

My journey in Scripture thus far this year has brought me to 2 Chronicles and the sad reminders of so many that started well and failed to persevere to the end. Solomon, the wisest man on earth, starting so well, building the Temple, claiming the promises of God given to his father, David, yet toward the end of his life he abandoned the worship of God, and allowed himself to be overtaken by his own image of self importance and the local culture around him. Maybe he lived just to fulfill his father’s dreams and leaned on his father David’s relationship with God and never continued to develop one of his own, but whatever the reason, he did not finish well. David had failed as well, but his response was one of repentance after failure, in both the affair with Bathsheba as well as with the census. There is no biblical record of Solomon following in his father’s pattern of humbling himself before God for his sin.

Solomon’s great grandson, Asa [2 Chron. 14-16] is another prime example of starting, but not finishing well. He led a revival of worship back toward Jehovah, defeated an army much larger than his own and God brought peace to the land until the 36th year of his reign when the king of Israel began to threaten him. Rather than seek God’s help as he had done in the past, Asa takes of the treasures from God’s house to pay off the pagan king of Syria to seal a treaty. His trust in God had been traded in for the acceptance of how business was done by the cultures around him. To make matters worse, he imprisons the very prophet of God that attempts to correct him. He even refuses to seek the Lord when he contracts a disease in his feet and dies in the 41st year of his reign. He started so well, but did not finish strong.

Joash followed the Lord faithfully as long as the High Priest Jehoiada was there to guide him, but abandons the Lord after Jehoiada's death, even killing one of Jehoiada’s sons who confronts him with God’s truth.[2 Chronicles 24] Uzziah’ reign was one of the better times in Israel’s history, yet Scripture records in 2 Chronicles 26:16: “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the LORD his God, and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense.” He began to see himself above the law of God and was struck with leprosy and banished for the rest of his life, holding the kingship in title only. Hezekiah’s reforms were legendary, and God even extended his life for 16 years, yet as he grew older, pride dominated his life: “But when envoys were sent by the rulers of Babylon to ask him about the miraculous sign that had occurred in the land, God left him to test him and to know everything that was in his heart.” [2 Chron. 32:31] Not only does he flaunt his wealth to the Babylonian envoys who would later carry everything they had seen and conquer the land, but he gives birth to Manasseh during this time who was Judah’s most wicked king.

The New Testament also gives examples of those who started well but finished in tragedy: Ananias and Sapphira in the church in Jerusalem, Demas forsaking Paul, and perhaps the most famous, Judas, who betrayed the Lord Jesus, to name a few. Jesus gave a parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:28-32, one who after being told to do something agreed, but didn’t go and the other who also was asked to do something said no, but later went. Jesus commends the later, who though started out poorly finished well, but condemned the first, for though he started out well, did not finish in obedience.

Recent events have been influential in helping me in this focus. As I was attending the Baptist Church Music Conference in Houston this past week, I was amazed at how many times and how many of the participants pointed back to the importance of an individual in their lives as being instrumental in their growth and encouragement and walk with Christ and ministry. Most of those about whom these individuals were talking were retired, having invested their lives in the ministry and God was gracious to allow them to see just a glimpse of what He had done through them. With the background of last week and the reading in Chronicles, God has been working in my heart to focus on “finishing strong.” There are always be distractions and setbacks, but we need not lose focus and give up in discouragement. Scriptural examples should help us and urge us in this process. Paul tells the church at Corinth that “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us.” [I Cor. 10:11].

So what do these examples from Scripture mean for us that lead worship and what are some red flags that should be warnings for us? Here’s a few that I’m using as reminders to help me:
1. Past victories are encouragements and reminders of God’s grace and power, but not vaccinations against future failures.
2. Spiritual disciplines can become routine, so that the doing of them replaces the changes that must come to reflect God’s nature and character.
3. Pride in what we do and have done and self confidence in our own abilities as well as refusal to admit error will certainly lead to failure.
4. We can do so much that we begin to act as if we are above God’s laws, that the rules are for some, but do not apply to us in our circumstances.
5. We begin to assimilate the patterns of culture and society, rather than following biblical principles.
6. We begin to compartmentalize our lives between sacred and secular activities, rather than have the truths of Scripture mandate every area of our life.
7. Worship ceases to be the dominating motivation in how we relate to one another and others.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Power of Encouragement

Of the many inspirational events and moving worship services experienced at the Baptist Church Music Conference this week, one of most powerful has been the testimonies of guest speakers and honorees. Mike Harlan shared how his minister of music sat down with him the very night he surrendered to the music ministry to begin to work with him and help him get started. Little by little, he gave Mike more responsibilities and encouraged him along the way. For those that may not know, Mike Harlan is now head of the Worship division of LifeWay Christian Resources.

Chuck Bridwell shared how Gerald Armstrong picked him out of a group after hearing him sing as a young junior high boy. Here again, guiding him in music ministry, and encouraging him, Chuck, himself recently retired from years of ministering to hundreds himself. Armstrong had done that for many; Chuck was not the only one.

Guy Anderson shared the encouragement that Ray Burdeshaw had been to him and many others in Alabama. What was just as amazing that evening was what happened to one of our Korean students at the Seminary who was also attending the conference. Years before, Ray Burdeshaw had gone to Korea and worked with some children in a children’s choir, encouraging them. Now, years later, one of those very children had finished a music degree in Korea, and was working on a Master of Church Music degree at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and led congregational singing on the very night that Burdeshaw was being recognized for a Lifetime Ministry award. What joy there was when the student was able to share his appreciation to this one after so many years!

I could not help but reflect on so many that took me aside and became my mentors and encouragers. John Neal, minister of music at my home church in Moore, Oklahoma, asked me to help clean up after a youth fellowship when I was in the 7th grade. That may not seem like much, but I was so shy and so insecure I wasn’t sure that I was really able to do anything; no one had ever asked to help before. John volunteered to help me in singing, gave me voice lessons for free, taught me how to do basic directing for hymns, let me sing in front of Sunday School departments, nursing homes, and even sing in a real worship service on a Sunday evening. Paul Box was my pastor at the time, and he and his wife, Pattye, former missionaries were also there in the background encouraging me and played a large part of our being sensitive to answer the call to missionary service, ourselves.

Finis Steelman, a 6 foot 2 Choctaw Indian served as one of the first pastors I served under as a minister of music and youth when I was in college. Whether it was helping him haul hay, or go visiting in the hospitals, he pastored me through my mistakes and failures and guided me in how to do ministry and being faithful during difficult times. T. W. Hunt opened the world of what worship really was when I was at Southwestern Seminary, and lit a fire that keeps burning to this day. I had the privilege of serving under Calvin Ussery and Harold Johnson in Sherman, Texas during those seminary days, both of these men continued to shape my understanding of what ministry was all about. College friends, like David James, who now coordinates student ministry for the Baptists in Arkansas, were prayer partners and models of those living out their faith.

Russell and Annette Herrington took me in as a young green music missionary in language study in Costa Rica, allowing me to get a grasp of what we would be doing later. God allowed contact with some of the most godly men and women I have ever known through the friendship of other missionary colleagues in the years that followed. Leaving missionary service was a major adjustment, yet God supplied friends in New Orleans to help. Teachers who became colleagues were encouragers: Harry Eskew, Ken Gabrielse, Becky Lombard, Darryl Ferrington, Mike Sharp, Leo Day, Benjie Harlan, and Gary Hallquist. Bill and Peggy Day have been great encouragers where I now serve as music director, and he is pastor. There are so many more, and I hesitate to mention names, for fear of leaving out some, but here are just a few. The greatest encouragers I have saved for last: my parents, and most of all my wife, Kathy. Kathy’s consistent walk with Christ, and transparent life have been the greatest influence and encouragement in my life and ministry.

The point of all this is not just to share some neat stories of about people who have encouraged others, but to impress on young worship leaders the necessity to not only do what you are called to do, but to look around and take someone with you. Only time and eternity will tell the power of that one word or action you might have had in the life of a young student in the kingdom of God. I am reminded of Ray Boltz’s song, “Thank You,” in heaven we see the fruit of what God has done through our obedience to Him. If we think back to those who have influenced and encouraged us, we will realize the power of encouragement and what a difference it can make. Let’s not fail in sharing our appreciation and not fail in looking around us and sharing that word of encouragement. It will change a life.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

How Do You Teach Your Congregation to Worship?

If I had a dollar for every time that question has been asked, I imagine I would be a very wealthy man. The truth is, I still ask that question regarding the congregation that God has called and allowed me to be a part. I’ll still working on it. For nearly thirteen years, every Sunday morning and again on Sunday evening I have stood before a group of many of the same brothers and sisters in Christ and “led in worship.” Yet, when one really ponders what that means, I am concerned that we have allowed culture to form and define our roles and define what worship is and not Scriptural truth. So, what is the Scriptural truth about worship?

God initiates worship. We do not conjure up a magic formula and cast others under its spell. Biblical worship starts with God. He calls men to Himself, He reveals Himself, there is no human manipulation involved whatsoever. If that is true, then what is the role that humanity plays in worship? Our role is that of an obedient response to the His revealed nature and character. I am concerned that in our feeble attempts to “lead” at times that we do more to mask the glory of God than allow God to reveal it. God reveals Himself in a myriad of ways and part of understanding worship is learning to see how God reveals Himself. [Since this is not the format for an extensive discussion of how, allow me to share one. This brief discussion will only touch on the part of worship in which music is a part, for worship is much more than just the music.]

God’s nature and character is pure and perfect, holy and awesome. Beauty, excellence, purity reflect aspects of who God is. We are commanded to focus on such things: “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.” [Phil. 4:8 NIV] Those things around us in God’s creation reflect His power and greatness, as even the richness of the complexities of all living things reflect His wisdom, precision, and care. All these things should point us toward His majesty and glory to the point that we are overwhelmed in awe for what He has done and who He is.

If we take the model of excellence from God’s own creation, those things we do in worship should reflect the same degree of quality as well. Hastily thrown together worship services done with little thought, poorly practiced pieces to be presented by a choir or praise team fail to compare to a true sacrifice of praise, holy and spotless before the Father. God takes the initiative, but our response needs to be one that reflects who He is for He alone is worthy. That which we offer may never reach perfection, but it should always be the best that we might offer, not to put the focus on the sacrifice, but on Him for whom the sacrifice is given. There must be excellence in the preparation and excellence in the carrying out of that planned.

[Perfection for perfection’s sake is not the goal or should become the focus, but teaching those involved in the worship ministry to continually offer their best must be a given. When we relish perfection for perfection’s sake, the focus becomes the product of our own efforts and only glorifies those offering. But in working toward perfection as a humble offering to Almighty God, we come to realize that we can do no less and He deserves it fully. I am not talking about a particular style, but the presentation of whatever music is being used in the service.]

So, how do we teach our congregations to worship?
First, we must understand biblical worship and practice it ourselves. Paul continues the instruction seen earlier with how to direct our thinking in Philippians 4:8 with how to act: “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.” [Phil. 4:9] There is a never ending sense of sincere mentoring in the mind of the Apostle which can be applied to those that lead worship as well. As we hone our own skills in offering the best sacrifice of praise possible, we take those with us to a deeper level of worship as well as they follow the example that has been set. Those that work with us must be taught the biblical content of worship and saturated with examples of how to apply what has been taught.

The congregation becomes a part of the learning and growing through sharing the biblical content, seeing it lived out in those leading and by giving them the opportunity to participate in the sacrificial gift of worship as well. Just as healthy eating habits are cultivated, so healthy worship habits are developed; they are both taught and caught. The temptation to just throw sugar sticks at a congregation to keep a few happy fails in the responsibility to reflect the fuller nature and character of the God we serve.

Unfortunately, some have mistakenly use the worship service more as a music appreciation class than a worship service and have confused some styles of music with quality of music and even worship itself. Some focus polished showmanship on the pleasing of a human audience, forgetting the true audience in worship, God, Himself. We live in a age that is starving for a God that is revealing Himself at every turn, and dying for lack of those who will share with them who He is. Rediscovering the nature and character of God and what true beauty is while living in a materialistic entertainment-driven culture is a great challenge, but a necessary one if we are going to reclaim all that worship could be. Understanding and practicing excellence must always be subject to the focus of its biblical purpose.

The worship in our congregations will not rise above the level of worship practiced by its leadership. Leadership must have a passion, a zeal for worship, on a personal as well as corporate level, and at the same time possess the knowledge necessary to accomplish the tasks to help bring it to pass. Both zeal without knowledge and knowledge without zeal are folly. When the desire to know God more fully begins to decrease and efforts to grow and stretch in our relationship with Him diminishes, then we are on a dangerous slope of stagnation. When the ears of those that lead are more attuned to the entertaining of the crowd than offering a pleasing sacrifice of praise, worship is displaced with self adoration. There must be a relentless commitment to maintain biblical worship, to be a true worshiper, and to teach it to those to whom God has called us.

[For those that are interested in some more specifics, please refer to the following blog links on “What is Congregational Worship?”
“Worship and Entertainment”
and Ten Challenges Facing Worship Leader Training