What Hallmark Taught Me About Worship

I love getting cards from my wife and kids on my birthday.  When I open one, my eyes immediately go to the handwritten parts as opposed to the print.  Often I’ll bypass the card’s printed words altogether.  As poetic and beautiful the author’s words may be, they mean almost nothing in comparison to the handwritten scribbles of my kids and the loving prose of my wife.  Why?  Because their own words come straight from their own hearts.

I am a songwriter and there are few things as exhilarating as successfully providing others with language to help them pour their hearts out to God.  Seriously, it’s incredible.  Not only this, but I am so thankful for the many men and women whom God has gifted throughout history to provide the global Church with language to express its heart to Him.  I love the unity that is expressed when a room of 10, 100 or 1000 worshipers are singing in unison to their Bridegroom.  There’s nothing like it.

However, I believe our corporate times of worship would be incomplete if this is all it consisted of.  In the same way, if I received a birthday card from my family and only found the preprinted words upon opening it, it would feel incomplete.

In addition to viewing corporate worship songs as “unifiers”, I see them as “conversation starters.”  Conversation starters are awesome but we don’t want to stay there, right?  There are people and contexts where we do actually want to stay there but that’s not what I’m talking about.  🙂

Conversation starters like, “What’s up?” are meant to take us somewhere deeper, more meaningful and real.  They hopefully take us to a heart to heart interaction.  Or, as Exodus 33:11 describes Moses’ relationship with God, “face to face.”

Let’s put it another way.  Many of the best worship songs were written out of a songwriter’s personal encounter with God.  I am blessed by singing them but I’m not satisfied if all I do is sing about Matt Redman’s encounter with God.  I want to sing about my own encounters with God!

Not only do I find it to be valuable for corporate worship to contain both “scripted” and “unscripted” expressions, but I find it to be biblical.  In Ephesians 5:19 I believe Paul exhorts us to come together and sing songs that are “scripted,” psalms and hymns, and songs that are “unscripted,” spiritual songs.

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 14:15-16 Paul states that when he is in a corporate worship setting he prays and sings with both his spirit and his mind.  The context suggests that the type of singing and praying he is referring to is of the unscripted variety.

A culture of worship that values unscripted worship can be cultivated by teaching it, worship teams modeling it by singing and praying with their own words and creating space for it by using vamps and instrumental rests.

I believe God experiences an incredible amount of joy when His children come together and worship Him in unison and prewritten worship songs enable us to do this.  However, just as when we receive a card from a loved one, I believe He’s also excitedly looking in the margin of our worship times for those unscripted, unpolished songs and prayers that only come straight from the hearts of His loved ones.

Thanks Hallmark!

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The Yelp Review Every Church Should Covet

In a previous post, “The Power of Prophetic Communities,” I looked at how God uses prophetic communities, not just prophetic individuals, to bring “outsiders” into encounters with Him.   We can see examples of this in both the Old Testament (1 Samuel 10 & 19) and the New (Acts 2).

To whet our appetites even further, let’s look at a passage where the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian church about the impact a prophetic community can have on an unbeliever.

In the fourteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he gives them some practical instruction regarding their gatherings.  Specifically, he instructs them on how best to cultivate and operate within a prophetic environment.

Following the bulk of his instructions, Paul introduces a hypothetical scenario in verse 24 in which the community is assembled, worshiping and prophesying, and an outsider, or unbeliever, enters.  Being familiar with King Saul’s encounters with Samuel’s company of prophets (1 Samuel 10 & 19), and what occurred on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), it shouldn’t surprise us what happens next.

In the midst of Paul’s hypothetical prophetic environment, he describes the unbeliever as being, similar to Saul’s experience in 1 Samuel 10 & 19, ambushed by the Holy Spirit.  Responding to the revelation of their sin from the Holy Spirit they end up on their face worshipping and giving one of their very first prophetic words, “God is really among you!”

Do you realize that the day you turned to follow Jesus you gave your first prophetic word?  All prophecy is, is speaking to others what God has shown you by His Spirit (i.e. revelation).  For most of us, our first revelation was the Holy Spirit showing us our sin and our need for forgiveness.  Our first prophetic word was probably something like, “Jesus, You are Lord.”

Back to “God is really among you.”  Can you imagine better feedback from an unbelieving guest regarding your church or small group?  I simply cannot.

May your church’s comment cards and Yelp page be filled with such statements.  May your church be known by believers and unbelievers alike as “a place where God dwells.”

God’s people are a prophetic community.  When we function in the way He created us to function we create prophetic environments.  This doesn’t just happen at “church.”  These anointed atmospheres can be created in the corner of a Starbucks, on a dormitory floor, in an office break room, and any other place where two or more friends come together to share what God is doing in their lives and give Him glory.

Are we willing to expect this whenever we come together?  I say yes!

3 Ways Worship Leaders Can Make It Easier for Others to Encounter God

1. BE A “SKILLFUL” MUSICIAN.

A number of passages in the Old Testament extol the virtues of “skillful music” (e.g., 1 Sam. 16:18, 1 Chron. 25:7). It’s important to realize, however, that the Hebrew word translated “skillful” wasn’t used to refer to someone who simply had incredible “chops” but to someone who understood how to use the “chops” they had.

This means that it’s possible for someone who only knows four guitar chords to be more skillful than someone who has mastered the fretboard. The one who mastered the fretboard may not know the first thing about employing his skills to help others worship.

To help others engage in worship we need to be “skillful” musicians. We need to understand, among other things, how music can be used to drown out the clamor of external and internal distractions and hone our focus on God. Keep in mind, though, that focus isn’t our end goal, engagement is.

If you already have the basics down (e.g. singing in tune, executing chords properly, and playing with consistent and appropriate tempo), you might consider working on transitions between songs.

For instance, intentional silence between two songs can be a very effective way of helping others acknowledge God’s greatness, or communicate that some sort of transition in the worship is coming. On the other hand, silence that’s the result of needing to shuffle papers or of not knowing how to flow from one song to the next can cause some to disengage.

Pairing songs of similar keys, themes, tempos etc… can be a great way of creating a “seamless” worship experience for others and, therefore, help them stay engaged.

2. BE AN “UNDIGNIFIED” MODEL.

Have you ever walked into a home and after being there a few minutes notice that the hosts weren’t wearing shoes? What did you do? More than likely you quickly removed your shoes and placed them by the door. Why do we do this? Because when most of us enter an environment we want to know what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Often, we look to whoever we perceive as the person “in charge” for cues.

Similarly, whenever we gather for worship, people want to know what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not. And more often than not, they are going to look to the leadership (including the worship leader!) for that information.

What do they learn from us? Do they learn that they can enter God’s presence with brazen confidence or that they should be slightly uncomfortable and self-conscious? Do they learn that they can bring their emotion and bodies with them before God or that they should leave them behind? Do they learn that we are all here to worship and connect with God or that we are here to focus on the details of what we’re doing because everyone on the stage seems to have their eyes glued to the music stand 90% of the time?  (Ouch, this one hurts because I’m guilty of it often!)

Here’s the bottom line: being an “undignified” model means being authentic and free like King David was the day the ark entered Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). He didn’t allow social norms or self-consciousness to hold back his worship from God. It doesn’t mean we need to wear a sequence outfit and try to razzle-dazzle everyone, inauthenticity stinks. It simply means being free to be yourself. What does it look like when you worship by yourself? If possible, worship like that when you’re leading.

3. BE A “CLOSET” WORSHIPER.

When my wife used to pick up our then two-year-old daughter from our church’s childcare, she wouldn’t have to tell me who was watching her. I already knew who was watching her based on the remnant aroma of their perfume on our daughter.

Similarly, in Acts 4:13 when the Jewish Council observed the power and the boldness emanating from Peter and John’s lives, there was no need to tell them who they had been spending time with. It says that they recognized that they had been with Jesus.

When we spend time with God in the secret place, there will be an aroma that emanates from our lives. This “holy aroma” is none other than God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said in John 7:38 that the Holy Spirit would flow out of the lives of those who believed in Him.

When a worship leader spends more time worshiping in the “closet” than he or she does on the “stage,” the presence of God will emanate from their lives in such a way that others will actually find it easier to worship under their leadership.

I can’t think of a higher compliment than when someone tells me how easy they find it to connect with God when I’m leading worship.

Do you know of other ways we can make it easier for others to encounter God in worship? Please comment and share!

The Power of Prophetic Communities

One of the incredible things about God’s people under the New Covenant (and there are many) is that we are a prophetic community. Each member, from the youngest to the oldest, is indwelt by God’s Spirit and is fully capable of being a conduit of His living word. Nowhere is this more clearly stated than in 1 Corinthians 14:31, “For you can all prophesy…”

Under the Old Covenant, we mostly see individuals who served as conduits of God’s word to the community. There was Abraham, Moses, Deborah, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha and so on just to name a few. There are, however, a couple of “blips” along the prophetic timeline where we see prophetic communities, not just prophetic individuals.

One of the first blips is Samuel’s enigmatic company of prophets introduced in 1 Samuel 10:5. I believe the little information given to us about this primitive, prophetic community is relevant to us today. I see them as a picture, dim as it may be, of the church.

Probably the most intriguing thing to me about Samuel’s company of prophets was the effect their prophesying seemed to have on outsiders. There are two episodes (1 Samuel 10 & 19) where an outsider or outsiders encountered the group while they were prophesying and are ambushed (the Hebrew word carries the connotation of being attacked!) by the Holy Spirit. Even in the case of chapter 19 where the outsiders are actually hostile they are caught up in the prophetic atmosphere and begin prophesying themselves.

Reading this story is almost comical. It even reads like a joke leading to the punchline of a demon-oppressed Saul lying naked on the ground overcome and prophesying with the rest. As these individuals came together and prophesied, they created, what I like to call, an “anointed atmosphere” that was bigger than themselves.

So. What does this have to do with us? Are these stories simply one-off occurrences that have no relevance to us today? Or, do they teach us a way that God moves even to this day? If the latter is the case, then might we see examples of it in the New Testament?

How appropriate that we would see something similar on the day God established His New Covenant prophetic community (i.e. the Church).  In Acts 2 we see 120 Spirit-filled individuals assembled together prophesying (tongues + interpretation = prophecy) and proclaiming “the mighty works of God.”

As we continue to read the account we see a multitude of outsiders drawn to the commotion. Of the multitude, some respond with mockery and some, around three thousand, respond with wonder. Out of this anointed atmosphere, Peter rises and delivers a prophetic message to the multitude. The three thousand are “ambushed” by the Holy Spirit as they receive a revelation of their sin and their need to be reconciled to God and are swept up into the prophetic community. Sound familiar?

Samuel’s company of prophets was allowed access to a New Covenant reality. They were allowed a small taste of a feast God had in store for us, the Church!

Whether in “church” buildings, homes, restaurants etc… may we create anointed atmospheres where even the most hostile unbeliever can experience God’s Presence and be reconciled to Him.

4 Keys to a Well-Balanced Worship Set

There’s an old word of advice given to brides that they should wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” on their wedding day to ensure good luck. I don’t put too much stock into luck but I do believe that within this rhyme lie three keys to a well-balanced set list for worship. If we modify it a bit we can make it an even four! “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something you.”

1. SOMETHING OLD.
Familiarity is a worship leader’s friend.

New songs require energy to learn. Not only is the worshiper trying to learn the melody and the lyrics, but they are also evaluating it. They are trying to decide if they like it and if the songwriter’s words are worthy of becoming part of their personal worship vocabulary.

Familiar songs, on the other hand, have had time to settle nicely into the hearts and minds of worshipers. The worshiper has already developed a “worship history” with the familiar song and, more than likely, has an easier time engaging with God through it.

However, as valuable as familiarity is, as they say, it can lead to contempt. And boredom.

2. SOMETHING NEW.
Are you familiar with the aroma of freshly baked bread? I believe this aroma points to the ever-freshness of God! His personality and presence never grow stale but are always fresh and full of life! We are the ones who get stale and regularly need to get refreshed in His presence. I believe our worship should reflect the “freshness” of God.

Another reason new songs are needed is that lovers are always trying to figure out new ways to say, “I love you” to each other. It’s only natural that we would want to find new and fresh ways to express the “same old things” to Jesus:  We love You, we trust You, we need You, we thank You etc…

Finally, I believe God is always doing something new in His people. There’s a new revelation of Himself that He’s bringing, or a deeper work in His people’s hearts, or a new level of freedom etc… Since worship is a response to who He is and what He does, it’s only natural that a new revelation or new work of God would result in a new response. We see this principle in Isaiah 42:9-10, “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare…Sing to the Lord a new song…” New “songs” follow new “things.”

3. SOMETHING BORROWED.
This next one may not even be worthy of mention since most church’s worship does consist of songs that are “borrowed,” but because I see value in it, I’ll comment on it.

Ephesians 1:23 says the Church is the fullness of God. This is not talking about my church or your church but the global Church that stretches across time and space. I believe every local congregation bears a unique expression of who God is. No one church, as awesome as it may be, has the whole picture. The verse in Ephesians states that God is so big that it takes the whole Church to even get close to adequately reflecting who He is.

Similarly, no one songwriter, church, worship ministry etc… is adequate to squeeze all of who God is and what He’s doing into its “home grown” songs. Because of this, I believe there is value in using songs from a swath of songwriters and movements, not just songs that spring up out of your corner of the body of Christ.

4. SOMETHING YOU.
However, I do believe that a song that springs up within a community can have more impact on that community than a song written by a “professional” across the pond. An original song is able to voice the specific longings of its community unlike any other. Also, the community experiences a sense of ownership of the song.

It’s so powerful when songwriters are able to put into song the specific promises God is speaking to a community. Moses did this in Deuteronomy 31-32 when he wrote a song and taught it to Israel so they wouldn’t forget what God had spoken to them.

Whether you lead worship for conferences or home groups, I encourage you to give this a try and write some original material. See what happens, you might be surprised.

 

“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something you.”