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!”

Capitalizing On The Summer to (Hopefully) Grow A Choir

We’ve been working hard at my church this summer to open our choir up to anyone and everyone who would like to give it a try.

I LOVE choirs in worship, and my church has a long history of a vibrant choir helping leading music on Sundays. And while I’m not a choir director (thankfully God has brought me an amazing right-hand man to lead our choir, Andrew Cote) I’m committed to trying to to help our choir go against the trend in white Protestant churches that sees choirs rapidly disappearing.

So we made some fun/silly videos this summer to make it clear to our congregation that we really meant what we were saying: we wanted anyone with a love to worship God, regardless of their training, experience, or musical background, to come join this community.

The first one was just me and my oldest daughter, Megan, and was a bit more serious/substantive:

The second one was just plain silly. A beautiful composition by our esteemed choir director himself:

Next, I was joined again by Andrew Cote and Kirsten Boyd (Worship and Arts Associate) for another beautiful composition. And a cameo by MaryAnne, our resident dancer:

Next, I roped my three daughters into the recruitment effort:

Andrew “First Take” Cote made the next week’s plea:

And finally, I was joined by a beary special guest:

In addition to these videos, we made an effort every week of reaching out to everyone we could, and inviting them to give the choir a try. We prayed a lot too. And we chose choir anthems across of spectrum of genres, but with an intentional bend towards congregational songs, that we could repeat as a congregation in subsequent weeks. This way, the choir was actually teaching our church new songs, and then when we would do those songs again, the choir had interesting parts to sing, which just further added to and enhanced our worship.

And I’m very happy to report that our choir actually GREW this summer, and added many new voices of people who had never participated before. Praise the Lord!

But more than numerical growth – the morale of the choir grew, the level of joy and laughter was irresistible, and the energy coming from the choir on Sunday mornings was electric. Ultimately, no amount of videos or marketing or recruitment can produce that kind of spiritual unity and joy. Only God can. So I’m grateful to God for a great summer for our choir at Truro.

We’re looking forward to the Fall, and are as committed as ever to working (and praying) for the growth, health, and worship leading effectiveness of our choir. Here is our “choir card” for the coming ministry year:

Choir 1

Choir 2

As you can imagine, this kind of growth and change in a ministry always brings its challenges, so please pray that God continues to bless and grow this community for his glory in the months and years to come.

Pointing to Jesus In Our Life and In Our Death

1Two weeks ago, a beloved older man in our congregation passed away. John Lehrer had been a faithful member of this church for over 30 years, and had served in almost every kind of leadership role possible. Most recently, he oversaw the 70+ volunteers who help serve communion at our services every week of the year, and this was a huge role. That ministry falls under my supervision, so John and I got to know each other pretty well.

John was also one of my dad’s best friends. He was absolutely crushed when my dad passed away four months ago, and had told me so. He helped serve communion at my dad’s funeral, and had sent me several notes to check in since then.

I had the privilege of leading the music and preaching the homily at John’s funeral, and the audio and transcript of what I said is below:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:1-6 ESV)

As we stand, let’s bow our heads and pray.

Father, this morning we gather with grief in our hearts over the loss of a man we all love. But we know that you love him more than we do. And we know that not even death can keep us from your love, and so while we grieve, we have hope. Because we know John is more alive now than he has ever been. This is all because of your Son, Jesus. And we thank you for the way to eternal life that Jesus has opened for John, and for us. Open our eyes to see Jesus more clearly and fill our hearts with your peace, we pray. Amen.

Let me begin first by saying to the Lehrer family, extended family, friends, and guests, how much this church loved John. John was a very special man to us all. We thank you for sharing him with us, and we are honored to have you here today, as we give thanks for his life. And we grieve with you.

Jeanne and John, we are so sorry for your loss. This church is here for you. Not just today – as you can see – but in the weeks and months and years to come. This church doesn’t just love John, but we love you too. And I hope you know that.

In the past week, since John’s death, as his family has begun to get different affairs in order, and go through different files, you probably won’t be surprised to find out that John had left very specific instructions for his funeral. Very specific.

He wanted “Amazing Grace” as the processional hymn, and so we sang “Amazing Grace” as the processional hymn. He wanted “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the very end. And so — John… — we’ll sing “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the very end.

Not only did John request the specific songs we’re singing this morning, but he also requested particular people to be involved. Coleman and I made the cut, and we were both deeply honored to be asked.

John had asked for Tory, our senior pastor, to officiate, and Tory is so incredibly sorry to be out of the country on his sabbatical and missing this service. I know he’s sent his condolences to you, Jeanne and John, and I know Tory is thinking of you this morning.

But John made one other very specific request – and that was for my dad, Marshall Brown, to have a substantial role in the service. Sadly, that isn’t possible, as my dad preceded John into heaven by about three and a half months. So, it is truly an honor to stand here in his place, and while I don’t know exactly what my dad would have said, I think I have a pretty good idea.

Jeanne, John, Lehrer family, extended family, guests, and Truro family, believe in Jesus. Listen to Jesus. Follow Jesus.

Believe in Jesus
In the very first verse of the 14th chapter of John, Jesus says: “Let not your hearts be troubled”.

Now, if this was some sort of Hallmark Card that someone picked out in the “bereavement” section, with a picture of a rainbow and a dove, we’d be tempted and justified to throw that thing in the trash. “Let not your hearts be troubled”? How in the world am I supposed to not let my heart be troubled?

Here’s how: Jesus continues, “Believe in God, believe also in me.”

So we turn to Jesus in belief. In the face of grief, loss, mourning, what-ifs, if-onlys, I wishes… We turn to Jesus in belief. We don’t turn our brains off, or our hearts off, or sweep our very real pain under a rug, but we simply believe. And when we turn again to Jesus, even this morning as we come face to face with our own mortality, Jesus speaks his peace into our hearts.

John knew this peace. How else could a man walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the kinds of sorrow, the loss of a son, the trials and pains – and health scares of recent decades – without crippling fear, or uncertainty, or despair?

It wasn’t because of how strong he was. Or resolute he was. Or resilient he was. It wasn’t him at all. It was Jesus! Jesus was John’s peace. Jesus was John’s comfort. Jesus was John’s security. It wasn’t John. It was Jesus.

So we don’t turn inwardly this morning. We turn outwardly. We look to Jesus. That’s who John pointed us to with his life, and it’s who he’s pointing us to in his death. We turn again to Jesus in belief and he speaks his peace to our hearts.

So we also…

Listen to Jesus
In this passage from John 14, Jesus is speaking to his disciples. Jesus speaks words of reassurance, words of eternal hope: Verse 3 says “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

Jesus, the Word made Flesh, is in the business of speaking to His disciples.

John Lehrer knew this.

He listened to Jesus. He knew Jesus was speaking to him. And sometimes that meant people thought he was crazy.

John sat in my office one day and told me a story of a time he was outside in front of his house, when, and I quote “The Lord spoke to me and told me that two Mormon Missionaries were about to walk up, and that I was to confess Jesus as my Lord and Savior”.

Apparently John had this experience more than once. Of Jesus speaking to him.

Was John crazy? I don’t think so. I think he was a disciple of Jesus. And Jesus speaks to his disciples.

One of the songs John asked for (that we weren’t able to fit in) was an old Baptist song called “In the Garden”.

I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

Jesus walked with John, and he talked with John.

And John wasn’t crazy. In fact, he was right most of the time.

And I owe a debt of gratitude to John for how he listened to Jesus.

When I came to Truro as Director of Worship and Arts two years ago, it had been two and a half years since I had seen my dad. And it wasn’t for lack of my dad’s trying. I had been hurt, I had created a distance, and I had allowed my heart to become hard.

John and my dad were “best friends”. And one day, John approached me in the office and said “Jamie, Jesus spoke to me this morning, and told me to tell you that you need to have coffee with your dad”.

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. It exposed my un-forgiveness. But, you know what, soon enough I had a wonderful coffee with my dad at the Starbucks over here on Lee Highway last September. And a month or two later I did again. That was the last time I had a face-to-face conversation with my dad.

And this week, I realized, if it hadn’t been for John Lehrer, I don’t think I would have had that precious opportunity.

John believed in Jesus, and knew his peace.

John listened to Jesus, because he was his disciple.

And John followed Jesus.

Follow Jesus
After all that Jesus had said to his disciples about not letting their hearts be troubled, and him going to prepare a place for them, and coming back for them, they still didn’t get it. Thomas said: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

They didn’t get it.

They wanted to know what to do. Where to go. They wanted a system.

And we’re no different.

We want a system to get to God. We want to know what to do. What rules to follow. What not to do. What not to say. What to say.

How to earn our way in. How to work our way up. We want a system!

Systems make sense! Systems work! Systems can be followed!

John knew all about systems. He had managed huge budgets – he liked to remind people – of BILLIONS (with a “B”) of dollars.

And he brought that electrical engineering / systems-minded approach to his role here at Truro. He oversaw and coordinated our largest pool of volunteers here at Truro, our Lay Eucharistic Ministry. We lovingly refer to these people as “LEMs” (not to be confused with lemmings), and they are organized, scheduled, positioned around this room, and administrated with one of the most genius systems I have ever seen.

Two days before he died, John sent a reminder to all the LEMs scheduled for the month of August. And in early June, he sent a schedule through the end of 2016. And totally unsolicited, he emailed me the two “master files” for the LEM ministry, with contact information, who serves in what positions, who has what preferences, and who can serve at which services. John knew all about systems.

But John knew that following Jesus wasn’t about following a system. It was about knowing and following a person.

Thomas and the disciples didn’t get this. “…Lord, how can we know the way???”

Jesus responded to them – and he responds to us – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

If we miss this, we miss everything.

John isn’t in heaven because of how good, or clever, or nice, or generous he was. He was all of those things, but it wasn’t enough.

John is in heaven because he knew Jesus. And he had placed his trust in Jesus alone. Not in a system, not in his own goodness, and not in his own righteousness – but in a PERSON. In Jesus himself.

There is simply no other way this morning has any business being hopeful.

Without Jesus, this casket, and the burial plot at Fairfax Memorial Park, have the final word. But death does NOT have the final word.

JESUS has the final word. And Jesus says I AM THE WAY. I AM THE TRUTH. AND I AM THE LIFE.

In the last book of the bible, Revelation, chapter 1 verse 18, Jesus says “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hell.”

THAT’S the kind of Savior we can stake our eternal destiny on. That’s the kind of person who has the right to say to us “Let not your hearts be troubled”! That’s the kind of Savior worth believing in. And listening to. And following. Up until our final breath.

John knew this. John lived this. He pointed to Jesus with his life. And he’s pointing to Jesus in his death. May this be our legacy as well.

Amen.

Why We Project the Scripture Readings

FullSizeRender 5Earlier this year, my church began projecting the text of our scripture readings on Sundays. In our Anglican service, we have at least two readings from Scripture at each service. There are Bibles in the pews, and most people can now access a Bible on their own phone/tablet, so why project the Scripture text too?

We have at least four reasons:

1. Our international/English-as-a-second-language community has asked for it. Those who don’t speak English as their first language still really want to follow along and be engaged in our services, in English. The readings are difficult for them, because by the time they find/turn to the scripture that’s being read, it’s over! Seeing the scriptures read while they’re being projected is an immense help to those for whom the English language is still new.

2. We want people to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the scriptures as much as possible. The Bible is the “Sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). The more we can get people hearing and reading the Word of God, the better. There is power in actually reading the scriptures together. Hearing them is absolutely essential. We think reading them is essential too. Besides, getting the scriptures to be readable by lay people (in their homes, much less in church services) was a pretty big part of the reformation, and we think that it’s still important today.

3. We project almost everything else in our services, except for some of the liturgy the pastor prays before communion (since it’s printed in our Liturgy Books in the pews). By not projecting the Scriptures, we might inadvertently send the signal that they’re not as important as the song lyrics, creeds, prayers, responses, etc., when, in fact, they’re more important than all of those things combined.

4. We consistently attract non-believers, or new believers. We hear reports every week of people coming to church who have never been to church before, or haven’t been in decades. Through the Alpha course, and through relationships, we are regularly seeing a smattering of people in our services every Sunday who are non-Christians and/or non-churched. They don’t know what the big numbers mean (i.e. a chapter), what the little superscript numbers mean (i.e. the verses), or when Jesus is talking, or when he’s telling a parable, or whether “the Word of the Lord” is in the Bible, or just an extra thing we add. They are complete newbies to the Bible. How wonderful! Projecting Scripture makes it accessible, more follow-along-able, and less intimidating.

We want to encourage our congregation to read along on Sundays, either in the Bibles in the pews, or on their phones/tablets, or on the screens. Or all of the above!

In the words of Thomas Cranmer:

“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

How to Lead an Effective Rehearsal in a Really Short Amount of Time

1So let’s talk about rehearsing your worship team for a few minutes:

Rehearsing is like wasabi: Just the right amount of it does the trick. Too much of it makes you want to scream. Not enough of it and everything tastes too raw.

I’ve written a few posts on this topic before (here, herehere, herehere, and here) but today I wanted to approach it from a different angle: How you can lead an effective rehearsal in a really short amount of time. I’m talking anywhere from five minutes to 30 minutes. Anything longer than that is not really “short”, but that’s another topic for another day.

You can lead effective rehearsals in a really short amount of time. How?

First step, have the sound system, monitors, music stands, music, mics, cables, etc., ready before rehearsal starts. Sound engineer at the desk at start-time.

Second step, ask the sound engineer: what do you need from us? Let him tell you what he needs to hear in order to set gain levels, monitor levels, etc., until he’s happy and gives you a thumbs-up.

Third step, break the songs down into categories: 1. We know that. 2. We don’t know that. 3. We still need to work on that. 4. Transitions.

Fourth step: Start from the beginning.

Go through the songs in order. When you come to a song that everyone knows, skip it. If everyone except one person knows it, consider running through that song with that one person after rehearsal is over.

When you come to a song that’s new, talk the team through it. With whatever time you have, run through the main sections of it. If there are multiple verses and/or choruses that are arranged similarly, you don’t need to run those. Hit the parts that are different from the other parts.

If you come to a song that’s familiar, but has a tricky part, or something out of the ordinary, point that part out. Rehearse it if you have time. Or just say “does that make sense?” until everyone nods their heads at you. Move on.

Finally, make sure you talk through transitions. How you will get from one song to the next smoothly.

Keep things moving. Keep control. Don’t get bogged down in side-conversations. Make a joke every few minutes. Don’t let one person who didn’t rehearse drag everyone else down. And don’t forget to pray.

When it’s all over, gather your team together and pray. Pray that God will lead you, help you, fill you, lift your eyes to see Him, and give you a heart of love for the congregation. Then you’re ready to go!

Usually, just a little bit of rehearsing can go a long way. Just like wasabi. You don’t need to overdo it!