Earlier this week, my church got final word that our long 7+ year legal battle with the Episcopal Church, our former denomination, is over. Completely over. Over over. Stick a fork in it because it’s done over. Even though we had left our former property in May 2012, we had continued our appeals to the Virginia supreme court and then to the United States supreme court, believing that we had a responsibility, particularly to other churches who might not have the same resources as we do, to see it through to the very end. So, we saw it through to the end, and we’re not looking back.
I’ll never forget the Sunday we took the vote in late 2006 to leave our denomination. It was Advent, and as we sang the line from “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” that asks God to “bid Thou our sad divisions cease and be Thyself our King of Peace” I looked out and saw grown men, respectable men, Northern Virginian professional and powerful men, with tears in their eyes. They were in my eyes too.
This coming July I will celebrate my ten-year anniversary of coming on staff here. Over seven of those years were marked by a fairly high degree of uncertainty about where God was leading our congregation, whether we’d win or lose a particular case, whether we’d keep or lose our property, where our new offices would be, where we’d worship, whether we keep this or that piece of equipment, etc. It has been a wild ride. There have been low lows and high highs. We’ve had Sundays where I thought the roof was literally going to lift off, and Sundays when I wondered if the Holy Spirit had taken the Sunday off.
I’ve learned some worship leading lessons through these years of never-ending lawsuits.
First, the Gospel is our song. The songs that have resounded the loudest and longest over these seven years have been the songs that declare the good news of Jesus Christ. Whether we’ve been feeling good about ourselves or discouraged about a bad ruling, declaring the power of the Gospel has always tapped into something powerful. Always.
Second, the songs we sings should rest on the sure victory of Jesus, not on our changing circumstances. We won our first court case in April 2008. In our worship service after hearing that good news, we sang “On Christ, the solid rock, I stand…” We lost our second court case in June 2010. In our worship service after hearing that bad news, we sang “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing…”. We lost (big) our third court case in January 2012. In our worship service after hearing that shocking news, we sang “Crown Him with many crowns, the Lamb upon His throne…”. In our final worship service in our old building, we sang “And as He stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me, for I am His, and He is mine, bought with the precious blood of Christ”. We experience changing circumstances but we rest in the victory of our unchanging Savior who was and is worthy of our praise. If we’re singing songs that only “work” if we’re happy and things are going well, then we’re singing the wrong kinds of songs.
Third, people are looking to sing songs that are true. We captured this in our recent live worship album (recorded one year after leaving our former property). People live in an uncertain world, full of harshness, full of law, full of lies, and full of sadness. The faithfulness of God and the power of the Gospel are the source of our joy, our hope, our lives, and our ministry. I’ve never gone wrong choosing songs that help people “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). God knows they need it.
Fourth, comfort is overrated. I almost wish every church and every worship leader could experience what my church has experienced over the last seven years, especially the last two years since we left our building. It has been good for us. Our idols of comfort and convenience have been exposed. Our weaknesses have come out in the light. The dead branches have become more obvious. It’s hard for a church’s muscles to grow when it’s sleeping on the proverbial couch. We’ve been feeling the burn for a while, and it hurts, but it’s good for us in the long run.
Finally, you can’t manufacture the Holy Spirit (but you can try). A lot of worship leaders don’t realize that they spend a lot of time trying to manufacture the Holy Spirit in their services. Whether it’s by trying to recreate something produced on an album, trying to use certain audio or visual effects to produce your prescribed reaction, trying to bring rapid change in a matter of weeks, or turning the worship knob to 11 every week, worship leaders can easily slip into dangerous territory. Honestly, just relax. Choose songs that point people to Jesus, lead them in a heartfelt and humble way, make sure the music and musicians alongside you are as skillful as possible, and let the Holy Spirit do his job. It’s a beautiful thing to behold the Holy Spirit at work in a congregation.
It’s a tragedy when churches deal with lawsuits and litigation. I hope most churches and worship leaders never have to. But whether you’re in court, or a portable church in a basketball gym, or whether you’re nice and comfortable in your own permanent building, never lose sight of what’s really worth singing, who’s really worth singing to, and who’s really the worship leader (it’s not you).