Jesus Is The Feast

1There’s a line of thinking from those who prefer traditional forms of worship/music that goes something like this:

Contemporary worship is like dessert. It’s sweet, appealing, and easy, but not long-lasting. It might bring people in, but it won’t keep them nourished. It might bring immediate satisfaction, but it isn’t healthy. Traditional worship and more classical forms of music are more like a feast. It’s like the difference between plasticware and fine china. Traditional hymns and classical instrumentation require a more refined, mature, and discerning pallet. We can’t have the sounds of the world in our church services. We must move people beyond the dessert and into the feast. Only then will our congregations experience the “real thing”.

On the flip side, there’s a line of thinking from those who prefer contemporary forms of worship/music that goes something like this:

Traditional worship is all religion, all ritual, and all routine. Classical forms of music are irrelevant to most people in our culture, and the traditional hymns don’t engage people’s hearts like contemporary songs do. No one can relate to choirs, organs, hymns, or hymnals. If you want to help people really worship – not just with their minds but with their hearts – you’ll use the more accessible contemporary songs. And if you want to draw in the younger generation, you’ll use the kinds of music they’re used to hearing. Contemporary music feeds people and meets people where they are. Traditional worship starves people and leaves them cold.

I’ve heard both of these arguments for almost my entire life. My guess is that most of you have too, and you’ve probably made one (or both) of these arguments at one point or another. The problem, of course, is that they’re both ridiculously off-base.

Why? Because Jesus is the feast.

Few issues generate as much passion and division as the topic of music in the church. And for generations, scores of well-meaning and godly people have come down on all sides of the “is music neutral” or “is music non-neutral” argument. I tried to tackle some of this several years ago in my most “Handiwork and Jesus” but for now I want to make one simple point and give one simple reminder:

Jesus is the feast. And music is a tool. 

Music is not the feast. Our choirs, organs, harpsichords, festivals, liturgy, and soloists are not the feast. Our bands, screens, effects, lights, state-of-the-art worshiptoriums, and worship leaders are not the feast. When they are, and when we make them to be, then of course we can exalt or put-down the lesser-feast that we see down the road (or down the church hallway at the alternate service).

The Church must never forget that Jesus is the feast. Music (traditional or contemporary or hipster or whatever) is just a tool. A passing tool. A tool that will inevitably look like bell-bottoms to some future generation. But Jesus never fades, changes, or disappoints. Jesus always satisfies. May our churches embrace a confident, wide-range, biblical, and whole-hearted embrace of all sorts of styles of music as we seek to exalt and point to the One who calls us to feast on him.

Drinking From a Firehose

What a whirlwind these past few weeks have been! It’s been three full weeks since I started in my new position here at Truro, and it’s been wonderful and insane at the same time. I had hoped I could “hit the ground jogging” but it’s been more like running uphill at top speed on horseback in the snow while also trying to chew gum.

Here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to:

1- Organizing, arranging, and painting my office, while trying to figure out to do with these crazy psychedelic couch pillows that I just. can’t. seem. to. stop. staring. at.

- Leading worship on Sunday mornings (8:00am and 10:30am services during the summer), Sunday evenings (5:00pm service), Tuesday morning staff meetings, Wednesday prayer/worship services, and Genesis Arts Camp last week. Leading worship for little kids is super fun and I was out of practice, but by Friday I think I had gotten back into the groove. Next year I’ll try to be more prepared and maybe channel my inner goofball a bit more.

- Having several good breakfast/lunch/coffee meetings with older, wiser men who have served in the choir here for decades, asking them for their impressions, advice, counsel, opinions, and insight. These have helped me discern certain priorities that need attention. One priority: getting new couch pillows.

- Getting a handle on different things I’m responsible for that I didn’t know I’d be responsible for. It’s all good stuff, but I’m still being surprised even after three full weeks! And thankfully, even though I “oversee” the dance ministry (as part of our Arts ministry for children and youth), I don’t actually have to be the instructor. Otherwise we’d be pulling out some old Carman “Who’s In the House” moves and I don’t think those would go over very well on a Sunday morning. 

- Planning Christmas when it’s still August. When your choir’s retreat is in early September, you don’t have the luxury of waiting until December to plan Christmas music. I’ve always wanted to plan farther ahead, and now I have no choice! It’s good for me. Now someone pass the Egg Nog. 

- Receiving the most incredibly warm welcome that I could have imagined. The people of Truro are some of the sweetest, kindest, most generous, and most encouraging people I’ve ever met. The amount of affirmation I’ve received over the last three weeks has been so meaningful. My wife and daughters have been embraced and welcomed with equal enthusiasm and we’re deeply grateful. Yesterday I received two particularly kind compliments about my piano playing; The first: “you play like Elton John”. The second: “your piano playing is dissonant and modern. In a good way”. Um, thanks?

- Experiencing the benefit of organized predecessors. The people who have served as Director of Worship and Arts before me have done a great job at keeping things organized and keeping records of how things have been done in the past. It’s so helpful for me as I get my bearings. My immediate predecessor, Kirsten Boyd, is actually still on the worship staff here, in a new part-time role as she branches out in different ways, and she has been so incredibly helpful in every way! She even painted her office door with chalkboard paint and lets my girls leave their graffiti multiples times a week. So fun.

- Enjoying wonderful worship on Sundays. This congregation loves to sing. A lot. Yesterday we sang 16 congregational songs per morning service. This is the normal load. Seriously. This includes everything from the call to worship, through the sung communion liturgy, to the closing hymn. It’s insane. But they belt out every song like it’s Easter morning. Unbelievable. Exhausting. Exhilarating. Sunday naps have never felt so good. 

I’d like to get back to a normal blogging routine here this week (or next). I’m sorry things have been so quiet! I’ve been drinking from a firehose but now I think I’m getting into a more manageable rhythm. I’m grateful for this new challenge, this wonderful church, and for your prayers!

When to Speak Up… Or Not

I should have said something.

I shouldn’t have said what I said.

Should I say what I’m really thinking?

Am I the right person to speak up?

When to speak up and when to be quiet is something I wrestle with fairly often. Whether it’s in meetings, over emails, responding to something someone said, offering my input on a decision, or even offering constructive criticism, I regularly find my asking if/when I should say something, and then looking back and wondering if it was the right call.

Several years ago I was in the middle of a season of wrestling over how to approach a very difficult situation. During lunch with a great friend who is a brilliant lawyer in Washington D.C. (and also a gifted musician and worship leader), he gave me some advice that he had once received. It was really helpful.

Here’s what he said:

A friend of mine used to quote another minister as saying that a “divine idea” was “the right people doing the right things at the right time in the right way.”  You have to have all of those elements for it to be a God-thing.

You might have a clear sense of what is needed in some situation or someone’s life, but you might not be the right person to share that with them, or to intervene.

Or you might be the right person to help someone, but it might be the wrong time.

Or you might be the right person and the right time, but if you get the solution wrong or carry it out in an insensitive way, it can be unproductive or even cause damage to a relationship.

I have said some really stupid things and ended up complicating matters more often that I’d like to admit. This has happened when I’ve been a volunteer, part-time, and full-time worship leader.

When I speak up, my prayer is that it is a “God thing”, not a “Jamie thing”. I’m learning to take my friend’s advice, and before I speak up, I ask God: (1) am I the right person? (2) Is this the right thing to say? (3) Is this the right time to say it? (4) Am I saying it in the right way?

If God seems to be saying “yes” to all four questions: then I’ll speak up. If he seems to be saying “no” to any of them, then if I’m smart, I’ll be quiet. And wait. And pray.

God’s timing is perfect. Mine is not. And this is a lesson I will be learning for the rest of my life.

Beginning Again

1This is an exciting week for me as I begin my new position as Director of Worship and Arts at Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, Virginia. This past Sunday I had the opportunity to sit in all of the services and attend with my family, before coming into the office yesterday. I have a great sense of excitement about what God is going to do, and I’m thrilled to be called here to be a part of it.

I told a friend that my plan is to “hit the ground jogging” as much as I can for a while. I don’t have a huge agenda that I’m enacting from day one. I don’t have a long list of changes I’m going to pursue right away. I’m very much coming in and seeking to keep things as smooth as possible, while asking a lot of questions, listening to a lot of different voices, and asking God to begin to give me a vision of how I can be most effective here.

Those of us in ministry, whether it’s full-time, part-time, flex-time, or volunteer, are just stewards of God’s ministry. He uses us for a time, and then he moves us on and uses someone else. We don’t build dynasties – God builds His Church. And whether we’re beginning again in a new church, or looking ahead to yet another program year in the same church with the same people and the same challenges, God is always up to something. He is always working in ways we can’t see. He will share His agenda with you if you listen long enough.

I’d appreciate your prayers as I discern God’s agenda for me and the worship ministry at Truro. And if there’s anything I can do to help/support you in your own setting, please always feel free to get in touch with me.

Here’s what I wrote to my new congregation last Sunday.

Over the last several years, as Catherine and I were sensing that God was preparing us for a new call, we have been open for whatever he would call us to, wherever it would be. We’re delighted that God has called us to Truro, thrilled to be a part of this community, and thankful for your warm welcome.

 When I dream of what the years ahead might hold at Truro as I step into the role of Director of Worship and Arts, several things come to mind:

Musical vibrancy. God deserves it all, so let’s keep offering it all as well as we can.

Christ-centeredness. Jesus is the Cornerstone of the Church, so let’s make sure he remains the Cornerstone of our songs.

Congregational engagement. “Let us exalt His name together!” (Psalm 34:3)

Artistic expression. May the artists and the arts at Truro continue to be released and embraced to the glory of God.

Training and releasing. In our children’s and youth ensembles, and in our raising up of new worship leaders, may Truro be deploying skilled musicians in our congregation and beyond.

My job is to be like a tour guide at the Grand Canyon, simply saying “Behold!”, and then stepping out of the way. It will be a privilege to join you again in beholding the greatness of God in Christ, in the power of the Spirit, every Sunday.

From Joshua Spacht

1Almost two years ago I had the joy of meeting Joshua Spacht for the first time. Joshua is an amazingly gifted worship leader, orchestrator, composer, arranger, and musician extraordinaire. He’s become a great friend, and in his relatively-recent role as Director of Worship at McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Virginia, he’s also become a neighbor. I’m impressed not only by Joshua’s worship leading and wisdom, but also by his musical creativity (you can hear his string orchestrations on this Advent EP that I produced and sang/played on with my former church last year, or at his Sound Cloud page). I asked him some questions about music and worship leading and I think you’ll find his answers encouraging and helpful.

1. How do you stay fresh musically?
I listen to music – lots of it! I listen at several different levels. Everything from superficially skimming through an album to listening to one section of a song over and over. I have friends whose musical tastes are different than mine, and I ask them to provide me with songs, bands, or entire albums that I “need” to listen to. I then systematically work my way through the recommendations. I don’t have time to sort through lists of best­selling recordings or scour blogs for what’s new and fresh. So, I ask others to fill me in and keep me in the loop. Even music I don’t prefer can have a positive impact on my writing and arranging.

If I only expose myself to my musical preferences, I will stagnate as a writer and all my ideas will inevitably begin to sound the same. Listening to things outside your comfort zone is like trying to increase your vocabulary. You have to actually find new words before you can begin to use them in normal, everyday conversation. The same is true with our “musical vocabulary”.

2. What are two things the average worship leader could do to grow in musical creativity?
Listen to things you don’t gravitate towards naturally – particularly music that doesn’t have an immediate payoff and may require several listens. This is one of the beauties of classical music. It’s layered, nuanced, and requires an investment of time and thought to fully be appreciated. I’ll often make CDs of classical music for my rhythm players – particularly baroque music if they’re a drummer or bass player. Rock­-and-­roll didn’t appear in the 20th century, it existed long ago in the music of rockers like Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel! There’s a drive, pulse, and “pocket” in their church music that long pre­dates Chris Tomlin.

The other thing I’ll often recommend to worship leaders who want to grow creatively is that they simply watch themselves leading worship for several weeks (or even months) in a row. The recording doesn’t have to be professional or fancy, an iPhone will do. But look for patterns, monotony, thoughtless patterns that creep up in playing, speaking, or praying. We don’t just want to eliminate mistakes in our leading, but we want to eliminate those quirky things we all do that aren’t obvious to us (but often are to others). Sometimes the best way to give a freshness to our worship leading isn’t by adding more elements, but by removing unnecessary phrases, licks, whatever. Space can be a beautiful thing!

3. How should worship leaders handle criticism when they’re pushing the musical envelope in their congregation?
Arguing my case and musical convictions has yet to produce one convert to my perspective! You can’t strong­arm or manipulate people into realizing the “superiority” of your opinions. You earn trust over time, which then allows you to speak into the “music transition” issue with credibility. You need to first build relationships with team members and those on your committee/elder board. Take people out to lunch – start with the most difficult cases. Leadership isn’t as simple as telling disgruntled individuals to “take two Bible verses and call me in the morning”. Change takes time, time, and more time. We should all understand this because of the slow process of growth we see in our own lives. You need to pray – not just that the Lord changes others’ hearts, but that He melts yours with love for the folks you’re supposed to be leading.

Don’t talk about music, talk about Christ! Reinforce this statement at every meeting, rehearsal, and service: “Content is King”. Few people will oppose that statement. Rally your music ministry and your church around the truth that what we sing is far, far more important than the form of our singing.

Be deferential and loving to naysayers by being willing to do things and choose songs/hymns that are meaningful to their particular spiritual­heritage and tradition. After­all, contextualization doesn’t only mean adopting practices that are perceived to be “hip and cool”. We also need to contextualize for those who are more traditionally and conservatively oriented than we are.

4. What’s some of the best musical/worship leading advice you’ve ever received?
I asked my dad, who was a minister of music for 30 years, this question on the phone in the last meaningful conversation we had before he passed away. He paraphrased Robert Murray M’Cheyne and said, “Pursue holiness. All else you do will be null and void without spiritual integrity.” There’s a lot of truth in that. We can debate techniques, philosophies, musical styles, sound amplification, drums as the day is long. However, all those issues are secondary to the importance of pursuing godliness.

Now, I know it’s Christ who qualifies us salvifically before the Father. And I know it’s Christ that mediates for His children as they sing, not our integrity and practical righteousness. But, let’s not pretend that our personal pursuit of the spiritual disciplines has no affect on our hearts and dispositions – your spouse will be the first one to agree with that statement! How much more will you benefit, protect, lead, and serve your congregation by pursuing Christ through His Word and prayer and by actually saying “no” to sin and “yes” to what pleases Him?

On another note, my dad used to say the phrase “loud and proud” to describe how a worship leader should speak when giving short exhortations or reading Scripture, etc. We all need to slow down and ruminate on what we’re actually saying. Don’t be hasty or apologetic. Be predictable, coherent, and purposeful in everything you say and sing.

And one final nugget of advice from Chuck Spacht, let’s occasionally pretend like we enjoy what we’re doing and smile at our people (note sarcasm)! It might feel a little awkward and doesn’t do much to feed our “rock star” personas. But, it goes a long way to demonstrate that we’re happy to be there and we’re not the “worship artist” that’s putting on a show and can’t show weakness. A smile says “I’m one of you. I’m a worshipper, too. Let’s rejoice together!

Thanks, Joshua, for these fantastic words of advice, encouragement, and wisdom!