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.

Knowing How to Respond to Sunday Morning Complaints

1I don’t understand what people are thinking when they approach me on a Sunday morning with that fire-in-the-eyes look that says “let me give you a piece of my mind”. Can’t they understand that I’m busy? Don’t they see that I’m juggling a bunch of different mental and actual demands? Apparently not. And people in ministry all over the world and throughout the history of time have had to deal with the people who want to get into a conflict at the worst possible time of the entire week. It’s crazy.

This happens to me about three times a year now. I’m fortunate. Other worship leaders and/or pastors get it every week! But in one of the more memorable episodes, after a morning when I used the “That’s My King!” video as a call to worship, I was approached by an individual who had been very offended by it. He expressed himself to me for several minutes and every instinct in my body was to give it right back to him. I wanted to return the favor and give him a piece of my mind.

But I didn’t. I listened, gave lots of head nods and “hmmms”, thanked the man for sharing his concerns with me, assured him that I meant no offense, apologized for any offense that was caused, and he left slightly pacified. Of course, the rest of the afternoon I spent rehearsing in my mind what I could have said or what I should have said to set the man straight.

I wrote a former seminary professor of mine, Steve Brown, the next day and I apologized to him. If you’ve ever listened to Steve or read any of his stuff, you’ll know that he encourages pastors/people in ministry to be real, to not be afraid to offend people, and to not take people’s “stuff” when they they throw it at you.

I said to Steve: I’m sorry. I let you down. I had a guy come up to me after church yesterday who laid into me and I just stood there and took it. I didn’t fight back. I should have. Next time I will.

He wrote back. Here’s some of what he said:

I just stopped and prayed for the guy who came up to you with his drivel…

…that he gets the hives.

We showed that video at our church and the people were cheering by the end.  Anybody who doesn’t “get” the power of that is spiritually dead.

And you didn’t let me down.  In fact, you did the right thing.  Jesus said that we were to be as innocent as a dove and wise as a serpent.  You did the innocent thing.  The wisdom comes in knowing whose butt to kick and when to put it off for a better time.  The last thing you needed was to “speak truth” to a guy like that. 

But there will be other times.  Keep your gun loaded.

Steve was right.

9 times out of 10, when people approach you on a Sunday morning with complaints, the wise response is to kindly listen and then thank the person. You don’t need to deal with handling conflict when your attention is on leading the congregation and leading your team.

The only time I think it’s wise to rebut people is: (1) if it’s before the service. Tell them it needs to wait. Don’t let them throw you off your game. And (2) if they’re attacking you personally. They can criticize your song choices, volume, arrangements, etc. But if they come at you personally, you’re within your rights to say to them that you’d appreciate it if you had this conversation some other time and perhaps with your pastor present. That should take care of that.

We have enough on our plates on Sunday mornings without having to add doing battle with offended congregants. In that moment, unless it’s before a service or they’re attacking you personally, just let the Holy Spirit be Christ in you. And just like Jesus took scorn and insults and responded (most of the time) with love and wisdom, so let our response be also.

Have You Received Criticism Lately?

It’s always so encouraging to see an email in my inbox with something like “awesome service this morning” or “when are you going to record a CD?” in the subject line. Someone has actually taken the time to sit down to let me know that they appreciate me. It makes me feel good about myself. It makes me feel like I’m doing a good job. I love those kinds of emails.

Conversely, I always take a deep breath when I see an email in my inbox with something like “suggestions for you” or “can we talk?” as the subject line. Someone isn’t terribly happy and they want me to know about it. It makes me nervous. It makes me feel tense. And if I’m honest, it makes me a little angry.

No worship leader enjoys criticism. We all wish that every email could be affirming and that every comment could be congratulatory. However, if we never receive criticism, or if we haven’t received any lately, then we aren’t growing.

When I look back over my worship leading “career” (it feels weird to call it a career), from high school, through college, a volunteer, a part-timer, and now a full-timer, the times I have been most forced to get out of ruts, to break out of bad habits, and to step out of comfort zones have been when I’ve received criticism. Most worship leaders I know say the same thing. Somewhere along the way, when they were happy as could be, a critic came along and mentioned some way they thought the worship leader could grow. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t a “you’re awesome!” email. It was hard. But it was good in the long run.

Not all criticism is helpful, because not all people are healthy. You know this. Your church is made up of sinners (including you). Sometimes you’ll receive criticism you’ll need to ignore. Aren’t you glad we have the Holy Spirit to help us discern what is truth and what isn’t?

But don’t be so quick to ignore criticism. If you really want to grow as a worship leader – whether in leading a band, choosing songs, leading a congregation, working with volunteers, your musical skill, your “stage-presence”, praying out loud, exhorting the congregation, etc. – then you’re going to have to allow yourself to receive criticism.

Some people are bold enough to approach you, either in person or via email, to share an observation with you. If you can, thank them for coming to you. But other people aren’t so bold. They’re afraid they’ll come across wrongly. They appreciate you and don’t want to make you think they don’t. They think that all you hear is criticism. These people might be your colleagues, your worship team members, your friends at your church, or your own family. Maybe you could think about asking them from time to time if there’s anything in particular that they think you could grow in.

I had one of these difficult conversations a little under three months ago. It was hard, I was defensive, I was a bit surprised, and I didn’t really enjoy it. But I’ve grown since then, in small ways, but I’ve grown. I’m grateful for the criticism that God allowed me to hear in order to help me become a bit more mature. No worship leader can grow without hearing criticism, and the good news and bad news is that this includes you!

Handiwork and Jesus

The barbarians are at the gate.

And they play the electric guitar.

This is the main point of the first chapter of Can We Rock the Gospel, by Dan Lucarini and John Blanchard, and it gets even better from there.

“…rock music is worldly, evil, and something to be avoided.”

“Rock music is a stumbling block and a scandal to many Christians today and it is dividing the church.”

“…What is undeniable about rock is its hypnotic power.”

“…using [rock] in God’s service is spiritually perilous.”

“There is music that reflects God’s glory and there is music that does not.”

“…Christian rockers are… imitating a music style that was created and inspired by men who… have rejected the God of the Bible.”

“The central paradigm of rock ‘n’ roll is a kind of voodoo… that’s far removed from the sober values of western culture.”

“…Put out the fire. Demonstrate once and for all your allegiance to Christ and your opposition to Satan by clearing these musicians’ material out of your life and out of your home.”

“If you are serious about being a disciple of Christ you should not lay yourself open to possible demonic influence through these records.”

“The throbbing beat of rock-and-roll provides a vital sexual release for its adolescent audience.”

“Anything that might help to create that kind of syndrome (proclivity towards drug addiction because of rock music) should be avoided like the plague.”

“Kids at a heavy metal concert don’t sit in their seats; they stand on them and move – it’s the spirit of rebellion.”

“Rock music and tattoos have also seemed to go hand in hand… some Christian teenagers are rushing to get a tattoo… in direct violation of the fifth commandment.”

“Under rock music, the secretion of hormones is more pronounced… which causes an abnormal imbalance in the body’s system… and impairs judgment.”

“The low frequency vibrations of the bass guitar, along with driving beat of the drum, affect the cerebrospinal fluid, which in turn affects the pituitary gland, which in turn directs the secretions of hormones in the body.”

“…The essence of the actual musical form tends to reproduce itself in human conduct.”

“Rock music… opens the door to psychological manipulation.”

And there are still five more chapters to go!

“’Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God’ (James 4:1). No Christian in his right mind would want to play around with this warning!”

“Can a rock ‘n’ roll song explain what is meant by God, sin, judgment, the death of Christ, repentance, faith, or justification? If not, how can it convey the gospel?”

“Can we truly touch peoples’ hearts by tickling their ears?”

“The drum trap set arrived on the platform about two months ago. The respect, reverence, and humility have vanished from our sanctuary.”

“Rock music in all forms is controversial, closely associated with ungodly behavior, and at times downright dangerous. Why then would Christian musicians choose it to accompany the praise and worship of God… to proclaim the gospel of his grace… risk causing false conversions and creating soft disciples… (and) choose to offend millions of other Christians”

“…in our times we are dealing with a troublesome style called rock…”

“Nowhere in the Bible does God command us to ‘redeem’ music, nor does Scripture give any examples of God’s people redeeming the evil music of a secular or pagan culture.”

“Music about God should be like God…”

“Would you expect to find this kind of music in heaven?”

“It is our conviction that rock music… is… contrary to the teaching of Scripture.”

“Turning your back on rock music would set you free from the need to wrench your church music away from its grubby associations from things such as rebelliousness, occultism, sexuality, and the drug culture.”

“By abandoning rock music… you would be free to experience an infinitely healthier dimension of Christian life and witness.”

“Time saved in advertising, planning, organizing, supporting, and attending gospel concerts, religious road shows and the like could be put to better use in activities that have clear New Testament backing.”

I could go on with more quotes but the basic gist of the argument is this: rock music is satanic in origin. The music itself is dangerous. It cannot be redeemed for God’s glory. It must not be used in church. It is unbiblical. Those who enjoy or employ this style of music do so at their own and at their congregation’s spiritual and literal peril.

Their stories are sad: people who fell into deep sin and for whom a hallmark of that period was the presence of rock music, pastors who forced a new style on a congregation, insensitive worship leaders, hurt congregation members, and the sad temptation for some Christian musicians to seek their own glory or wealth through performance.

Their warning is dire: rock music is destroying the church, endangering the proclamation of the Gospel, and has power over anyone exposed to its beat. The beat itself is evil. It was designed to induce rebellion. It is a tool of Satan and it must be resisted.

But their arguments are fatally and fundamentally flawed. It all boils down to how you view handiwork and how you view Jesus.

1. Handiwork
Music is God’s handiwork. And guess what? We have been given dominion over handiwork.

Harold Best says it excellently in his book Music Through the Eyes of Faith:

“As glorious as the creation is, it was merely created and not begotten. A strawberry, a galaxy, a dolphin, and a sea lion are not in the image of God. They are handiwork, pure and simple, thus of an entirely different order.

The next point is crucial. Having made the creation and having created us in his image, God has given us particular assignment that could not have been given to any other created beings. In telling Adam and Eve to rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground (Genesis 1:28), God was setting down a basic principle. Man and woman, created in the image of God… are neither the same as the rest of creation nor subject to it. While materially they can be outweighed by a mountain or overpowered by the force of the ocean, and while they are incapable of changing the speed of light, they cannot be morally, spiritually, or behaviorally overcome by anything in the creation around them.”

– The Creator Is Not the Creation and the Music Maker Is Not the Music, pg. 16

News flash, my Christian brother or sister: you have dominion over handiwork. Therefore, no beat, no chord progression, no rock band, no orchestra, no modulation, no snare drum pattern, no organ prelude, no electric guitar rhythm, and no brass trio has any power over you.

It would be absurd for me to look at a toaster and say to the person next to me: you better be careful standing next to that toaster. If it starts clicking to a certain rhythm, it will make you want to do drugs and have sex and rebel against God. It would be absurd because it would be granting a power to the toaster that it does not have. It would be making an idol out of the toaster to say that it has power over your actions.

We all know the power of music. The gift and the danger of it is that it moves us. All styles. All genres. All instruments. An unaccompanied chant can move us. A rock band can move us. Music moves us, and that’s how God (not the Rolling Stones) designed it. This is why anyone, whether it’s a choir conductor, a worship leader, an organist or a trombonist, must be careful. So God has given us the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:17), to help us steward his gifts (like music) with wisdom.

But it’s one thing to say music has power to manipulate our emotions and it’s an entirely different thing to say that music has power to manipulate our behavior, expose us to demonic influence, or keep us from proclaiming the Gospel. To quote Steve Brown, that’s a lie straight from the pit of hell and it smells like smoke.

The Christian has dominion over handiwork. Therefore, music does not have dominion over us. Even more therefore, the Christian can use any and all sorts of music to the glory of God. Nothing is outside the bounds. This is real freedom. And unless this makes you slightly uncomfortable, you probably don’t get it yet.

More from Harold Best:

“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

Oh, how wonderfully freeing and exhilarating a thought: Jesus, the “perfect one”, the sinless, spotless, perfect Lamb of God, sang songs written by sinful people, in his generation, and he did so to his Father’s glory and pleasure.

God has given us music. It’s his handiwork. And he’s given us dominion over handiwork. If songs and melodies written by sinful men were still good enough for Jesus to sing, then we must not fear that we are in any danger because of them.

To say that a particular beat or genre or instrument can never be used to glorify God is to say that there are areas where God’s rule does not extend. And it is also to say that Jesus doesn’t offer full justification and redemption. And that leads to my final and most important point.

2. Jesus

“For by a single offering [Jesus] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Hebrews 10:14

One offering, once and for all (1 Peter 3:18), Jesus Christ crucified, makes me faultless before the throne (Jude 1:24), gives me confidence to approach the Father with confidence (Hebrews 10:19), not by my own merit (Ephesians 2:8), or because of my own efforts, but because I’ve been redeemed by Jesus (Romans 3:24).

Jesus covers all my sin. All of it.

And he covers all of my music too.

There is no indication in scripture that once you become a Christian and are “in Christ”, that is, reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18), God’s pleasure with you or your offering is based any longer upon your own or your offering’s goodness. The purest we can make ourselves is still filthy before a holy God. The most innocent we can make our offerings is still not enough to prevent them from defiling his most holy place on their own.

Our selves and our offerings are covered by the blood of Jesus when we put our trust in him.

No music on its own is acceptable to God. Suppose you discovered a man on earth who had sinned the least. And this man had never heard any music before to corrupt his ears, never read any tawdry gossip to corrupt his mind, and never been tempted by an image. Suppose this man composed a beautiful symphony, performed by nearly-as-equally sinless as him. We can call this the most-pure musical offering that man can offer.

Now suppose you discover a worship leader who has committed his fair share of sins. He’s listened to all kinds of music, some good, some not so good, and some really good. He only knows a few chords and he really enjoys using those few chords to write simple worship songs and playing them with a band. There’s a drummer and bass player too. The genre could be classified as “rock”. They lead the singing at a church that meets in an old warehouse in Chicago. It gets a bit loud sometimes. We can call this the below-average not-terribly-refined, loosely rock ‘n’ roll offering.

Which of these gets closer to being acceptable to God on their own? The one composed by really good people? Or the other one that’s composed by a guy who listens to Coldplay and leads worship on the side as a volunteer? Which one pleases God more?

Answer: neither. God’s acceptance of an offering has absolutely nothing to do with that offering’s or the offerer’s goodness.

Our being accepted – and our music being acceptable – is 100% based on Jesus’ perfect sacrifice. We come to the Father through Jesus. Period. No other criteria. No other basis. No other questions asked.

We can’t make music perfect enough to please a perfect God.

In God’s eyes there is no “more acceptable” or “less acceptable”. Its all or nothing.

The good news of the gospel has far-reaching implications. Farther reaching than we might like to believe. So far that our music making is implicated.

Those who maintain that rock music cannot and should not be used in church are making a grievous mistake: they forget that Jesus is the only thing that makes our music and us acceptable to God.

God is great and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable (Psalm 145:3). Thrown into one giant pot, every worship team, choir, pipe organ, guitar, choir anthem, contemporary song, bass guitar pattern, trumpet descant, four chord progression, Handel’s Messiah, chant, sung Psalm, and drum set add up to about 1/900,000,000th of the glory God is due. His glory is unfathomable.

And so God says to us: here is music. Use it, and use it well. You have dominion over it. Use it to my glory. And here is my Son, he will redeem you and make a way for you to offer it in my very presence. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6)

How to Handle Anonymous Criticism

This morning I checked my mail box and found this anonymous hand-written note that someone had dropped in our offering plate this past Sunday:

“The song leader does not know how to end this LONG service, my last here. (Frown face).”

How do you handle anonymous notes?

Step one: read them.

Step two: consider their content.

Step three: throw them away.

When someone takes the time to talk to me in person, call me, or write me a letter with a concern, comment, or criticism, I take it very seriously. While I might conclude that what they’re saying shouldn’t cause me to change my course, oftentimes this is the way God chooses to bring needed correction or insight that I would otherwise miss.

But when I receive an anonymous note like this, I don’t take it seriously at all. Since I am given no context to help me in considering (1) who is speaking, (2) what they’re saying, or (3) why they’re saying it, I am not able to discern whether or not this is the Lord speaking to me or just an angry person being angry.

I need God’s discipline, whether I like it or not. And when I need to be disciplined, God will do so out of love (Hebrews 12:6).

So even if an anonymous note might have a shred of truth in it, and might have something I need to hear, if its content is angry or unclear or hurtful, then it belongs in the trash. God will not communicate his loving discipline to me in a way that is mean spirited.

This isn’t to say that God’s discipline is pleasant. “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it”. (Hebrews 12:11) As I said earlier, oftentimes a painful conversation, phone call, or email will be the way that God chooses to speak something to me that I need to hear, whether I want to or not.

But his discipline won’t come in the form of angry scribbled notes in your box on a Tuesday morning. He’ll find another way and you’ll be able to recognize his voice. He always signs his name.