Today I have reconnected with one of the greatest warnings in the Scriptures to today’s worship leaders. This might feel a little “ranty”, so don’t say I haven’t warned you, but it is my honest response to a warning I urge us all to take seriously.
Deep breath. Here we go…
Oh how easy it is for our church worship music to just become, in the words of Eugene Peterson, “noisy ego music”*.
Jesus tells of a situation where two people can’t get along and they have wronged one another. One of these people goes to the Temple to give an offering of worship and sacrifice. Jesus says that this person is to drop the religious offering, turn around and go make amends with the person who they are butting heads with.**
Jesus’ commentary on what God is saying to this person as they stand there about to religiously give is essentially: forget it. I don’t want this, what I want for you to do is go and sort out that relationship with your friend that isn’t in shape right now. Until you do, your sacrifice is useless to me.
This isn’t anything new. The message of the prophets over and over again is that God is after a group of people who live the story of God’s restoration out. He wants a people group who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him.***
John, in his first letter, echoes this and warns that if a person says he loves God, but can’t love his brother, that person is a murdering liar.****
Which brings us back to our noisy-ego music. Our church music is a wonderful show at times isn’t it? It sounds great, feels great and even looks great. But I fear I have spent many years judging it’s effect by the wrong criteria. (Shout out here to my friend, boss, mentor and pastor, Vic Francis, for his leadership lesson on redefining success…)
“God must be moving, a lot of people’s hands went up in the air for a long time” or “People weren’t really connecting with that free praise today, all I could hear was a few awkward mumbles!” were often my criteria for a good worship time together, or a bad one.
Never once did I ever judge a good worship time by how many people left to go sort out relationships that have gone sour.
I have played with musicians who would stop mid-set to get on their knees in simple admiration of Jesus. For some reason I have never, ever, been a fan of telling that person to get back to their musical post, and perhaps I see why now.
Worship music must never get in the way of authentic connection with the risen Jesus, the kind that causes us to abandon all, even our post of playing it.
Worship music must never be just a veneer of “serving” your community by playing great contemporary music at an acceptable-volume-level, when actually what they really need is to be invited to once again be laid bare in total surrender of their God and His story – one of embracing your cross, and making old things new.
Worship must never come at the cost of relationships, friendships and families. Worship should cause us to have richer relationships, friendships and families.
Worship is not noisy ego music – noisy ego music is just noisy ego music. Worship is your story unashamedly laid within God’s big story, with all your fears and foibles, tricks and temptations. This gets loud sometimes. It’s quiet other times. But it’s always making some kind of internal-noise, some sort of activity connecting you with the Divine.
Worship. Is. Love.
* Amos 5:21-24 The Message
** Matthew 5:23-24
*** Micah 6:8
**** 1 John 3:14-15
I am loving this. That’s all.
I’m not into “3 things…” blog lists usually, so my apologies for the heavily-weighted sarcasm of the title to this blog entry, but I need to have it there for my own peace of mind. Anyway, I digress.
I have had the wonderful privilege of leading worship for 12 years now. I started when I was 15 after attending a Vineyard worship conference featuring Scott Underwood and Ryan Delmore, and went home ready to do what I saw them do.
What I didn’t know though, was I was embarking on a journey into one of the trickiest of the church leadership positions. One that straddles many worlds, embraces many tensions, and is at the critique of everyone – from the non-musical, to the incredibly talented. It just seems you can never get it right.
So, here’s some thoughts, with 12 years experience, and hopefully many more to come.
YOU’RE IN THE BUSINESS OF COMMUNICATING.
First and foremost, as worship leaders we are in the business of communicating. We are story-tellers, telling the same story that the Church has been telling for 2000 years: that because of love, the tomb is empty and there is hope because our God is in the business of restoring things back to new.
Our worship sets must celebrate this; they must tell the story. It’s no longer good enough for me to do four intimacy songs, week after week, month after month. I’m not telling a story anymore – I’ve become a Holy Spirit consumer, rather than celebrating that God is on a mission and I am invited to take part. We must sing of all the wonderful themes within this story, and sing them loud and proud.
WORSHIP MAKES A TERRIBLE ADJECTIVE FOR ART.
I believe it was Rob Bell who said this, and in saying that it was him, some of you probably won’t read any further. But, in my 12 years of being a musician in church communities and in bands outside of church I believe this to be true.
“Worship” as an adjective, makes “music” as an art-form smaller, stingier and terribly formulaic. What it also does is make our view of “worship” decrease – we think it is all about worship bands, playing worship music, and singing worship songs. Worship as a lifestyle dies a little every time I use worship as an adjective to describe the art we are using to express it.
So what must we do? We must realise firstly, that we are made in the image of a God who creates, and creativity is richly part of our make-up as human beings. We must celebrate it, enjoy it and work hard to do the best and most incredible art the world has seen – we have the best message to communicate with it after all.
Second, we must not apologise for creating communities that celebrate their own creativity rather than copying the newest DVD that is hot for the moment. We can never copy the fruits of other’s labour without finding out what the roots are – and I believe it is the best for every community to be proud of their roots. Does that mean we can allow any old garbage? No. We must strive to steward our gifts and creativity well, as it is the best way to honour God with what he desires most of us – our whole lives offered to him as a living sacrifice.
I CAN DO NOTHING WRONG, WHEN I KNOW EXACTLY WHY I AM DOING IT.
Now, that’s a scary sentence to read at first, so allow me to explain. I have spent 11 years making really average setlists. I didn’t know what I was handling, and I didn’t know why I placed pieces in the place I did. I got stuck in routines, I picked songs I knew worked, I didn’t take risks, I didn’t do “meditative pieces” out of fear of thinking I was performing and I struggled to pray between songs well.
However, now I have had a huge revelation about this. I know why I didn’t know what I was doing.
Because, I didn’t know what I was doing. (Deep, huh?)
I didn’t know I had a story to tell with my worship set, and I definitely didn’t know I was made to be as creative as possible with it. I didn’t know how to pray between songs, because I didn’t really know why I had even played the songs I had just played, and I didn’t really know why I was playing the song ahead of me.
I spent 11 years guessing, but now, everything I do has a reason. When I finish putting my set together and I tell the band what we are doing and why, I have a well thought through explanation of exactly why I have put that piece there. If I can’t explain it, I either figure out why, or I put something else in there.
Just this week been, I did a meditative piece for Pentecost Sunday where I told the whole church to not sing with us, and instead just use the space we wanted to prepare for them with the song Fall Afresh by Jeremy Riddle. Afterwards, our pastor Vic would come up and read the story of Acts 2, and we would see what God would do. I hoped that after all the work I had done in preparing this that it would have a great repsonse.
What was the result?
We ended up spending another 15 minutes doing ministry and the entire service had to be re-jigged so that we could minister to the people who came forward to receive prayer then and there. I have never seen anything like that happen my entire worship leading life, and it was because I knew what I wanted to do with that piece of the set and why.
If there’s any advice I can give young worship leaders it is this: learn what you are handling – your stewardship of your communicating and creativity depends on it.
Recently, we introduced a great new song at our services by Jeremy Riddle called “Furious”, and I just received this email from a person in our church who was reminded of this amazing Brennan Manning quote from singing it this week.
I loved it so much I just had to share it with you…
“The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.”
(The Furious Longing of God)
Jesus, distractions come – my eyes stray away from You. There’s idols aplenty, but none compare to You. I need only You.
Jesus compared being a disciple to be like entering through The narrow way*. The narrow way, being the way of love. Jesus’ manifesto for life was a narrow one: Love God, and love others. Love is the narrow way.
“Worship is nothing more nor less than love on it knees before the beloved; just as mission is love on its feet to serve the beloved”
Worship is nothing more nor less than love on it knees before the beloved; just as mission is love on its feet to serve the beloved
N.T. Wright, seriously, you blow my mind.