How Relational Is Your God?

We are relational beings.  Some would say the reason for this is purely evolutionary in that it increases one’s chance of survival.  True as that may be, there is a much deeper reason for our relational nature, namely, that we were created in the image of a relational God.

The Creator of everything seen and unseen is a relational God.  The school of thought referred to as “Deism” would have us believe that upon finishing creation God simply stepped away from it, leaving it to operate completely on its own apart from any further intervention or interaction on His part.  Thankfully, this is not at all the picture that Scripture paints for us.

Scripture offers us a picture of a God who is highly relational.  One who has existed in relationship for eternity.  This picture of an eternally relational God comes to a crescendo in the New Testament but is hinted at throughout the Old.

At the very beginning, in Genesis 1, we find a God who exists and operates within relationship.  Verse 26 lets us eavesdrop on a conversation within God’s divine community, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'”

One of the most beautiful statements about the nature of God came from the Apostle John’s pen, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).  Not that God is loving, though He certainly is, but that God is love.  Love is central to the nature of God.

One of the things about love is that it cannot exist outside of the context of a relationship.  Love without a relationship is as nonsensical as directions without a destination.

Not only does Genesis 1 reveal that God existed in relationship before man came along, but that He intended to invite man into that relationship.

Even the way in which He created man was intimate.  Each time He created something in Genesis 1 he simply spoke it into existence, “Let there be ______.”  However, when we read the account of man’s creation we find something much more intimate.

Genesis 2:7 says that God “formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils…”

The Hebrew word used for “form” here is yatsar which carries with it the connotation of something being squeezed similar to the way a potter “forms” pottery.  So, here we get a picture of God getting His hands dirty, picking up the dirt and squeezing it in His hands as He made man.  That’s an intimate picture.

Next, we have Him breathing into man’s nostrils.  This is very up close and personal, I’d say.  Certainly, the Omnipotent One who spoke light into existence didn’t need to bend down and breathe into Adam’s nostrils.  But this is how He chose to do it.

Once man is created, we don’t see God step out of the picture and become “the man upstairs.”  We see Him dwelling with man in relationship.  We find Him walking among him in the garden, conversing with him as a father with his child.

The eternally relational God created mankind for relationship and He still walks and talks with His people.

Worship leaders, we have the awesome privilege of ushering His children into intimacy with Him whenever we lead worship.  Many of His people live as “practical deists.”  They don’t live with the sense of God’s “ever-presence” in their lives.  How can we call people to live in the reality that He is ever with us, ever moving, ever speaking, ever listening, ever loving…?

Well, we can proclaim it.  We can lead songs that reflect it.  We can pray it.  We can create space for people to experience it.  And probably most effective of all, we can live it.

We are highly relational beings created in the image of a highly relational God.

Ski Lifts and Set Lists (3 Things They Have In Common)

In my opinion, riding a ski lift is loads of fun.  I’m not sure what I enjoy more, the beautiful view from the 40 feet elevation or the rush of adrenaline from knowing how easy it would be to fall those 40 feet to the ground.  Whatever the reason is, it’s an enjoyable experience.

Lately, I’ve reflected on the similarities between ski lifts and the set lists we use in corporate worship.  I’m not sure why, though, because I haven’t been skiing in over 15 years!  Nonetheless, here are a few of the things they share in common.

1. No One Goes Skiing for the Ski Lifts.
Imagine having coffee with a friend who just returned from a week long ski trip.  Upon inquiring about their trip you learn that all they did was ride the ski lift up and down the mountain for a week.  Your thought in that moment? What a waste!

Why?  Because no one takes off of work and spends hundreds of dollars to simply ride up and down a mountain in a gondola.

Unlike our fictitious friend, no one goes skiing for the ski lifts.  They go skiing for the exhilarating experience of racing down powder-packed mountains at 20+ mph.  Not to mention the breathtaking views from the mountain tops.

Similarly, whether they realize it or not, most people don’t come to our churches to sing our set lists.  As great as they are, I’m sure, they are looking for something much more substantial.

They come for the exhilarating experience of encountering God in a fulfilling, transforming and empowering way and for the breathtaking views of His glory and truth.  They come hoping to lay hold of the joy, strength, pleasure, peace, comfort, encouragement, healing etc… that can only be found in His presence.

2. A Ski Lift Is a Vehicle.
The whole purpose of the ski lift is to get people somewhere.  Technically, it’s not even necessary.  Before ski lifts were used people “simply” hiked up the mountain.  Thankfully, however, some really nice people invented ski lifts to expedite the process for the rest of us non-Bear Grylls types.

Likewise, the whole purpose of a set list is to get people somewhere.  And yes, just like the ski lift, it’s really not necessary.  However, a group of “filled and skilled” musicians with a good set list sure can expedite the process of getting a large room full of people up the mountain of worship.

3. There Comes a Time to Get Off of the Lift.
It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve ridden a ski lift, the “dismount” at the top of the mountain still feels a bit awkward to me.  But, if I’m going to ski down the mountain, I’m going to have to push through the awkwardness and just do it.  Otherwise, I’ll have to ride the lift down and catch up with my friends later.

Similarly, there are many times in worship when, in order to really go somewhere and find that exhilarating God-encounter, we need to “get off of the lift.”

As worship leaders, this means moving beyond the boundaries of the planned set list.  This may look like repeating a part of the song, a moment of silence, an unplanned song, musical space for the congregation to pour out their hearts using their own words, responding to a prophetic word, a spontaneous song, reading a Scripture etc…

I imagine some of you are like me in that getting off of the lift/moving beyond the plan can feel a bit awkward at times.  The reward, however, makes it so worth it.

In conclusion, let’s keep doing the work of preparing engaging, truth-filled set lists for those we serve.  But let’s fix our eyes on and lead our communities to what lies beyond them:  exhilarating experiences of encountering God’s fulfilling, transforming and empowering presence.

 PHOTO:  Lifting by Chris Martino

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3 Lessons from the Wildest Worship Leader That Ever Lived

You could say that John the Baptist was the wildest worship leader that ever lived.  To our knowledge, he wasn’t wielding an electric guitar in the wilderness but, in my opinion, musical skill isn’t the most important attribute of a worship leader.  What defines a worship leader has more to do with the heart than the hands.

Without a doubt, John the Baptist had the heart of a worship leader.  The following are three of the many lessons I’ve learned from the life of this wild worship leader.

1. Make His Joy Your Joy.
The main reason I view John the Baptist as a worship leader is because of what drove him.  This drive is revealed in John 3:29, “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.  Therefore this joy of mine is complete.  He must increase, but I must decrease.”

In first century Jewish culture the friend of the bridegroom (akin to our “best man”) notified the bride of the bridegroom’s coming when it was time for the wedding.  His joy was to facilitate the much anticipated coming together of the bride and the bridegroom.

John the Baptist’s deepest passion and highest joy was in facilitating the coming together of Jesus and His bride.  His personal joy was tied into Jesus’ joy as the bridegroom coming for His bride.  When they did come together, John, much like the friend of the bridegroom, backed out of the spotlight.

A worship leader is someone who desires to facilitate the joining together of Jesus and His people and knows when to take himself/herself out of the picture as it begins to happen.

2. Straighten the Path.
Since the coming together of Jesus and His bride was John’s ultimate goal, it was in his heart to see that every obstacle was removed from the path.

John used Isaiah 40:3 to explain to the inquiring Pharisees who he was, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:23).

John boiled his purpose down to this:  make it as easy as possible for Jesus and His people to come together.  The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  His aim was to straighten the path.

The majority of the obstacles between God and His people were in their heads.  Their minds were filled with inaccurate views of what God was like.  This always leads to impure hearts and unclean hands.  This is why John’s message was one of repentance which simply means, “get rid of your stinkin’ thinkin’.”

A worship leader is someone who works to make it as easy as possible (not to be confused with as cheap as possible) for God’s people to encounter Him.

3. Hold People Loosely.
John was concerned with promoting Jesus’ name and ministry, not his own.  He did this even to the point of frustrating the religious leaders.  After answering their inquiries into who he was by only telling them who he wasn’t he finally gave them this answer:  I am a voice.  Not a face, not a name, just a voice.  (see John 1:19-23).

The only name John was concerned with was Jesus’.

It’s amazing to me that John’s disciples didn’t even get this.  They found Jesus’ increasing influence and John’s decreasing influence to be alarming.  Their insecurity led them to warn John of what was happening (John 3:26) to which he beautifully replied,  “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.”

John was secure.  Because of this, he held people loosely.  He even encouraged his disciples to leave him and follow Jesus (John 1:35-37).  John knew that if losing his followers was a win for Jesus, it was a win for him too.

A secure worship leader holds his/her team members and congregation loosely because they know that God’s “River” is much, much bigger than their little tributary (i.e. church/ministry).

These are just three of a number of lessons I’ve learned from, who I believe, was the wildest worship leader that ever lived.

 


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The Absence of These 2 Things Will Derail Any Corporate Worship Experience

When I was a kid loved walking along the railroad tracks behind my grandfather’s house. My brothers and I would search for loose railroad spikes that could easily be pulled off the rails and kept as souvenirs. Little did we know that our “treasure hunt” was not only illegal but extremely dangerous. Those little iron spikes were some of the only things holding those tracks intact. Needless to say, without sound tracks, a train might not make it to its destination on time. Or in one piece.

Corporate worship is like a train. When God’s people come together to seek His face and declare His praise, we “go” somewhere together. As the author of Hebrews put it, we “draw near to the throne of grace” (4:16). Worship is a journey into the heart of God. It’s a dynamic activity, not a static one.

Just as a train needs two rails to reach its destination, so does corporate worship. I call these two rails “acceptability” and “accessibility.”

ACCEPTABILITY.
Above all, worship must be acceptable to God. His word makes clear what kind of worship is acceptable to Him. Here are two characteristics of this kind of worship.

1. Worship That Is True. Jesus said in John 4:24 that God is Spirit and those who worship Him must do so in truth. We must worship Him in accordance with who He is, how Scripture reveals Him to be, not in accordance with how we simply think He is or how we think He should be. To do the latter would be to worship a fabricated version of the true God and not the true God Himself.

Therefore, the content of our corporate worship must consist of truth and nothing but the truth.

2. Worship That Is Consistent. God offered a pretty brutal and honest critique of His people’s worship in Amos 5:21-23. Here are a few of the “highlights.”

“I hate…your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.”

Ouch. What was the reason for God’s utter contempt of their worship? Were the harps out of tune? No, verse 24 gives us the answer: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The problem with Israel’s worship is that it was completely incongruent with their actual lives. They drew near with their lips but their hearts (and lives) were far from Him (Is. 29:13).

It’s not that our lives have to be perfect. There’s plenty of room around God’s throne of grace for weak and imperfect people. We are all on a journey towards becoming like Jesus. Therefore, we aren’t hypocrites if the songs we sing and prayers we pray are inconsistent with what we have attained thus far in our journey with Jesus. However, we are in danger of being hypocrites if the songs we sing and prayers we pray are inconsistent with what we are pursuing.

Consequently, let’s sing and pray boldly of the things we’ve yet to attain but do so from hearts and lives that are in pursuit of them.

ACCESSIBILITY.
Not only must corporate worship be acceptable to God, but He makes it clear in His word that it must be accessible to others.

The ultimate example of worship that is inaccessible, and God’s heart towards this matter, can be seen in John 2:13-17.

The time was Passover. The Jewish feast when all of God’s people were required to go on pilgrimage to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. This was a literal worship journey.

As His people made the difficult trek from the four corners of the nation, carrying their gifts and preparing their hearts by singing the songs of ascent (Psalm 120-134), they finally arrived at their destination only to find a roadblock right outside of the temple devised by the religious spirit of the day.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had set up an extortion ring under the guise of concern for proper worship.

Many of the pilgrims had a long journey and in lieu of bringing their own sacrifices, they brought money to purchase animals for sacrifice when they got to Jerusalem. These animals could be conveniently purchased right outside of the Temple. For an exorbitant price.

Not only were the prices of the animals inflated, but your Roman denarius wasn’t acceptable. You would first have to exchange it for the Jewish shekel. The money changers were more than happy to assist you with this. However, the exchange rate was horrible. (Sort of like a store that is “cash only” and conveniently has an ATM in the corner with a $5 usage fee!)

Needless to say, this road block made Jesus livid. You probably know the rest of the story.

I believe this story reveals Jesus’ heart for accessible worship so clearly. Paul shared His heart to a degree as we see in his dealing with the Corinthian’s inaccessible worship practices (1 Cor. 14).

How do we as worship leaders create worship experiences that are accessible? Here are just a few ways.

1. Remember Why We’re Here. First, I often find it’s important to remind myself that first and foremost my role is about serving others. Like King David (2 Samuel 5:12) I realize that God has put me where I am for the sake of others, not just myself. Remembering this puts me in the right mindset to make good decisions. Often when considering a new song or direction I’ll ask, “Is this going to help people worship?”

2. Content That’s Intelligible. Are the songs we write and choose to use clearly understood? Good poetry is incredibly valuable in our songs but not when it’s at the expense of clarity, in my (hopefully) humble opinion.

3. Content That’s Familiar. Scripture commands us to sing new songs and yet a good dose of familiarity will go a long way in corporate worship.

4. Leadership That’s Followable. Do I run off on my own adventure when leading worship or do I bring people along? Does my musical skill provide a solid foundation for people to run on? Am I so inconsistent and unpredictable in my actions that people feel a little unsure about how to join in?

5. Leadership That’s Inviting. Is my demeanor warm and inviting or cold and commanding? Do I help people feel at home through my words and eye contact or do they feel like they are guests in someone else’s house?

What are your thoughts regarding acceptability and accesibility?