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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Worship Leadership Amnesia

We all have times of forgetfulness. The older I get, I have to confess that I occasionally have to mentally search for a word longer than I once did.  There is a lot more to remember, and more critical in nature, passwords, etc., which almost control all we do and good memory plays an ever increasing role.

There is another type of forgetfulness that seems to be encroaching across believers in an ever widening wave, one that is more threatening more than just having to carry around a card with passwords on it. This is the forgetfulness stems from the neglect of remembering what God has done in the past and from where we came.  It was God’s plan from the beginning to build into our lives a memory of His works that we would rehearse in our minds and with our families. Consider God’s instruction to the Israelites in Exodus 12:25-27:

When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’  then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped.

To accomplish this required not just the observance of the Passover, but the explaining to the children why they were doing what they were doing.  It is very possible that the failure to keep the Passover in subsequent generations stemmed from the absence of the instilling the crucial element of the importance of why it was being done.

Deuteronomy 32 is a song Moses sang to the children of Israel not long before his death and is an important study in and of itself. But focus with me on his commentary afterwards in verses 44-47:
Moses came with Joshua son of Nun and spoke all the words of this song in the hearing of the people. When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law.  They are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”

Notice that one crucial method of remembering God’s law was through memorizing a song. The implication was that not only were they to learn it, but they had the responsibility to teach it to their children. Joshua, Moses’ servant who succeed him in leadership, continues this emphasis all his life as implied in Joshua 24: 31: “Israel served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the Lord had done for Israel.”   They had recalled the great workings of God before as well as what God had done during Joshua’s lifetime. Failure to teach the children these critical elements of their faith took their toll as recorded in Judges 2: 10: “After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.”  The entire book of Judges is the tragic record of the people falling into back into idolatry because of their rebellion and failure to remember. The last verse of the book is a classic summary of what happens when we fail to keep to the forefront those things that are of highest priority: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” [Judges 21:25]

Fast forward to David moving the ark of God to Jerusalem. David chose to move the ark in the same way the Philistines had years before: on a cart. [2 Samuel 6] There had been clear instructions that the ark had to be carried with poles on the shoulders of the Levites.   [Numbers 4 & 7] The king’s failure to follow the instructions provided for a situation in which caused the death of Uzzah, who reached out to steady the ark when the oxen that were pulling the cart stumbled. This would have not happened had David remembered the commands for moving the ark.  He allowed the surrounding culture to give direction rather than Scripture.

The Old Testament is replete with dozens and dozens of occasions in which disobedience was a failure to remember, and much more space would be required than allowed to enumerate each one.  The books of Chronicles are the post-exilic retelling of the history of the nation. Knowing the history, know the law, knowing where one’s roots are and why are indispensable.

The Matthew and Luke begin with a genealogy of Christ, and John begins with Who Christ was, not just from what lineage.  Jesus taught not to try to fit an older understanding of Scripture into what He was teaching, since what preceded looked toward the coming of Messiah and now a new covenant was being established. However, even with that, Jesus underscored the blessing of knowing what had preceded: “He said to them, ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’” [Matthew 13:52] The early church made going back over what had been written a focus of their worship: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” [Acts 2:42] Paul emphasized the need for continued study: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” [1 Timothy 4:13]

The need for rehearsing, restating, retelling the miracles, the history, and the wonder of God works and ways is undeniable. If it were important then, it is even more important now. The rapid availability and access to so much information has made the need for memorizing almost a forgotten art [no pun intended]. Before cell phones, I could have told you ten or fifteen telephone numbers without batting an eye; now I do well to remember my own as well as that of my wife. Information is as close as the touch of our phones, Ipads, or laptops. Why try to remember, when I really don’t “have” to?  The words of the psalmist come ringing in my ear: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” [Psalm 119:11] We must make it a priority to learn and memorize God’s Word, since everything around us in our culture is training us not to have to know or remember.

There is one more area in which forgetfulness or even neglect seems to be running rampant and the need to remember has all but vanished is the knowledge of our own Christian history. Just as it was important for the Israelites to know and have a strong sense of their identity by knowing whose they were and from where they had come, we have a responsibility for knowing our own worship history and knowing from we have come. Presently its seems as if we are losing our corporate memory for what it means to be the people of God. The saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" [George Santayana] applies to the realm of knowing our worship history as well.  It is very possible even for those teaching worship in Christian colleges and universities to have never had a course in historical theology or hymnology, yet be training the next generation to be the worship leadership in our churches.  How can we adequately know where we are going if we do not know where we have been?
Allow me one brief illustration and I will draw this to a close. In the early 300s AD a controversy led by Arius arose that denied the divinity of Christ. One of the chief methods of spreading his false doctrine was the use of easy to remember melodies. Obviously, there were no hymnals or committees reviewed the texts of what was being sung. The effectiveness of his methodology is attested to the fact the heresy had spread so far that congregational song was eliminated in the Council of Laodicea [363-364 AD].  Major figures like Ambrose and others fought against the heresy with his sermons and songs of his own. [He is attributed as having invented Long Meter] Years passed before the effects of the erroneous doctrine were eliminated.

But how soon we forget. Many in worship leadership utilize only the latest and greatest songs that can be downloaded from the internet which straight into the rehearsal room and on to the service without much thought to the implications of the theology presented.  Some have never received formal or informal training in these areas and have placed the theological instruction, the words that will pass through the lips of the congregation and think about all week, to which ever artist has the best tune and beat. {A study I did on the Theology of Contemporary Hymnody is available in another blog in Worship HeartCries.}

What are the implications of our present situation? How does this apply to worship leadership? [Please know that I am aware of many who doing a wonderful job of leading worship, and are both knowledgeable and intentional in utilizing the time of worship for biblical teaching. Nor am I saying that I am aware of what is going on in every congregation. The following remarks are observations.] Let me list out a few:

1. We run the risk of doctrinal confusion at best and heresy at worse for the failure to review everything that is sung.

2. We run the risk of allowing culture to set our standards, rather than Scripture. Being relevant to the culture does not mean that we succumb to the standards of the culture. Rom. 12:2 “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

3. Leadership must be trained to recognize doctrinal issues, be willing and able to correct them if possible or refuse to use the song.

4. An insistence on using only the latest songs denies the development of a canon of worship songs that can be passed on and shared from one generation to the next. Equally as bad, is the fact that even a meaningful new song never lasts long enough in use to become engraved in the heart of the believer that can be recalled during times of great difficulty. Consider the repercussions of the failure to teach and instill biblical truth in the next generation: “After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.” [Judges 2:10]

5. There is a false sense of superiority given to the present that implies that anything old is bad anything new is good.  C. S. Lewis called it, “chronological snobbery;” it ignores the fact that truth is eternal. Truth is part of the very nature of an unchanging God, though  how truth is expressed may change, the veracity of its nature does not.

6. It ignores historical perspective. God had commanded Moses to teach the history of the great acts of God from generation to generation. In the same way, the Lord’s Supper is that reminder of the saving work of Christ, a celebration so that we not forget: “Do this in remembrance of Me.”  Though truth may be expressed in new ways, to emphasize only the new seems to minimize truths that might be handed down generation after generation.

7. It lacks the tests of time to validate its worth and usefulness. There are songs that are from generations past that continue to minister to countless across generational lines. By granting value to a song based on its publication date relegates the theological filter to a calendar more than on the teaching of Scripture.

8.  It sets itself for designed obsolescence, for built into the very nature of the attitude is that good is measured more by a ticking clock than by how well is measures to the truth as expressed in Scripture.

The solutions seems to be a careful reviewing of what is sung by those who are prepared to do it as well as bringing back into worship those songs that have proved themselves over the years as worthy and useful elements for corporate worship.  When the psalmist wrote “sing to the Lord a new song,” he was not saying, “sing to the Lord, only a new song.” That “new song” was a encouragement to seek new ways to declare the infinite nature and character of God. We need to be like that the scribe that Jesus described as one who heard Christ’s words and accepted them, and so was getting treasures, both “new and old.” An active appreciation of the past is not an attempt to forget relevance, but better understand who we are. If we cannot see where we have been, we will not be able to see where we are going.  As we master the balance of remembering the old and incorporating the new we can avoid the plague of worship leadership amnesia.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Psalm 141: Helps in Prayer in Difficult Times

Psalm 141
1 I call to you, Lord, come quickly to me; hear me when I call to you.
2 May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.
3 Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.
4 Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil so that I take part in wicked deeds along with those who are evildoers; do not let me eat their delicacies.
5 Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness; let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it, for my prayer will still be against the deeds of evildoers.
6 Their rulers will be thrown down from the cliffs, and the wicked will learn that my words were well spoken.
7 They will say, “As one plows and breaks up the earth, so our bones have been scattered at the mouth of the grave.”
8 But my eyes are fixed on you, Sovereign Lord; in you I take refuge—do not give me over to death.
9 Keep me safe from the traps set by evildoers, from the snares they have laid for me.
10 Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I pass by in safety.

V. 1-2 The psalmist seems to be in trouble and wants God’s help now. Yet, he wants his prayer to be like incense, which as you can imagine slowly drifts upward. The incense and evening sacrifice were things done in obedience, they were commands.  Why would the psalmist want his prayer to be like them? He wants his prayer to be in line with what God desires and he wants his prayers to be acceptable to God.

V. 3-7 Remember the context of verses 1-2, the psalmist’s desire that his prayer be acceptable. A “guard over my mouth” would be for what purpose? Again, he does not want to say anything that would hinder his prayer.   The psalmist knows that there are many temptations to do and speak evil, so the guard at his mouth would be someone who is righteous, that knows God’s law and stops him from saying or doing anything wrong. So, rather than join in the deeds and speech of those who are evil, he prays for their judgement. The wicked even come to the point where they recognize that they have been defeated.

V. 8-10 Rather than rejoicing in the defeat of those who do evil, the psalmist keeps his focus on God, calling Him the  “Sovereign Lord” or the One who is absolutely over all. He then returns to his plea for help from the wicked, that they would be trapped by their own evil, but that he would be safe.

There are several important things we need to remember when we pray while we are in difficult situations that we can learn from Psalm 141:

1. We call on God first.  God is not the resource that we go to when all else have failed. He is who we go to first.

2. We must be careful how we pray and careful about what we say. Words thrown out without thought can hurt other people, and can show a lack of faith and trust in God. [Remember the father to Jesus, “If you can help my son...”]

3. We need to welcome and seek the counsel of those wise in the faith. We need to be accountable to grow properly. Think about a grapevine, it is most useful when it grows following the strands of wire, rather than just run anywhere along the ground. Be accountable to someone and following spiritual disciples of prayer, Bible study, and learning to be obedient to God’s commands help keep us along the designs of God’s will for our lives.

4. It is easy to get side-tracked by those who focus on evil or that do not follow God’s laws.

5. We need to keep our focus on God, realizing that He is God, He is in control, He loves us, He has a plan, and that we can trust Him.

6. As we call on God, seek wise counsel, focus on the fact the God is in control and that we can trust Him, we can be assured that God will hear and answer our prayers for our good and His glory.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Going Back to "Square One"

Life and ministry is full of joys and indescribable rewards, but it can be full of setbacks, confusion, and debilitating frustrations as well. On a recent trip to Cuba I had the joy of sitting in on a class, the professor of which had been a previous student in some classes I had taught. Her genuine interest in the students, command of the material and natural giftedness in teaching was more a testimony of her personal commitment to Christ and being His disciple than anything that I could have done. Yet, I was humbled and grateful to God for the privilege of being a small part in a life so given to the service of Christ. She serves in a remote village with her doctor husband who also serves as the local pastor. They have three beautiful children, the youngest of which has Downs Syndrome. Most of us probably wouldn’t last a week going through what so many go through around the world in similar situations, but in the eleven years and 20 visits I have know this young godly woman I have never heard a complaint. In fact, some of the most joyful and funny times I have had in my life have been shared with the group of Christian musicians in Cuba with which God has given me the privilege of working.

Even so, they have days as we all do, where there may be two steps forward, and then three steps back. Other days, three forward and two back. Progress is slow and perseverance is so key to being able to make it through one more day. Walking with this group of friends from the island, even for just a short time, understanding the challenges and almost insurmountable difficulties can get very discouraging. Ministry here can be very disheartening as well, for just about the time you finally get one thing where it is working, three other things “fall apart” and it is not uncommon to want to just walk away in discouragement. In these times, something that has been of great help to me has been learning how to go back to “Square One” when the challenges do come.

What is going back to  “Square One?”  It is no miracle cure, for the situation and circumstance may or may not change. But, what does begin to change is our attitude in the midst of the difficulty.  Here is a brief explanation: When I find myself in the crisis, rather than react without thought, I try to mentally go over these 5 truths:

1.  God is in control. This did not catch Him by surprise and He is well able to use even the greatest tragedy for His ultimate glory and our good. Remember Matt. 28:19: “All power and authority are given to me in heaven and on earth....”

2. God loves me. Romans 8:38-89 declares that nothing can separate us from the love of God. I may not understand the love of God, but I cannot deny it, or stop it. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

3. God has a plan. Like the backside of a tapestry where the threads seem all out of place and the shape is not clear, only God can see the other side and that what He is designing is a thing of real beauty.  Remember Is. 55:8-9: ‘“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”

4. I can trust God and His Word. Because I know He is in control, that He loves me, that He has a plan, I can place my faith and confidence in His hands. His Word is truth, and since it reflects His nature and character, we can rely and believe what He says is true.  Remember Hebrews 4:12  “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Ps. 119:9, 11 “How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

5. I must choose to act in obedience, giving thanks “in” the situation. In 1Thes. 5:18, Paul reminds us “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Notice that he says, “in” not “for.”  It is an act of the will. It is a choice, not a feeling. From this choice we respond in obedience to what God desires.

I know that this seems to be an over simplification, and I am certainly not trying to minimize the difficulty that someone may be going through at the moment. I am just sharing some things that have helped me greatly.  Going back to  “Square One” is different way of thinking about life and just a way of reminding myself of biblical truths. Remember what Paul says in Rom 12:1-2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  In “renewing our mind” we learn a new pattern of thinking that does not conform to the patterns of the world, but one in which is pleasing to God. “Square One” can aid in that process.

                                                  Square One
                                          1. God is in control.  
                                          2. God loves me.
                                          3. God has a plan.
                                          4. I can trust God and His Word.
                                          5. I must choose to act in obedience,
                                              giving thanks “in” the situation.

Monday, September 30, 2013

How to Respond When Bad Things Happen

When bad things happen we wonder where God is. We feel as if God doesn't care or even that He has abandoned us. Deep down we know that isn't true, but the internal confusion can still persist. What can we do?

Paul shared a list of things to help remold our thoughts in Philippians 4:8-9: 
“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. 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.”  Focusing our thoughts as God as commanded in His Word brings the promise of God’s peace.

 But you might ask, “How do I do that? What can I think about?”  Great question. Let me suggest some things.  Just as emergency workers are trained to follow a set of procedures when a crisis occurs, it is good for us to have a plan in mind for when bad things happen to train out thoughts how to respond in a way that pleases God. Here are some starters that I use and have found helpful.

Begin with the following statement, say it out loud:

I can trust God because:

1. God is in control; God has a plan.  He is under no obligation to share His plan with me and I am not able to see everything from His perspective. This helps develop our faith. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,  neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  As the rain and the snow  come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish,  so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:8-11

2. God loves you, He loves me. The cross is a reminder forever of the depth of the love of God. As we contemplate the cross where God sacrificed His only Son for us that we might have an eternal relationship with Him in eternity, we can never doubt the love of Almighty God.”But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

3. The purpose of my life is to glorify God.
– We do this by allowing Him to shape us into the image of His Son by developing a relationship with Him: “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” Ephesians 4:13-15

– by leading others to that relationship, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” John 15:8

– by being obedient to His commands, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” John 15: 10

– and by worshiping Him in Spirit and in truth. “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” John 4:23-24.

4. What happens to me is not as critical as my response to what happens.  Not that what happens is not important, but my response is indicative of the depth of relationship with God and how well I know Him. “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” Acts 20:24

5. I can thank God. Scripture says that "in everything" we give thanks, not "for". “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18

Each time those negative thoughts of doubt and despair coming knocking at your mind’s door, go back and begin to repeat: “I can trust God because....”

Friday, September 27, 2013

"Unplugged" Worship

“Be Prepared” is not only the Boy Scouts’ motto, it is a necessity for those who lead worship. Recently, the air conditioning system went out at our church sanctuary on a Saturday causing a rapid change of venue. Tracks, lighting, video, mics, were all ready for use in the sanctuary, however the AC issue caused us to call in a “Plan B,” which was go to our Fellowship Hall. Now with only two microphones and a older piano. All my planning was envisioned in another place with greater facilities, and now had to be thrown out as the last minute. Our congregation graciously accepted the change and we had a meaningful time of worship, However, the incident did make the wheels of my mind begin to spin. What do I really need in order to worship?

What if the electricity had gone out, what would we have done?  The Sanctuary has side doors, but no windows, so a lack of breeze would be an issue. We could use the piano, maybe an acoustic guitar, but no organ, electric guitar, lighting, air conditioning, or projection screens. Without proper lighting even hymnals would be questionable.  If you were to go bare bones, with just your hearts and voices what changes would you have make? It is easy for our security to become trapped by the all the non-essentials. Perhaps we’ve become so dependent on a wall of sound that for some musical worship  would be difficult, if not impossible.

No, I’m not about to suggest that we return to the caves and push to renounce every modern convenience. Years of serving overseas as a missionary provided plenty of experiences of bare-boned worship that was meaningful [and some that was not]. Now, living in south Louisiana in the heat and humidity without air conditioning would not be pleasant and most likely would demand that we move our time of worship to a time of the day when the weather would be less oppressive. However, I would like for us to think about worshiping “un-plugged” for just a moment.

By “Unplugged Worship,” I mean, worshiping God without all the technology that has facilitated and complicated our time together as the Body of Christ.  The music in worship services in England after the Reformation was reduced to the singing of the Psalms in unison, that is, just melody, no harmony. Light was provided by windows, sound by the acoustics of the room and the strength of human voice. [The simplicity is tempting, yet I know how important good accompaniment is to supporting congregational singing.]

The question is this: What if our churches had to worship “unplugged” for a month? A year? Would we see the attendance increase or decrease? Would those that seek to be entertained lose interest and go somewhere else or no where at all? Would we be able to worship without the “extras” that have become so much a part of what we do? Is it just enough to gather as the Body of Christ and center our hearts and focus on Him, whether or not we are even able to sing or not? Is Jesus alone enough? 

If there is something we have to have besides God’s Word and Holy Spirit in our lives as we gather and focus on God, then have we made that object or thing an “idol” that separates us from  worship? 

Perhaps we need to “unplug” every now and then and see what are those things on which we are really depending for worship individually and corporately.  Just some thoughts....

Monday, August 26, 2013

Ten Expectations that Can Ruin Your Ministry

When God called us into ministry, few would say that problems weren’t anticipated. The truth is, we don’t have to go around like Sherlock Holmes to find them. However, many times the difference between the problems we expected and what the realities are become overwhelming. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but should at least help give a reality check.  This list  is not to be interpreted to discourage anyone from responding to God’s call, rather it should be more understood as “counting the cost” of discipleship.

1. Just because God has called you, you must be right.  One of the things that is often overlooked is the fact that even Solomon had advisers. The less experience we have the more we need input from those who have already walked that trail. “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” Proverbs 12:15

2. Not everyone that opposes you is an enemy.  Walking into a ministry position with a “them vs us” attitude will only become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is closely related to #1.

3. I shouldn’t be having these problems if this were God’s will.  It is true that some problems are a result of our own fault. In that case, we need to repent, seek reconciliation, and correct the issue. However, not all problems have that as a root cause.  Look at what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 6:3-10:
     “3 We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; 8 through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything."

Problems are one of the things that God uses to form our character. How we respond under the pressure and stress of problems is more important than the problem itself.

4. All Pastors, staff, etc., are godly people. This is by no means a criticism of those in the pastorate or in other staff positions, but the recognition that we all have clay feet. We all face temptation and are in the process of God making us into His own image. Do not expect perfection; you are not perfect either.

5. The people within my church should understand that I know what I am doing. It may be that you even have a college or seminary degree in music, worship, etc. You may have many years of experience, but trust and confidence doesn’t come in a resume, but in relationships. You will earn the right to be heard, and sometimes it may take years. Be patient. Be loving.

6. My family shouldn’t have problems because I am serving God. The truth is some of the most Godly men and women I know have faced devastating problems of life and death. God’s call is not a shield from problems, but a mandate to obedience that results in a changed life. Go back and look at Paul’s list in #3.

7. My training in school should have prepared me for this.  As rigorous as schooling is, no one knows what the future holds. A large percentage of the professors teaching now began their studies before cell phones were even in existence, and even more before the internet was around. No one could have foreseen all the implications and changes. Besides the basics, one of the marks of a good education is training in the ability to discern and synthesize. If all you do in school is regurgitate a memorized content, then you probably are going to have issues in the near future. Learning how and when to ask “Why?”,  “What was the cause?” and  “What are the implications?” can go a long way to help prepare you for what is yet to come.

8. My wife, children, family, should understand that what I do is important.  I really don’t have time or space to unpack all the implications of that statement here, but rather than be a competition of time in your ministry, your spouse, children, and family are critical to the biblical success of your ministry. I would encourage you to read Peter Scazzero’s The Emotionally Healthy Church. It should be required reading for every staff member of every church.

9. My value comes from how effective a worship leader and director I am
. The truth is or worth comes from what Christ did for us, not what we might be able to do or not do. This is liberating. The person trapped by a self-worth dependent on output will eventually crash into disappointment and disillusionment. I am free to love others because Christ loved me and can ask Him to love them through me for His glory. Because it is He that is working through me, it is He that should get all the glory. It is very easy to fall into this trap of building one’s self-worth from accomplishments. It is a black hole; run from it as fast as you can.

10. I don’t have to be careful about my personal devotional time. We might as well say we don’t have to worry about breathing, that we will do it when we feel like it.  Your ability to lead others is dependent on the level of intimacy with the Father. You can not take others where you have not been, where you have only read about. What we do on Sunday is overflow from where we have been during the week.  We can become defensive and lower our moral defenses when we separate us from a regular, intimate time with the Father each day.

I trust these have been a kick-start to some thought and reflection.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Where Am I as a Worship Leader?

“Hezekiah encouraged all the Levites regarding the skill they displayed as they served the Lord.”
2 Chronicles 30:22 NLT

Tucked away in the books of the Chronicles are a myriad of gems and points to ponder. Chapter 30 of 2 Chronicles lists some of the reforms that Hezekiah accomplished in his 29 year reign as king. One of these was the restoration of the Festival of Unleavened Bread [Passover]. Because there weren’t enough priests who were ritually clean the celebration had to be postponed one month and even then, the Levites were more diligent than the priests. But the Levites were also diligent in another area, perhaps overlooked in today’s culture– they were diligent in their skill. This could have been the skill in which they played, or the skill in which they carried out their responsibilities, but regardless, it was done with such excellence that the King noticed it, and encouraged them in what they were doing. 

The Levites did not have “top billing” in the worship service; that was left to the priests. It might have been easy to become slack in performing a duty that might not even be noticed by anyone else but a few individuals, but they performed their duties with excellence anyway. They must have realized that they were doing this for Yahweh, and not just as a job. When a job is done well only when we think someone is watching, we reflect a poor understanding of what the job is and why we are to do it.  Let me unpack this just a little so we can better understand what the implications are.

David had reassigned responsibilities to the Levites [1 Chron 25]  looking forward to the construction of the Temple, since they would no longer be needed to carry the Tabernacle from one place to the next. Part of this reassignment was a group dedicated to the worship of God through song.  The chants were taught father to son for the life of the father, at which time the son would take over more or less when the father reached 50.   Verses 6-8 give more insight into the process:

   "Asaph, Jeduthun and Heman were under the supervision of the king. Along with their     relatives—all of them trained and skilled in music for the Lord—they numbered 288.  Young and old alike, teacher as well as student, cast lots for their duties."       

Notice the phrase “all of them trained and skilled in music for the Lord”. This was a process that took time. They were not satisfied with half-hearted work or ability, they had to reach a level of excellence to be able to serve. Now let’s fast forward back to the time of Hezekiah, hundreds of years had passed, yet, there must have been a group throughout this entire period that remained faithful to God, teaching their children the melodies, teaching them the texts of the psalms, especially since the music was not written down and everything was passed on aurally. Discipline and excellence can stand the tests of time when tied to an eternal purpose.

The Levites demonstrated their musical skill because they had paid the price to achieve that level of skill. Natural talent may help, but skill development is work. It is hard work and it takes time. They must have had a keen sense of being in the presence of God and carrying out their responsibilities for Him and for His approval.

So what does that have to do with me?
  Too often, we have forgotten Who we are serving and why we do what we do. We allow personal convenience to dictate our schedule, rather than order our schedule around what should really be the priorities of our lives. In the case of a worship leader, this means practice, and by practice I do not mean briefly running over the music.  Practice implies: 
  [1] having a strong understanding of music fundamentals to be able to understand when one has reached a high skill level. 
  [2] Perseverance to keep on working until that level of skill is achieved.  

 Unfortunately, music is thrown together, run through a time or two and topped off with the phrase, “Well, that will have to do for Sunday.”  I praise God for some who are diligent and truly work at improving every time the opportunity arises, but for many, just getting by week to week is an established norm that refuses to broken.

The question we must ask ourselves as worship leaders is, “Am I at the same skill level in my craft as I was a year ago?” Unless we can be honest with ourselves, it is doubtful that our skill levels will ever improve.  Churches are looking for worship leaders and have the expectations that they have the “musical chops” to lead, play, sing, and direct. When someone hands a piece of music to a worship leader, the last thing anyone wants to hear is, “Sorry, I can’t read or play that.” There is no substitute for hard work. Fine tuning our skill development means that we do what it takes to get there. One of the best ways to do this is with further education. I teach in a Seminary that specializes in just those skills. We provide the technical expertise as well as biblical groundwork for a balanced, well-rounded preparation. [If this sounds like a commercial, well it could be taken that way; I am not ashamed of our program.] I am partial to ours, but would encourage all worship leaders to get what it takes to improve your craft. 

Getting more education will help, but the greatest help for life long ministry is one that is more than a narrowly focused study. One of the advantages of a program like ours at the Seminary is that it is broad based. By that I mean that the training is more than in just one area. If we knew what churches would need in 5, 10, 15 years from now, we would focus on those areas, but the reality is, no one does. Because of that, it is of upmost importance that the education one receives focus on more than what’s “hot now”.  Education needs to be more than focusing on just the areas that we like. I do not want to go to a doctor that only studied the things he thought was important. Our churches deserve better as well.

Hezekiah encouraged those who demonstrated their craft with excellence. Our job is to please a King on a much higher plain, who deserves much more than our second best. He is worthy of more than our best, our best is the least we should give. He is the One we live for, play for, sing for; He is the reason. In the words of the slogan, let’s just do it!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Do You Have Any Bronze Snakes in Your Worship?

In 2 Kings 18, the biblical author records an interesting occurrence when describing the reforms that Hezekiah accomplished in the early part of his reign:

In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother’s name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.) [2 Kings 18:1-4, NIV]
Notice the last part of verse 4, “He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)” It is just a passing reference, but demands that we stop and take the time to unpack it.  The bronze snake had its origin when the people of Israel began to gripe and complain during their wilderness journeys. We find the story in Numbers 21: 4-9:

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.  The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

Remember that not long before they had witnessed some of the greatest miracles in the Bible, the parting of the sea, their crossing on dry ground and the defeat of Pharaoh’s army. They were being fed manna by God, Himself, and many other miracles of God’s provision and protection had occurred.  Although it is easy for us to play armchair quarterback as we read the story, when we are honest with ourselves, many times we forget all that God has done as well when a sudden crisis arises and we are in deep need.   The needs that arose in the wilderness served as tests to see if they would believe God and trust Him. Unfortunately, almost every time, they failed the tests. When the crisis hits us, or the phone comes with bad or tragic news, it is difficult to respond in faith, but as our relationship with God deepens, it can and will happen.

Back to our story. The pole with the snake that Moses made soon fades into the background of Israel’s history and doesn’t surface again until the days of Hezekiah. Scripture doesn’t give us a detailed account, only that by the time of the writing of 2 Kings, what once had been a symbol and memorial of God’s justice and redemption, had become an object of worship.  The people had even gone so far as to give it a name, Nehushtan, which sounds like the words for bronze and snake in Hebrew. I do not want to make more of this than does Scripture, but over the years the snake must have been kept by the priests and it must have been more accessible and visible than the ark, which the people could not see.

Where or how really isn’t that important, but what must have happened was a gradual shift in how the object was viewed. Over the years as the story was told the emphasis must have changed from God’s power and Moses’ obedience in making the snake to the people just looking at the snake. They must have forgotten that God used an object that represented their own disobedience to bring about their restoration. Instead of realizing that it was in obeying God’s command to look at the snake that they were healed, they focused on just looking at the snake, as if it in its own power it could perform miracles. What was meant to be a memory or memorial of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness had become an idol of worship.

The snake was not the only idol worshiped when Hezekiah became king, but it was probably one of the few, if not the only one that was directly related to objects within their own religious history. As painful as it must have been for the King to destroy something that Moses, himself had fashioned and used and that had been such a powerful symbol in their history, Hezekiah knew that it has lost its true meaning and was actually leading people away from God, instead of reminding them and turning them to Him. There was only was only one way to stop the idolatry and that was to destroy the idol.

Although this is a fascinating account, what does it mean for us today?  We don’t have poles with bronze snakes on them in our sanctuaries, do we?
  Well, that is a great question. Anyone that knows me, knows that I love history and am passionate about our understanding where and how we have gotten to where we are so that we can better understand where we are going. To ignore our past is to take a path to destruction.

At the same time, we must be honest with ourselves and others if we are allowing things in our past that perhaps at one time were pillars of our faith to become bronze snakes. Perhaps at our conversion a particular pastor, song, place, etc., was instrumental in our coming to Christ or for many to come to Christ. The memory and emotions linked to that time were strong, perhaps even overpowering. Yet, with time the focus has morphed into one where the joy of the memory is more with the association of the song, place, etc., than God who brought it all together. If we are not careful, we can allow these very precious people, or things to become bronze snakes that steal away the worship that only God, Himself deserves.  God has zero tolerance for idolatry. We can and should thank God for the important people and events that have been instrumental in our relationship with God, but careful to remember it is God and God alone who is the center and focus of our worship.

Monday, June 3, 2013

What Does t Mean to “Honor God?”

Worship leaders as well as other in ministry positions say we want to “honor God in all we do,” as well we should. But too often we only have some vague notion of what honoring God means.  When we think of honoring someone, we generally think of some special recognition that is accompanied with some kind of plaque or reward.   However, Scripture provides an interesting insight to honor that we might miss if we are not careful. Let’s follow the story found in Numbers 20:

    1 In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.
    2 Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. 3 They quarreled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! 4 Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? 5 Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!”
    6 Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. 7 The Lord said to Moses, 8 “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”
    9 So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. 10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.
    12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”
    13 These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the Lord and where he was proved holy among them.

The story is a familiar one.  The Israelites were in need of water during their desert wandering and God instructed Moses to speak to the rock, rather than strike it as he had done previously. One can understand his frustration: there were over one million people, including young children crying for thirst from lack of water; animals might have been dying, there weren’t any lakes or rivers nearby and all eyes were on the man that had led them into this desolate place. God had told him to strike the rock the last time, why not this time as well?

Look at the progression of events:
1. Moses reacts, rather than responds to their frustration and complaints: “Listen you rebels...”
2. Moses assumes personal responsibility for meeting the needs of the people, rather than depending on God: “must we bring you water out of this rock?”
3. Moses operates out of his own strength to do what God had asked him to do: “Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff.”
4. God responds in grace and gives water, in spite of Moses’ action, not because of it: “Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.”

God provides the commentary for Moses’ action:
“Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”

The Study notes in the NET Bible states that Moses was showing that he was not satisfied with what God had said, wanting something more forceful, giving the wrong picture of God to the people.”\ Moses did not display trust in God or His character to act.  In that moment, he wanted them to fear Moses more than God. Rather than Yahweh, whose loving kindness is everlasting, Moses gave an image of a god who was capricious. [note 17, Numbers 20:12, Loc 97126]
God describes Moses’ action in terms of a lack of trust and lack of honor.  So what does God mean by “honor” in this passage?  The transliteration of the verb is “Qadash” and it means “to consecrate, sanctify, prepare, dedicate, be hallowed, be holy, be sanctified, be separate” [

So what does the word ‘honor’ mean in this context? He failed to trust God to do what He said He would do. He failed to obey a direct commandment.  By his disobedience, Moses had failed to reflect the character of God. He allowed the frustrations and complaints of the multitudes to bother him, because he was assuming the responsibility of meeting their needs, rather than just allowing God to do so. He had been the central figure for so long he began to believe in his own importance, and his pride pushed him to take matters into his own hands. 

Honor in this context means an acknowledgment in the absolute power and authority of the One being honored, and surrendering total allegiance to His command and will.  When we honor other persons, we do so for some achievement, but when we honor God, it is not just for what He has done, it is for Who He is. Moses failed to trust God for who God was, he failed to respond to the One who was in absolute authority and control, and in anger he strikes the rock not just once, but twice.

His failure to show God the proper honor as a leader was extremely costly; he forfeited the privilege of going into the Promised Land, Canaan. Some might consider the punishment beyond the severity of the crime, but in the eyes of God, those that would represent His nature and character as leaders are held to a higher standard. Think of Saul and his failure to obey God completely with the destruction of the Amalekites; his partial obedience cost him a lasting dynasty. James underscores this principle in his letter: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” [James 3:1]  
What is the take away from this?  Are we honoring God? Are we acknowledging His greatness, and living in such a way that shows His absolute power and authority over all and surrendering completely to His command and will? What does such obedience looks like in real life?

1. We do not assume for ourselves the position of God in the lives with whom we work.  God may have called us into leadership, but only He can supply the needs of those to whom we have been called.
2. We do not allow personal pride and position to cause us to respond in a manner that does not reflect the nature and character of Christ.
3. We give God the freedom to work in a new way. We obey God just as He leads, even if it seems different than the way we might have previously done so.
4. We realize that failure to obey completely can have drastic and costly consequences.
5. Thank God for His love and grace that are constant.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Psalm for a Post-Christian Time: Psalm 73

How do you respond when those who laugh and scoff at God seem to be blessed and those who fear and obey God suffer?  Psalm 73 is a psalm by Asaph, one of the chief musicians and author of many of the psalms provides keen insight and is particularly important in this post-Christian time when God has been removed from the moral fiber of law. Today, the majority may rule, but the majority isn’t always right; God has been abandoned for self indulgence. Mass media lifts up the immoral and defames those who would uphold moral values.  A national turning to God does not seem on the horizon. 

God’s Word does provide an honest and transparent answer for how we can respond:

1 Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. 2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. 3 For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 4 They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. 5 They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. 7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits. 8 They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression. 9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. 10 Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. 11 They say, “How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?” 12 This is what the wicked are like— always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. 14 All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments. 15 If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children. 16 When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply 17 till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. 18 Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. 19 How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! 20 They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.

21 When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. 23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you?  And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds

Asaph begins with the truth that he had been taught, but it seemed the reality around him was something other than this truth.  The author had taken his eyes off the truth and fixed them on those around him and began to observe the apparent prosperity of the wicked.  They didn’t seem to suffer or have needs [v. 4-5], they were violent, arrogant, and calloused to the needs of others [v. 6-7].  They boasted about their rebellion, and seemed to say, “Even if there is a God, He doesn’t care or matter” [8-11].  In spite of all their evil, they just seemed to get richer and richer [v. 12].  How did the psalmist respond to all of this?                   

It takes courage to admit feelings and doubts. Here the psalmist even writes them down. His courage to admit [confess] serves to help encourage us when we are similarity tempted.  In his commentary, Dr. David Garland summarizes the psalmist response in verses 3-20: Asaph confesses [1] his own doubts about trying to live a good life– is it worth it all? [2]  his own troubled emotions in dealing with the situation, [3] concern for his people, had he continued to respond in doubt and  [4] the transformation of  being in the presence of God.  The change began when he “ entered the sanctuary of God” [v. 17].  His return to worship God and meditate on who God is and what He has done was the turning point in his attitude and response.  Notice that this does not change the actions of the wicked, but the focus of the psalmist heart.

In the first part of the psalm, the psalmist’ eyes are on the wicked, even envying their wealth and easy life of luxury, culminating with thoughts that being obedient to God has only been a mistake, a lie, that he has only gotten the “raw end of the deal,” while those that could care less about God only prosper.  In the second half of the psalm, the psalmist has refocused his attention on the reality of God, who has given him a new, eternal perspective: the consequences of lives lived in self gratification and lives lived in obedience to God’s laws. The destiny of the wicked is destruction; the destiny of the godly is being in the presence of God.

Not only does worship help the psalmist get his focus back on track, but it also helps him see what he was like while his focus was on the wicked: “my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you” [v. 21-22].  When we begin to focus on the wicked and envy them, we will become bitter. Wrong focus can lead to bitterness and bitterness can lead to depression. It makes us numb to God and what He is doing. We cease to function as God intended; we become like a “brute beast.” But meditating on God and spending time with Him changes us, it transforms us.

It is too easy to see only the present and not think of the future consequences of present actions, especially when we are suffering.  Worshiping and spending time with God helps us bring things back into focus and helps us see the bigger picture.  God is in control. God is just and righteous. He will bring a righteous judgement. We can trust Him, even when it seems that those who flaunt their rebellion against God are prospering. We must remember that they are on “slippery ground.” In the light of eternity, all their wealth and “accomplishments,” and their boasting, will prove false, hollow, and disappear like a vapor.

How are we to respond in this post-Christian world that we live in?
We need to keep our focus on God, regularly spending time in worship, meditating on the greatness and goodness of God and all that He has done. We need to realize the temporal nature of this existence and that there is a reality of greater value that can only be seen by those who have put their trust in Christ as Lord and Savior.  Let’s look at some summary statements:

1. Even when things are going relatively well, we can get off track when we begin to shift our focus away from God and His goodness.
2. Evil people do evil things, and many times it will seem like they never suffer the consequences. Many times God seems to remain silent, not in approval, or because He doesn’t care, but in grace and mercy to allow for repentance.
3. We need to be honest how we feel when we see the wicked prosper, but careful about changing our focus.
4. As we begin to re-center our thoughts God, that He is good, that He is in control, and that He will bring a righteous judgement, we will begin to see the situation in better light.
5. We need to spend time each day refocusing and God’s greatness, love, and mercy.
6. Wrong focus can lead to confusion and bitterness. Bitterness can lead to a loss of hope and depression. Eventually we can become numb to the voice of God in our lives.
7. Even when we refocus our attention on God, the actual situation may not change. What does change is our response to the situation.
8. Responding correctly in difficult or unjust situations can serve as an encouragement to others who are going through difficult situation.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Worship and Discipleship

Recently, through some books I have been reading, lectures, and a mission trip to Cuba, the Lord began to work in my heart the importance of worship and discipleship.  I had been  listening to some lectures that Marva Dawn gave at Gordon Conwell Seminary some time back and began to process her comments. While in Cuba I had the privilege of teaching to a group of leaders whose ministries could only be described as miraculous.   The following comments reflect much of what I heard and saw and pray can be of help.

One of the questions Marva Dawn asked stuck in my memory:  "Are we asking the write questions when we talk about worship? If we have the wrong diagnosis, the medicine given will not be the treatment necessary to cure the disease."  We have diagnosed the problem as a style of music, when the real problem was we don't really have a biblical understanding of worship.  We focus on what is the correct style, when the real focus should be Who is the center of worship. Until we really begin to work on this problem, we will be treating symptoms, and not the disease.

Biblical worship is centered around God.  Biblical worship will be evangelistic, but the focus is not evangelism. As Marva Dawn has said, "To make evangelism the focus of worship  is to place a responsibility on worship that it was never intended to have."  For sure there are evangelistic services, whose main focus is reaching the lost, but these by definition are not "worship services."  The problem is that we have shifted the biblical responsibility of evangelism from people sharing with people to a "worship service."  The biblical model is people sharing Christ with people.  An example I remember from Dr. Roy Fish's class on evangelism when I was in seminary classically shows how we have shifted the great commission to conform to our personal disobedience. Dr. Fish would say, "rather than going out to where the fish are and throwing out our fishing lines, we are building big beautiful fish tanks and hoping they will just jump in." We shift the great commission from "Go tell" to "ya'll come."

When Paul warned the Corinthian church to avoid unknown languages when they met for worship unless there was someone there to interpret, he was laying down an important principle that worship must be intelligible, but not that it's focus would change from God to the lost.  When the church really begins to realize that they must carry the gospel everywhere they go during the week and focus on the goodness and greatness of God in worship, the lost will come. When the lost come and see a community of faith that loves each other and is unified by their love and worship of God, they will want it for themselves.

By now you may be wondering, "What does all this have to do with worship and discipleship?"  Great question. First,  there was a need to establish a correct base, or foundation from which the rest is built.  So please continue.  Once someone comes to Christ, part of the process of becoming a disciple is learning what worship is and practicing what worship is.  We then need to ask the question, "What is our worship teaching these new converts?"

In Alexis Abernethy's book, "Worship that Changes Lives," book,  John Witvliet shared an important insight:   We are aware of the workings of the Holy Spirit when something unusual occurs in a particular worship service, but often we forget that the Spirit of God is working in us week by week as we gather to worship.  These are the long term effects of corporate worship.   Weekly worship is key to spiritual formation.  Since that is true, what are we teaching?  Marva Dawn asked a group of students at Gordon Conwell Seminary :  " What kind of believers are we forming by what we do in worship?" [Marva Dawn: Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, ITunes University]

 If our songs center around our own feelings, what are we teaching the congregation? Does the emphasis lie in how moved we are in the presence of God or in the truth of who God is in the first place.  Biblical praise is centered in the objective nature of God, not how we might feel about it.  God is all powerful, whether or not I recognize His greatness. God is loving, whether I feel that love or am totally indifferent to all that He has done.  We need to be careful that the truth of God's nature and character is preeminent, not our feelings or response to it.   For example, if we sing about how much we love Jesus because of what He has done for me by answering my prayer, someone who is going through a difficult time  because God didn't answer prayer  the manner desired cannot relate. However, if we can share the truth that God promises to be with us in both good times and bad, the focus shifts back to the truth of who God is and His promise.

If our songs center on celebration, what are we learning? There are numerous examples of celebratory worship in Scripture, however, over one-third of the Psalms are of lament. To ignore the fact that we will pass through difficulties and experience times of doubt, frustration, hurt, anger, and confusion is presenting an incomplete picture of the Christian life. How much stronger it is to be able to identify with the psalmist in worship that we are hurting and   confused, that we need help to trust in the midst of problems, than it is to have members attend services where the only music they hear is of celebration and they leave feeling guilty that they are having difficulty.

If everything in the worship is centered around the likes and tastes of a specific group, when do they learn that the Christian life is not centered around their likes and dislikes, but of learning to become a servant? One of the greatest examples of the unity in diversity that exists is biblical worship. In heaven, Scripture records that people from every tribe and nation are gathered around the throne worshiping the Lamb on the throne. There are no divisions for age, race, style, or generation, just the Body of Christ with its many members submissive to the Head.  If there ever was a time when we needed a biblical model for our worship, it is now and this is it.

What can we do? There are many things and I am not saying that the following are the only ones, or are even the best, but they are at least a start:
1. Begin to shift our focus from worship centered on individual tastes to focusing on the nature and character of God. Ask God for a small group of like-minded people to join you in praying about how to make the transition.
2. We need to train the members in our churches not just the content about what is  biblical worship, but how to apply it to their personal lives and corporate worship.
3. We need to shift our mindset from "going to church" to "being the church" in our daily lives through the week, sharing Christ in as many ways as opportunities arise.  As Francis of Assisi once said, "Share the gospel with everyone, use words when necessary."
4. Train members to understand that worship is something that everyone does, not just those on the platform. The shift from entertainment oriented worship to congregational response is difficult and slow. Nothing in modern culture works to reinforce the biblical model.  Training must start with the children and move throughout the various age groups.
5. Analyze what is being taught through the music that is being used.  Take the last 4-6 months of services and categorize the texts of the songs in this format:
    a. List the doctrines or truths taught
    b. List the focus of text: God's nature and Character,  personal response to God
    c. Describe the focus of music:  celebratory, meditative
    d. Were the the full realities of the Christian life share, or just the "joyful" times?
    e. How much of Scripture was read and used?
6. Use the data to see what has been taught, and develop a plan to bring balance to those areas that are weak.

It is my heart cry that the Church become the church that Christ desires, and that we worship in spirit and truth. We must remember that how we worship is critical to our growth as disciples.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Ten Steps in Learning to Respond Rightly When Everything Seems Wrong: Psalm 73

All we have to do is look around us and realize that our world and the society in which we live is far from God’s plan. When many in political leadership have tossed aside biblical standards and many in powerful positions scoff at morality from God’s point of view, it is easy to become discouraged. “Wrong” things can happen within the Body of Christ as well. As leaders, how are we to respond? How can one not become discouraged when “right” is called “wrong,” and “wrong” called “right?” 

Fortunately, we are not the first to have to deal with such difficulties. God’s Word records a similar situation in Psalm 73 that can be of great help to us as we face the tragedy of our time. Asaph begins with fact, with what he knows is true:

1 Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.

Through an honest and transparent testimony of his own weaknesses, he begins to recount his inmost thoughts and feelings. He confesses that he even envied the wicked because they seem to avoid all the difficulties he had to face: 

2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
   when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

4 They have no struggles;
    their bodies are healthy and strong.
5 They are free from common human burdens;
    they are not plagued by human ills.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
    they clothe themselves with violence.
7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
    their evil imaginations have no limits.
8 They scoff, and speak with malice;
    with arrogance they threaten oppression.
9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
    and their tongues take possession of the earth.
10 Therefore their people turn to them
    and drink up waters in abundance.
11 They say, “How would God know?
    Does the Most High know anything?”

12 This is what the wicked are like—
    always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

Focusing on their “success” causes the psalmist to become discouraged and depressed. See what he says in the following two verses:

13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

When we take our eyes off of Christ and His will and direction for our lives, we can quickly become despondent with everything going on. We can feel as if God has abandoned us and has left us to suffer under injustice and evil. The tendency is to focus on the injustice of the situation and then blame God for not preventing or averting the travesties that cause the innocent to suffer.  

A related problem is that we mistakenly believe that if we love the Lord, that we will never have to suffer. God uses all things to form and reform us into His image. Perservering under difficult circumstances helps us and reminds us to be dependent on God.  

When we begin to think that God is unfair and has abandoned us, we need to do as the psalmist did.  Let’s look at what he discovered in verses 15-20:

15 If I had spoken out like that,
    I would have betrayed your children.
16 When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply
17 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.

18 Surely you place them on slippery ground;
    you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed,
    completely swept away by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes;
    when you arise, Lord,
    you will despise them as fantasies.

Till I entered the sanctuary of God...”  When the psalmist refocused his attention on God and mediated on who God was and what He had done in the past, he began to understand their end. Notice that the situation does not change: the wicked are still in power, they scoff at God, and they live as God doesn’t care or even exits. However, an understanding of what God has done in the past reveals that His mercy and grace are high to the heavens, allowing for even the vilest offender time to repent. An understanding of how God has worked in the past reminds the psalmist that God has the final word and that sin is always punished. Judgement comes in God’s time, not ours. 

Seeking out God in mediation and worship had another result that instrumental in the psalmist dealing with his discouragement and despondency: he realized that inwardly he was bitter. Look at verses 21-22:

21 When my heart was grieved
    and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was a brute beast before you.

When our focus is on the prosperity of the wicked it is easy for us to become envious of the carefree life they seem to live. The more our focus is on their prosperity the more we lose our ability to think logically about the situation from God’s standpoint. Jealousy replaces our sensitivity to God’s working in our lives and robs us of a grateful attitude for all of God’s blessings.

His time of mediation clears his mind so that he can to begin to think clearly again and he can begin to state the reality of the situation in correct terms: God is in control. God is in control of my life. He will provide and protect. I can learn to trust Him and He will receive the glory from my responding rightly.

23 Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.

27 Those who are far from you will perish;
    you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
    I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
    I will tell of all your deeds.

Verse 26 is key to the recovery of the psalmist: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  He is not in denial of his personal situation, nor does he glibly brush off his feelings. He simply sets his focus on the only one that can truly change the situation and make things right. Regardless of the outcome, his trust and confidence is in God. God is in control; God will bring justice, God is the strength of my heart and refuge forever. His heart response then was to share with others what God had done in his life.   

So now what?  Let’s look at some steps that we can follow based on Psalm 73 that can help us through difficult times:

1. Realize that we are not above becoming failing, from becoming discouraged.
2. Many times we become discouraged when we spend more time focusing on the “prosperity of the wicked” or the problem, than the strength of the Savior.
3. We need to be honest about our thoughts and feelings before God.
4. Mediation on who God is and what He has done can help refocus our thoughts. Biblical worship is one of the best first steps toward the refocus.
5. As we worship God, we realize that He is in control and that we can trust Him. 
6. We also realize that God has a righteous judgement and that all sin will be dealt with in a way that brings God glory.
7. As we worship, we will begin to see the sin in our own life and confess it before the Father.
9. We center our focus on the reality of Who God is and What He as done more than present circumstances.
10. We share what God has done in our lives.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ears to Hear- Effective Worship Leadership

Terry York, in his The Voice of the Congregation, shares a story of how he, as a new associate pastor of a large church, desired to get to know the congregation for which he would now be ministering and decided to begin by taking the oldest charter member of the 50 year-old church out to lunch. The senior adult was thrilled to share the stories of how the church began and her involvement in it. Other lunches soon followed with other members. Not only did he learn valuable history and lessons from what had occurred in the past, he soon earned the respect of the entire congregation. He began known as one who not only listens, but wanted to.

Though York was not the worship leader at the church, he exhibits the truth that wise, godly leadership listens to those for whom he serves in as a leader. The weakest model for leadership is that leader who dictates edicts without hearing and really getting to know those for whom he has been privileged to lead.  Without getting to know those with whom his decisions will affect, the worship leader will be issuing edicts, but not truly leading. Before those with whom we work can share in the vision we might have, we have a responsibility to earn their trust though listening. 

Decisions based on the relationship and knowledge developed in the process of getting to know the individuals with whom we serve will not only be more likely to be accepted, but tempered by what is known. The smaller the circle of relationships from which we gather the information to base our decisions, the greater the opportunity for alienation and mistrust. Weak leadership assumes knowledge of the individual and the situation, wise leadership takes the time to listen.

I can remember working with the young man that did the sound at a particular church. He was really good at what he did, and frankly, if he was on the board, I didn’t need to worry about anything. I literally could just give him an idea of what I wanted sound-wise, or what was going to be needed for this or that and it was always there. When he left for college, he had trained another student, who did a fine job, but not quite as expertly as the first. When this second student left, I was left to train the next person myself, and though I had taken courses in recording engineering, there was much to learn about the specifics of this system, quirks, etc. I could have learned a lot from the first young man, but was “too busy,” and since I had taken courses about these things, I really didn’t think I needed to ask him much. My own pride, really ignorance of the situation, resulted in my having to learn many things the hard way,  resulting in frustration for me and those with whom I worked.  I am convinced that I could have saved myself much grief is I had only gotten to know the situation better from the person that had been so adept. My assumptions we inadequate and woefully uninformed.

The model we have for wise leadership that knows those with whom he leads is Christ, Himself. One of the major truths in Psalm 139 is how intimately God knows us and how much He desires to know us. We do not have the divine ability to know as God knows, but we do have the ability to take time and ask. Before we hand down decisions, we need to:
     [1] Know those with whom we serve. We may be surprised to get to know all they really do as compared to what we thought they did.
    [2] Get input from those for whom the decision affects. Since these people carry out the day to day details of the work, [sound, lighting, video, music, drama, etc.] they can inform the situation in ways that we cannot.
    [3] Once we have made a decision that has been informed by those we work with, we need to follow up with these individuals to see how the decision is panning out.

I pray that as we grow in our leadership skills, we grow in the desire and knowledge of those for whom God has called us to serve.