Don’t Be A Monkey

1Early on in my experience as a worship leader, I was pretty convinced that whenever I ran into any sort of opposition or problems or inertia, the solution was that I needed to get my way.

Service feels dead? I should be allowed to do whatever I want to do. 

Musicians not performing well? You should let me clean house or crack the whip.

Only time for two songs? If you loved Jesus you’d give me time for at least five.

You don’t want to project lyrics? Then obviously you’re a neanderthal.

I’m supposed to get advice from a committee? A waste of my precious time.

I can’t have my own office? I’ll make as much noise for as many months as it takes for me to get what I want.

No one is singing? They’ll catch on soon enough once they come to appreciate my underlying brilliance.

You thought I repeated that song too many times? I should have repeated it more.

You want me to submit my song list to who? I hear directly from God.

The list could go on but I’ll spare you any more glimpses into my immaturity (none of which still exists today, of course… ahem…) or self-centerdness. I was convinced when I was first starting out leading worship that I had (a) all the answers, (b) all the insight, and (c) all the skills rolled into one worship leading powerhouse package: me.

And my artistic temperament coupled with my sinful nature and with a dash of preacher’s kid-itis thrown on top resulted in a working assumption that my degree of satisfaction and my ability to thrive in ministry was directly correlated to much freedom I had to do things my own way.

I once heard a statement (I can’t remember from whom) that the higher a monkey climbs up a tree, the better you can see his butt. This would describe the worship leader I was when I first started out. A monkey who wanted to climb high, high, high up the tree all on his own and be allowed to swing freely from the branches doing his own thing.

The problem? I’d eventually fall off one of those branches and I wouldn’t be able to blame anyone else but me.

Here’s my point: don’t make the mistake of thinking that the solution anytime you face opposition, or problems, or inertia, is that you be allowed to get your way. Many times that is completely the wrong solution.

Consult with others, submit to others, team up with others, bounce your ideas off of others, learn the political landscape from more experienced people around you, listen a lot, keep your mouth closed in meetings unless you’re sure you have the right thing to say, pursue humility, and above all things, make it about Jesus, not about you.

Too many worship leaders make mountains out of mole hills when they reflexively turn away from conventional wisdom or common sense or pastoral restraint, and instead do things their own way. When you do that, you’re the monkey climbing the tree. You’ll have fun and get some “oohs” and “ahs” at first, which will feed your ego, but then you’re in for an embarrassing fall.

Take it from me! Getting your own way is not always a good idea in the long run. There’s a difference between getting your way and implementing a vision. Pursue the latter option.

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.

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.

Lessons From the Last Decade: Criticism, Controversy, and Conflict

1It’s been a wonderful ten years in ministry at my church. And it’s also been very hard.

Some of the hardest moments have come when I’ve been the recipient of criticism, the cause of controversy, and involved in conflict. Sometimes the criticism was justified, and I needed to hear it, but other times it was just someone being mean and hurtful. And sometimes the controversy was because I had unknowingly ruffled some feathers, while other times it was because I stumbled into some spiritual strongholds. And sometimes the conflict was over insignificant things like whether or not we should have drums play during communion, and sometimes it was over major things like whether drums are Satanic in origin or not (they’re not).

For many years I struggled with responding to challenges with defensiveness, all the while getting my feelings hurt, my ego bruised, and my identity in limbo. I’d write multi-page emails responding to a woman’s harmless complaint about volume, or I’d be a bit of a jerk in a meeting with someone who thought the 4/4 rock beat was going to cause people to lose their salvation, or I’d get depressed, lose sleep, and get overwhelmed.

Ministry can be very tough and lonely at times. Especially when you have detractors. What do you do?

Cling to the good news of Jesus Christ
You. Are. Hidden. In. Christ. That’s very good news. And you can’t let yourself forget it when you’re someone’s target. You are safe, you are loved, you are accepted, and you are covered by Jesus’ blood. It’s amazing how freeing this is, and how bad things can get for you when you forget it.

Rest assured: most of the time it’s not about you
When you have the unfortunate experience (and you will) of being the target of someone’s displeasure, remember that it’s most likely not about you. Maybe it is. But most of the time it’s not. Address their concerns, listen to them, and respond with grace. Apologize if you need to and then move on. Don’t let someone fixate on you. If they’re mad, it’s probably because they’re sad.

Practical tip #1: stay away from email
Email is good for everyday stuff. It’s bad for weighty stuff. An in-person conversation is ALWAYS better. Always. One of the biggest mistakes (or, sequence of mistakes) in my last ten years was keeping a multi-week dialogue over email running with someone who was very upset with me. It was terrible. I should never have allowed it to go on like that.

Practical tip #2: have hard conversations in neutral territory
Another one of the biggest mistakes I made was insisting that someone come to my office for a difficult conversation. Understandably, they flat-out refused. Never insist on dealing with difficult issues in your office. It immediately places you in the “winning” position. Find a public place, like a Panera with semi-private-yet-public booths. The dynamic is instantly more favorable for a good conversation, not a confrontation. If a conflict has reached a point where it needs to be in an office, have it in one of your pastor’s offices with him present.

Be quick to make it right
Just get it over with and reach out to someone with a personal card, or a phone call, or a coffee, and put the difficult issue to rest. The longer it drags on, the more the molehill becomes a mountain.

Be steadfast
Too many people in ministry are incredibly afraid of the slightest whiff of criticism, controversy, or conflict, that they’ll do anything to avoid it, including changing their mind, accommodating the critics, weakening their convictions, and literally trying to keep everybody happy. This is one definition of insanity. Sometimes you just need to stick to your guns.

Never forget: you have been called by God
God is faithful. He will defend you. He will accomplish his purposes in and through you. No elder board, no angry member, no petition, no nasty email, and no “I’m going to leave the church unless…” should frighten you. You can sleep well and let him deal with your problems for you. You’ll be much happier in ministry and you’ll last a lot longer too.