The Day I Heard God Laugh

1Several years ago I was in the middle of one of those seasons when I was having a hard time believing that God was actually hearing (and caring about) my prayers. I had been crying out to him to answer me in the way that I wanted, in the timeframe I had chosen, with the thing that I thought was best. All I could pick up in return was radio silence. Nothing was happening. Nothing was changing. I was discouraged.

But one day something changed. A very clear answer to my prayers began to materialize, in a way that could only be explained by God’s arrangement of it all, and I felt like a ray of light had suddenly burst through my gloomy sense that God wasn’t at work. That’s when I muttered a half-hearted remark to God. And that’s when I heard him laugh. It wasn’t exactly audible, but it was clear as day.

I was getting off the elevator, and in response to the new developments God had brought about, I said under my breath: “God… I think you’re up to something”.

Ha!

God laughed.

“I’m… up to something?

Ha!”

I realized how ridiculously “understatement-of-the-millenium” my remark was about as soon as I was finished saying it. And God, in his Fatherly and gentle kindness, reminded me in that moment that yes, little child, God was indeed “up to something”.

A verse from the Psalms immediately came to mind in that moment:

In Psalm 2:4 we’re told that God “laughs” at the raging of the nations. His total, complete, sovereign power contrasted with the people’s plotting and raging is utterly laughable.

God is “up to something”, and he’s up to something in more ways, and on more levels, and with so many different rationales than we’ll ever know. We’ll doubt this, and we’ll stop believing it, and we’ll become convinced that we’ve been forgotten. But then God will prove yet again that he’s faithful, and we’ll prove yet again that we’re fickle, and because our fickle hearts have been reborn and made new because of Jesus, God our Father will look on us with eyes full of love and laugh. And smile.

Getting Into a Worship Leading Career After College

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Last week I received an email from a senior in high school who’s discerning a possible call to a career in worship ministry, and is experiencing some push-back and questioning from her family who tell her she’s crazy. She asked a lot of good questions, basically trying to find out whether or not she’s… well… crazy.

Here’s what I said:

There are always churches looking to hire full-time worship leaders. Churches all across the country, in any city of any state. There are lots of employment options for people looking for worship leader jobs, but in order to be attractive to a potential church, you’ll need to able to show that you can do several things.

First, can you manage a music program? The budget/volunteers/scheduling/rehearsals/long-term planning/meetings/emails/auditions/Christmas/Easter/administrative/etc? To prove this, I’d recommend you start getting your hands dirty as soon as possible. Intern with a music program at a church somewhere. Start getting as much experience as you possibly can!

Second, can you lead worship well? Are you able to plan a cohesive service, effectively using songs to help people glorify God? Can you lead a band, or a choir, or an orchestra? You don’t need to be able to lead all of those types of ensembles, but if you can’t lead any of them, you’ll have a hard time getting a job. Again, the best way to prove this to a potential church is to do it consistently and well in some sort of setting. Most churches will not hire a worship leader with no regular worship leading experience. An internship somewhere can provide this, or better yet, enter into the “market” via an assistant/part-time/associate position, where you can gain experience, show your skills, learn your craft, make mistakes, and become more polished.

Third, are you a leader? Do people want to follow you? Will a congregation respond positively to your leadership and your musical abilities? Will a pastor look at your application and think “she’d help my congregation grow” or think “next…” The stronger you become as a leader, the better the odds that you’ll get a good position somewhere.

Start small. Build a good foundation. Pursue your education. Study music. Study theology. Lead worship/rehearsals/services as much as you can. Say “yes” to whatever worship leading opportunities come your way. This will help you grow!

Don’t worry about the naysayers, but do listen to whatever wisdom they have to offer. If you’ve been called by God to this ministry, then he will equip you.

(Related post: Getting Experience Makes You Experienced.)

Once in Royal David’s City: Free Download and String Parts

1One of the last big things I was able to do with my former church before I came to Truro Anglican in Fairfax was release an Advent EP called “For Our Salvation”. It was released a year ago in December 2013. It features four Advent carols (arranged by me and orchestrated by Joshua Spacht), one instrumental piece (again by Joshua), and one of my original songs called “Beautiful Baby Boy“. The songs are arranged for band, strings, and feature a children’s choir as well.

The first song on the EP is “Once in Royal David’s City”, an old carol written by Cecil Alexander and Henry Gauntlett. This is the carol that usually kicks off “Lessons and Carols” services, and it’s a beautiful retelling of the story of Jesus’ birth, culminating with that great longing of ours to one day see him again.

I did a few things with the text:

1. I left out the verse that talks about how little children should be as “mild, obedient, and good” as Jesus.
2. In its place, I wrote a verse that explains: “He was given to pay our ransom / By His blood we are set free / Suffered He for our transgressions / Lamb of God upon the tree / Then He rose up from the grave / Risen King with power to save”.
3. I chose the version of the last verse that ends “…Christ revealed to faithful eye / Set at God’s right hand on high”, as opposed to the other version which says “Where like stars His children crowned / All in white shall wait around”. For some reason that last version doesn’t exactly elicit an exciting view of heaven!

You can download the free mp3 here.

Here’s a lyric video: 

And here is the free orchestration for strings (including a chord chart), by my good friend Joshua Spacht.

The whole EP is available at www.tfcamusic.org or on iTunes.

Don’t Eat the Chocolate: Why Contemporary Worship Music is Dead, Dying, and Decaying

1It’s become clear to me that contemporary worship music is dead, dying, and decaying. Think I’m wrong? I’m not. Here’s my proof (read it and weep. Really. Please weep):

1. The new songs aren’t nearly as old as the older songs
“All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” was written in 1779! “Ten Thousand Reasons” was written in 2011. These new songs aren’t even close to being as old as the old songs. The old songs have been around for several hundred years! These new ones? Not nearly that long!

2. Some of the new songs are trying to pretend they’re old hymns
Have you read some of the new songs? They’re trying to act like they’re hymns, with their deep theology and everything. It’s ridiculous.

3. Whatever happened to singing Isaac Watts?
Hasn’t he written anything new lately? Why aren’t we singing his new stuff? Even more ridiculous. We’re missing out on new material from the old hymn writers.

4. Bad stuff
Some of the new stuff coming out is really bad and unsingable. You think the old hymn writers ever wrote bad hymns and ended up throwing them away? I doubt it. How do you spell infallible? S-P-A-F-F-O-R-D, that’s how.

5. Look in the old hymnals…
See any of these new songs in the old hymnals? Nope. They’re not good enough to be in there.

6. Repetition is never appealing
These new song writers have never studied great compositions like the “Hallelujah Chorus” or “Psalm 107” to see how you don’t need to repeat phrases to emphasize something.

7. No time for filtering
We need to wait another hundred years (at least!) before we event think about singing these new songs being written, so we can make sure they’re safe for us to sing. Once these new songs are 100 years old, if they’re still around, then maybe we can sing them. Maybe.

8. There aren’t as many new songs as there are old songs
We have more material from the last 2,000 years (not to mention all the years BC) than all of the songs written after 1970 combined! I think that says something.

9. Our forefathers didn’t sing these new songs
If these new songs weren’t good enough for our forefathers to sing several hundred years ago, then they’re not good enough for me. My great-grandfather had never heard of Chris Tomlin when he was alive.

10. We’re done being creative
There’s nothing more to be said that hasn’t been said, there are no new melodies that need to be written that haven’t already been written, and there’s no need to be creative anymore because we reached our creative quota in about 1913. Except for “In Christ Alone”. That one earns an exception. It slipped through just in time. Barely. But don’t tell anyone. We’re done. Really. Stop it.

In closing, contemporary worship music (hereafter referred to as CWM) is like a box of chocolates that you got for Christmas, and then forgot about, and stuffed it away with all the Christmas wrap, and found it the next year, still shrink-wrapped, and wondered to yourself “will I die if I eat this?” The answer is “yes”. Yes, you will die, and the last thing you’ll ever have run through your mind is “I didn’t know this one had the disgusting strawberry liqueur filling”. Yes, you did know, because I’m telling you. Stay away from CWM and eat the older chocolate instead. Oh no my analogy just broke down…

How to Play Well with Organists

1One of my favorite organist jokes goes like this:

What’s the difference between an organist and a terrorist?
You can negotiate with a terrorist.

It’s a funny joke that quickly gets at the heart of the reputation organists have of being unbendable, inflexible, unwilling to take direction, and impossible to work with.

Many “contemporary” worship leaders would nod their heads at that last paragraph, immediately thinking of organists who have refused to play along either out of disdain for “pop” music or an inability to work off of chord charts or simple lead sheets. Because of this disconnect between organists and contemporary musicians, a dividing wall is built up (with varying levels of hostility depending on the egos involved) that results in the worship team standing on the side lines while the organist does his/her thing, and vice versa.

And because of this, when organists get together to tell their own jokes about guitarists, the punch lines in the other direction aren’t any more gracious than the one I told above. We each equate the other person to being (worse than) a terrorist and go on our own way not negotiating with them out of a matter of egotistical security.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Contemporary musicians and organists can (and should) play well together. There is no reason to take an “either/or” approach to organs and guitars, or organs and drums. Organs don’t have to be seen as a relic, and amplifiers don’t have to be seen as the enemy. We can laugh at our reputations (and sarcastic jokes) with good humor, reaching out to each other in mutual submission. The results might be a bit messy, and we might break some musical rules, but the Church will be edified, and the musical traditions that have been passed down won’t be abandoned.

As a life-long Anglican, almost every church I’ve ever attended has had an organ as a central instrument in its worship life. And in every one of those churches where organs have been central, I have come along with my guitar, (and usually my drums-playing brother too), and tried my hand at the “playing well together” approach.

I made some huge mistakes early on.

  • I assumed the organist couldn’t/didn’t want to play along, so I didn’t even give them music or communicate with them.
  • If I did give them music, they were simple chord charts (lyrics and chords), which, for many organists, are complete nonsense.
  • I didn’t try to build a relationship with the organist.
  • I secretly wanted to see the organ disappear.
  • I looked at my (at that point) 1-2 years of experience leading worship for a youth group as being superior to their decades of playing, lessons, studying, and degrees.
  • I saw things in terms of superior/inferior.

Needless to say, in those early years, the organists and I saw each other more like terrorists and less like partners.

There came a shift for me when I came (as a high schooler) to Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, where I’m now (God has a sense of humor) the Director of Worship and Arts. It was the first time I had seen drums/organ/guitars/strings/descants/synthesizers all “blended” together without killing each other in the process. It was messy. But it was wonderful.

I drank it up for a few years before God called to me to another church, The Falls Church Anglican, where for a decade I would continue along as the contemporary guy attempting to bridge the divide with the classical guys. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But most of the time it worked, and I learned some lessons about how to play well with organists.

Here are ten of them.

  1. Be humble. Organists have been taught (seriously) that you are the enemy. Disarm them (if they believe this) by being humble.
  2. Be winsome. Kill the elephant in the room by making fun of it. You’re a guitarist. You don’t read music. They’re an organist. They can play Bach for hours without messing up once. You’re trying to work together. It’s hilarious. Laugh about it.
  3. Ask them specifically for their help. You have a guitar. Or you have 88 piano keys. They have an entire orchestra at their fingertips for crying out loud. They have something to add, and the fact that you’re humbly and winsomely asking them for help is even more wonderfully disarming.
  4. Give them specific instructions. Don’t tell them how to play organ (since you have no idea), but at least try to walk them through the whole song and say “on the intro do something like this, on verse one don’t play, on the first chorus how about something like this…” and so on.Some organists like improvising. Most do not. But all organists are quite used to having very specific music with every single note, every dynamic change, and every volume swell specifically laid out. If all you give them is a chord chart strewn with mistakes, then they’re going to politely slide off the organ bench and be frustrated. They will appreciate (and do better) if you’re very specific about what you want.
  1. Embrace the awkward. It might sound a little muddled. There might be too much bass in the room if the pedals are walking all over the bass guitar. The organist might get a little loud. Whatever. Who cares. You’re demonstrating something very sweet and God-honoring. In ten years no one will remember how it sounded, but they will remember such a powerful display of musical unity.
  2. Music matters. If their brain is able to improvise off of a chord chart, then that’s wonderful (maybe). But organists usually like a little more than lyrics or chords, so be willing to go through the work to get them sheet music, and to tailor your arrangement to work with the sheet music they’ve been given. If the song you want to use is a hymn, you can use the hymnal arrangement and ask the organist to write out the chords for you. Or if the song is on CCLI’s SongSelect, you can print out the lead sheets or 4-part vocal score. Or (gasp) actually buy the actual sheet music.
  3. Include them as a member of your team. It’s hard for you all to consider each other enemies when you’re getting pizza together after rehearsal, or hanging out together in between services eating donuts. Mmm. Pizza and donuts. Now there’s a winning combo!
  4. Turn them loose. Let them do their preludes and postludes with as much bombast as they want. Give them hymns and anthems to accompany that let them use all their skills to their fullest. Then ask them to play with just as much intentionality (yet more constraints) on the songs you’re leading.
  5. Don’t talk, socialize, or set-up and tear-down equipment during their preludes or postludes. It annoys them.
  6. Learn from them. They probably have some really good arrangement ideas. They might be able to teach you a lot about music theory. Who knows – they might even be willing to give you organ lessons. Then you’ll become one of them and they will have won!

Do what you can to try to make this work. It will be awkward. You’ll be speaking different languages. But it just might be a wonderful blessing, and a practical demonstration of the reconciling power of the gospel.