Beholding the Beauty of Jesus: In His Suffering

“ECCE HOMO (Christ Before the People)” by Edward Knippers.

A few nights ago I was about to head out to choir rehearsal for a few minutes before doing a couple of errands around town – when I decided to ask my oldest daughter (Megan) if she wanted to stay up late and come with me. Of course she responded enthusiastically. Staying up late – and going out when it’s night – is one the best things in the world for a six-year-old.

When we were about to leave she came around the corner wearing a new jacket that Catherine had bought her the week before. I hadn’t seen her wearing it until that moment. And when I looked at her, in that cute brown jacket, I thought (and I said) “Oh my goodness. You are beautiful.”

It stopped me in my tracks.

I was reminded of how beautiful she is. It’s not that she hadn’t been beautiful in the first place, but it’s that I had just grown accustomed to it. I had gotten used to it. I was taking it for granted. I see it every day!

This happens on a regular basis with me. One of my three daughters, or my wife Catherine, will come around the corner sometimes and I’ll just look at them, reminded of something I had forgotten: They’re beautiful.

Do you ever have this experience?

We get used to beautiful things and we don’t remember they’re beautiful anymore. They don’t take our breath away.

We need to be reminded.

And that’s why worship leaders have a responsibility to point people to Jesus every Sunday. To center their songs and their leadership around the clear proclamation of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

Worship leaders need to beckon their congregations to hear the Gospel again. To consider the cross again. And to behold the beauty of Jesus again.

This week I’d like to highlight some attributes of Jesus that should be prominent when we point people to him during corporate worship.

First, his suffering.

John Piper writes in Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ:

The agonies of God’s Son were incomparable. No one ever suffered like this man. No one ever deserved suffering less, yet received so much. The stamp of God on this perfect life is found in two words: ‘without sin’ (Hebrews 4:15). The only person in history who did not deserve to suffer, suffered most. ‘He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth’ (1 Peter 2:22). None of Jesus’ pain was a penalty for His sin. He had no sin.

 

He was betrayed, arrested, mocked, tortured, beaten, whipped, scourged, spat upon, and subjected to the very cruelest form of execution ever known to man. His physical suffering is impossible for us to fathom.

But beyond his physical suffering – is his spiritual suffering. And his spiritual suffering far outweighs his physical suffering, if that’s even possible.

Because on the cross:

All of the sin, suffering, betrayal, woundedness, evil, darkness, sickness, terminal illnesses, fear, twisted perversions, and heartache was laid squarely on Jesus.

The airplanes flying into the twin towers. Bodybags coming out of yet another school. Bombs claiming 100 lives at a rally for peace in Turkey. All of it was laid squarely on Jesus.

Jesus cries out on the cross: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

No one has ever suffered like Jesus.

And Jesus didn’t deserve any of it. Only he had lived a perfect, blameless, holy, morally upright life. And yet he suffered more than anyone has ever – and will ever – suffer.

Isn’t Jesus amazing?

The suffering of Jesus teaches us that: Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer. And we can run to him.

And even though we might not know the answer to why he allows it – we know that:

It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself. … So, if we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and that he went to the Cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth.” (Tim Keller, Reasons for God)

 

And that’s the beauty of Jesus in his suffering. We see the vileness of evil in all of its wretchedness. And we see the fullness of love in Jesus. What a wonderful Savior.

Worship leaders: don’t shy away from singing songs that deal with the suffering of Jesus.

It helps stop people in their tracks and see again the beauty of Jesus that we all far too easily forget.

More on Wednesday.

On Not Beginning with the Ending

1This past August, during two weeks’ vacation, I had the wonderful experience of actually sitting with my family during church, not leading any songs, not being up front, and being the one to do the nursery and Sunday school drop-off/pick-up. It was great.

And whenever I get to experience church as a someone in the pews (or comfortable padded chairs), I’m reminded of how helpful it is when the worship leader begins with the beginning and ends with the ending.

Here’s what I mean.

On those Sundays, when I had finally gotten my kids signed up for Sunday school, dropped my 21-month-old at nursery (and left her crying), convinced my 4-year-old that the donuts she just saw were not for her, and figured out that my 6-year-old had a very specific seating chart in mind (in between me and Catherine), the opening song was already halfway done, and I needed to get my bearings.

Kindly, the worship leader had chosen opening songs that focused me upward. He helped me get my bearings on just who this God is that I’m singing to, and some of the countless reasons why he’s worthy of my worship.

This is good worship leading: it’s thinking through how to pastorally guide people, as distract-able and weary as we’re all prone to be, to behold again (and again, and again) the God who has revealed himself to us, principally in the person of Jesus Christ.

But all too often, worship leaders don’t begin at the beginning. Instead, they begin at the ending. And to make things clunkier, they end with the beginning.

When the opening songs have to do with sending, going out into the world, or songs of mission, your congregation might be saying “but I just dropped my crying kid off at nursery, and I’m not even sure I remembered to lock our front door when we left the house…” It’s good to sing these kinds of songs, but it’s a better idea to sing them after you’ve laid a little bit of groundwork first.

Wait until people have gotten their bearings, heard the Good News, and had God’s Word opened to them before singing songs about the implications of it all.

Songs that articulate a response, and a willingness to go out in mission to the world are good and necessary (and rare), but usually work a whole lot better at the ending. And this way, you can begin with the beginning: consistently calling people to look upwards, before calling them to look outwards.

Leading On The Edge*

1
Someone once described an American football game as “22 people on the field in desperate need of rest, watched by 60,000 people in the seats in desperate need of exercise”.

Leading worship can feel this way sometimes, as you work hard and put in lots of hours behind the scenes, wearing yourself out, and wishing the “spectators” could be a bit more engaged in what’s happening on the field (i.e. stage).

So we either burn out and give up and phone it in from week-to-week, or in a desire to engage the people in the pews/seats/theater-style heated-recliners with cup holders, we push the envelope too far and end up working against ourselves.

I encourage all worship leaders to get comfortable leading on the edge*. Not playing it too safe, and not pushing it too far. But leading on the edge*.

Why the asterisk? Because what means “edge” for my church isn’t the “edge” for your church. Depending on who your church is and where it’s been, the “edge” could look vastly different.

Maybe it’s:

– *Leading two songs of praise in a row
– *Actually amplifying the instruments
– *Having lyrics projected, not printed
– *Singing one song in your service that’s not out of a hymnal
– *Having the organ and guitar play together
– *You actually praying after a song
– *Having someone play a shaker on one of the songs
– *Turning the lights up in the room during worship
– *Taking the worship leader’s face off of the screen during the songs
– *Lowering the keys from the original recordings
– *Singing a hymn
– *Singing a song from 2012

You get my point.

We work against ourselves when we go too far out there on our own, and push the envelope too far, resulting in a congregation that feels assaulted. They retreat into defensive postures on Sundays and come out in offensive postures on Mondays when they send you angry emails.

It’s good to position yourself as a worship leader in the “safe zone”. You have people’s trust, you have their confidence, and you lead in a way that maintains that trust and confidence.

But you need to know where the edge of that zone is. Where people can use some prodding. Where there are some idols. Where God wants to bring new freedom. What kind of expressions your congregation resists. Where things are stale. And then instead of yanking your congregation into those “red zones” and creating havoc for you and your pastor, you carefully and discerningly pick one to work on for a while.

Oftentimes, getting resistance is a sign that you’re doing the right thing. When everyone is happy with you, then you might be playing it too safe. But there’s a difference between getting resistance because you’re wisely leading on the edge*, and causing damage because you’re foolishly pushing the envelope too far.

Of course sometimes you’ll push it too far. And sometimes you’ll play it too safe. You realize it, or a wise person lovingly corrects you, and you recalibrate.

Why lead on the edge*? Because this kind of leadership is more likely to result in actual growth over a length of time. Your congregation will actually mature, stretch, and move forward in worshipping God with more freedom, more sincerity, more intentionality, and more broadness. You might go through hell helping them get there, but trust me, it’s a better use of your limited time on the field.

The Three Cs of Worship Leading

1There are so many different kinds of churches, with different expressions of worship, using different musical styles, in different parts of the world, with different histories, different emphases, and different callings. The worship leaders at these churches have different callings and have to discern how to serve their congregations most effectively, taking into account all of the uniqueness about their setting.

But taking into account all of the differences between churches (even churches across the street from one another!), can there be a shared calling amongst worship leaders who serve churches with a massively broad array of worship expressions?

I believe that ALL worship leaders – regardless of their setting – are called to maintain the three Cs in order to be an effective worship leader.

Christ-centeredness
Regardless of all of your church’s distinctions, the people in your congregation are fundamentally no different from anyone else in the world: they need Jesus. Effective worship leaders are doggedly persistent in pointing their congregations to Jesus week after week, month after month, and year after year. We never move on, we never assume people have “gotten it”, and we never muddle up the clarity of the gospel with layers and layers of figurative or literal fogginess. Every person in every seat of every church, from ancient cathedrals to hipster coffee shops, need Jesus. So every worship leader has a responsibility to exalt him above all things. Every Sunday. We’ll be doing it for all eternity so let’s set the pattern now (Revelation 5:9-10).

Congregational accessibility
From high-church to low-church, from rock-and-roll to smells-and-bells, from full-time production teams to volunteer worship teams, from rock star worship leaders to a sleep deprived young mother who told her pastor she’d lead this Sunday… We have a shared responsibility: to help people articulate praise to God in unity. It takes some creative theological hop-scotch for worship leaders of any variety to convince themselves that it’s OK if people in their congregations aren’t actively engaged, or at the very least, being invited to engage. We have to do all we can to help people sing along. While we can’t make anyone worship God, we can certainly do things (in our various and different contexts) to actually help people, not hinder people. Effective worship leaders take this responsibility seriously: to help their congregations exalt God in worship (Psalm 34:3).

Consistency
Over time, any congregation in any part of the world with any kind of worship expression will respond positively to worship leadership that consistently points to Christ in a way that helps people respond to him. How can I say this? Because this is what the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit points to Christ (John 16:14) and the Holy Spirit is honored when we worship “orderly” (1 Corinthians 14:26-40). Consistency not only ensures that we’re pointing in the right direction and sending the right message, but it builds trust with our congregations. When a congregation trusts its worship leader, it will follow that worship leader, and if that worship leader is pointing that congregation to Jesus, then a beautiful thing takes place.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to worship leading. What I do in my Anglican church on Main Street in Fairfax, VA wouldn’t work at a store-front church in Daytona Beach, FL. And what you do in your bible church in Brighton, England wouldn’t work at a Cathedral in Sydney. So the practicalities of how we apply our principles will differ wildly from church to church. But those principles must guide the practicalities. And the principles of Christ-centeredness, congregational accessibility, and consistency will help us remain faithful to our shared calling as ministers of the gospel.

Responding To The Increasingly Short Shelf-Life Of Worship Songs

1Things are not as simple for worship leaders/church music directors as they used to be. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly a more complicated thing.

There are now more songs to choose from than ever, at an increasingly rapid speed, coming from big publishers, independent artists, local churches, Christian radio, social media feeds, conferences, carrier pigeons, and their distant relatives, hipsters. Just when we’ve gotten a handle on introducing a new song to our congregation that was written in 2012, a newer new song comes along that’s even newer, making the new song we thought was new feel pretty old. Confused? You should be.

Studio albums. Live albums. EPs. Singles. Free downloads. Deluxe versions. Acoustic versions. Recorded on a beach versions. Recorded on top of a mountain versions. A lot of it is really good stuff! A lot of it is not-so-good stuff… And when you add it all together, it’s just a lot of new stuff to sort through, even if you had nothing else to do all week long than listen to all the new stuff. And even then you’d be out-of-touch if you took a few weeks off.

In the ancient past, known as the “1990s”, when a “new” song really caught on, like “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord” or “Shout to the Lord”, that new song (for better or worse…) stuck around in a church’s repertoire for a substantial period of time, even until present-day. Nowadays, in the era of worship song abundance (again, not a bad thing, just a more complicated thing), when a new song catches on, it might disappear several months later when new crop of new songs come on the scene.

What’s the result? Two things are happening: First, worship leaders are overwhelmed and inundated, possibly discouraged that they can’t keep up, and either resisting or succumbing to the pressure and marketing that screams at them to stay relevant. Second, congregations are being asked to learn more new songs than they can handle, aren’t given the opportunity to sing these new songs for years and years, are being fed songs that might not be particularly nourishing.

(Big caveat: not every new song should have “lasting power”. Some new songs will last for centuries to come. Some will (and should) be retired after a season. This is OK. We know that the New Testament church sang “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). We have many of those still today (i.e. the Psalms). But others have fallen away. So, some songs were good enough for the Apostles themselves to sing for a season before being retired. So we should be OK with singing songs that won’t necessarily be sung hundreds of years from now. We just have to be careful to keep our repertoire in a healthy balance. Caveat over.)

Because of the increasingly short shelf-life of modern worship music, worship leaders should make sure we:

Stay mindful of what’s out there
Don’t bury yourself in a cave of stuff-you-like-that-you’ve-used-before. Be willing to listen to new music, and incorporate what will work in your context.

Don’t stress out about keeping up with it all
It’s simply impossible, unless you have tons of time, to keep up with all the new stuff that’s out there.

Be OK with being a late adopter
It’s amazing how waiting a few years will allow the very best of the new stuff to rise to the top of the pile.

Have high standards
Biblical faithfulness, theological correctness, gospel centeredness, musical richness, and congregational accessibility are the five big boxes you should be able to check. If a new song is really popular but doesn’t check all five of those boxes, then maybe you shouldn’t use it.

Distinguish between usefulnesses
Of all the thousands of new songs that will be written this year, maybe just five of those should find their way on to your congregation’s lips. The other songs might be all be wonderful, but it doesn’t mean they’re useful for incorporation into your church’s repertoire.

Choose songs for the congregation you have
Certain songs will work well in big churches with big bands but flop in smaller churches with smaller bands. And likewise, certain songs will work well in your local context that no one else has ever heard of before! You have to be willing to put blinders on when choosing songs for your congregation, and choose what serves them the best.

Build a solid repertoire – not a cool playlist
A congregation will sing with confidence when they know the songs. A congregation will sing with timidity when they don’t. A solid repertoire cultivates congregational confidence. An ever-changing (but cool!) playlist cultivates insecurity. Focus primarily on helping people exalt Jesus in song, and let the copyright dates take a back seat.

Things aren’t as simple as they used to be, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We have more resources to draw from than ever to help our congregations worship God in song. May we think wisely, pastorally, and discerningly as we adjust to the shortening shelf-life of what’s being produced, and remain faithful to proclaim the never-changing, always-relevant Good News.

Pointing At The Same Thing From Different Angles

1In his book Christ Centered Worship, Bryan Chappel suggests eight components to a “gospel structure” for corporate worship, drawing from the narrative of Isaiah 6:

  1. Adoration (recognition of God’s greatness and grace)
  2. Confession (acknowledgement of our sin and need for grace)
  3. Assurance (affirmation of God’s provision of grace)
  4. Thanksgiving (expression of praise and thanks for God’s grace)
  5. Petition and Intercession (expression of dependence on God’s grace)
  6. Instruction (acquiring the knowledge to grow in grace)
  7. Communion/Fellowship (celebrating the grace of union with Christ and his people)
  8. Charge and Blessing (living for and in the light of God’s grace)

Worship leaders need to keep this structure in their minds when they’re planning services. To think through the placement of songs and different elements in such a way that coherently and cohesively tells the story of the gospel, it’s helpful to frame it against the narrative from Isaiah 6, like Bryan Chappel’s “eight components” so helpfully do.

Within this gospel structure there is a large amount of freedom. That’s the beauty of it. For worship leaders, it allows for all sorts of songs, kinds of songs, topics of songs, and “moods” of songs. It’s not so narrow that it’s limiting, and it’s not so broad that it’s maddening. Amazingly, yet not surprisingly, the gospel works.

And so it’s unfortunate when worship leaders, seeking to faithfully lead worship within this wonderful gospel structure, get stuck in an every-four-minutes spin-cycle, which re-sets with every song, and by the end of the progression of songs, hasn’t actually progressed anywhere at all.

If I had to summarize this spin-cycle, it would be:
1. Confession (I am a worm)
2. Assurance (God saved me through Christ)
3. Thanksgiving (I’m grateful!)

And then that song ends, and the next one begins, and we sing the same three points again. It’s like we’re afraid of betraying the core of the gospel if we dare to have a progression from point A to any point between B and Z, and take the risk of having our congregation articulate responses to the gospel, within an Isaiah 6 gospel structure, that might go beyond the bulletproof safety zone that requires fairly little ingenuity from week to week.

It seems like some worship leaders get the idea that every song needs to say the same thing, in the same way, using the same formula, following the same trajectory, and focusing on the same pillars of the gospel. The pillars are there for a reason: to provide a structure. So let the gospel structure free you and inform you, but not constrain you. Focusing on the same pillars in the same way from song to song is what I’m describing as the spin-cycle which can end up robbing our people of the opportunity to explore the unsearchable greatness of God.

If we sing the same three (or so) structural points, starting over with every song, we portray the gospel as myopic, the glories of God as describable, the implications of Christ’s finished work as easily summarizable, and our response as containable. Instead, we should feel free to use as wide a musical/lyrical/thematic vocabulary as possible, clearly within a gospel structure, but expansively and robustly broad, helping our people exalt a God whose glories couldn’t be fittingly exalted even if we had a thousand tongues.

It’s a huge and tragic problem when churches have no structure to their theology of worship, jump from theme to theme, follow no recognizable progression, and occasionally happen to land on the gospel when a song conveniently mentions it.

But it’s also a problem when churches/worship teams get stuck in a worship spin-cycle, failing to show any other angle of the indescribably beautiful gospel besides the one they’ve come to believe they grasp. Healthy gospel structures, like the one derived from the account in Isaiah 6, free us to exalt a God of grace, who redeemed us through his Son, and has sent his Spirit. Unhealthy gospel structures, and yes, I’m saying there can be such things, constrain us and limit us to see the bullet points instead of the masterpiece.

A tour guide at the Grand Canyon is always pointing to the Grand Canyon. And to help his group see more of the beauty of the Grand Canyon, he takes them on a journey from overlook to overlook. They don’t just stand in one place and look at it from the same angle. The scope of the Grand Canyon can’t be captured from one spot.

Similarly, a worship leader is always pointing to Jesus. And to help his congregation see more of the beauty of Jesus, he takes them on a journey from song to song. They don’t just stand in one place and sing from the same angle. The glory of God, revealed in the face of Jesus Christ, can’t be captured from one spot.

You can point to the same thing from different angles. That’s what a gospel structure ensures!

So let’s avoid the false security of the every-four-minute spin cycle, saying the same thing, and saying it in the same way. Turn the seat-belt sign off and move around the cabin!

Thinking Like a Non-Musician

1It’s hard for musicians to turn off their musician brains. We hear, notice, and pick apart things that a non-musician would never notice. For example: the snare drum hitting on the wrong beat, the bass playing the fundamental instead of the 3rd, the alto singing the wrong fourth note of that measure, the electric guitarist using the wrong kind of delay, or (one of my favorite pet peeves that a non-musician or non-guitarist would never notice) an acoustic guitarist hitting the bottom E string when he/she shouldn’t be.

Our brains are trained over time, through lessons, and with practice, to pick up on mistakes, inconsistencies, tonal conflicts, rhythmic errors, or just an all around lack of cohesiveness. We learn to spot the problem and identify how to fix it: whether it’s fixing our own fingers/voices, or helping someone else fix their issue(s).

Musicians notice specifics. Non-musicians usually don’t (except for when they’re glaringly obvious). They notice generalities.

It’s good for worship leaders to think like a musician, and notice specifics. But it’s also good to think like a non-musician and notice generalities.

Most people in your congregation are non-musicians. And here are some things you need to know about them:

– They don’t notice the musical minutiae. They seriously don’t hear the things you hear.
– They do notice musical excellence. They can tell when something is working and gelling.
– They don’t notice the intricate details. Their ears aren’t trained to pick up on that stuff.
– They do notice when something (vague) feels off (generally). They don’t know what it was, though, until you tell them.
– They don’t notice tiny mistakes, especially when the musicians play them off graciously and cover for one another.
– They do notice when there’s tension between musicians on stage.
– They don’t spend all of Sunday afternoon/Monday morning going back over all the musical details in their minds.
– They do remember singable melodies and grasp-able lyrical phrases.

So, you go ahead focusing on the details, and the specifics, and the minutiae, and the intricacies that combine together to form musical excellence and skill. But don’t let all that work get to your head. One way to stay humble is to also be thinking like a non-musician. Most of what you’re obsessing over will not be noticed by most people in your congregation, except for a few. Instead, they’ll notice the final result and the general fruit.

Hopefully your musical brain can produce something in addition to musical things only musicians will notice. Aim to produce a clear and compelling invitation for people to feast on Jesus. A musical invitation that’s skillful, excellent, and aimed at engaging as many people in your congregation as possible. That’s an invitation that musicians and non-musicians alike can accept.