All The Sheep Matter (And Have Names)

1As someone who’s constantly scheduling/recruiting/managing volunteers, I’ve been reminded (and amazed) recently by how much it means to people when you tell them that they matter. That you appreciate their gifts, you want them to contribute, you know they’re busy, their presence makes a difference, you really like it when they show up, and you know their name.

At my church we’ve been seriously pouring a lot of time and energy into our loving our choir, helping it to grow, and launching into the Fall with momentum, energy, and unity. A big part of that was hand-writing letters to over 65 people, some of whom had been singing in the choir for decades, and some of whom had only given it a try once in their lives (if ever).

And in the weeks since those letters hit people’s mailboxes, I’ve lost count of the number of folks who have said how much those notes meant to them. To actually receive a handwritten card – to them – that wasn’t just some sort of spammy, church-lingo, form letter, meant the world. One dear lady told me (in tears) how when she read my note that she “was a blessing”, she broke down in gratefulness.

I wonder how many of our volunteers are just hungry for some sort of pastoral connection, however sporadically, by someone in church leadership, that shows that we know their names, we appreciate them, we value their contributions, and we are blessed by their gifts. I think for some people it helps them go from feeling like they’re filling a slot, to actually being a part of a body.

Now don’t get me wrong: we have a long way to go at my church, and this isn’t some sort of pat on the back for having “arrived” at our destination with our volunteers. We have a lot of work, and loving, and recruiting, and community-building still to do. I’m an introvert, I have three kids, and I’m constantly juggling different responsibilities and initiatives like everyone else. Personally, I’m trying to grow in this area, and these last few weeks have reminded me of the fruit that can come from taking the time to tell people they are loved and they matter.

For those of us in any ministry position where it’s up to us to schedule, recruit, or manage volunteers, we have an important lesson from Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep. The sheep matter to Him, and so they should know that they matter to us too.

Persevering Through Seasons of Ministry Discouragement

 

1I had just been presented with yet another list of my shortcomings as a worship leader when I drove home, brutally discouraged, and extremely confused. The house was empty, no one was home, and I knew I was in bad shape. What in the world had just happened? How in the world could I keep this ministry thing going?

In that moment of despair, it was almost as if God screamed at me: “Open the Bible to James chapter 1”.

And so I did. And I read:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
(James 1:2-12 ESV)

And just like that, God taught me some crucial lessons.

First, trials are good for me. They’re good for me because they drive me to have greater faith in Jesus. They grow me up – not in self-confidence – but in Christ-confidence. So I can persevere through discouraging trials and tests, because they have a purpose, which is to cause me to throw myself on Jesus even more. This increases my effectiveness in ministry by about 1,000%.

Second, God will give me wisdom. God doesn’t offer a fast-pass, a short cut, or a detour around turbulence. But he promises wisdom when I ask in faith, and he will guide me through, as a God who gives generously. So I can continue to walk ahead, even when it’s actually quite miserable, because I am not on my own. This is not all riding on my shoulders, my giftedness, my leadership prowess, and my navigational skills. I am following my Captain, my Lord, my King, my Ruler, my Guardian, and my Defender. I will not survive in ministry because I am good at it. I will survive in ministry because God is good at it, and he tells me what to do so he can use me.

Third, humility is the quality that will result in ministry longevity. Pride will inevitably lead to a withering of my fruit. It’s an unavoidable result of pride that can’t be ignored. But through disappointment, trials, tests, and even humiliation, God is keeping the soil of my heart more fertile, and more aware of its need for God. So, as counter-intuitive as it is, I can be grateful to God when he humbles me, however and whenever he chooses. It must mean I need it.

Finally, I have to keep the big picture in mind. My ultimate home is not a plum ministry position. My ultimate home is heaven. And until I am home, I will experience times of encouragement, and times of discouragement. I will be presented with affirmation, and I will be presented with lists of my shortcomings. And through it all, my faith is in Jesus, my wisdom comes from him and his word, and my job is to exalt him whether I’m comfortable or not. One day I will receive the crown of life, and on that day, and not a day sooner, all discouragement will cease.

Pressing On, Feeding God’s Sheep

dryYou’ve been a worship leader at your church for nine months now. When you took the job you had high hopes for your new ministry. You really clicked with the pastor and some of the search committee members. You had a deep peace that God was leading you to move to this new city and take on a new challenge. And you knew it would be a challenge. The worship team was a mess, the congregation was opinionated, the sound system was laughable, the song repertoire was weak, the drummer couldn’t keep time, and the previous worship leader had quit after six months. You were comfortable where you were but took this new job out of obedience to God.

Nine months later and it’s been more challenging than you could have imagined. You’re frustrated with your pastor. A few members of the worship team have stepped down and been vocal in their criticism of you. You look out on Sunday morning and it doesn’t look any one wants to be singing any of the songs you’ve chosen. Whenever you try to introduce a new song people ask why you “sing so many new songs”. You sit in your office during the week and feel like you’re trapped in a bad dream. You visit other churches or attend worship conferences and leave more discouraged and weary because you can’t imagine your own church ever looking like that.

Am I even all that good of a worship leader? What am I doing wrong? Was that person right when he quit the worship team and called me an egotistical control freak? Did I make a mistake taking this job? Would anyone care if I just slept in on Sunday and watched football? How amazing would it feel to tell my pastor “I quit”?

You’re confused, burned out, beaten up, angry, and disappointed. Your body is in church on Sundays but your mind has already packed up and moved away. It’s a lost cause. You’ve come to the realization that you’re not cut out to be a worship leader, the church you’ve been serving for two years will never change, and you made a mistake ever taking the job.

Don’t give up, worship leader friend. Press on.

“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! (Psalm 126:5)

You are in the thick of real-life church ministry. It can be discouraging, tedious, boring, low-paying, and dry. But your labor is not in vain. Every day you are able to drive to that church and serve those people, buy your drummer a cup of coffee and then head back to church and practice with him, talk with your pastor, and get up on Sundays with a desire to help people encounter God in corporate worship, you are making the soil more fertile. One drop at a time. You didn’t make a mistake taking this job, you might have just made a mistake thinking it would be easy. It won’t be easy. But if you’re faithful, it will be fruitful. You will reap that fruit one day.

You are doing the hard work a worship leader. It isn’t glamorous. Your worship team won’t be recording an album anytime soon but you love them and encourage them anyway. Your congregation won’t suddenly look like the crowd at the worship conference you attended but you model and encourage heartfelt singing anyway. Your pastor won’t be speaking at any huge conferences next week or writing any books but you honor and pray for him anyway. Your Sunday service is a bit boring and predictable but you keep praying for God to bring a freshness and vibrancy. There isn’t a worship leader in the world who can change a church through his polish and skill. There is a God who can change a church by his Holy Spirit. Keep doing the hard work in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So you’ve been sowing in tears for nine months. You can’t even imagine what shouts of joy would sound like. You’ve worked hard, labored faithfully, and done all that you know there is to do. Your high hope has become deep despair.

To the worship leader ready to quit and walk away in retreat, imagine the story in John chapter 21 went like this:

Jesus says to you, “worship leader, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

He says to you: “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus says to you a second time, “worship leader, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

He says to you: “Tend my sheep.”

Jesus says to you a third time, “worship leader, do you love me?”

“Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.”

He says to you: “Feed my sheep.”

Press on, worship leader friend. May your love for the Savior compel you, and may the power of the Spirit sustain you. Your tearful sowing will one day turn to joyful shouting. Don’t stop feeding his sheep.

An Interview with Brandon Wells

1If you’re anything like me, you like to hear from people in ministry who have been around the block a few times. People who have ridden the ministry roller coaster ups-and-downs, weathered the storms, been through the ringer, and have come out on the other side more seasoned, experienced, and faithful.

Brandon Wells is one of those people.

Brandon is the worship pastor at Spanish River Church in Boca Raton, Florida. And while I have never met Brandon face-to-face, we’ve become friends and I’ve been grateful for his model of pastoral faithfulness from afar.

I asked Brandon a few questions about himself and about worship leading, and I hope you enjoy our brief discussion.

Jamie Brown: Tell us a little about yourself and your family. 

Brandon Wells: I’m a husband to Nicole and a dad of three daughters, Molly 13, Ava 11 and Claire 9 (I think I got their ages right). We’ve been married 15 years, almost 16 now, and serving in the church since before we were married. I have a distinct memory of every single one of my daughters swinging in a baby seat on Sunday morning while the musicians rehearsed for church. Now, I make sure to buy them 50 munchkins from Dunkin Donuts on the mornings my wife sings to pacify them while they run wild through the empty sanctuary. All of this speaks more to their service than mine. They’ve been there with me the whole way. I couldn’t have better ministry and life partners than I do in each of them.

JB: How long have you served at Spanish River Church? What is your position there?

BW: This November will mark my 5th year serving as the Worship Pastor of Spanish River Church.

JB: How long have you been leading worship? 

BW: Like a lot of folks, I started leading worship when someone in my small church found out I played guitar. At the time, I only knew a few Grateful Dead tunes by heart. I was a new Christian and wasn’t familiar with the music of Larnelle Harris or Third Day or Rich Mullins. So, I got my start leading for the student ministry back in 1997. Since that time, I’ve managed to learn a few more chords on the guitar and can almost sing myself out of a paper bag (on a good day). All my training has been on the job in real time. Not always the best scenario but it’s how things shook out for me in the providence of God. Spanish River is the 5th church that I’ve served in a full time capacity. And I’ll stop there because it’s the end of August and I need to start planning the Christmas Eve services.

JB:  What are the one or two biggest lessons you’ve learned about worship leading?

BW: Lesson 1: On Sunday, my job is not to get people to worship. They’re already worshiping. They’ve been worshipping all week. My role as a leader in worship is to incentivize them through a thoughtfully crafted service that their Creator and Redeemer is more worthy of their worship than any other thing.

Lesson 2: Worship has to be a formational practice whereby my heart is enlarged for God and for people. If it fails to accomplish that in my life then true worship probably hasn’t happened.

JBIn addition to serving in a church, you also work in the world of coffee. Can you tell us about this journey?

BW: I might have as much to say about this as worship but I’ll spare readers any needless detail.

For context, it’s important to know that coffee is a beverage that I’ve loved for a really long time. I’ve always been “that guy” who brings his own beans to the brunch, along with his grinder and scale and scoop. This love affair with coffee took an interesting turn about 4 years ago, when I read Tim Keller’s book Every Good Endeavor. I started to see vocation differently, mainly, as an extension of who I am, what I love and what I feel compelled to share with the world in which I live.

So, together with my wife, I started a coffee roasting company called Wells Coffee Company. One day in a conversation with dear friends, the hope of our newly minted business venture came together in the simple phrase, Drink Deeply, which we believe epitomizes what we want to see happen around the coffees we roast. Since that time I’ve discovered that one of my favorite hymn texts from Marva Dawn, set to the tune of Come Thou Fount, says “From the waters of God’s mercy, we drink deeply are made whole.” We think coffee, unlike any other beverage, is an elixir for just this experience of wholeness and so we couldn’t be more thrilled to leverage this gift from God for the good of more people.

JB: What is your prayer each time you step on stage to lead worship?

BW: Father God, renew, revive and restore all whom you gather in this place (including me) for your name’s sake and your glory, forever. Amen.

Brandon isn’t on Twitter, and I like that about him. UPDATE: You can follow Brandon on Twitter @wellscoffees

And you can buy Wells Coffee here.

Thanks, Brandon!

Sincerity Over Intensity

1When I first began to lead worship, my overwhelming feeling when standing on stage was one of panic. Is everything going to fall apart? Is everyone staring at me? I broke a string! How do I play that chord again? How do I turn the page on my music stand and still hold onto my guitar pick and still strum when I’m supposed to strum so the whole band doesn’t stop playing?

Eventually I gained enough confidence and got enough experience that my beginner’s anxiety wore off. What came next was an overdose of intensity. THIS is the set that is going to BRING DOWN THE FIRES OF REVIVAL. Or THIS SONG has to be EPIC. Or I am going to MAKE these people WORSHIP no matter HOW LONG IT TAKES! The harder I strummed, the higher I sang, and the louder I hollered, the better the worship. Or so I thought.

Over the last 13 years, as I’ve had the privilege of leading one or more worship services every weekend, I’ve learned that my fears are ungrounded and my intensity is overrated.

Because fundamentally, the panic of a rookie worship leader and the overzealous intensity of an experienced worship leader both have the root: and it’s insecurity.

Insecurity whispers in the worship leader’s ear: this is all on you! And when you’re a rookie, that freaks you out. But when you’re more experienced, that puffs up your ego. You actually believe it is all on you. And that you can make the worship soar to glorious heights of heavenly awesomeness.

But the whisper of insecurity is a lie. It’s a tremendous lie. To rookie and experienced worship leaders alike. The success of worship isn’t all on us. It isn’t all on us at all. We have no reason to panic, and no grounds for pride.

Worship is God-initiated, and God-oriented. Worship leaders are placed where they’re placed by God himself, and he’s working through them, in them, around them, in spite of them, and for them, every minute of every song. And this is the God honest truth that helps a worship leader finally realize he or she can just relax and be themselves.

And that’s where sincerity comes from. From a deep-seated confidence that God initiates worship by shining “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). And he receives all worship and glory to himself, for “…from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever” (Romans 11:36).

When I remember those truths: I can enjoy worship with my congregation, choir, worship team, singers, and instrumentalists so much more. We don’t need to panic over making every detail perfect, lest we chase the Holy Spirit out of the room. And we don’t boast in our excellence as if God is impressed and therefore likes us more than the church down the street.

Relax and be yourself, worship leader. Use your gifts, sing with your voice, and join together with your people, to glorify God together. You don’t need to worry and you don’t need to wear yourself out. Thank God!

An Interview with Todd Wright

FullSizeRender 19Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to post a few interviews with worship leader friends of mine, who serve in different kinds of churches around the country, in different denominations, and with different approaches.

But they’re all humble servants who have been faithfully pointing their congregations to Jesus for a while now, and I’d love for you to get to know them too.

Today, I introduce you to Todd Wright. Todd is a worship leader in Texas, and is also a really good song writer. One of the songs he co-wrote, “Hallelujah For the Cross” has become fairly well-known over the last year (especially since Newsboys covered it). So, now he’s a pretty big deal and his pick-up truck is full of Grammys. (Just kidding. He doesn’t drive a pick-up truck.)

JB: Hi Todd! Tell us a little about yourself and your family
TW: I’m Todd Wright. My wife, Kristen and I have been married for 18 years. We’ve got two kids, Jonah (14) and Finley (10.) I’m the worship pastor at Bethel Bible Church in Tyler, Texas. (We have three campuses total. I am at what’s known as the “South” campus.) This September 1 will by my 8-year anniversary at Bethel. I can’t believe it’s been eight years already! They’ve flown by. When I came to Bethel, Kristen and I were very committed to staying at the church for the long haul. That’s not to say God won’t ever move me, but I believe worship leaders should think long and hard about where they land. I honestly believe that a worship leader who stays faithful over years and years is helpful to the church at large.

How long have you served at Bethel Bible Church?
This September will make eight years.
What have been some of your biggest challenges there?
Bethel’s a great church. I’m very blessed to have a pastoral staff and congregation that’s extremely supportive and loving to me and my family. It’s not without challenges, of course. Even eight years in, I’d say we’re still working hard to balance the importance of passionate corporate singing with a long-standing tradition of reverence during worship services. Our people love Jesus, but they don’t always sing like it. That’s hard work, but it’s worth it. I also think Bethel is unique in it’s congregational makeup. Over the past eight years, we’ve moved from a predominately white-collar, professional, upper middle class congregation to one that’s far more diverse in just about about category. Leading a congregation that’s morphed that much has been a challenge.

How long have you been leading worship?
I started leading worship when I was 14. (If you call singing along with Carman CDs in the youth group, “leading,” that is.) I turn 40 in October which means I’ve been doing this in some capacity for 26 years. The mechanics of singing and arranging have gotten easier, but I’m still constantly unlearning and relearning what it is to do the job. One of the most important thing that God’s shown me is that worship leading isn’t about doing only the things I like on the platform. I need to be engaged in worship, but I’ve got to pastor my congregants. The longer I do this, the more I realize I also have to work hard to be “invisible” on the platform, lest my personality or preferences become the focus of the singing time.

What are the one or two biggest lessons you’ve learned about worship leading?
1. Worship leading isn’t about doing only the things I like on the platform. I need to be engaged in worship, but I’ve got to pastor that group of congregants as well. 2. Work hard to be as “invisible” as I can be on the platform.
Give us your top-five song-writing tips in bullet-point form.
When it comes to songwriting, I try to remember five very practical rules.

  • Avoid cliche.
  • Melody is everything.
  • Count syllables.
  • Know the difference between a “song for me” and a “song for us.”
  • You have to write a lot of bad songs before you write a good one.

Thanks, Todd!

You can hear Todd’s songs and buy his music here. 

Receiving Our Cosmic Advent Calendar In Christ

1This week at my church we’re hosting our annual “Genesis Arts Camp“, and our campus is crawling with 300 kids, an army of counselors, lots of volunteers, a handful of pirates, and one very elusive whale.

The theme this year is “Searching for Treasure” and we’re teaching the kids the good news of Ephesians 1:3 and 7. The ESV version says:

(Eph. 1:3): Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places… (1:7) In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace…

And here’s a paraphrased version for the sake of a camp theme song that I wrote we’re learning and singing every day:

Ephesians chapter 1 verse 3 and 7
Says God has blessed us with ALL the blessings of heaven!

So… let us give thanks and dance and celebrate
To the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
For by Jesus’ blood…

We are set free (Woo Hoo! Woo Hoo!)
Our sins are forgiven (Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!)
How great is the grace (How great is the grace)
Is the grace of God

Yesterday it was up to me to explain (in 4 minutes) what exactly being blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” or being blessed “with all the blessings of heaven” (my paraphrase) means.

Because, at first glance, this is one of those statements that makes you say “huh”? I’m blessed with every spiritual blessing? In the heavenly places? What does that mean?

I explained that it’s a lot like getting an Advent calendar.

An Advent calendar comes loaded with all the blessings inside all the drawers. Some of them you can open, and some you have to wait to open. You’ve been given all the blessings. They’re yours. But you’ll receive them when it’s time.

In Christ, we are blessed with a cosmic “Advent calendar”, containing every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. Some of the blessings we receive right now. The forgiveness of our sins, for example. But some of the other blessings, like no more sickness in heaven, or the grace to love and care for my grandchildren some day when I’m 74 years old, I won’t receive until it’s time.

We’re all like pirates. We search for earthly treasure, expecting it to satisfy, but it never does. We always want more, whether it’s that elusive whale (named Waldo) or the treasure at the bottom of the sea.

But God adopts us as his children in Christ, and supplies every need “according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).

God’s given you a fully loaded Advent calendar. You’ve been blessed with all the blessings of heaven. As we say at Genesis Arts Camp, “woo hoo! woo hoo!”