Recently I’ve been challenging myself to memorize individual Psalms, so that I can use them as a call to worship at our weekend services. A few weeks ago I memorized Psalm 145, and was struck by just how many reasons David gives for why we should worship God.
He begins the Psalm in the first two verses by saying “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever.”
And then the list of reasons begins for why he should extol his God and King, and why he should bless and praise God’s name:
Because he is “great and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (verse 3)
Because of his “mighty acts” (verse 4)
Because of “the glorious splendor of (his) majesty, and… (his) wondrous works” (verse 5)
Because of his “awesome deeds…” and his “greatness” (verse 6)
Because of “the fame of (his) abundant goodness and… righteousness” (verse 7)
Because he “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (verse 8)
Because he “is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (verse 9)
Because of “the glory of (his) kingdom, and… (his) power” (verse 11)
Because of his “mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of (his) kingdom” (verse 12)
Because his “kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and (his) dominion endures throughout all generations”, and because he “is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works” (verse 13)
Because he “upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down” (verse 14)
Because he gives everyone “their food in due season” (verse 15)
Because he opens his hand, and satisfies “the desire of every living thing” (verse 16)
Because he “is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works” (verse 17)
Because he “is near to all who call on him… in truth” (verse 18)
Because “he fulfills the desire of those who fear him” and “hears their cry and saves them” (verse 19)
Because he “preserves all who love him” and destroys the wicked (verse 20)
Finally, after all of those reasons, he finishes the Psalm in verse 21 by saying “my mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever”.
The best kind of worship leading – all across the musical, denominational, and liturgical spectrum – is the kind of worship leading that saturates the congregation at every service with fresh reminders of the reasons why God deserves praise. When people are well-fed with a feast of the goodness of God, then they are well-served by their worship leaders, and well-prepared to stand and open their mouths to declare his praise.
Last year I came across the album Psalm Songs, Vol. 1 by The Corner Room (the music ministry of Cahaba Park Church in Birmingham, AL, led by Adam Wright). I was struck by so many things about that album: the beautiful arrangements, the excellent way the text of Psalms was set to music word-for-word, and how effective it was at helping me not only memorize, but also sing the Psalms. I had that album on repeat for most of 2016.
Here’s the lyric video to the setting of Psalm 121 from that album:
Earlier this year, The Corner Room released a stunning new EP entitled “Love Never Ends”. No pun intended, but I love it. Their website describes it this way:
“Love Never Ends is a three movement suite of 1 Corinthians 13 verbatim from the ESV Bible. Written for piano, strings and brass, the resulting cinematic landscape make this a truly breathtaking journey through one of the most familiar passages in Scripture. This project is designed to help anyone, from children to adults, know and treasure God’s Word.”
Here’s a quick video sample:
I asked Adam to share with us a bit of his story, and the heart behind The Corner Room and their recent album. Here’s a short interview:
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Adam Wright and I have lived in Birmingham, AL my entire life. It’s definitely home! I have a beautiful wife of almost 11 years named Jessica and two adorable daughters: Nora, 3 and Jill, 1. I love to read and listen to music constantly. I also enjoy a deep, thought provoking movie from time to time – Christopher Nolan’s films have been some of my favorites (especially The Dark Knight Trilogy). I also am a stickler for correct grammar and punctuation. Did I mention I’m a nerd? I must have forgotten that part, but you’ve probably gathered that by now…
How did God call you into worship leading?
Music has always been a natural part of life. From childhood to young adult years, there were always opportunities to grow and serve at church – youth and adult choirs, handbells, contemporary worship services, youth group worship, solos, etc. There were more opportunities in college – some at churches and some with college ministries on campus at the University of Montevallo. After graduating college, I got a part time job playing piano for a church which had both a traditional and a contemporary service. After three years serving that church “behind the scenes,” I began working at Cahaba Park, which has been a wonderful place to use and develop God’s good gifts. Initially, my perception of my job was to choose and lead four songs in the service – easy enough, right? Wrong! As I grew in my understanding of worship leadership, I found that there was a spiritual component that transcends executing songs. There is a pastoral role in what I am choosing and planning every week for our congregation and for me, the weekly process is devotional. I have loved working at Cahaba Park and am thankful for the opportunity to serve such a great group of folks.
Tell us about your worship ministry and the heart behind some of your recent projects. In 2016, I created The Corner Room, a music resource ministry of Cahaba Park Church. While we do have an EP of hymns (What Great Mystery, 2016), our specific focus is setting Scripture verbatim from the ESV Bible (the translation that our church uses in worship) to music. The Corner Room has released two “Scripture song” projects: Psalm Songs, Volume I, a collection of ten psalms set to original music; and Love Never Ends, a three movement suite of 1 Corinthians 13. Our hope is that these songs would create opportunities for people to experience the Word of God in a fresh and unique way, and serve as a tool for Scripture meditation and memorization. While these projects are not intended for congregational singing, I believe that singing the Word of God to those in our services as they follow along is a powerful tool in corporate worship. We played Psalm 8 in worship this past week and as I looked into the congregation, I saw husbands and wives, parents and children, youth and singles, following along in their Bibles while the Scripture was sung. I’d like to encourage more music leaders to do this occasionally (or often), as it provides a moment for people to be still and reflect on the words and truths of Scripture.
Tell us about your latest project: “Love Never Ends” All of the Corner Room projects to date have originated from the books of the Bible preached in our services. Seeking to thematically incorporate the sermon text into the service, I took the texts that were going to be preached and prepared musical arrangements for them – both for Psalms and for 1 Corinthians 13. Recording these songs was a natural extension of what our church was learning and created more opportunity for our people to reflect upon the text.
1 Corinthians 13 is one of those passages that is almost too familiar and it’s a challenge to create a musical arrangement that evokes a fresh sense of wonder and awe. It’s such a tender text, but it’s also extremely vibrant in it’s descriptions of love. Any previous interpretation I’d heard was extremely “ballady” and I challenged myself to think beyond the natural tendency to approach it that way. Previous Corner Room projects had a very “rootsy” focus – I’m definitely inclined to write in that vein. As I began these arrangements, I decided to use the both delicate and percussive piano as the main instrument and invited Grammy-nominated arranger/composer Don Hart, to score the accompanying (and phenomenal!) strings and brass.
This project has moved me to consider more deeply the love Christ has demonstrated towards me and the love to which he calls me to exemplify to others. I remember my initial listen of the first movement. In tears, I had to stop halfway through, drop to my knees and thank the Lord for his grace in Christ, and for the opportunity and gifts to create something like this. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. It was a truly humbling moment.
What’s next for you? I am currently at work on Psalm Songs, Volume II! I hope to have it completed by winter of 2017-2018. Stay tuned!
Any chance you have any freebies you could give away? I will gladly give away some freebies! How about 3 digital downloads?
Thanks, Adam, for your ministry, and for sharing your heart with us.
If you’d like to get one of those free digital downloads Adam is offering, please comment below. At 12:00pm tomorrow I’ll randomly pick three commenters, and will put Adam in touch with you.
The piano’s out of tune again. The sound board is possessed. The drummer’s belt pack just died, and over in his plexiglass space pod, he can’t hear a thing. The alto section decided to take the day off. The second verse of the opening song vanished from ProPresenter. The bulletin accidentally printed last Sunday’s hymn numbers.
And it’s only 8:45 am.
This is worship leading in real life.
A few months ago I had the opportunity to spend a little over 24 hours with worship leaders from all over the country at a little get-together we had in Atlanta. Over the course of our time together, as I sat with them at meals or while making a cup of coffee, I lost track of the number of times someone said how encouraging it was to hear real stories from real worship leaders, dealing with real issues, and to be reminded that we’re not alone.
Worship leading in real life isn’t all that glamorous. It’s a weekly exercise in humility, servanthood, leadership, patience, direction-giving, fire-extinguishing, and sometimes crisis managing, with a little bit of music thrown in.
It’s like this at my church, and it was like this at my previous church. It’s like this at your church too. And that other guy (who you think has it easy) deals with real life issues as well, and if you could have lunch with him you’d hear his own stories.
The airbrushed images of worship leading that we see presented to us can warp our expectations of what we will experience in our own local-church contexts, and lead us to think that we’d have it easier somewhere else. Just like airbrushed images of a man or woman in a magazine or on the internet can warp our expectations of what a real relationship with a real person will actually look and feel like, and lead us to think we’d have it better with someone else.
Real husband and wife relationships are messy, involve a lot of dirty dishes, require a lot more laundry than any pre-martial counselor ever told you about, and are more difficult than either party thought possible. Only Jesus can sustain a real marriage over the long haul and make it fruitful and joyful. Forget the airbrushed images. They’re fake.
Same deal with worship leading in real life. It’s messy, involves a lot of meetings, last-minute Planning Center cancellations, and maybe even a lady in the fourth row who scowl at you. But you’re not alone. Your brother and sister worship leaders are in the same boat as you. And once we realize we can’t get through this ministry thing on our own, we will see Jesus sustain us and remain faithful to us over the long haul, making us fruitful, and yes, even joyful, for his glory and our good.
No worship leader ever stops making mistakes. From the most seasoned and experienced worship leaders, to the newest and greenest, mistakes are inevitable, humbling, and part of the process of maturing. We’re imperfect people, working alongside other imperfect people, playing musical instruments and singing songs imperfectly, with a congregation of imperfect men and women trying to sing along.
So our goal is not to become flawless worship leaders who never make mistakes. Our goal is simply to keep being humbled by our awareness of our imperfection, and to keep growing, so we can more effectively point our congregations to Jesus in the power of the Spirit, not the power of our own professionalism.
To that end, here are eight of the most common worship leading mistakes that I’ve observed in my own ministry, and through friendships and experiences with lots of other worship leaders too:
Wrapping our identity up in our performance
We feel good about ourselves after a good service, and bad about ourselves after a bad service. We need to resist this temptation – every Sunday – and always ground our identity and our worth in the gospel reality of being hidden in Christ.
Inserting too much of our personality into our performance Using “performance” here in a very broad sense of “standing in front of people”, worship leaders can sometimes make the mistake of allowing so much of their personality, sound, look, and “stage presence” onto the platform, that people in the congregation get a subtle hint that they should tune out and watch. Worship leaders, while remaining themselves and being who they are, have to also know how to dial back their persona, especially depending on the context, so that the congregation can focus on the main task at hand: signing along with each other and magnifying the greatness of God.
Doing too many new songs
This is another big, and all-too-common mistake. Too many new songs in a service, or in a row, can have an incredibly detrimental impact on your congregation’s ability to engage in worship. Worship leaders should be building a solid repertoire of songs, anchored by the best songs of the centuries, and enjoying the best songs of the modern day. Adding one or two new songs a month to that repertoire, is realistically the most we should aim for.
Doing songs with ranges that are too high Most people don’t want to – and can’t – sing songs that hang out near Es and Fs and Gs. They just simply can’t do it. Being aware of this, and being willing to take the extra time to transpose songs down to sit in more singable ranges, will serve your congregation and result in stronger singing.
Playing it too safe for too long What risks are you taking? Where are you pushing your musicians? Where does your congregation need to grow? In what ruts are you – and your congregation – stuck? If your worship team and/or choir and/or congregation is still singing the same songs, in pretty much the same way, with pretty much the same instrumentation, then you may be making the mistake of playing it too safe for too long. Prayerfully discern where you might need to expand your expression of worship to a God whose “greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145).
Trying to be too creative too much On the flip side – a common worship leading mistake comes in the form of always trying to be more creative, more inventive, more cutting-edge, and more different than last week, or last Easter, or last Christmas. Some worship leaders get stuck in a vortex of pursuing relevance/creativity and eventually lose their bearings. If this is you, take a step back, go back to the basics, and rest in the good news that, at the core of worship leading, is a call to be consistently, faithfully, reliability, and pastorally persistent in helping your congregation sing to, and see, and savor Jesus Christ, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
Allowing our wounds to harden us Over time, even in the healthiest of churches with the most gracious volunteers and congregation, worship leaders get beat up. Maybe a full-fledged critical campaign is launched against you, or maybe it’s just one person who views their life-calling as being a thorn in your side. Whatever the case may be, every worship leader will get wounded. We can’t help that part. But we make a mistake when we allow those wounds to harden us, so we become angry, or burned-out, or resentful, or we pull back and just phone it in so we don’t get wounded again, or we quit ministry and give up. The good news of belonging to Jesus Christ, and knowing that he calls us, equips us, protects us, and goes before us, allows us to operate in ministry whether in good times or rocky times, with a rootedness and security that keeps us both soft-hearted and thick-skinned.
Basing our assessment of worship on what we see with our eyes Lots of hands raised = worship happened. No hands raised = no worship happened. Sadly, that’s an all-too-common way that many worship leaders can tend to assess a service. We look out at a congregation, and we make a snap assessment, that may or may not have any basis in reality, especially in an invisible and spiritual reality which we cannot see with our eyes, and we stick with that. I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at our congregation, or that we can’t tell a lot by what we see. We certainly should, and we certainly can.
But never forget this, worship leader: you have no idea what’s happening in people’s hearts, you can’t possibly know all that God is up to, and you most likely won’t ever know the short-term and/or long-term impact of your faithful leadership in people’s lives over the course of years’ worth of Sundays that help them remember and proclaim the good news of the gospel. Don’t make the mistake of making a quick assessment. God is like a gardener, not a Photo Shop artist. So plant seeds, water soil, pull weeds, enjoy fruit, prune when needed, and repeat as needed. That’s the reality of ministry, and every worship leader in the world, from the most experienced to the most amateur, can never hear that truth enough times.
A few weeks ago, my colleague and friend Andrew Cote wrote an instrumental piece for string quartet to be used as the call to worship at our church’s Easter services. He entitled it “Triumph of the Resurrection”. I love it – and here’s the live recording from our Easter 11:30am service.
Two weeks ago, Thursday, April 13th, 2017, was the one-year anniversary of my father passing away. It was also Maundy Thursday, when Christians around the world remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples (as they were observing the feast of the passover), when Jesus famously washed his disciples feet. I had the privilege of preaching that night, and I wanted to share my message below. My goal was to faithfully point people to Jesus, and honor the work of Jesus in the life and through the death of my dad, especially over the painful months since his passing.
Maundy Thursday, April 13th, 2017 Jamie Brown
My dad loved Holy Week. He loved the pageantry of it, the liturgy of it, the theology of it, and the beauty of it. And he loved Maundy Thursday. In particular, he loved how the service ends. If you’ve been to a Maundy Thursday service here before, you’ll know this, but if this is your first time I’ll give you a sneak peak. After we have communion together at the end of the service, instead of ending with a song, the service ends in silence. And in darkness. We remember how, on the night of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, he was arrested, and betrayed. And so we end in darkness. And all the vestments and linens and colors are stripped from the front of the room, as a reminder of how Jesus was stripped and humiliated and eventually crucified. This is what we call the “stripping of the altar”.
And I have vivid memories growing up as a preacher’s kid of my dad walking up to the Lord’s table at the end of the service, after everything had been stripped away, and grabbing the fair linen with both hands – the fair linen is the very thin, precious, fabric that sits right on the wood of the table – and with all of his strength, he would SNAP it off the table.
And you could hear a pin drop. Everybody in the room would sit up straighter. We would all be paying attention. It was one of the most powerful moments of the year.
Why did my dad love that moment so much? And Holy Week and Maundy Thursday so much? Because that’s what this night – and this week – is all about. It’s calling us to pay attention. To wake up. To simply stop… and be quiet… and let it hit us right here in our chests.
And on a night like tonight, with all of us gathered here, with all of the different things and pressures and joys and heartaches swirling around in our lives, God is calling us to fix our eyes on Jesus. It really all does rise and fall on this.
There are two – what I call – “pictures of grace” that I want to help us see God paint on this holy night. Two converging pictures that come together – each one revealing a different angle of the greatness of Jesus Christ, and the indescribably good news of the gospel – that literally have the power to change our lives forever.
The first “picture of grace” that God paints for us on this night is the story of the Passover from Exodus 12 that we heard read just a few minutes ago. This is a story of deliverance from judgment. Of freedom from slavery. Of the saving power of God. God’s judgment was about to come down on the Egyptians, the people who had enslaved God’s people. The firstborn son of every household would be killed. And God’s people were to be saved not by their own works, not by their own worthiness, not by their own might – but by the blood of a spotless lamb.
What does the Passover have to show us? What we’re Saved FROM, and whom we’re saved THROUGH.
SAVED FROM DEATH If we had kept on reading, we would have heard from Exodus 12:29 that the death had extended “From the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne – to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon – AND all the firstborn of the livestock”. The curse of death hit EVERYONE. (Echoes of Ephesians 2 here).
SAVED THROUGH CHRIST
Exodus 12:3 says: “a lamb for a household” (repeat it) Instead of the firstborn dying – the lamb dies. The lamb is the substitute.
Look at what Exodus 12:13 says: “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you…”
What are we to take from this story of the Passover? How is this a picture of grace? This is really important for us to GET: The Passover story is ultimately a picture for us of Jesus as our Passover Lamb.
(1 Cor 5:6 “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”) We’re saved FROM death. Saved THROUGH CHRIST. Not just physical death, but SPIRITUAL DEATH. Everyone in this room. From the most spiritually mature to the least.
In Christ, because of his blood, because of his death on the cross, God passes over our sins. We have been saved from death – by the death of our Passover lamb, in our place, once for all, by the shedding of his blood, applied to our doorposts… Praise the Lord!
The second “picture of grace” that God paints for us is in the image from John 13 of Jesus – that spotless Lamb of God – at a meal celebrating the Passover of all things! – getting down on his knees – and washing his disciples dirty feet. It certainly got his disciples attention! This was something that slaves were supposed to do. Not Jesus! Peter says in John 13:8 “…You shall NEVER wash my feet!”
The reason why this picture gets our attention is because of just how practically we can “feel” the same tension his disciples felt. Let’s be real. Most of us don’t want someone to touch – or wash – our feet. Much less Jesus touching – or washing – our feet. It’s up close and personal. It’s not theoretical or abstract. It’s almost invasive. And that’s the point. It represents our place of vulnerability… And Jesus says I’LL WASH IT.
In Christ, God doesn’t only pass over our sins, he washes them away.
And he knows our places of vulnerability. And he says “you can trust me”.
Jesus says it plainly in John 13:8: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Look at that. “If I do not wash you.” A lot of us in this room have it all backwards. We think the message of Jesus is this: “If you do not wash yourself, you have no share with me”. If you do not wash yourself.
But the reality of grace and message of the gospel is the opposite of that. It’s Jesus saying to us “I wash you”. I wash you. It’s why the symbol of Christianity isn’t a ladder: us climbing up to God. It’s a cross: God coming down to us. A basin and towel, not Jesus walking into other room. Can you accept this grace?
And once we accept this grace, we extend this grace.
Jesus said in John 13:14: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
This is why every year at this service we take time to reenact this scene. We have different stations around the room where you’re invited to come, to sit down, and have someone wash your feet. This is another one of those jarring moments of Maundy Thursday. One of those moments that says “pay attention”. Because when you wash someone’s feet, or when someone washes your feet, you’re saying “This is what grace feels like.” And you accept this – awkwardly – and extend it – awkwardly! Grace reaches down, and grace stretches out.
And this is why God calls us to pay attention, to wake up, because we have to getthis. Because we so often miss this!
The gospel is the gospel of grace. God’s great grace to us in Jesus Christ. It’s a grace that passes over our sins. That washes our sins away. It gets up close and personal. Jesus literally touches our dirty feet. And it sounds too good to be true, but it’s true.
Behold your Passover Lamb, who takes away the sins of the world. Behold your Servant who washes your feet.
And behold your Savior who leads you from death to life.
See these pictures of grace converge tonight.
This is a message I need to hear tonight.
It was exactly one year ago tonight when I was sitting in a seminary class over in Falls Church and I got a call from my brother Matt that he had found my dad alive but unresponsive on his apartment floor. I rushed there as fast as I could, and he was still alive but barely. I called out to him. He was rushed to the hospital, and the E.R. doctor soon came to deliver the news that there was nothing they could do to save him, his heart had failed, and that he had died.
There is nothing that can prepare you for that moment. For the utter horror and helplessness that you feel. For the incredible waves of grief that begin to swallow you up. The finality of death and the deep void that it leaves in your life is literally heart-wrenching. Many of you in this room know what this heartache feels like.
And in the dark days that followed my dad’s death, and in the weeks and months since then of walking the path of grief – all of this stuff we’re talking about tonight has been all I’ve had to cling to. I never had a dramatic conversion experience growing up. This past year has been my dramatic conversion experience.
Jesus has gotten my attention. Now I know:
– Just how hopeless this would ALL be without Jesus.
– Just how glorious the good news of the gospel REALLY is.
– Just how deep and wide the blood of Jesus reaches to wash away our sin and shame.
– Just how kind and merciful Jesus is to get on his knees and wash us instead of expecting us to wash ourselves.
– Just how much we need a Savior who defeats death by his death and offers eternal life through his life.
Because here’s what I KNOW is true for my dad:
That he was covered by the blood of Jesus. That his sin was passed over and paid for on the cross. That Jesus had washed him clean. That Jesus led him – by the hand – from death to life. That my dad is now more alive – in Christ – than ever before.
And here’s what I KNOW is true for me:
That Jesus’ blood covers me. That my sins have been passed over and paid for on the cross. That Jesus is washing me clean.
And he has washed me clean of a lot of things this year.
I grew up close to my dad. I loved him. He was a wonderful man. But he had faults and he had made mistakes, and over the last 5 years I had put distance in our relationship. And what was – at first – necessary and needed distance became unforgiveness, and bitterness, and shame.
I’m grateful for two wonderful coffees with my dad in the months before he died. But when he died, I still harbored a weight of bitterness in my heart. And Jesus – who I knew theologically as the Passover lamb – became very practically the foot washing servant. In a matter of days, going through my dad’s apartment, seeing how he had lived his final days in very real victory over sin and in pursuit of Jesus, Jesus washed all of my unforgiveness, and shame, and bitterness – AWAY.
In one of my dad’s journals that he kept towards the end of his life, I came across this hand-written note: “It all really does rise (or fall) on union with Christ (or lack thereof).” My dad got that. And he gets it now! And I’m starting to get it. And that’s what Holy Week and Maundy Thursday is all about.
God wants to get our attention. He wants us to get it. To fix our eyes on Jesus. (We need to know what’s true!) Look at Jesus.
We see him in these pictures of grace that converge on Maundy Thursday. As the Passover Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. As the Servant who washes our feet. And as the Savior who leads us from death to life.
In just a moment we’ll wash each other’s feet, if you’re comfortable.
We’ll say “this is what grace feels like.”
And then we’ll come to the table and feast on the Passover Lamb, Jesus himself. And we’ll say “this is what grace tastes like.”
And then we’ll end the service in darkness, in silence, and in solemnity. And we’ll say “this is what grace looks like.”
Last August, my family gathered for a small burial service for my dad in Florida. And this prayer out of our Book of Common Prayer was prayed at the conclusion of the service:
Into thy hands, O Lord, we commend thy servant Marshall, our dear brother, as into the hands of a faithful Creator and most merciful Savior, beseeching thee that he may be precious in thy sight. Wash him, we pray thee, in the blood of that immaculate Lamb that was slain to take away the sins of the world; that, whatsoever defilements he may have contracted in the midst of this earthly life being purged and done away, he may be presented pure and without spot before thee; through the merits of Jesus Christ thine only Son our Lord. Amen.
In this life, and in our death, we are washed… in the blood of that immaculate lamb… our defilements are purged and done away… and we are made to be without spot through the merits of Jesus Christ on our behalf, in our place. And one day we’ll gather around his table…
It all really does rise or fall on union with Jesus Christ. Our Passover Lamb. Our Foot Washing Servant. Our Savior who leads us from death to life.
Last week I led a one-day gathering of worship leaders and/or choir directors in Atlanta that we called a “choir/worship ministry intensive”. 27 people (from 20 different churches, 10 states (and the UK), six different denominations, big congregations, small congregations, and from worship ministries that utilize a choir and ones that don’t) gathered for an amazing time of worship, fellowship, teaching, conversation, and learning.
If you’ve been wondering why this blog has been so quiet recently, now you know why! 🙂
We were exploring together the challenge and the possibilities of cultivating growing, thriving, worship-leading choirs in the modern worship landscape that finds choirs dwindling at a rapid pace. Since our time was short, I encouraged us all to “cut to the chase” and share openly and honestly with each other what we were experiencing in our own congregations and worship ministries/choirs. There was a lot of encouraging stuff to be shared, and also a lot of challenges across the board.
We came from different places, with different stories, different strengths, and different weakness. But fundamentally, we were all there for the same reason. And that reason was this: deep down in our hearts, there is a level of what Bill Hybels calls “holy discontent” about the way things are. And in particular, the way things are in our worship ministries. And even more specifically, the way things are when it comes to choirs, the direction that choirs are headed, and where we find ourselves in 2017 when it comes to a fairly pronounced divide between choirs and contemporary worship.
We’re not happy with the way things are. We think there must be a better way. And we’re looking around – saying to ourselves “am I the only one who’s thinking this? Am I crazy?”
This gathering answered that question: no, we’re not crazy. A lot of worship leaders and choir directors are struggling with the same things and asking the same questions.
This “holy discontent” about the direction of choirs in modern worship has been building over several decades in my life. And it still surprises me, to be honest with you.
I’ve seen choirs that are extinct, or dead, or hostile, or performance-minded, or divorced from contemporary music (with occasional awkward family visits at Christmas and Easter), or dwindling and grasping at straws. And something finally broke inside of me. I couldn’t take it anymore.
So I began to pray the most heartfelt prayer of my life: “God, you’ve got to make this work”. God, in his sense of humor, had placed me as worship director for a church with a history of a vibrant choir ministry, which was now at a place of transition.
So obviously, I needed help. And there were many moments when I had no faith, mostly because I knew I had some significant weaknesses. But instead of making me into a worship superman who can somehow do everything myself, God began to put people around me who had gifts and strengths that I don’t have, who could help me begin to turn this “holy discontent” into fresh vision.
And as we began to pray about what exactly we were “discontent” with, some things began to surface that had boggled my mind for years:
Good singers who would NEVER consider singing in the choir
Good singers who (like me) can’t read music, so are ruled out of the choir
A culture in the choir (and the choir room itself) that screamed exclusivity
A choir that could sing a French Requiem, or a Bach cantata, but looked at a four-part harmony of a Chris Tomlin song like it was a poopy diaper
Services in which the choir and band play a game of musical ping pong
A choir that spends 95% of its time working on an anthem that takes up 5% of the service, and doesn’t contribute much (either sonically or visually) on the other music, resulting in a dynamic which finds the choir MOST engaged when the congregation is LEAST engaged, and vice versa
A pronounced white-ness and grey-haired-ness of choirs. Could there be more of a spread of ages and ethnicities?
And I just can’t take it anymore. God has stirred up a holy discontent within me – a contemporary/non-classically trained musician, lifelong Anglican, preacher’s kid – and many others too. I’m realizing that there is a growing contingent of worship leaders and choir directors all around the world who are desperate to see if there isn’t a way that in the mainline protestant church and beyond, we can’t see God breathe new life into the idea of a choir.
(Sidebar: I’m not the first person to ask this question, by a long shot. This has been the topic of countless articles, books, and even conferences for quite some time. Sidebar over.)
We all know that the odds are stacked against us…
The National Study of Congregations (Duke University) showed that in a 14 year period, between 1998 and 2012, the utilization of choirs in mainline protestant churches dropped 30%. And from what I’ve seen – in the last 5 years, that’s continued to drop.
Some churches strong, growing, stable choirs. That is the exception, not the norm. The trends are downward.
(Now a quick timeout: how is this conversation any different than, say, a conversation of organists and/or organ enthusiasts, bemoaning the dwindling utilization of organs in worship? Another traditional hallmark of classical music and more formal worship. What’s the difference? Are we just holding on to a relic? Are we just trying to re-arrange deck chairs on the Titanic? (And for the record, I love the organ, and we use it every Sunday at my church.))
Because a choir provides the Church a unique demonstration of the gospel – in that people from all tribes and tongues, generations, races, backgrounds, and skill levels – are redeemed and joined together to the praise of God’s glorious grace, they are not merely a decoration to be saved from the trash heap of musical yesteryear, but are a vehicle for TODAY’S CHURCH to display a microcosm of God’s ransomed people, joined together as the worshipping body of Christ.
That’s something I can get excited about. And I still can’t quite believe I’m hearing myself say that.
10 or 15 years ago I wouldn’t have said that. But I came across a church webcast that showed a choir doing something that was SO unlike anything I had ever seen a church choir do before. And it rattled me. And thrilled me. And made my jaw drop.
Here’s one of the clips I saw:
See what I mean?
The church’s name is Mount Paran Church of God. It’s a different kind of church from the ones I’ve attended and served, it belongs a different denomination (which is VERY different from my stream of reformed Anglicanism in many many ways), and I had never even heard of it before. But oh how wonderful – and how broad – is the Body of Christ. And this church had something to teach me about what choirs could do. That clip shows something most Anglican churches would NEVER EVER consider doing with a choir and band on Easter Sunday. And maybe that’s part of our problem. God may have more for us, and more for choirs, than we think.
God has planted in me – and my colleagues at my church – an audacious vision. I long to see a choir that is:
Made up of “trained” singers and “amateur” singers
Able to sing difficult, classical pieces
Able to sing modern music with vigor
Meaningfully engaged in worship
Part of a unified team alongside the band
Such a welcoming family that people can’t resist joining
A worship leading engine, pointing the congregation to Jesus
At my church we’ve begun to simply repeat two different phrases over and over: First, “the choir is a community of worshippers and worship leaders” and secondly, “God has given us a vision of an 80-voice choir”.
We’re not quite sure how we’ll get to that number. 50 or 60 we could maybe do if we recruit really well. But 80? We don’t know. It’s forcing us to our knees in prayer.
God is stirring up a holy discontent. And he’s planting an audacious vision. That we wouldn’t continue to see choirs dwindle, or just live in a divorced relationship with contemporary music.
And that’s why a bunch of us gathered in Atlanta last week. To say “God, stir up a holy discontent inside of us” and “God, give us an audacious vision”. However that’s supposed to look in our own setting.
– Whether it’s numerical growth, or perhaps some strategic pruning.
– Whether it’s to do with our administration, or our repertoire.
– Whether it’s imitating something new, or killing something old
During our gathering last week in Atlanta, we learned from each other, learned from the amazing team at Mount Paran, and came away with a huge dose of encouragement. I’ll be sharing more of what we learned in the weeks to come, but for now, I’ll share this short little audio clip of a room full of worship leaders and choir directors from all over the country, who after a long day of wrestling with some big questions, lifted their voices together to sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”. May he use this little gathering we had in ways that surprise us in the years to come.