The Golden Calf of the Golden Years

1“Those were the golden years.”

We’ve all used that phrase, and we’ve all heard that phrase. It hearkens back to a bygone era of success, vibrancy, and comfort. An era which has now passed, and an era which beckons us to experience again its glory. And so the phrase “those were the golden years” escapes our lips as a lament. We lament what has been lost, as if we’ll never again attain that level of blessing or joy.

People in the pews remember the golden years. They were when so-and-so was doing such-and-such, and when this-and-that was happening, until this-and-that happened, and we stopped doing such-and-such, and then we lost so-and-so.

People in church leadership remember the golden years too. They were when the budget was bigger, attendance was higher, the buzz was buzzier, and the grass was greener, until summer turned to winter, the cold winds blew in, and everything dried up.

Oh for the golden years. If only we could have those years back again. If only we could recapture that magic. If only we could just do what we did then. If only we could take matters into our own hands. If only, if only, if only.

The people of Israel fell into this trap in Exodus 32. From a toxic combination of forgetfulness, impatience, sinfulness, fear, and disobedience, came their decision to take matters into their own hands, and to make for themselves their own god: a golden calf. Astoundingly, the people then attributed their deliverance to the idol they had made with their own hands. Big mistake. Because, in fact, their God was at work in ways they couldn’t see, leading them forward through the desert to a new land.

It’s tempting to look back on the golden years when you’re wandering through the desert. Even if those golden years were actually not as rosy as you’re remembering.

How often do we do the same thing? We know we’re wandering, we know we’re not where we used to be, and we’re scared. But we know that we used to do was working, and we know how to do that, so let’s get busy building what we know, and then stand back and watch our deliverance. Big mistake. Because, in fact, our God is at work in ways we can’t see, leading us forward through the desert to a new day.

The person who rolls his or her eyes at the faithful trusting in a God who leads his people forward into new lands is a person who has made a golden calf out of the golden years. But the person who waits, expectedly and faithfully and longingly, for God’s sovereign provision and perfect timing, has placed his trust in the right place.

So look back on the “golden years” and remember. Remember God’s faithfulness and goodness.

But don’t idolize those golden years, and attempt to take matters into your own hands, and recreate those years. Instead, trust in the same God who was faithful and good then, trusting that he is faithful and good now, and follow him wherever he leads.

To Have (And To Be) A Normal Mentor

1When I was a young lad, an early teenager who was sensing a call to pursue worship leading as a career, I was blessed to have a healthy supply of normal mentors in my life. These were guys who were the worship leaders or youth pastors at my church, and who were fantastic at what they did, but (and this is not a bad thing) were just plain-out normal.

They wore normal clothes. They drove normal cars. They did normal things. They didn’t present themselves as being any better than anyone else, they were accessible, and they were people I could see myself emulating someday.

Even the “celebrity” worship leaders (who were putting out albums, speaking at conferences, and doing worship leading seminars around the country) were pretty normal too. They wore dorky sweaters on their album covers, they had a job at their local church with fake plants covering up the floor monitors, and when you met one of these guys at a conference or seminar, they surprised with you their… normal-ness.

A lot of the guys and gals in my generation of worship leaders were deeply impacted by a collection of normal trailblazers, that we either knew personally, or came to know through their broader influence, and to this day (whether we’re conscious of it or not) are still emulating what we saw.

I’m grateful to still know a lot of those guys who helped shape me from an early stage. And they’re still pretty normal. And I still need (and will always need) their continued mentoring.

But I’m not as young a lad anymore, and now I’m the same age that MY mentors were when I first met them. There are middle schoolers, high schoolers, and even college students who are discerning a call to worship leading, or worship team involvement, and I’m not so much a peer to them – I’m actually more of a mentor.

And I want to be just as “normal” as my mentors growing up were. The worship leading world is bigger than it was 15-25 years ago, and it has become a wee bit more difficult for up-and-coming  worship leaders to find older/more-seasoned worship leaders in their own church or in the music/conference/seminar world who are normal. The celebrity factor is a bit more of an issue than it was in the 90s, or even the early 2000s.

Those of us who benefitted from normal mentors need to make sure we become that kind of normal mentor ourselves. We owe it to a crop of young musicians, who will one day be shaping the worship of the church, to provide a model of accessible, genuine, down-to-earth, humble local-church servanthood. If all that’s being offered is a glossy picture of cool church celebrity-ism, or performancism, then we’re setting up the future generation (and their churches) for a drift away from the ancient paths.

The more we pursue (and seek to be) normal, faithful, accessible, and Christ-centered mentors, the more the aura of celebrity will fall away from the role of worship leading: and that can’t happen soon enough.

 

Responding To Mud-Throwers with Spirit-Empowered Restraint

1Several years ago I had just finished leading worship for a big event that had taken a huge amount of my emotional and physical emotional energy, the better part of six months to plan and execute, and a significant amount of ministry capital, when a letter arrived in my mailbox (an actual letter, in my actual mailbox) addressed to (you guessed it…) me.

As any humble worship leader would do, I hoped that this letter would contain high praise for my incomparable musical and spiritual prowess, list specific ways I was awesome, tell me particularly impressive things I had done, and possibly contain a financial blessing (i.e. “cash”).

I opened it up, ready to receive the flattering praise of an adoring fan congregation member, and instead read the following (I’ll summarize for time’s sake):

  1. That was the worst thing ever
  2. You are the worst worship leader ever
  3. You have ruined everything
  4. Did I mention you are the worst worship leader ever?
  5. Grace and peace to you from God our Father

Let’s just say it wasn’t the glowing letter I was hoping for.

I immediately wrote this person a response that said:

  1. That was actually the best thing ever
  2. I’m actually the best worship leader ever
  3. You’re an idiot
  4. Did I mention that I’m the best worship leader ever?
  5. May God’s richest blessings be showered upon you

Then I felt better. And then I crumpled that letter up and threw it away. Then shredded it. Then threw it away again. Then I wiped the servers. Even though the letter was handwritten. It’s never a big deal to wipe servers, apparently, as we all know.

Then I wrote another letter that basically said:

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write
  2. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the event
  3. Here’s what I was praying for in the months leading up to the event, and now in the days following
  4. I hope you’re able to enjoy Jesus even more the next time you come to church
  5. May God refresh you with joy in him (and I mean it)

There was no good reason at all to start a war with this person. There was nothing I could say to convince them I wasn’t the worst worship leader ever. For whatever reasons (unbeknownst to me, even to this day), I had pushed a hot button for that person, which resulted in an inappropriately harsh letter sent to me, giving me the choice to either respond in kind, or as the theologian Queen Elsa says, to “let it go”.

I would have loved to send that first letter. It would have felt SO GOOD to throw some mud back into that person’s face.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

The Holy Spirit gets in the way (thank God) of our desire to throw mud back at people, even people who tell us we’re the worst person ever. He allows us to respond with the kind of strength and tenderness that resembles – and glorifies – Jesus Himself.

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.

The Gospel Works

1A worship leader can never go wrong having his congregation proclaim the gospel in song. In our weekly quest to find something that “works”, we quite simply don’t have to look any further than to Jesus, to what he accomplished for us, and to what he has secured for us. Regardless of your church’s setting, demographics, traditions, worship style, successes, failures, attendance numbers, and whatever buzzword is floating around at the moment, singing songs grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ always – always – “works”.

The gospel works on the slow summer Sundays. It works on Easter. And it works when a snowstorm cuts your attendance by 80%.

The gospel works when your church votes to leave a denomination. It works when your church wins a lawsuit. And it works when your church loses a lawsuit.

The gospel works when you welcome a new pastor. It works when you lose a pastor. And it works when you’re in between pastors.

The gospel works with organs. It works with electric guitars. And it works with a iPod plugged into a sound system when that’s the best you can do.

The gospel works when your church is growing. It works when your church is stagnant. And it works when your church is dying.

The gospel works when the sermon is bad. It works when the music is bad. It works when the sound system is bad.

The gospel works when you have a lot to celebrate. It works when you’re full of sorrow. And it works when you aren’t sure what in the world to sing.

The gospel works when people are singing with gusto. It works when they look bored to tears. And it works on the high school boys who are too cool to sing.

The gospel works in a packed mega church. It works in a half-full 7:30am service. And it works in a small group of 8 in a living room.

The gospel works when a nation celebrates a holiday. The gospel works when a nation is approaching election day. And the gospel works when a nation is grieving yet another tragedy.

We are not called to be more and more creative each Sunday – finding a new spin or incorporating the newest song or writing a new liturgy or saying a new thing. We are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. We are called to help people sing the good news of Jesus Christ.

We are called to be doggedly persistent and consistent, in the face of whatever ups and downs our church and/or our culture is riding, and point people to the unchanging and uncompromising gospel. It always – yes always – works.