It’s a dangerous situation for worship leaders. Every day of their week leads up and builds up to Sunday, the day of all days, the day when they stand before their congregations and, in the course of a few hours, either succeed at their job (in which case they feel like a success) or fail at their job (in which case they feel like a failure), or do OK at our job (in which case they feel just OK). It’s what I call the weekly verdict.
Depending on how a combined total of anywhere from 25 – 100 minutes go, worship leaders head home on Sunday afternoons and begin a new week on Monday morning with a fresh report hot off the presses on whether or not they should feel good about themselves.
Obviously, there are a few problems with this:
1. Worship leaders who derive their sense of self-worth or vocational-aptitude from how one service goes are forgetting that their standing before God has been secured by Christ and can’t be improved upon by an awesome set-list or downgraded by a dud.
2. Worship leaders who feel like a success after a successful service set themselves up for a painful bursted bubble the very next week when, due to whatever many factors are at work, things don’t go so well. They also become arrogant.
3. Worship leaders who feel like a failure after a service that falls flat are allowing a gnawing neediness and insatiable appetite to creep up in their souls that becomes hungry for applause and accolades, and makes them no fun for their families to be around after church.
4. Worship leaders who feel “just OK’ after a ho-hum service forget that real-life worship leading (the kind that gets up and gets to church and gets things ready and gets rehearsed and so on…) is much more frequently “ho-hum” than it is awesome. A more provocative way to phrase it would be that worship leading is more of a long-term commitment than a one-night stand.
So what’s the solution for worship leaders who feel this weekly build-up and anxiety to the weekly Sunday morning verdict on where they stand that particular week?
First, remember your core. You’re hidden in Christ. The roller-coaster of approval/applause/criticism/yawning/euphoria doesn’t rock the person who pursues a fundamental certitude of who they are in Christ.
Second, embrace your calling. Worship leaders are not called to be actors for the sake of a crowd’s acclaim. We are called to be servants for the glory of Jesus’ name.
Third, balance your weight. Just like an airplane can’t fly if all the weight is in front, a worship leader can’t be effective if all his/her weight is placed on Sunday morning. Your hours in the office, at the piano, praying over songs, attending meetings, tending to administrative duties, arranging music, scheduling volunteers, rehearsing, emails, appointments, etc., must be the counterweight to the time you stand on a platform.
Don’t allow Sunday mornings to become a weekly determiner of how to feel about yourself. Approach worship leading with a confidence and conviction founded in Jesus, and then regardless of a great response or a royal flop, you’ll be anchored to the unchanging verdict of the Gospel.
Several years ago I read the book Music Through the Eyes of Faith by Harold Best, and for me, it was one of those books that I couldn’t stop underlining, re-reading, and devouring.
In particular, I loved the point Harold made with respect to the ramifications of Jesus – as the perfect Son of God on earth – singing songs and hearing music written by sinners.
“Let’s concentrate on something that almost never comes to mind: the music that Jesus heard and made throughout his life – the music of the wedding feast, the dance, the street, and the synagogue. As it turns out, Jesus was not a composer but a carpenter. Thus he heard and used the music made by other, fallen creatures – the very ones he came to redeem.
The ramifications of this single fact are enormous. They assist in answering the questions as to whether music used by Christians can only be written by Christians and whether music written by non-Christians is somehow non-Christian. But for now, it is important to understand that even though we don’t know whether every piece of music Jesus used was written by people of faith, we can be sure that it was written by imperfect people, bound by the conditions of a fallen world and hampered by sinfulness and limitation.
So even though we do not know what musical perfection is, we do know that the perfect one could sing imperfect music created by fallen and imperfect people, while doing so completely to the glory of his heavenly Father.” The Fall, Creativity, and Music Making, pgs. 18 and 19
Jesus sang imperfect music written by imperfect people when he walked the earth. This is good news for us!
So let’s not try to impress Jesus with our perfect music this Sunday. Let’s thank him for making our imperfect music and imperfect worship acceptable through his perfect sacrifice. What a Savior!
Several years ago at my previous church we devoted an entire Sunday morning to one big, combined worship service to record a worship album. We never did this sort of thing. We never combined our services, we never devoted an hour and a half to music, we hardly ever got that loud for that long, we never sing that many new songs in one service, and we never pushed the envelope that much in a two-hour period.
It went really well. It was a ton of fun, it was the middle of the summer, and it was the right thing for that one Sunday. But it was very, very different.
The week after this big extravaganza I was sitting in my pastor’s office debriefing the whole experience. He told me how much he enjoyed it, that he was excited for the new album, and that we had all done a good job. Then he asked me what I thought. I said how thrilled I was with it all, and how grateful I was that he let us do it.
Then I said: “I woke up on Monday morning and thought to myself ‘well, I just used up all my capital for the next year!'”.
He looked at me, smiled, and said: “you sure did.”
We were both happy with how well the whole thing had gone. But we both knew that we had pushed the congregation. And that if I was smart, I’d ease off the gas for a little bit.
Worship leaders must learn the capital equation. Which is: Build capital. Spend capital. Build back capital. Repeat as needed.
When all you do is spend, spend, spend capital, you’re operating out of a deficit. People don’t trust you, they’re worn out, and you’re not going to find them all that adventourous. Too many new songs. Too loud. Too much liturgy. Too many hymns. Too many electric guitars. Whatever it is. You’re spending too much, too soon, too often, and maybe too recklessly. Be smarter.
Likewise, when all you do is build, build, build capital and never take any risks or push people anywhere, then you’re wasting opportunities. Safe choices, same songs, no creativity, no one is upset with you, bored musicians, ho-hum services, and no lost sleep over a risky idea.
Do both. Spend capital! But once you’ve spent it, then ease off the gas and build it back. Feel it out. You’ll almost certainly lean too much in one direction before you realize it and then make a correction.
And that’s why regular conversations with your pastor are so important. So you can debrief, be honest with one another, and be receptive to his counsel about when he thinks you might be need to do some spending, or some building.
Over the last several years at my church, I’ve been enjoying leading worship alongside our great choir every Sunday. And as you’ll know from several previous posts on this blog, I’ve also been enjoying the challenges of helping steward and grow a choir in the face of daunting statistics of the decline of choirs across the mainline protestant world, especially not being a choir director myself. This past March I even hosted a day-long intensive on this subject in Atlanta.
For what it’s worth, I wanted to share the two-sided choir card that my colleague (and choir director) Andrew Cote and I have put together for our church that:
Explains the purpose and mission of our choir
Outlines the kind of rehearsal commitment for which we’re asking people to sign up
Summarizes some of the non-Sunday stuff in which the choir is involved
If you lead or help lead a choir at your church, perhaps this will be helpful, and/or perhaps you can share some of what/how you communicate these kinds of things.
Like millions of other people, I’ve enjoyed Matt Redman’s song “Ten Thousand Reasons” ever since he wrote it in 2011. I’ve sung it a lot, led it a lot, listened to it a lot, and been helped by it a lot.
But one of the lines in the chorus has kind of always bugged me.
“…Sing like never before, O my soul…”
Like, sing louder than I did last time? Or with more feeling? Or more genuinely? How can I – even after having sung this song something around 10,000 times – “sing like never before”? At some point, won’t I have reached the point of having sung like I can sing?
No. I can always sing like before. But… how?
I came across these two quotes recently from commentaries on Psalm 145 (one of the Psalms in which David talks about worshipping God every day, forever and ever, etc.) and they helped answer that question:
The first from Matthew Henry:
God is every day blessing us, doing well for us, there is therefore reason that we should be every day blessing him, speaking well of him.
And the second from John Calvin:
Since God is constant in extending mercies, it would be highly improper in us to faint in his praises. As he thus gives his people new ground for praising him, so he stimulates them to gratitude, and to exercise it throughout the whole course of their life.
So, in other words, God is always blessing us, always extending new mercies to us, always stimulating us to new gratitude, so we can always “sing like never before”.
Because since the last time I sang that song, God has shown me ten thousand new mercies, has blessed me in ways I’m not even aware of, and has been faithful to me with such constancy and love that would absolutely floor me if I knew the reality of it.
So, yes, whenever I sing Matt Redman’s well-known song, or really any song of praise for that matter, I can “sing like never before”, not necessarily louder or prettier or more impressively, but with reasons and causes and mercies that I hadn’t known before, for “ten thousand years and then forevermore”.
Every few months at my church I have the privilege of preaching at our small Sunday evening service in the chapel. As the schedule had it, I was asked to preach on Sunday night, August 6th. This was the Sunday that the lectionary had the New Testament reading as Romans 9:1-5. We had decided to preach on the Romans readings at the evening service over the summer, and so I had the challenge of addressing these weighty five verses from Romans in about 20 minutes:
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers,my kinsmen according to the flesh.4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
Here is the recording of the sermon and also the text of what I shared:
When I was growing up in Florida, until I was about three or four years old, my family and I lived in a small little town called “Clewiston”, Florida. Just south of Lake Okeechobee, and not usually a place where most people visit when they make a trip to the Sunshine State, I have a vivid memory as a little boy in that small town of playing on a backyard trampoline. One minute we were bouncing around and having fun, and the next minute I was flat on my back with the wind knocked out of me. It was an incredibly terrifying experience. I remember running inside – and slowly – thankfully – I could take little breaths again.
Getting the wind knocked out of you is a startlingly shocking physical experience. And that’s the kind of experience we get when we read these first five verses of Romans 9. One moment we’re soaring high on the promises of Romans 8:(38-39):
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We’re soaring! We’re jumping on the trampoline! And then we get the wind knocked out of us in Romans 9:(2-3):
…I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers…
We’re knocked flat on our backs. What is going on here?
This is our text tonight. And we’re going to look what God is saying to us in a moment – but first… First things first.
Studying a difficult passage like this gives us a good reason to take a moment and make sure we’re all on the same page of how we approach scripture.
How do we approach scripture? From what posture? And for what purpose? Three quick ground rules:
We let it hit us. What does it say? What exactly does it say? Well, that’s what it says. Sometimes it’s comforting. Sometimes it’s convicting. Sometimes it’s disturbing. But we let it hit us!
We let it speak with authority. In Ephesians 6:17, we’re told that the Word of God (Scripture) is the “Sword of the Spirit”. It’s a sword!
But not just any old sword. According to Hebrews 4:12, “…the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” We let it speak with authority.
We let IT shape US. And not the other way around. We approach Scripture – always – as students of it. As clay, wanting to be formed. We don’t approach it, and then twist it, or finesse it, to make it say what we want it to say. We let it say what it says. And whatever it says, we allow to shape us. We’re cautioned in James 1:22 to “…be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” You hear the word. You do what it says. You let it shape you.
Those are our three ground rules for how we approach scripture. And so that’s how we’ll approach these five verses from Romans 9 tonight.
So here we are, after soaring high in Romans 8, and in the next verse…
Romans 9 1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
I’d like for us to picture ourselves standing inside of this passage tonight like it’s a room with four walls. All four walls are load bearing. You need all four walls. If you knock one wall out, the whole room collapses. It might even help if you keep this passage open in your lap or on your phone. So we stand inside this passage, and we look at the four walls that hold it up.
First, not everyone is saved.
Paul is very clear here that there are people who are “accursed“ and “cut off from Christ”. His brothers! His kinsmen! Israelities! Cut off from Christ. They have rejected Christ. They were adopted as the people of God. They had seen his glory. They had received the law. And then God gave them Jesus as their Messiah. And they rejected him. And they are not saved.
That’s the first wall of the room of Romans 9. Not everyone is saved.
This is true for millions of people around the world. This is true for our neighbors, for our colleagues, and for people in our families. It is a heart-breaking but true reality that many of them are not saved. They are cut off from Christ. This is not something we like to think about, so it makes sense that we try to find a way around this.
Love wins. Everyone is saved. Some version of universalism. Some version of universal salvation. This a popular theology, but it is not a biblical theology.
So what do we do with this? We weep.
And that’s the second wall in this room of Romans 9. Our love for the lost fills us with unceasing anguish for the lost. Look at how Paul describes it:
Romans 9:2: I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.
The heart of a Christian should be filled with love for the lost. And great sorrow and unceasing anguish for those who are cut off from Christ. It should wreck us.
Those picketers you see from time to time on TV from Westboro Baptist Church… The ones who hold up the signs announcing how God hates everybody… Appearing to rejoice in the eternal damnation of whoever they deem has been damned to hell. There is absolutely nothing Christian about that. The spirit behind those protests – and the spirit reflected in those signs – is an anti-Christ spirit.
The Spirit of Christ weeps over the lost. Is filled with unceasing anguish for the lost. Look at what Paul says in verse 3:
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
One of the commentaries I read called this statement from Paul: “a spark from the flame of the self-substitutionary love of Jesus Christ”. We know from 2 Corinthians 5:21 that:
For our sake (God) made (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Paul’s anguish – and God willing, our anguish – for the lost, is a spark from the flame of the self-substitutionary love of Jesus Christ. Jesus gave his life to save the lost. And when our brothers, our kinsmen, reject him, we weep.
So we’re here in the middle of this room of Romans 9. The first load-bearing wall is that not all are saved. The second is that this fills us with unceasing anguish for the lost. The third is staring right at us now – and that is that Jesus alone can save.
Paul writes in verses 4 and 5:
4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ…
All that they had – their lineage, their heritage, their inheritance, their last names, their good works, their blood – wasn’t good enough to save them!
It wasn’t good enough!
And friends – all that you have: your lineage, your heritage, your inheritance, your last name, your good works, your blood, isn’t enough to save you!
It’s not your parents blood that saves you! Only Jesus’ blood.
Jesus alone can save. There is no other way. To be cut off from Christ is to be accursed forever. Jesus is the key, Jesus is the door, Jesus is the room, Jesus is the treasure, life with Jesus forever is what’s promised to us in Romans 8 – so do not reject him! Let me ask you tonight, plain and simple, what have you done with Jesus Christ? Have you turned to him, have you placed your trust in him? Have you accepted the good news of the gospel? If yes, then praise the God who saves. If no, then turn to Jesus Christ. And if you’re not ready to do that, then come to our first Alpha course next month. Explore this man for yourself who makes the claim to be the One who saves. We believe He is who He says he is, because if he’s not who he says he is, then he was insane, and we’re all crazy.
But he wasn’t insane. He was God!
Paul says this is the last verse – verse 5:
“…from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”
This is the only time Paul does this in any of the Epistles. He calls Jesus God. “The Christ, who is God over all”.
The third “wall” of Romans 9:1-5 is that Jesus alone can save. He is God.
The final wall, briefly, but just as importantly, is that we stand before this God and we praise him, and we implore him.
We praise him for saving us! For:
“…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – (Paul writes in Romans 5:8)
This is why our worship here, in the songs that we sing, in the communion that we participate in at the end of every service, is all centered around what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It never gets old. “This is amazing grace, this is unfailing love, that you would take my place, that you would bear my cross. You lied down your life that I would be set free, oh Jesus I sing for all that you’ve done for me!”
And we implore him to save the lost. We cry out to him, we pray, we bring our anguish and our weeping for the lost before him.
By the way, this is why we do things like Alpha here. It’s not some kind of sneaky church growth program. We have a burden for those who cut off from Christ. It’s why we’re constantly doing things, and hosting events for the people who are on the outside! You should hear us at staff meetings… We praise this God who saves and we implore him to save those who are lost.
So what do we do with all of this?
Simply: we rejoice before the God of Romans 8. All of the promises and the assurance of all that is offered and secured for us in Jesus Christ. And we tremble before the God of Romans 9. His wisdom, his mercy, and his sovereignty in Salvation.
We worship God with rejoicing and with trembling. There should always be a gravity to our worship of this great and holy God, while we praise Him for his saving grace, and implore him to allure to himself those who are cut off.
We’ve spent the majority of this sermon looking at 5 verses that the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 9. I’d like to close by going all the way back to a Psalm of David, Psalm 145. You don’t need to turn there, since I just wanted to draw our attention to one verse, Psalm 145:20:
The Lord preserves all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
That is a promise that God will most certainly keep. His word will not fail.
O God, may sparks from the flame of the self-substitutionary love of Jesus Christ ignite our hearts with passion and unceasing anguish for the lost. Even now, send your Holy Spirit to open blinded eyes to the light of the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And may Jesus be praised in this place by His grateful people who he has redeemed by his blood. Amen.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Rachel Wilhelm, who at that time was living in Northern Virginia with her husband and kids, and was helping to serve as a interim worship leader of sorts at my church when I arrived. I was instantly struck by her giftedness, her voice, her wisdom in worship leading, and therefore was very bummed when she and her family relocated to Minnesota. Rachel recently released an excellent album, Songs of Lament, and I asked her some questions about her background, her passion for the biblical expression of lament, and her new project.
1. Tell us about yourself.
I’m the Director of Worship Arts of a lovely small church in Minneapolis. I am also co-founder of the Roots Worship Collective, Minneapolis Chapter, consisting of a pool of worship leaders and church musicians who care about Church unity by leading local hymn sing events with the object of getting different denominations to sing together on days other than Sunday. I really love the Church. Sometimes I don’t know why because the Church can be a place where you can get hurt badly if you dare open up or put yourself out there. But the Church is beautiful because Christ says it is. I think I am a person who is learning all the time about grace and how deep and wide God’s love runs.
2. What has your worship leading journey looked like?
Well, it’s been interesting. I’ve been on worship teams since I was in junior high, singing for my youth group’s team in California. In a lot of ways, I think that is what kept me in the Church. Through the years I vowed I would never lead worship, but only be on teams since I thought that worship leaders only attracted drama, and some got this diva complex. Eventually I started going to some churches where women couldn’t technically “start” a song because it looked as if she were exercising authority over men. It bothered me that there would be no judgment if she sang at a bar, but if she started a song at church? Eventually my family landed at a church where the pastor approached me to think about training under him to lead music since he needed help. It actually was a terrible experience, but very good for me. When that stint was over, I quit going to church for six months. It was one of those times lament made an appearance. I was angry at God for trudging me through the mud when I obeyed Him. After that six months, my family moved closer to an Anglican church where we had some friends and low and behold, they needed a music person. That experience humbled me greatly. It was probably the best time in my worship leading journey. I learned to set boundaries for myself, think theologically about song selection, and unfortunately, judge other ways of leading worship. Years later I met you at Truro, and learned in my interim position there that a “hymns only” approach is not for everyone. God loves diversity. That sounds trite. But I took leading music so seriously that I wanted “to do it right.” Grace on myself and everyone else has been a huge part of my worship leading journey.
3. You have a passion to help the Church recover the biblical expression of lament. Where did this passion come from?
You know, it is super hard for me to give you an exact answer to that. Minor keys chimed when I was born or something. Since I was a small girl I have written music, and mainly in my head. I didn’t play guitar until I was an adult, so I memorized melancholy movements of my songs in every instrument on my long commutes to church and school in the back of the car, often lying down (before seat belt laws) or looking out the window. I came from a very low income background, so obtaining an instrument seemed impossible. Forget lessons. I was a very worried kid. I think if anyone were to diagnose me I would have had extreme anxiety. I worried about things a kid had no business worrying about. So I turned to the Scriptures because I really felt hopeless. And the passages in Jeremiah, the Psalms, and other prophets relating any kind of destitution, sorrow, pain, worry, et cetera really hit me as the most beautiful pieces of literature I’d ever read. I think I appreciated how real it was, how honest these people could be to God and He did not strike them down. From then on, that is how I talked to God myself. Later, in my worship leading journey, I noticed that most songs people loved to sing were just the upbeat happy songs. It seemed like people wanted to go to church to escape the rest of the week. Then I realized where it is so natural for me to just “go there” with vulnerability to God about my own weaknesses, it is not so for others. In fact, denial is huge. I think sometimes people don’t heal because they don’t lament to God. Sometimes you have to crack open that wound on purpose, clean it out, and sew it up to make it right again. You can’t just leave it like that. Leading worship in an Anglican church also taught me about how lament can be liturgically appropriate. That is when I realized that there was or could be a real place for it.
4. What are some of the common questions or misunderstandings you run into with regards to this topic?
Lament is bad because it is complaining. I think people forget that Scripture is God-breathed and righteous complaint is all throughout the Bible. They cite the passage about grumbling and complaining and end it there. I’m sure some of our modern misconceptions come from the bad theology of positive confession. People love denying the harshness of real life. Look at how packed Joel Osteen’s church is. I have been saying lately that complaining is not a sin. It’s who you complain TO. God can handle it. He wants to handle it!
People also think that lament is solely tearing our sackcloth, patting our heads with ashes, and crying for hours. I’ve heard that lament is not about justice even when the word complaint is a very courtroom term. I’ve also heard people ask me what lament even means because they have never heard the word before.
The record came from seeing the need for lament to be addressed in the worship music genre. I don’t think I would have made an album if there wasn’t a need. I have such a high view of God’s Word that I think it is tragic that there are not more Scripture songs being sung (like during the Jesus Movement of our parent’s time). The Psalms are meant to be sung. There is power in singing God’s words back to Him. Something mysteriously healing happens.
My album has songs from Ezekiel 16, where God laments, Jeremiah 8 & 9, Lamentations 1, four movements of Habakkuk, Psalm 13, and to end, Psalm 139, which is to me, the resolve of lament. Some of the songs were written when I was a girl, some just last fall!
My hope is that some of the songs can be used corporately in church and others can be for personal devotion
Rachel, thank you for your ministry to the Church, and your passion to help congregations recover the biblical necessity of lament.