Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Worship Leader/Shepherd: The New Norm?

          I was excited, as an ambitious college student, to be sitting across the cafeteria table from an influential speaker in modern worship leadership. I wanted to pick his brain, and I was talking all about my plans to go to seminary, let deep theology inform my creativity, and my hopes to produce powerful services and programs.
          “How’s your musical performance ability?” he curiously asked.
          Suddenly, I wasn’t as verbose. 
          “Some people are looking for the next Chris Tomlin,” he continued. “You might want to keep practicing.”
          I was a bit worried. I don’t play guitar, and I don’t have near the vocal range of Chris Tomlin. I lead from the piano, and I was entering the ringer with production/ideation as my strength, and musical/performance as my weakness. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all about musical excellence . . . but I’m not necessarily a stage presence kind of guy and I lead from a stationary instrument.
          A lot has changed for me since that dinner, but my friend is absolutely right.
          When classical music was (and still is, for some) the basis for a church service’s music, the pastoral aspects of that of a Music Minister or Music Director were rarely mentioned or noticed. The musical resume, however, got plenty of notice. Such churches were (and are) proud of their music guru’s status as composer-in-residence, conductor of a local orchestra, etc. This notion has carried through the addition of contemporary worship services, as they (a minority, in my experience) like to post about a worship leader’s experience in a traveling band, ownership of a recording studio, etc. In both cases, very little (if anything) is mentioned about said leader’s passion and intentions for their role and service to the church.
          In some cases, a church’s musical excellence, in my opinion, is overstated (perhaps a better word is “advertised”?). Sometimes the reason that their pastor-like qualifications aren’t mentioned is because they have none. I’ve served under the leadership of worship directors with whom I’ve never even shaken hands. They run rehearsals without a smile, lead the congregation, ironically, in “community worship,” and then leave to get back to their choir, opera or band tour. But the music was more than excellent.
          Is worship leadership simply just a change in venue? Is it simply musical accompaniment that used and interpreted differently by a certain crowd such as a church’s congregation? There’s so many churches that have simply hired musicians (professional singers, conductors or rockstars) to bring musical prestige next to the pulpit . . . because that’s sadly what some congregants only care about.
          Yet have the proverbial winds changed? Some churches have seemingly heard the curious and cynic’s call away from facade and business-like ministry and to community and sincerity. There are more worship leaders who oversee more than musical logistics. These are more the type of worship leaders I meet at conferences. They preach, they reach out to their volunteers, they give to the congregants, they involve themselves and they see “service production” as a pastoral process. They have sacrificed musical dreams and even some of their musical reputation on the altar because they believe, first and foremost, in the mission of the Church.
          Some aspiring worship leaders have asked me how to qualify themselves. I tell them that worship staffs at churches don’t need more theologians or rockstars. They need more shepherds. And not just in the church staff, but in every worshipper’s heart.
          I once had an internship during college in worship leadership. The worship pastor (my mentor) had a strong electrical engineering background, you know, the type of person a right-brainer like me is supposed to hate. He wasn’t a strongly creative person or great guitarist, and he sometimes sang off-key. But, oh, did he efficiently and lovingly oversee and run an excellent, creative and culture-impacting department. His mentorship taught me a lot more than other internships I’ve had with much more musical mentors.
          Why? Because he is a shepherd. And I hope to be one, too. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Individual and Community Worship, Working for the Both-And

          When programming services and special events in the church, often this question comes up: Is this a worship song? This is rarely a question of theological content. Rather, it mostly pertains to the sing-ability and play-ability of the song itself. There are many good songs out there with professional execution and poetic lyrics that are good songs with which to listen, meditate, pray, and sing-along, but to which few church ensembles can do proverbial justice. “Worship Music” has become its own genre at Christian bookstores in the last decade or so, and I would define it as music that is written for the purpose of corporate musical worship.
          Now, how many of said worshippers, myself included, think about the entailment of the word “corporate” in that last sentence. Why don’t people simply listen to MP3’s at home?
          Community worship, including and beyond the musical, has its roots in the Old Testament. For the Israelites and for many a millennium, it was more than just submission and praise to God. The words of Jewish worship songs contain poetic recollections of God’s faithfulness through the best and worst of times in the past. They sing, as a people, of their experiences, as a people, and God’s faithfulness, to His people. 
          Worship in synagogues seemed a celebration not just of God’s sovereignty, but their identity, as a community, in him. They sang the stories of Moses and David, as they’re not just their past heroes. They’re their blood ancestors. As Christians, thinking of the worshipping Church as a community makes for a more intimate and edifying worship experience, better understanding God’s bigness as He has worked beyond one worshipping soul, throughout geography and history.
          We need to worship in community. We all have experiences of tough times and God’s faithfulness as churches and families. Recently, my wife and I held hands while being led in worship by Hillsong United in Milwaukee. We were familiar with the songs, how each song’s lyrics touched each other’s hearts, and what stories of sorrow and God’s faithfulness they brought back. It was a time of intimate community worship. At least in my life, it needs to happen more often.
          However, we can fall off the other side of the proverbial horse. Worshipping communities can become self-content, cliquish and uninviting. Worship does not only look to the past experiences with God but also to the future and glory.
          Corporate worship is not meant to portray the idea that a lone member of a worshipping community is simply an account number in Heaven. God’s love and work in humanity is both universal and personal. There are events, circumstances and other life aspects that not always shared by all of a worshipping community. This is why I often see people closing their eyes, raising their hands and maybe even relocating to a more empty part of the room during worship. God’s working in their heart in an idiosyncratic way.
          At the same time, there’s some truth to the cliche that worship “is not about you.”
          I’ve long believed that arts in the Church should be, at the very least, multi-functional. Corporate musical worship should encourage 1) celebration of God’s attributes, 2) communication and contextualization of His Word and 3) affirmation in our identity as members of the family of God. Our worship is to celebrate both family and individual, as well as welcome new individuals, so that this non-biological family that is the Church, will healthfully grow.               

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sincerity in Worship

          Those that know me understand that I have a lot of qualms with Brett McCracken’s wrongfully reductionistic review of “hipster Christians” in his book, Hipster Christianity. I have long held many of the biblical values that hipster Christians rightfully stand for. And I developed my convictions for those values out of deep biblical teachings received in seminary and God’s working in my heart, not from simply a longing to be seen as “cool,” as McCracken and other cynics might judge. (And, I honestly don’t feel any “cooler” than I was).
          Nonetheless, I will stand by one statement McCracken wrote for the Wall Street Journal, when it comes to our nation’s church reaching young adults. Speaking on their (our) behalf, he said, “We don't want cool as much as we want real.” He has an important point.
          Many church families have adopted growth plans that are eerily similar to business models. They buy the latest equipment, play the latest songs, speak on current events, put on unpredictably creative services, and offer a plethora of appealing programs and many other amenities. Very much a philosophy of “if you build it, they will come.” Such aspects can certainly be helpful to true ministry, but they’re meaningless if we’re insincere and detached.

          What does it mean to be sincere in church? Trying not to over-simplify, it means there is almost no difference between the way you are on Sunday (especially up front) and the way you are if someone were to visit your home or run into you at the grocery store. If someone is seen smiling and praising God on Sunday and then yelling at a waiter on Friday, that’s an inconsistency that makes a curious onlooker doubt the sincerity of the worship and, sometimes, the very character of God.
          Sincerity is the opposite of insincerity, and we’re more familiar with the latter. Someone can vivaciously engage the congregation from up front, but is strangely wooden, unapproachable or even rude in person. Some of us might of had a conversation with a good smiler, honestly wanting to get to know them, but could tell they couldn’t wait to get home, stop smiling and move on. All across the church, there’s people who don’t smile enough, and there’s people who smile too much, in both cases for the wrong reasons.

          What does this mean for musical worship volunteers (since that’s under my job description)? Let yourself be a bit more expressive. Discard any facades or felt obligations to overt and extra-biblical propriety. Don’t the words and truths of songs make you want to raise your arms, look to the Heavens and shout for joy? Don’t worry about being a distraction to others; monitoring that is the worship leader’s job. If you focus on the authenticity of your own worship to God, your sincerity will be seen and imitated by the congregation.
          For everyone participating in musical worship, be honest with God. Don’t leave your burdens, qualms and doubts at the door so musical worship can be an easier emotional experience for you. Bring them forward, cast them at God’s feet, and let the sung truths, the love of the community, and the work of the Spirit work on them with you. 
          This is not call to extroversion or any tell-all confessionals, but a healthy degree of transparency in necessary for the building of community within a group of people, and this is true in worship and worship leadership. This is why most exemplary worship leaders today no longer eye the congregation with a exhorting smile like a children’s choir director. Rather, they’re raising their arms, and either closing their eyes or looking at their audience of One.
          There was once a church that sang only original songs, and some of them might have been, musically, pretty bad. The laymen congregation chose the song list each week, and many loud singers couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Plus, it might have seemed chaotic with all the animated expression during worship and the seeming disruptive loud praying. After all, this church could only meet in someone’s house. By many standards today, this church wouldn’t stand a chance.
          But this church was from the first century in Rome. It was a sincere and loving community that grew, and was a part of the largest “religious growth” in history. So, what’s holding us back from being transparent and welcoming so we can all, as a community, celebrate the love of Jesus Christ together?
          How are you really feeling?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Nostalgia, Good Distractions and Focused Worship

     During my second semester at a Christian college, an event-sponsoring committee produced a creative and brilliant idea into quite the attended bash: a full-blown rock concert where the repertoire was exclusively the Christian rock hits of the mid-to-late 90’s, with a few more throwbacks even further into the past. 
     Hundreds of young Christian collegians, myself included, scrambled into the small and dusty chapel building. This event likely garnered more attendance in the outmoded sanctuary than most other events, including mostly classical recitals and non-campus-wide worship services. Like I said, this concert was a hit. The vast and mosh-pitting audience was happily flashed back to junior high school memories as the peer-composed rock band cranked out tunes from the Newsboys’ “Going Public” album, dc Talk’s “Jesus Freak,” and they were some  extra cheers for the surprising performance of Michael W. Smith’s “Place in This World.”
     It’s rare, surprisingly, that you would see such a diverse group of collegial Christians in one room and so unified in enjoyment of and connection with the music and with each other.
     But was it worship? Not so much.
     Since I was there, and a happy attendant as well, I include my own heart in that assertion. Let’s take, for example, the Newsboys’ song “Spirit Thing.” It was played that night. It’s a great song that helped to teach me, in my adolescence, about submission to the work of the Holy Spirit in my daily life. I still have the chorus memorized:
     It’s just a Spirit thing. It’s just a holy nudge. It’s like a circuit judge in the brain.
     It’s just a Spirit thing. It’s here to guard my heart. It’s just a little hard to explain.
     Now, I will confess that, during that song’s “bring-back” in that chapel, I was not thinking much about how I’m currently submitting to the Spirit’s influence in my daily life. And I don’t imagine that really anyone else was, either. We weren’t paying much attention, in our minds, to the applicable didacticism of the songs or, in our hearts, singing some of the God-attributive lyrics directly to Him as a prayer. We were rather bathing ourselves in a wonderful nostalgic experience, going back to the good times of junior high school.
     Now a purposeful time of nostalgia is not, inherently, a bad thing in itself. But it is if it replaces and undermines what is meant to be a environment of corporate worship.  This is because you’re not thinking about the lyrics, and you’re not communicating with God. You’re thinking more about the memories (even good and spiritual memories) that are brought back by that song or style. Just as poor musical execution and many other things can be explicitly “bad” distractions for a worshiping heart, fulfilled nostalgia can be a subtle “good” distraction.
     And it’s really hard to argue against nostalgia, sometimes, because some people have wrongfully pinned down a certain musical style, worship philosophy, and/or various method as the singular functional way to lead worship.
     What we need to do is check our minds during musical worship. What, exactly, are we doing? Are we focusing our hearts to use the words of the songs as an honest and direct statement to God, all the while listening to what He might say via the music, Scripture or a friend? Or are we privately analyzing the logistics of the service? Or are we remembering the good old days? 
How distracted are we? How distract-able should we be? In our minds, are expectations for musical worship’s accompaniment and logistics so specific and absolute that our minds lose track of God easily?
     When it comes to musical worship, it’s a big and complicated world. I say that because things are changing and diversifying to the point that even remembering the Christian music of my junior high years (15 years ago) was a true nostalgic experience. In high school, I could name every artist on the pre-dominantly pop/rock Billboard and enjoyed going to Christian rock concerts. Now, the Billboard is no longer filled with pop-rock artists (who I can’t even name anymore) but with rap and hip-hop icons who aren’t my cup of tea. The Christian music industry is arguably on a decline, but worship music (which I define as music written for corporate singing) has become its own genre. This is only scratching the surface. 
     Big changes. Lots of music. I’ve got a lot of history to learn and a lot of culture to keep up with and understand (I’m only 27 and I already sometimes feel “out of touch” in even understanding pop culture). There’s so many different types of people out there.
     But every once in a while, I meet a holistic worshipper at my church. Someone that doesn’t care about style or even execution, but who will always use the theologically rich and deeply poetic lyrics of the songs I choose and reflect upon them, using them as an edifying conversation between him/her and God. Musically and logistically, I could really botch things up, but he/she doesn’t care. 
     That’s what a focused worshipper looks like. And that’s what we all (myself included) need to strive to be.