Reflections on Singing At Church

There’s been a blog that’s I’ve seen getting a lot of attention recently titled ‘Are We Headed for a Crash? Reflections on the Current State of Evangelical Worship‘ that led me to a really good blog from a fellow music pastor who has clearly thought through many issues that come with being a music pastor. Some of his ideas are spot on, some of them I’m planning to steal, and others I just can’t agree with. This one that has gotten a lot of attention is one of the ones I can’t find myself completely agreeing with.

In my own journey I’ve been inundated with theology from birth (thanks a lot Dad!). I “discovered” in college that I was both Reformed and a Calvinist and so I gladly jumped on the “young, restless, reformed” movement of Evangelicalism attending conferences like The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel, and even attending John Piper’s church in Minneapolis after college. Over the past couple years I’ve slowly found myself drifting away from that and into more of what I would describe as an Evangelical direction. I can’t completely agree with everything I’ve seen in these circles and while I still have such a great deal of respect for many people in the movement, I’ve found my own lines widening in include more than I would’ve 5 years ago. The zeal without knowledge described me to a T. With that came a certain expectation I had for music and worshipping on Sunday mornings. I know we all come to Sundays with certain expectations and I was no exception. Yet as I’ve continued leading a congregation in weekly worship through music, I’ve seen more of a resurgence in applying biblical and pastoral truths to the role of the “worship pastor.”

Last October I had the opportunity to attend our denominations worship leader conference in Minneapolis and got to connect with a number of like-minded and similar aged people who were wrestling through similar issues as me. The biggest thing that struck me, however, was that the younger 20 and 30 something music leaders viewed this role with a pastoral heart and are seeking to do our best to shepherd the flock entrusted to us instead of viewing it as a performance or a way to build up ourselves. I know many people, especially musicians, can get a big head very quickly, and I pray every Sunday for God to increase and help me to decrease. It doesn’t take much for me to get high on praise, but it’s a constant battle to make God greater in and through my life. And this seems to be the heart cry of many people my age who are gifted in music and using that gift in the local church. I am so excited by what I’ve seen as a transition from professional musician to co-laborer and pastor in the Gospel once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).

The other issue I have with this article (and many other articles and books) is that it seems to paint a one-size-fits-all portrait of how music should be done in a church. He writes, “Keep the lights up. Stop talking so much. Don’t let loops/lights/visuals become your outlet for creativity at the expense of the centrality of the gospel. Point to Jesus. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t sing songs with bad lyrics or weak theology.” I don’t think the things he lists here need to distract from the the message, but can and should allow us to better worship God, who gave people the gift of creativity. In fact, the picture I see in heaven where we will perfectly worship God is more beautiful than John can even begin to describe or fathom. It’s like he’s struggling for words to show how great this place is. And it has different colors and different materials and all points to God. I think the same thing can be done on a Sunday morning in a local church body.

That being said, I am grateful for Jamie bringing this issue to light, as I mentioned, it is a battle for anyone who is in front of a large group to make it all about Christ and keep the focus on him instead of us. We too often think too highly of ourselves at the expense of God. May all of our lives, including Sunday morning singing be done to the honor and glory of Christ alone.

Why Dudes Don’t Sing

One of the perpetual problems I’ve heard about in multiple churches is that the men won’t sing. I’m grateful at the church I serve that overall, the men do join in the singing, and we have some men that sing VERY loudly (you know who you are!). Yet the question has often been asked, why don’t the men sing? Why is it so hard to get men involved in church? I’ve heard that men aren’t emotional and too many of the songs we sing are too “lovey-dovey” for men to feel comfortable singing. I’ve even heard a comedian say “let me sing about Jesus watching the game with me.”

The problem with this is that it doesn’t allow men to stand up and be the men we’re called to be. Men are supposed to be leading their families and this includes in the way their family sings and worships God together. Men are supposed to be emotional beings (no, that doesn’t mean we cry at every movie we watch, but that doesn’t mean we should be afraid to cry). I worry that many men today attempt to put on a tough guy facade or a hipster/too-cool-for-this vibe that doesn’t allow them to worship God with all they are and all they have.

Throughout my life I’ve had to work through how I can worship God with my whole being, including my body, voice and mind. This past week at church we sang Chris Tomlin’s song “Lay Me Down” which has the line “with my hands, lifted high.” As I introduced the song, I told the congregation it was their opportunity to raise their hands, and most people did and seemed to enjoy it. I know there were some people that REALLY didn’t like it, but they haven’t talked to me yet! It is a joy to sing praises to God in a place where people can be free to express themselves with their bodies! Dancing isn’t just a mark of women, David, whose life movie would probably look something like the movie 300, danced like a mad man! I hope and pray we continue to have more men like David who are willing to show physical displays of worship to God including: raising your hands, dancing, kneeling, bowing, standing in awe, singing and many more. What are some ways you’ve encouraged people to be more engaged at the church you attend?

The Purpose of Art

I recently wrote an article defending Lecrae and his attempts to reach the world with the message of the Gospel. Since that time, I was shown another article defending Lecrae on rapzilla. (HT: Andrew) And then I found another article today on The Gospel Coalition asking the question ‘Must Art be Evangelistic to be Christian?‘ written by Alex Medina – one of Lecrae’s producers. Quoting Sho Baraka, Alex writes:

The problem is that we have created a theological truth from cultural and systematic preferences. So now hip hop is an office in the church and not a vocation or art. We first must start here before we can move forward. It’s something we’ve all been guilty of implying in one way or another.

This is the problem many Christians face as we attempt to interact with the culture we live in. People are always asking how far is too far? At what point is it too much like the world and not enough like Christ? We shouldn’t try to make music and art something only done in the church-but should be able to use music and art in general as a way to point people to the cross either directly or indirectly. My college president always told us “All truth is God’s truth” and I would go on to say that anything beautiful is designed by God and God made it good. Yes, it has been warped by the fall and distorted by sin, but God still created us in his image to bear his likeness and be like him in the way we create. How can we better push people to make art to the glory of God? Be encouraging them to continue to work on their craft as they become better and better at deflecting the glory to God.

Worshipping in the Dark: Why I Turn Off the Lights

During my time as a pastor who leads worship on a weekly basis, I’ve tried many different things to help people meet with God on our Sunday morning worship service. Despite recent criticisms, I’m not ready to stop going to church regularly, and it’s for many different reasons than simply because they pay me. One of the most recent things I’ve tried to do is to create a better environment in which people are able to connect with God easier and without distractions. The way churches are currently set up it’s incredibly hard to get away from all the focus being on me as the worship leader, but there are some ways I try to keep the focus off of me, and one of the things I’ve started doing is turning off the lights during the worship through music on Sunday mornings. Here are some of the reasons I’ve started doing so:

1. It eliminates the distractions of those around you.

When the sanctuary is dark, it helps you to focus on what you’re singing instead of the kids fidgeting next to you, or the person sitting down, or the person raising their hands. It has seemed to help created a place where people feel free to be more expressive in their singing. Yes, I’ve addressed before that we should be “addressing one another” (Eph 5:19) in our singing, but that doesn’t mean we need to be able to see each other perfectly.

2. It gives you more freedom to worship as you would like.

This is tied in to the above note, if you aren’t as concerned that people will be looking at you, you’ll feel more free to express yourself, whether you’d like to raise your hands, or kneel, or even sing louder because people won’t be staring at you.

3. It keeps the focus on the cross.

At the church I serve, it literally does this as the cross is the focal point of the front of our sanctuary. The main things you see up front are the words to the music and the cross. It helps to eliminate our selfish wants and desires and should point them to the cross, where our needs and wants find their fulfillment.

One of the things I’m emphasized before on this blog is the “others” aspect of our weekly gatherings (Heb 10:25, Eph 5:17-21). We are generally too focused on our own wants and the music and sound we want and not focused enough on those around us we are called to minister to through our singing. So the natural question arises: “aren’t the reasons you just gave selfish and individual focused?” Yes and no.

I want people to be able to feel free to connect with God through whatever means is most natural to them. Some people are naturally more expressive than others (watch a Matt Chandler sermon, then go watch a John Piper or David Platt sermon), so when people are able to connect with God better on an individual level, it encourages the whole body to be more engaged with God. And the worship of God isn’t just audible, but should involve our whole bodies, which is part of the reason we stand when we sing.

This isn’t a complete list of reasons why I turn the lights off when we sing, but I’d love to hear any other thoughts on why or why not you do this.

Worship Matters Study Guide

A year and a half ago I began a study with the music team I lead through Bob Kauflin’s book Worship Matters. Since that time, that has been consistently one of my most viewed blogs and the most googled phrase taken to my blog. So today I finally got around to compiling the entire study guide I did and putting it into an electronic format. I’ve got it in 2 different formats, a pdf or, for my fellow apple loving friends, as an iBook. Feel free to use them for your churches and let me know if there’s ways I could make this resource better. Thanks for checking it out!

Why I Use Loops in Church

This past year I’ve learned some really great ways to grow the sound of your music team through the use of loops playing in addition to your music team. I’m not sure how many people can even recognize that’s what’s going on, but I’ve found it to be an incredible addition to our overall sound as a team. So here are the reasons I use background tracks on Sunday mornings.

  1. It helps to fill out our sound. Working with volunteers can be incredibly frustrating when people don’t show up or I’m not able to fill every position every week. It also helps when I’m able to pre-record some of the lead guitar parts so I don’t need to take valuable practice time to train the guitarists on how to play each individual part.
  2. It keeps us all on the same page. Playing with loops is incredibly effective for keeping the whole band together and on the same page. I have a click track and cue track running simultaneously with the loops so everyone knows what’s coming up when a voice says, “Chorus, two, three four.”
  3. It gives me more control over the timing of songs. When we use the same loops for the songs, they’ll sound much more consistent, and we’ll ALWAYS play them the exact same way. With that, however:
  4. It allows for more variety. I have yet to have anyone play strings with us on a Sunday, or do some electronic drum stuff, and I have had trouble with a consistent bass player and drummer. When I have loops I can add these parts in, and then some. I can try some new arrangements with different instruments one week and see how it works, then take some away for a more stripped down version the next week.
  5. It’s another way that I can do music excellently. When the band is in sync, when we’re able to implement a more full sound and when we’re able to add instruments people are used to hearing it helps to eliminate distractions for the body of Christ. It even helps the music team to free them up to better worship God.

These are some of the big advantages I’ve found in using loops during Sunday morning worship. What are some ways you’ve found them to be helpful? What are some possible disadvantages to using them?

Why I Don’t Often Have Solos in Church

One of the things that seems to not be fading away with some of the people I’ve talked to in my church is a desire to “be blessed” by people singing solos in church. The funny thing is every time I ask them when they would like to sing a solo I get the same response of, “Oh not me! I just want to listen to someone else!” Even when I invite them to join the Christmas choir they’re either too busy or want a much more passive role in the worship service. So today I’m going to talk about why I’m not a big fan of solos in church.

First, I don’t enjoy or encourage solos in church because they have a tendency to distract attention from God instead of giving him the glory. This has happened to me on the rare occasion that I lead worship through music on piano. Many people tell me they just “love” hearing me play piano. While I appreciate the sentiment and encouragement, I worry that the piano playing may be getting in the way of the sole attention and focus being on God!

Tied in to this, solos tend to generally end up being about the person and their gifts than the whole body. I know this is a temptation for anyone in a visible leadership position, and I’ve found it to be especially true of those involved in music.

Second, I don’t encourage solos in church because I can’t find a good biblical basis for it. I see many instances of corporate singing within the whole body (Exodus 15:1, 1 Chronicles 16:23, Psalm 21;13, Psalm 30:4, Matthew 26:30, Acts 16:25, Ephesians 5:19, Hebrews 2:12, Revelation 15:3) but I can’t find anything about using solos during our corporate gatherings.

Wait a minute, you may say, what about a sermon? That is in a completely different category! We have many examples in Scripture of someone getting up in front of people to teach and/or preach, yet I still can’t find an example of a person getting up to sing for people to passively listen.

Third, while I think solos could be used and could be beneficial and encouraging to the body, I don’t encourage them because I have never seen them done well. It generally begins with the person telling about why they chose this song and what it means to them, whether or not it fits with the theme of the service that day, or if the song is biblically sound, or even relevant to the congregation today.

Thus far at church, I’ve been content to do our annual Christmas choir, perhaps a special song during our Christmas Eve service and one during our Easter service. At this point I don’t see a need to extend beyond that, and am going to try to continue encouraging the congregation to join us in singing praises to God. I know I need the reminder on a daily basis that God alone deserves all my praise, honor and glory.

August – The Month of Music

This past month has featured the releases of some fantastic new music, including a brand new band! So here are my 4 favorite albums that released this month with a brief review of each of them, and no, John Mayer did not crack the list, I’m not sure if I want to get it yet, I’ll probably end up listening to it on Spotify at some point.

Ben Rector – The Walking In Between

Ben RectorBen Rector has been one of my favorites for a few years now. My sister introduced me to him back in 2010 because he was coming to her college and I happened to be visiting the weekend he was playing there. His music continues to get better with each album, and this one was another great one. My favorite song from this album is “Sailboat” but there isn’t a song on the album that I ever skip. In a recent tweet I asked him what the main inspiration for this album was, he said, “I’d probably say getting to catch a dream I’d chased and not being as happy as I thought I’d be.” This is aptly summed up in his song “I Like You.”

“there are way too many love songs, and I think they’ve got it all wrong, ‘cause life is not the mountain tops, it’s the walking in between, and I like you walking next to me.” All in all, this is another fantastic album that has been on repeat since it came out last week.

Andrew Belle – Black Bear

Andrew BelleMy second favorite album this month came from a fellow Taylor University alum who has had songs appear on numerous television shows and was named the Best Break Out Artist in Chicago by MTV in 2009. Andrew’s sophomore shows a slight change in genre with hints of M83 thrown in for good measure. Instead of focusing on the acoustic guitar, this album leans heavily on the electronic music for it’s base. This album seems to deal with relationship issues that have cropped up.  His first single from this record, “Pieces” says, “There’s too much smoke to see it, there’s too much broke to feel it, I love you, I love you, and all of your pieces.” While I don’t like this album as much as his first release, this is another good one to add to the collection. Another one that I’ve enjoyed listening to regularly since it came out.

Matt Wertz – Heatwave

Matt WertzI was introduced to Matt Wertz in college (if you couldn’t see a theme here, I really enjoy the singer/songwriters) and his latest album dropped yesterday so I haven’t had as much of a chance to listen to it yet, but it is very different than his previous albums. This album seems to be inspired by classic rock with many more electric guitar solos than his previous albums had, and his most recent music video hints to this 80s influence as well. The video is worth watching just for the dance off between Matt and Ben Rector! So while this albums is very different than the previous ones, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard so far.

 

The Digital Age – Evening & Morning

The Digital AgeThe final album in my top 4 albums this month is not from a singer/songwriter, but from The David Crowder Band minus David Crowder. The four remaining members went on to found a recording studio and a new band who have taken a different sound than the David Crowder Band did. This album has some fantastic guitar parts and some great harmonies. I’m not sure how the songs would do singing in a church setting, but I may try a few out here to see how they work. I’ve loved using it as a personal worship album as I drive to work in the mornings.

 

 

What a great month for new music! Just in time for the school year to start and even a new band! What are your favorite albums from this summer?

Responding to An Open Letter to Praise Bands

I came across a blog today titled, ‘An Open Letter to Praise Bands,’ written by James K.A. Smith, a professor at Calvin College. In his blog he lists 3 problems he sees with worship music in churches today, and they are:

  1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship.
  2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship.
  3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship.

While I wholeheartedly agree with his statements on worship, there is some refining of them I would like to see, as someone who leads worship. I completely agree with his first statement, you shouldn’t need ear plugs at a church. If the congregation can’t hear themselves it encourages people to become much more focused on themselves than the body around them, who they are there to encourage through their singing (Ephesians 5:19).

The second point I also agree with, but would refine some. Different congregations have different styles of music they prefer to do. Now, with the internet, when you go to most churches today, you’ll typically recognize a couple of the songs, but every church has their own unique gifts and styles, especially in urban contexts. One church I went to did old Gospel songs that I didn’t recognize, but everyone else in the church loved! Another place I’ve been used rap as worship for a couple songs. The other issue I have with this is some of the push back I’ve gotten from elderly people where I serve. Some of the older people will use this as an excuse to not sing some of the songs on a Sunday. I would encourage people to listen to the songs we sing on Sundays outside of Sunday so they can sing along. And finally, introducing a new song can often be difficult for people to grasp, so I will often sing a verse and chorus so people can figure out a song, then repeat it and encourage the congregation to sing along.

Finally, the third point is the one I would most refine. Part of the reason I like to lead from the front so people can see me is so that they can know when their supposed to be singing. It’s always awkward when there’s one person with an especially loud voice who doesn’t know when the next verse starts, so they jump right in then sheepishly look around. Yes, I do want to model what it looks like to worship through music, but I also want to show the congregation when they are supposed to sing along. One of the things that I think is incredible helpful for this issue is to make sure what is being said is focused on God. This can be done by including pertinent Scripture passages during musical interludes, or having someone use that time to praise an attribute of God that the song talks about.

Honestly, it is very hard to not make it about myself and try to use music as a way for me to build myself up, so I pray before every service that I make God’s name great, and pray the same prayer of John the Baptist, “He must increase, I must decrease.” I want to model to the congregation what it means to worship, but then apply that worship to my whole life as I conform myself into the image of God’s Son, Jesus.

“You cannot find excellent corporate worship until you stop trying to find excellent corporate worship and pursue God Himself.”

-D.A. Carson

Rhythms of Grace – A Review

My dad suggested that I read a new book by Mike Cosper titled ‘Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel.’ My basic summary of it is that I loved it! The book starts off with a theology of music throughout the Bible. Mike starts off by saying, “The story of worship (like the story of the gospel) is all about God.” Mike traces worship from creation in the garden of Eden through Israel in the wilderness to Jesus.

Mike then goes on to explain the premise of his book, something he calls “Worship One, Two Three” That is: “one object and author, two contexts, and three audiences.” Obviously, the one object is God, the two contexts are scattered and gathered. “Worship scattered is the Spirit-filled life of the Christian in the world, and worship gathered is the meeting of God’s people to remember, encourage and bless each other. And finally, there are three audiences: God, the church and the world.

One of my favorite chapters was chapter 6, ‘Worship as Spiritual Formation.’ I have tried to emphasize this through my ministry, all worship, even singing, is spiritual formation. In this chapter Mike writes “Whoever dubbed the debate over musical style a “worship war” failed to realize that worship is always a war. The declaration that there is one God, that his name is Jesus, and that he has died, has risen and will come again is an all-out assault on the saviors extended at every level of culture around us.” We are always at war with our flesh as we attempt to submit ourselves to the will of God in our lives. This even ties in to music as we won’t always sing songs that every person in the congregation enjoys, but the two main points of our Sunday morning singing are to encourage one another and to give praise to the only God who is worthy of that praise. Mike goes on in chapter 9 titled, “Sing, Sing Sing,” to talk about some of the issues that we deal with in music. He says a couple things that get to the very heart of the matter. “We love what we love, and we think everyone who disagrees with us is ignorant.” This is so true, and something I feel when driving every day. If someone drives faster than me I assume they’re a maniac, and if they drive slower than me I assume they’re a grandpa. But then he goes on to say, “Today, when many worship services are reduced to preaching and music, it becomes very easy to equate music with worship-and that’s a dangerous slope to park your car on. If music is worship, then when you mess with someone’s musical preferences, you threaten their acces to God. No wonder the debates become so heated.” Finally, Mike says, “Worship is a broader thing than music, and music’s purpose in the church is bigger than my personal experience. It’s not merely my song, but our song. We sing together, uniting our voices and our words.” Amen!

I really appreciate Mike’s approach throughout the book as he continually brings the reader back to Scripture and to the history of the church. So often people live with, as C.S. Lewis called it, “chronological snobbery” where we think we know better than any other generation before us. It’s helpful to have a historical perspective in our theology in regard to our whole worship service. And his use of Scripture clearly permeates his whole being as everything comes back to the Word. I would encourage anyone in the church, both pastors and lay people who want to know how they can better use music in their church and worship of God.