Consequences of Musical Divorce

In many ways, the worship wars of the 1980’s, 1990’s, and 2000’s were like a marital conflict. The conflict grew so intense, and dragged on for so long, that reconciliation no longer seemed possible. Eventually, hearts were hardened towards one another, and what was once just separation was finally codified in divorce.

Different services, at different times, in different venues, with different musical styles, as a way to appease and appeal to different segments of the congregation, avoiding any one particular side having to lose the kind of style they preferred. In many churches across the globe, a cease fire was cemented into this kind of musical divorce.

And yet the partners didn’t move into different houses. They stayed under one roof and lived at the same address, but came and went at different times, spent time in different rooms, avoided each other as much as possible, and learned how to tolerate each other at Christmas and Easter. Family members had to choose sides, assets had to be divided up, and what was once a loving home was now a tinderbox of awkward dynamics.

This is a picture of churches whose musical conflict turned into musical separation and was codified by a kind of musical divorce. On the surface, conflict was resolved. Below the surface, conflict continued. But this time, the conflict was covered up and ignored. Churches believed that this would bring peace to its members and position them to reach different people with different preferences. And those pragmatic aims may very well have been achieved at some measurable level. People weren’t as angry anymore, and the traditional and contemporary services were free to attract their own constituencies.

But church-sanctioned musical divorce sends three dangerous messages to its own congregation.

First, we can’t do hard things. Because of the considerable baggage and history of musical conflict in the Church, putting traditional and contemporary music together in one service is hard. It’s much easier to separate them. When we separate them, we give up on having hard conversations, on expecting our musical volunteers and staff to work together like brothers and sisters in Christ, and on the messiness of change and experimentation.

Second, we enable dysfunctional behavior. Instead of lovingly, firmly, and biblically addressing the wrong attitudes, prejudices, and behaviors on each side, we reward those attituded, prejudices, and behaviors by protecting them and giving them their own service. Rather than removing mold from our walls, we simply paint over it. But the problem has not disappeared.

And third, we are short-sighted. In the short-term, having separate services makes things easier. But in the long-term, it kicks the can down the road to another generation to have to figure out what to do when all of the current players have stepped off the stage. Rather than serve the generation that comes after us with a biblical foundation that can be built upon, we serve the current stakeholders with a model that may only have a shelf-life of another decade or two at best.

In addition, church-sanctioned musical divorce causes long-lasting damage to its congregation in two unfortunate ways.

First, we institutionalize the separation. Once something happens one time in a church, it’s a tradition. This is why churches should always be careful about starting new traditions. It’s much easier to start a new tradition than it is to end one. The same principle applies to institutions. No pastor wants to be the one responsible for ending a beloved tradition, or dismantling an institution. When we institutionalize musical separation, we set up a load bearing wall that will be incredibly difficult to someday tear down.

And second, we become separate congregations within a congregation. Instead of a congregation becoming centered around the preaching of God’s Word, and interconnected in community with one another, a church with separate services based on musical style enables the creation of mini-congregations centered around which service they attend, what style they prefer, and interconnected within those sub-congregations.

Any church that offers multiple services experiences this side-effect, even when those services are identical. But when those services are not identical, they become like divorced former spouses still living under the same roof, demanding that the relatives choose to whom their allegiance will belong.

Perhaps most tragic of all is that church-sanctioned musical divorce is a willful ignorance of the clear call of Scripture to unity, to mutual edification, to whole-hearted praise, to cross-generational exhortation, to musical variety, and to God-glorifying singing.

We would do well to heed the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:10 who said: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” In those early days, Christians embraced divisions along the lines whom they followed, be it Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas. Paul’s admonition was to “be united”.

The consequences of musical divorce are more damaging to the Church than the worship wars were. For pastors and worship leaders to choose to walk the path of uniting these two musical languages into one expression may very well be one of the most difficult paths they will walk, but it is the path towards helping their congregation experience that there is a better way.

Helping a Worship Ministry Act Like a Healthy Body

One of the most vital contributions a worship leader can and should make to the culture of the worship ministry at his or her church is a firm commitment to building a healthy team, expecting (and helping) all of the members of the ministry – band members, choir members, tech team, and more – to act like the members of a healthy body.

Whether members of the worship ministry are up front or behind the scenes, one of the jobs of a worship leader is to help those team members contribute their gifts as one part of the whole body. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Paul couldn’t be any more clear about this. We’re one body, with many members, arranged by God, interdependent, and all empowered by the Spirit.

A worship leader can’t emphasize this enough with his or her team. We’re all in this together. We’re all cheering for one another. We’re all pointing in the same direction. We all have the same job. We all have different gifts, distributed as God sees fit. We all need each other. No one is more or less important than anyone else.

In my experience, most musicians resonate with this, and appreciate this biblical model of a healthy body. And when this mindset becomes the norm in the culture of a worship ministry, beautiful cooperation can happen between people with very different gifts. A worship leader should encourage this!

But once in a while, a worship leader encounters a musician who isn’t a team player. There could be many reasons for this, and oftentimes they can be brought along, and after being shown a lot of patience and grace, they buy in. It’s wonderful when that happens.

Sadly, not all musicians buy in to the biblical model of a healthy body. They may refuse to work with the rest of the members in a cooperative way. When that happens, and when it’s clear that it’s not going to change, a worship leader’s job is to ask that member to step aside. Encouraging that kind of unbiblical behavior can make the whole body sick.

Over the course of time – and sometimes it may happen slowly – a worship leader can help cultivate a healthy culture in the worship ministry of his or her church, through consistent encouragement of the members of the body, and with the help of the Spirit who gives that body its life.

Five Common Rehearsal Killers

1I am a big believer in short, effective, enjoyable rehearsals. They should be short because you want to honor your volunteers’ time. They should be effective so that you actually accomplish something. And they should be enjoyable so that your musicians (and tech crew) look forward to them and want to come back.

In my experience, there are some common mistakes I’ve made, that I suspect other worship leaders make as well, that kill rehearsals. here they are:

1. Rehearse every song in full
There are certain songs your musicians know well enough to play in their sleep. If you’re confident in their confidence, you are well within your rights to say “do we all know this song? Yes? OK, great. Let’s skip it.” They will thank you, and you will have just saved five minutes.

2. Get bogged down in the mud of opinions
You want to make sure to encourage creative participation and the open sharing of ideas, particularly by not shooting down every idea that comes your way, or by never asking for input. But don’t hesitate to go against a strongly-shared idea, or even a consensus from your team, if you feel strongly otherwise. Make a joke, make sure you smile, give firm direction, and move on.

3. Don’t have songs picked or music ready in advance
Your song list should be finished at least (!) 2 or 3 days before rehearsal. Your chord charts/sheet music/etc. should be in the correct key, readable, in the order you’ll be singing them, and available to your team to have in advance. Every ounce of preparation you put into rehearsals, especially to help your musicians prepare at home, will yield great fruit later on.

4. Let the clock get away from you
There is no reason why 60 minutes isn’t enough time to have a complete worship team rehearsal.
– 7:30pm: Set-up, tune, get situated
– 7:05pm: Sound check/monitor check/etc.
– 7:10pm: Pray and start first song

See how rehearsal is starting 10 minutes after the hour? Yours should too. The more you allow set-up/sound check to drag on, the less effective rehearsal you’ll have. Even if your musicians are running late, just start without them.

– 7:10 – 7:50pm: 40 minutes to talk through each song, work on rough parts, smooth transitions, do three or four songs all the way through, etc.
– 7:50 – 8:00pm: 10 final minutes to review particularly tricky parts and emphasize what needs to be paid attention to, before a final prayer.

Look at that! A worship team rehearsal in 60 minutes. If it needs to go longer, it can, but give people a 10 minute break after an hour. Keep it fun and stay light-hearted, but keep the train moving.

5. Lose traction in between songs
Don’t let the space in between songs become chit-chat time, improvise time, or random question time. Keep it moving. When you finish one song, move on to the next song and they’ll follow you.

If people are fiddling around on their instruments while you’re trying to talk, here’s a tip: just start playing and singing the next song. That will quiet them up and keep things from stalling.

Never stop refining the craft of running short, effective, enjoyable rehearsals. Long, ineffective, unenjoyable rehearsals can create such a heavy drag on your team and ministry than can be hard to overcome. Take control, keep it moving, make sure you’re prepared, stay light-hearted, and keep your eye on the clock.

New Arrangement of “Holy, Holy, Holy”

A few months ago, my colleague and friend Andrew Cote wrote a new arrangement of “Holy, Holy, Holy” for organ, piano, violin 1, violin 2, and double bass. The choir parts and accompaniment for the verses line up with the 1982 hymnal version, but this arrangement adds a fantastic new introduction, interlude before verse 4, and some instrumental embellishments throughout.

I love what Andrew did with this. It was fresh, inventive, and challenging. But it didn’t get in the way of the congregation belting it out.

If you’d like to download the score and individual instrumental parts, click here.

And if you’d like to hear a rough demo of it, it’s below. Keep in mind this is just exported from Sibelius, so it’s really just for reference only.

Feel free to use this if you’d like!

The Freedom of Long-Term Worship Planning

For much longer than I’d like to admit, I lived in the weekly tyranny of song selection. Monday morning would come, the upcoming Sunday would again be approaching (they have a way of doing that), and I’d be back where I was a week earlier. I’d put together a list, look at the Scripture readings and sermon topic for the coming week, consider anything special coming up (baptisms, communion, etc.) and try to find the right balance.

Oftentimes, I’d look at the upcoming readings or sermon, and realize that the *perfect* song was a song I had just used a week earlier, so I couldn’t use it again. Bummer.

Similarly, I’d realize that a particular song would work great as a sermon response, or as a service closer, but the congregation didn’t know it. If only I had taught it for a couple of weeks before. Bummer again.

And on many occasions I’d realize that I was going back to my favorites too often. Or we weren’t cycling through enough of the wonderful hymns that my congregation knew. Or we weren’t going back to new songs quickly enough to reinforce them. This weekly cycle I was stuck in wasn’t good. But it was all I knew. And it was how I thought I could stay “fresh”. And it was awful.

A couple of years ago I tried something that was new for me, which was to plan out the song lists for the upcoming four months of services. In August, I would plan out of the songs for September through Christmas. In the weeks after Christmas, I would plan out the songs through Easter. And in the weeks after Easter I’d plan out the songs through the summer.

This would require a lot of time, and several days of locking myself away in my office and not doing much else besides thinking about the upcoming services. It was tedious and a bit grueling, but I noticed several things began to happen.

I introduced new songs more strategically. I wasn’t repeating the same songs too often. When I needed the *perfect* song, I could schedule it and make sure people weren’t sick of it. We were cycling through a broader repertoire of hymns. And I wasn’t living in the weekly tyranny anymore.

Now when Monday morning came, I could look at what I had prayerfully planned months before, and see if it still felt right. I might make some small changes, rarely some major changes, but most often, I was happy with what was planned, and I was freed up to do other things. And when I would hear a new song and think “we’ve got to introduce that!”, then I could look ahead and see where it would make the most sense to include it, even if it meant bumping something else off of the list.

My process looked something like this (keep in mind I serve in an Anglican/liturgical context, and we sing about 291 songs per-service):

1. Choose the opening hymns
2. Choose the closing hymns
3. Choose the song that goes in between the readings
4. Choose the opening song(s) of praise
5. Choose the last song of communion (we usually like this one to be an upbeat song of celebration)
6. Choose the first two communion songs, trying to weave them together and build towards the closer.
7. Choose the call to worship (sometimes these are congregational, sometimes they’re choir pieces, and sometimes they’re instrumental, varying from contemporary to classical).

As for the offertory, which is usually a choir/band piece, my colleague Andrew and I usually map all of those out for the entire ministry year by the time we get to August. We’re just about done with that process as I speak.

This kind of long-term planning did not come naturally to me, and seemed unrealistic to me for a very long time. But now that it’s become the norm, I find that I enjoy no longer living in the weekly tyranny, and that I’m freed up to be spontaneous when I need to be.

Most of all, I’ve been freshly amazed at the wisdom of God and his kindness in helping me plan songs months in advance that will end up ministering to specific people or responding to certain current events in ways that there was no way I could have foreseen. He has a way of doing that.

The Top Ten Things I Learned About Seminary In Seminary

Well, I did it. I finally finished seminary.

I started seminary in the summer of 2010. We had one daughter, I had more hair (not much), and I was blogging roughly 4 times per week.

Now it’s basically the summer of 2019. We have three daughters and a baby boy (!), I have less hair, and I’ve been blogging roughly once every 19 months. Give or take.

I knew when I started seminary that I would be a very part-time student. The Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) campus here in D.C. is designed for people like me, after all, who want to pursue theological education without having to pack their whole family up and move to somewhere where they could actually afford a house.

But I never thought it would take me this long. 9 years? That’s a long time. I took two breaks in there: one when I took a new ministry position, and one when my dad passed away. Looking back on my seminary experience, just two days before I officially receive my official diploma and wear my official black robe and get my picture with all of the seminary officials , I’m thinking about some things I’ve learned about seminary while being in seminary.

1. No one is really sure how to pronounce “Augustine”.

2. The best way to sound smart is to use the word “eschatological”.

3. It’s impossible to discuss the name “El Shaddai” without an Amy Grant reference.

4. “Dry erase markers”? More like “dry markers”, am I right?

5. No one ever likes the guy who asks the professor a question one minute before class is supposed to end. Just keep it to yourself, dude.

6. If having kids doesn’t turn you into a coffee drinker, seminary will.

7. The more initials a theologian has in between his first and last name, the smarter the theologian. (Sincerely, Jamie L.M.N.O.P Brown.)

8. OK, so we know what the first, second, and third uses of the law are. Could we all just agree that the fourth use of the law should be to keep that guy from asking the professor a question one minute before class is supposed to end?

9. If theology should lead to doxology, then the doxology should lead to free donuts outside after chapel.

10. Reading one book is good. Reading several books is better. Stacking up piles of books around your house and/or office makes you look REALLY smart.

And so as I come to the end of my brief 9-year seminary journey, I would like to thank my friends and family who supported me and encouraged me along the way, for RTS for helping me grow in my knowledge and love of the Lord, and for you, the readers of this blog that has been pretty inactive recently, for your patience and nice comments, especially on that “…Headed for a Crash” post 5 years ago.

In closing, here’s a picture of my new little boy. I think he’s pretty cute.

Practical Experiences to Help Young Worship Leaders Grow

No worship leader ever stops growing. If they do, they’re in trouble. There’s always more to learn, more to understand, and more experiences to have. Likewise, no worship leader becomes “seasoned” overnight. If they expect to, they’re in trouble.

But if you’re a young worship leader and just starting out, and you want to grow as a worship leader, there are some crucially important experiences you have to have.

Here’s a list of 13 of them, in no particular order of importance. They’re all important.

1. Retreats
Lead worship for 3 or 4 retreats and you’ll realize that they require an incredible amount of planning, coordination, logistics arranging, and flexibility, and leave you utterly exhausted. You need to get good at leading worship on retreats and remember to bring your own pillow.

2. Weekly leadership
It’s one thing to lead worship on an occasional basis, and this is a good place to start. But the next step is finding an opportunity to lead a regular congregation on a regular basis with a regular worship team of some sort. It’s a roller coaster of ups and downs that you need to learn how to ride. Sometimes you’ll feel sick, but it’s actually a lot of fun.

3. Weddings and funerals
There are no do-overs when it comes to weddings and funerals. These are profoundly emotional, high-stakes, memorable, photographed, and meaningful services. You will mess up at them for sure, but you better make sure they’re small mess ups or there will be people who remember you for the rest of their lives (and not in a good way).

5. Fill-in
Serving as a guest-worship leader for a church that isn’t yours, with musicians you’re unaccustomed to working with, and using a repertoire you haven’t built is disorienting and a lot of work. Learn how to listen to what they need, serve them with humility, and come back to your home church more grateful for the blessings you don’t appreciate like that nice gentleman who always makes fun of your pants.

6. Small group
It requires much more sensitivity and pastoral skill to lead worship for 10 people than it does for 1,000. Don’t underestimate the life-long difference that leading worship in someone’s living room can make to your worship leading skills, especially when you’re interrupted by a screaming baby.

7. Big group
You can get away with things in a small group that you can’t get away with in front of a big group (200 or more people). Leading worship for a large number of people requires you to muster up a level of planning, preparation, and leadership authority that will seem impossible at first but will begin to feel natural the more you do it.

8. Christmas Eve and Easter
Mature worship leaders learn, through years of trial and error, how best to carry the burden of planning music for the two biggest-deal services of the year, in a way that doesn’t totally consume their lives (or their volunteers’), provides their congregation with a genuine encounter with God, and includes everyone’s favorite songs and ensures no complaints (I’m joking).

9. On-the-side services
Occasional healing services, vow renewals, baby dedications, church staff meetings, Veterans’ Day services, and any other service that requires a time of singing that isn’t on Sunday morning, will cause you think outside the box and factor in a whole different slew of things while planning a time of worship that will engage people.

10. Kids
When adults aren’t engaged in worship they’ll stand there like a robot. When kids aren’t engaged in worship they’ll get really loud and ask their mom for a snack or jump on their friend’s back and try to tackle him. Learning how to lead kids in worship will prepare you for the grumpiest of all adults.

11. Elderly
The older generation isn’t looking to be impressed. They would like to actually be able to sing along with you, hopefully something true, meaningful, and familiar.

12. Hostile
My experience as a teenager leading worship for a congregation in which one-half of the room would stand while the other half would remain seated with their arms folded, while staring at me angrily, was the most valuable worship leading experience I ever had. Leading worship for hostile groups will force you to grow in dependence on God, and confidence in who he’s gifted you to be.

13. Meetings
This has nothing to do with playing an instrument or singing. It has to do with the fact that if you’re a worship leader, you need to learn how to run a good meeting. Have an agenda, move things along, get results, and adjourn it before it goes too long and people start throwing things. This will serve you for the rest of your life, and help you run good rehearsals as well.