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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.