Blending The New With The Old: Two Lies

1Worship leaders and pastors who are wrestling with the important and difficult decisions about when and how to bring fresh expressions of worship into traditional services, or more traditional/liturgical elements into contemporary services have a hard job in front of them.

Blending the new with the old is not as divisive an issue as it was 10 or 20 years ago, mainly because the worship wars have largely subsided, resulting either in different styles having their own services, or a different style having prevailed after a long battle.

But many churches are still attempting unified expressions of worship, in one service, either on a weekly or occasional basis.

And for those kinds of churches, and their worship leaders and pastors who are thinking through how to blend the new with the old (and do it well), I would like to caution against two commonly believed lies.

Lie # 1: The presence of something new will result in the removal of something old

There is no reason why this has to be true. Just because you bring a drum set into the sanctuary doesn’t mean you’ll be removing organ pipes. Just because you have the choir sing an anthem doesn’t mean your electric guitarist needs to pack up his pedals. There has to be a way we can embrace a Psalm 150-esque model of robust and God-centered worship that draws out from praise from a variety of instruments across the spectrum.

And the way we begin to embrace that model is to just go ahead and do it. Will it be messy sometimes? Yes. Will we get critical responses? Yes. Will we do it perfectly? No. But we can’t just talk about putting the new and the old together in one unified expression. We actually have to make the hard decision to start doing it.

The pastor has to decide to spend some capital on teaching on it. The worship leader, and/or the worship staff, has to decide to do some hard work on moving forward as one with a broad variety of musicians with a broad variety of tastes and training. The leaders (or elders, or vestry, or deacons) have to be prepared to answer the congregation’s concerns.

Deciding to do some addition doesn’t mean you have to do subtraction. You can add without subtracting. This is the beauty of worshipping a God whose greatness is unsearchable! Lead your people with the constant refrain: “do not be afraid”.

Lie # 2: The immediate embrace of something new will bring immediate revitalization

There is no evidence that this is true. Many churches over the last few decades have rushed to incorporate contemporary music into their services, oftentimes firing their choirs and organists, and assuming that by bringing in new forms of worship, they will experience immediate growth and revitalization. Similarly, many pastors have decided to introduce a lot of liturgy and/or formality into a service unaccustomed to it, thinking that it will bring immediate health or depth.

Most of the time, however, the opposite happens.

When you drop a bomb on something, it always leaves destruction. You can’t drop a bomb on decades-long expressions of worship and expect flowers to bloom and birds to chirp sweetly. You’ll not only be dishonoring the past, but you’ll also be destroying the foundations for the future, and ensuring that nothing can grow.

Except for very rare circumstances, never introduce new elements into worship immediately. Always move slowly. laying a good foundation, lovingly pastoring your people, while also resolutely moving forward.

If a service has never ever had drums before, then plan on using drums sparingly for the first year. Yes, a whole year. Then the second year, once a month. By the third year, you might be able to do it every Sunday. Why move so incredibly slowly? So that people will go with you. You want them to go with you? Move slowly. Did I mention you should move slowly?

If a service has never had liturgy before, then start saying a Psalm together as a call to worship once a month or so. Then maybe you can decide to start saying the Lord’s Prayer together when you do communion. Maybe after a few months, or a year, you can introduce a confession and absolution (or “assurance of pardon” if the word “absolution” freaks you out). Then your congregation can see liturgy as something beautiful and helpful, not something distracting.

Don’t believe the lie that making drastic and immediate changes will result in drastic and immediately positive results. The more likely outcome is that you’ll shoot yourself in the foot.

The first lie (new things are bad) stems from fearfulness. We’re afraid of what might happen if-this or if-that. We’re afraid so-and-so might leave. For the lack of a better phrase, we care too much.

The second lie (new things will bring immediate life) stems from carelessness. We don’t care who might get hurt. We don’t care what people think. For the lack of a better phrase, we don’t care enough.

Worship leaders and pastors who are thinking and praying through how to blend the new with the old would be wise if they are continually asking these questions out in the open:
– What are we afraid of?
– What are we ignoring?

Honestly and prayerfully dialoging about those questions – and then faithfully and biblically walking forward, together, in helping lead your church to embrace a robust view of worship – might actually result in changes that will bear fruit for generations to come, long after we’ve passed the baton.

A Heads-Up Before Auditions

1Meeting with potential singers and/or instrumentalists for auditions is always something I look forward to, but it’s also something that carries potential risks for awkwardness if the person I’m meeting with is under the impression that they have a musical gift (when in reality they don’t), or if they think they’ll definitely be given an up-front role (when in reality they might not).

I’ve found that once someone has indicated an interest in singing and/or playing on a team, and I’ve arranged a time to meet with them, communicating in advance the possible outcomes from the meeting is helpful.

A few weeks ago I sent the following brief explanation to an interested musician at my church:

First, thank you for your willingness to explore using your voice to serve this congregation. I’m grateful!

Secondly, please relax and be yourself, and don’t worry about anything.

Third, please think of 2 or 3 worship songs that you love, and come ready to sing those (advance notice of which songs would be great). Let me know a good key for you. Bring lyrics, either printed out or just on your phone.

Fourth, it’s my job to listen well to your voice, and then to prayerfully discern what I think God might be intending for your musical gifts. Usually one of three options will be obvious: (Option A) Your voice is well-suited for group singing, namely in our choir. (Option B) Your voice is well suited for singing on a mic, either on Sunday mornings or Sunday nights, or at things like Alpha, or occasional events. (Option C) Your voice could work in one of the previously mentioned applications, but I suggest singing lessons. (Option D) Your voice has been given to you to praise God from within the congregation, but not in a public setting, so let’s think about another place where you could serve the church.

I always tell singers (and musicians) before I hear them sing (or play), that the number one thing to remember is that their musical giftedness level has absolutely nothing to do with their worth as a person, or their place in the church. The good news of the gospel is that we’re covered, we’re loved, we’re accepted, and we’re free to be good at some things, not-good at other things, and bad at other things 🙂

 

It’s a lot to send someone before an audition, but I’ve learned through experience that it lays a foundation for things to go a lot more smoothly.

The Point Of A Worship Leader Is To Point

1This week my church is hosting “Genesis Arts Camp” for 200+ sweaty K-6th grade students in the morning and about 50 middle/high school students in the afternoon. I’ve had a blast leading worship in the morning, and sharing a quick teaching about some aspect of the gospel (this camp draws a good number of kids from outside of our church and from families who don’t go to church at all).

In between the songs and the teaching we’re also goofing around a good bit. We’ve thrown in some David Letterman-inspired bits (complete with their own theme songs) like:

Mr. Gil Tells a Joke
In which Mr. Gil comes up and tells a joke. The theme song would get stuck in your head if I shared it, so I’ll spare you. Unless you click on this link, in which case prepare yourself for getting the theme song stuck in your head. You don’t want to click on this link. Really. Don’t click on it.

Kalisthenics with Kirsten
In which Kirsten comes up (to the band rocking out to Van Halen’s “Jump”) in her 80’s head band and leads a couple hundred kids in doing crazy exercises. We’re doing some pretty aggressively contemporary stuff at this camp for sure 🙂

Superhero Art Tryouts
In which two superheroes (Flash and the Green Lantern) attempt to get a job as teachers at Genesis Arts Camp by demonstrating their different “gifts”. They could use some work. Their interpretive dance to “Let it Go” was particularly moving.

Teaching
At the end of each session I’m sharing a quick teaching with the kids, in an attempt to communicate the gospel to them in a clear, understandable way. On Thursday or Friday I hope to invite kids to put their trust in Jesus for the first time if they haven’t ever done so. I’m excited!

On Monday I held up a bull horn and told them I had some really good news. “God loves you!” “God will always love you!” And how did God show us he loves us? By sending Jesus to die for us on the cross. We looked at a bunch of different logos. The kids knew all of them! I asked them what would God’s logo be? God’s logo would be a cross. He didn’t didn’t tell us he loved us. He showed us!

On Tuesday we looked at a bunch of pictures of cute babies. We oohed and ahed at the cute babies. But I told the kids that even the cutest babies are still born sinful. No one teaches a baby how to grow up and steal a cookie! No one teaches a little boy how to grow up and hit his sister on purpose. We sin naturally. It’s like I was born with a red choir robe on me (and I donned a lovely red choir robe for this example). And no matter what I do (give money to my friends, give food to the poor), I can’t get my red robe off. Then I walked up to the cross on stage, which had a white robe on it to show that Jesus died on the cross, but he was perfect. He took my sinful robe off of me! But… it didn’t stick to him.

Jesus defeated my sin! He stomped on it (so I stomped on the robe). He beat it (so I beat the robe). And he threw it far, far away (so I threw the robe far, far away). And he gives me his white robe (I put a white robe on). He makes me clean. He makes us new.

Today (Wednesday) I shared how Jesus wants to be our best friend. He wants to be by our side for our whole life (and after). He wants to be with us when we’re happy, when we’re sad, when we want to sin, and when we’re scared. Who would say “no” to having this kind of friend? I did a bunch of silly shenanigans like riding my daughter’s pink bike, and a pretend horse, and pretending to be scared of thunder… All to show that Jesus is with me all the time.

And the week will wrap up with me reminding the kids of what we’ve learned… and that Jesus is knocking on the doors of their hearts (and they should let him in!)

We’re singing mostly upbeat, action, call-and-response type songs. There’s a large number of little kids who can’t read, much less handle wordy songs. It’s been a lot of work but it’s been a lot of fun. And it’s reminded me of one major worship leading lesson.

I do the pointing. Jesus does the work.

 

Not everyone will sing along. Not everyone will get it. Some people (i.e. the super cool 5th grade boys) will sit there with their arms folded. Some people just won’t like it.

But if I use my microphone/guitar/pink bike/pretend (or real) horse/superhero skits to point people to God’s great love for them in Jesus Christ, then I don’t have to worry. My job is simple. Whether it’s a summer camp or a Sunday morning. Whether I’m leading 3rd-graders or 70 year-olds. My job description always has the same basic instruction: use your platform to point to Jesus. Then let him do the work.

The point of a worship leader is to point. Every context, every age group, every time you stand on stage.

May God increase our desire to see his name, and his name alone, exalted in the lives of those who sit in our churches. Even the sweaty ones.

Liberating King: An Interview with Stephen Miller (And A Giveaway Too)

1A few months ago at the Doxology and Theology conference in Louisville, I met Stephen Miller and enjoyed getting to know him a bit. Stephen is a worship leader, recording artist, and a song writer, not to mention a husband to Amanda, a father to five children, and a pastor. For many years Stephen led worship at The Journey in St. Louis. He’s now the worship pastor at Real Life Church in Austin.

This week Stephen released his latest album “Liberating King“. You can read a great review of the album on WorshipLinks here. I wanted you to get to know him a bit better, so I asked him to answer a few questions about worship leading and ministry.

JB: Tell us a bit of your story: how you came to put your trust in Jesus, and how you got into worship leading.

SM: I grew up in church. My mom had me there every time the doors were open. I went down to pray a prayer at a Vacation Bible School when I was 8, but I don’t know that I really connected intimately with my belief in Christ until I was a sophomore in high school. God just met me in my bedroom one day as I was listening to this song that talked about Jesus dying for me and I was just wrecked out. I fell on my face there in my bedroom and said, “God I’m yours. Whatever you want. Here I am.” Didn’t think that would be worship leading. I wasn’t into church music at that time. It was all what I call Hand Wavey Guy, leading a choir and orchestra and I just wasn’t into that as a high school kid. But later that year I went to a camp and saw band lead worship for the first time, and I remember thinking, “Maybe that’s what God’s calling me to do.” So my Junior year, my youth pastor asked if I would start leading our student ministry in worship each week, and God just sort of had his hand on it and it grew from there.

JB: What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made as a worship leader?

SM: Man, I wish I could count them all. I think not knowing the people I was leading is huge. I would try to impose my world view on a room of people who just weren’t on the same page. Rather than meeting them where they are, I would just get angry and frustrated and think it was all their fault. But in the end it was a leadership problem for me. God was saying, “Be patient. Stay faithful. Trust me.”

JB: What are three main things worship leaders should always strive to do, regardless of their context?

SM: I think so much of the modern worship leader’s role is a song leader. So choosing songs that present the Gospel in a God-centered, clear and concise manner, then striving to sing those songs as excellently as you can so that as far as it’s up to you, there is no distraction from the glory of God. You want people to see him and respond to his majesty. So I think the third thing is to ensure that your own prayer life and worship life is active and vibrant, and that you are growing in your own knowledge of God each day, as well as walking in the obedience of faith that leads people to worship off the platform.

JB: You wrote a book a few years ago called “Worship Leaders: We Are Not Rock Stars”. How can worship leaders battle the temptations of fame and popularity

SM: Fame and applause are intoxicating, man. They’re like well-trained assassins waiting to take you out. We all love attaboys and attagirls. It’s just part of who we are. But I think that the way to combat that is firstly to realize that your greatest identity is not in your functional role as a worship leader, but as a redeemed and adopted child of God. That you’re a worshiper before you’re a worship leader. When you practice that private life of intimacy with God, it does change you. When you fill your mind and mouth and memory with the Gospel – even when no one is looking – it grounds you and centers you. And then I think having people around you who know you and can help keep you on track and encourage you when you’re distracted or down – that’s so key. That’s the beauty of the local church family too I think.

JB: If you had to summarize the calling of a worship leader in one sentence, what would you say?

SM: Be faithful to love the people God puts in front of you by giving them a huge picture of who God is and what he has done, so that they can respond in worship.

Thanks, Stephen, for your heart to see God’s people sing to him and delight in him!

GIVEAWAY INFO:
If you’d like to get a free copy of Stephen’s new album, leave a comment below. On Friday (5/22) at noon I’ll choose three random commenters and they’ll get a code to download the album for free.

GIVEAWAY UPDATE:
The three winners have all been emailed a free download link. Thanks everyone!

Jesus Is The Lion

LIONSeveral months ago I started reading through The Chronicles of Narnia with my two oldest daughters (now 5 ½ and 4 years old). We began with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and they were instantly captivated by the story of the magical land through the armoire, the eternal winter, the Witch with the Turkish delight, the talking animals, the battles, the rescues, Father Christmas, and of course, Aslan.

Aslan made everything OK. Aslan made dead things come alive. Aslan made it into Spring again. Aslan died and came to life. Whenever Aslan appeared in the story, my girls squeeled with excitement.

We finished that book and moved onto The Horse and His Boy (even though, apparently, we should have gone to Prince Caspian next). We were in for a different kind of experience.

This story was… much less captivating, particularly for little listening ears. We slogged through chapter after chapter about a boy named Shasta and a girl named Aravis, and their Narnian talking horses, and how they got chased by Lions, how Shasta had to sleep outside the tombs (and met a mysterious cat), how Shasta and Aravis got chased by another Lion, eventually meeting a guy named King Lune, and it was just plain hard to keep my little girls interested.

WHERE IS ASLAN?” they kept asking. I didn’t know. I was ready to put the book down and pull out some Dr. Seuss.

A substantial 165 pages into the book, I was feeling very sorry for myself reading this tortuous book, and the main character (Shasta) was feeling very sorry for himself as well. He finds himself riding a non-Narnian-talking horse, alone in the woods, and terrifyingly, he can tell a big animal is trailing him, and he can’t take it anymore and throws a pity party.

The mysterious animal tells Shasta that he doesn’t feel sorry for him. Shasta is flabbergasted. He recounts his sad upbringing, his daring escapes, his night alone outside the tombs, his hunger, and just how unfortunate he’s been, especially considering all of the random lion chases. The Voice speaks up and says:

I was the Lion”.

Shasta gasps.

I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you could reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”

In that moment, the “unfortunate” events all of the sudden make sense to Shasta.

And in that moment, the previous 11 chapters all of the sudden made sense to my daughters and me. It had been Aslan all along.

Shasta asks: “Who are you?”

“‘Myself,’ said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook and again, ‘Myself,’ loud and clear and gay; and then the third time, ‘Myself,’ whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.”

It was Aslan.

My daughters squealed with delight. And I sobbed.

Because like Shasta (and I imagine like you), I’m pretty good at throwing pity parties. I can recount a litany of unfortunate events that I didn’t deserve, that I didn’t enjoy, and that I didn’t think God should have let happen. In my life (and in my worship leading journey), I’ve felt chased and abandoned so many times that I’ve got a pretty good library of sob stories I can pull out when needed.

One of my favorite sob stories is from when I was a young worship leader (14 years old) at a small Episcopal Church in the Florida panhandle that had never sung a contemporary song on a Sunday morning in its life. After a few months of being subjected to my guitar-led, drum-accompanied, mid-1990’s praise music, it had gotten so bad that half the congregation would stand and sing along, but half the congregation would stay seated, arms folded, faces angry, and lips sealed.

Where was Jesus when I was up there all alone? Why was I going through this? Why did it have to be so hard? Why were so many things so hard?

Jesus was right there with me, by my side.

Jesus had a purpose and a reason for me to go through that.

And Jesus used it for my good and for his glory.

Jesus is the Lion.

And when we hear those words – and know that they’re true – a lot of the “unfortunate” events in our stories begin to make sense. Chapters that we slogged through are now re-interpreted. And we begin to see how Jesus was not only with us when we felt alone, but was actively and Sovereignly in control.

Jesus makes and will (someday soon) make everything OK. Jesus makes dead things come alive. Jesus turns Winter into Spring again. Jesus died and came to life.

And whenever Jesus appears in the story, we should squeal with excitement. He’s not safe – but he’s good – and we can trust our lives, our ministries, and our stories to Him.