Simple Musical Settings of the Communion Liturgy

This year for Advent at my church we’re going to be singing these new settings of the communion liturgy that I wrote. Since Advent is a short season, there’s not much time to teach/learn new melodies for familiar liturgy, so I went with a simple melody that can hopefully be picked up pretty quickly. In many spots it’s just a repeated 1-2-3-4-5 musical scale.

Here’s a video showing how they go.

And here are the chord charts and lead sheets.

Nerdy liturgical note: There are two versions of the “memorial acclamation” in that video and in the PDF of chord charts/lead sheets. The first one is “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”. In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, that’s used in “prayer A”. The second one, “We remember His death, we proclaim His resurrection, we await His coming in glory” is used in prayer B, often used in seasons like Lent or Advent and that’s the one we’ll be singing at my church for the next four Sundays.

What Liturgy Should (And Shouldn’t) Aim To Do

My very earliest memories of corporate worship are from the small Episcopal church my dad pastored in Clewiston, Florida, from the time I was born until I was three years old. I have fuzzy memories of the smells, the baptismal font, the rows of wooden pews, and everyone standing up and holding books in their hands. I mostly drew in coloring books and/or ate Cheerios.

When I was a teenager, God’s call on me to serve the Church as a worship leader became increasingly clear. Since that time, I’ve only ever served in liturgical Anglican churches, with the same kinds of smells, baptismal fonts, wooden pews, and books in people’s hands. And while a lot has changed in the way corporate worship looks and sounds, the liturgy has mostly remained the same. There have been revisions here and there, different rites, liturgies from other parts of the world, and certainly many controversies, but by and large, the liturgy that guides the weekly worship of my particular branch of the protestant Church looks remarkably similar to how it did decades ago.

Liturgy has become more popular in recent years, so much so that now even many of my Baptist and non-denominational friends openly embrace the word, want to employ various liturgical elements in their services, and see its value. I think we all recognize that every church has a liturgy, after all. From the highest of high churches to the lowest of low churches, we have patterns, routines, traditions, and ways of doing things that end up becoming our liturgy. With that recognition comes a right and good (I just threw in a liturgical phrase for my Anglican nerd friends) desire to make sure our liturgy is intentional, rooted, pastoral, biblical, and effective in shaping people week after week with the good news of the Gospel through its pattern, structure, and substance.

For those of us who employ elements of a more traditional liturgy in our services, it’s worth asking the question from time to time, what should our liturgy aim to do? And on the flip side, what should our liturgy NOT aim to do?

On the positive side, a more traditional liturgy should aim to do a number of things:

Keep us rooted. Psalm 145:4 says “One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.” By sharing a liturgy that stretches back hundreds of years, we allow generations that have gone before us to commend God’s work and mighty acts to us now.

Keep us telling a story. It’s tempting for pastors and/or worship leaders to get stuck on their own hobby horses, their own favorite topics, and their own musical styles. A more traditional liturgy can keep us in the habit of telling a story when we gather, with a robust diet of Scripture, creeds, and prayers.

Keep us responding. We hear who God is, and we respond in confession. We hear that we are forgiven in Christ, and we respond with praise. We hear God’s his Word, and we respond in proclaiming what we believe. We hear the story of our redemption, and we respond with thanksgiving. The whole service is a dance of revelation and response, and revelation and response again.

Keep us focused on Jesus. The best thing liturgy can do is point us away from ourselves and to the glory of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. For example, the Church Year itself, from Advent to Pentecost, annually walks us through the story of God’s redemptive plan through Jesus’ coming, living, dying, rising, ascending, and sending of His Spirit. For a forgetful people who are prone to wander, the insistence of liturgy to point us to Jesus is a great gift.

But on the flip side, there are a number of things liturgies of any kind shouldn’t aim to do.

Impress God. This should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyways: our liturgy does not impress God. The beauty of our worship, excellence of our music, smells of our incense, or modernity of our technology does not impress God. We do not employ liturgy to impress God, we employ liturgy because it’s a gift from God to help us worship God. We worship God, not liturgy. God accepts our praise through Christ, not through a formulation of beautiful words.

Impress people. Liturgy is the plate, but God is the feast. It would be ridiculous for me to ask guests at my home to eat the plate on which I serve them their food. It’s similarly ridiculous for us to ask worshippers to be impressed with our liturgy. When our liturgy becomes the feast, we’ve got it all wrong. God is the feast, and we feast upon him in his Word. Liturgy is just another tool to help people “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” God’s living and active Scripture.

Impart faith. Saying the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed will not impart faith upon those who recite it. Saying ancient prayers will not cause a person to mean them. Listening to the words explaining the meaning behind communion will not bring a person to put their trust in Jesus. Over time, these liturgical elements may certainly help a person make sense of their faith, learn some helpful patterns of prayer, and understand what communion is all about. But liturgy should never be expected to impart faith upon people simply by being included in a service for years in a row.

Enliven stale services. The old saying goes “the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart”. That goes for worship services too. Simply tinkering with different factors – like musical styles, service times, set design, and liturgy – will not enliven stale services. Those factors are all very much secondary. The factor of first importance is the heart. The human heart is only ever truly satisfied by the One for whom it was created to glorify and enjoy. We start with the heart: helping people see, savor, sing, and celebrate the immeasurable riches of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to us even more clearly.

Then our liturgy will be seen in its proper place: as a tool that we can use as much or as lightly as needed, keeping the main thing the main thing, serving those people in our pews every Sunday, even the little kids with their coloring books and Cheerios.

Seminar on Thinking Surgically While Leading Liturgically

About a year ago I shared some thoughts in several posts (part one, two, three, four, and five) on the topic of how to use music as a tool, in the context of a more formal liturgical service, to lead vibrant worship. Liturgy doesn’t have to be a force of lethargy.

I was honored to be asked by Bob Kauflin to teach a seminar on this topic at the 2011 WorshipGod conference this past August in Gaithersburg, Maryland. I had been attending those conferences since 2002, and had been profoundly shaped and molded as a worship leader by them, so it was a real privilege to be able to give something back.

If you’d like to listen to or download the audio of this seminar (for free!) click here. And if you’d like the outline for this seminar, you can get that here.

And all the other seminar and main session messages are downloadable (again, for free) here.

Leading Worship at Weddings – Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I shared some tips about leading worship at weddings. For me, it’s a relatively normal thing to have worship songs at a wedding, and my post assumed it was normal to you too. But I received an email from someone with a question about this, which showed me that it might not be such a normal thing to people after all. He said:

Hey man I’m getting married this fall. Until you mentioned it, I never heard of singing WORSHIP SONGS at a wedding – like for the congregation. Never heard of that. Can you describe that a little more? Like give an example of a couple songs that are “wedding appropriate.” How does it fit into the ceremony? 

Thanks man! I kinda like this idea…. 

Here’s a bit of what I shared in reply.
Some wedding ceremonies are short, sweet, and to the point. You’re there to see the bride walk up the aisle, hear the preacher say some nice words, maybe hear a ballad of some sort, hear the bride and groom say their vows, see them kiss, and see them walk down the aisle as a married couple. 20 minutes and you’re done. The real party (the reception) can now begin! Not much room for worship songs in there.
There are benefits to that kind of wedding ceremony. But the two main negatives that I can see are that (1) it makes the bride the center of the universe and (2) it’s not a worship service.
I’m of the mind that a wedding should be a worship service, and that Jesus should be the center of it. This makes it a bit longer, makes non-Christian friends/family feel a bit more uncomfortable, and adds new questions/needs to a couple’s already long list.
In the Anglican church, here’s how this looks. (You can see the liturgy here.)
Instrumental music is played while the guests arrive and are seated.
When the bride enters, the people stand, and a more robust (and brief) musical piece is played until she reaches the front
Opening words:
The pastor address the congregation and the couple. He explains that God established the covenant of marriage, that it signifies the union between Christ and his church, that it is meant to last through prosperity and adversity, if God wills it to produce children, and not be entered into lightly or unadvisedly. He then gives the congregation and the couple one last chance to name any reason why the marriage should not go forward. (This is always a fun moment.)
Declaration of consent:
The pastor asks the bride and groom if they will have each other to be their spouse for the rest of their lives. He then asks the congregation if they will support the couple.
Songs of praise:
It is here where a time of worship can be included. The wedding party can step down from the platform and stand in the front row while the bride and groom either step to the side or also down from the platform. It can be just one song, or several, whatever works best. I would recommend familiar, truth-filled songs. This is a great way to preach the gospel to your non-Christian friends and family. What are they going to do? Walk out of your wedding?
The ministry of the word:
2 or 3 scripture readings are presented by family members. You can do special or congregational songs in between them if you’d like, or if you think this is a better place than after the declaration of consent.
The homily
A fancy word for “short sermon”.
The marriage:
The man and woman exchange their vows. Then they exchange rings. Then the pastor joins their hands together and prays a blessing over them, ending with “Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder”.
The very first thing that happens after the couple is married is not a kiss or a song or a party – but a prayer. This is symbolic. Usually the Lord’s prayer is prayed (unless the service ends with communion, in which case it’s omitted), before moving on to a time of prayer that either the pastor can lead, or friends and family can lead. In some wedding, parents and siblings will come up and lay hands on the couple.
The blessing:
The husband and wife kneel, and the pastor prays a final prayer of blessing. Then the couple may kiss, the congregation usually celebrates, the music kicks up, and the couple and the wedding party process back down the aisle and the service is over.
If you want to include communion in your service, it would happen here. Instead of processing down the aisle, there would be what we call “the passing of the peace”, a special song, then a time of communion. This is another place where songs of praise can be sung.
The result is a longer, more complicated wedding ceremony. But hopefully it helps set a tone for your wedding day, your marriage, and your family, that God’s glory is the priority, and Jesus is the center, even on the most important day of your life.

Thinking Surgically When Leading Liturgically: A Few More Nuggets

I need to wrap this little mini-series up or else I’m going to get stuck in it forever! There’s a lot more I could say, but I wanted to offer some brief final thoughts. I really hope these few posts (part one, twothree, and four) have helped those of you who serve in churches that use a more formal liturgy. Be encouraged!

Know your place in your church’s history
Most worship leaders have the mistaken notion at one point or another that they’re the best thing to happen to their church since Jesus ascended into heaven. The fact is, you’re only going to be there for 5, 10, 15, maybe 20, and in rare cases, 30 years. Take a good, hard, and honest look at your pastor, your congregation, your church’s history, and your church’s trajectory.

Here’s one way to go about this: ask the question, “what decade is my church stuck in?” The farther back your answer, the greater likelihood that your place in your church’s history is to be a loving, pastoral, patient, and faithful prodder. The more recent your answer, the more your role becomes that of a careful chef: making sure the time-tested recipes don’t lose quality or disappear altogether as a result of the new tweaks and ingredients that keep cropping up.

Learn the “capital equation”
I hated math all throughout elementary school, junior high, high school, and college. I really did hate it. The thought of having to sit down and figure out what c equals when b is x and there is a squiggly line over a with a little 2 next to it makes me want to run in fear.

But a simple equation has made all the difference in my attempts to help a formal liturgical church grow in its expression of corporate worship.

Build capital. Spend capital. Build back capital.

Here’s an example: you want to teach your church a song that written after 1985. This is a big deal and could result in World War III. Before you teach it, you do a bunch of old favorites (i.e. build capital). Then you teach the new song (spend capital). Then you do a bunch of old favorites (build back capital).

You’re welcome.

Know when to retreat (and save your energy for when it matters)
Staying on that theme of building capital, another way to protect yourself from being viewed as the enemy who hates liturgy is to know when to sit back and let the liturgy roll. Christmas Eve is probably one of these times. Don’t waste your energy on trying to get contemporary songs included if there’s a lot of resistance. Just wait. A few years down the road it won’t be such a big deal.

Repeat after me: this will take longer than I think. This will take longer than I think.

Yes, you’re right. It will.

Guard against cynicism
The danger of becoming cynical and bitter is something that all worship leaders have to avoid. But in settings where a worship leader is dealing with a congregation that is either resistant to, unfamiliar with, or downright against their efforts, that danger is especially high.

I encourage you to pray regularly – each time you’re getting ready to lead worship, actually – that God would give you a love for your congregation. Every church has its quirks. But liturgical churches have fancy names for theirs. They take those quirks seriously and when you’re starting to push up against them, your heart can become hard towards the people if you’re not careful. Pray that God would give you a soft heart for the people you’re standing before.

Handling discouragement
One of my favorite lines from a Rich Mullins song comes toward the end of “Hold Me Jesus” when he says “I’ve beat my head against so many walls that I’m falling down, I’m falling on my knees”.

Leading worship in a church that uses a formal liturgy will certainly make you want to beat your head against a wall sometimes. If you get anything from these points, get this: the frustration and maybe even exasperation you experience at times is not yours alone. It can be difficult!

But the answer isn’t to quit your job and try to work at an easier church. The answer is to fall to your knees. Jesus will give you a love and vision for serving the people he died to save.

Thinking Surgically When Leading Liturgically: Avoiding Token Songs

In most churches that have a formal liturgy and follow some sort of prayer book for their order of service, there are certain songs that get repeated more often than others. These are songs that are actually called for in the rubrics themselves. Every church eventually finds their own version of these songs that they prefer over others, and so they may very well end up singing these songs every week in the exact same spot.

These can quickly become “token songs”. We sing them because the liturgy dictates that we do, we could probably sing them in our sleep, we’re not really engaged with the words we’re singing, and we don’t even like them very much, but they check the liturgical box and keep the liturgy watch dogs off our back. (And they do exist.)

The Gloria
“Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth. Lord God, heavenly King, Almighty God and Father, we worship You, we give You thanks, we praise You for your glory”. It goes on. This is the text to the “Gloria”, of which there are hundreds of different settings in hymnals. It’s an amazing proclamation of praise and goes back hundreds of years.

Like I said earlier, most churches who sing a Gloria end up settling on one or two versions of it, and they sing the same version every single week for a very long time. For some churches it’s like the opening theme song.

In most prayer books that I’ve seen that dictate that a Gloria should be sung, I’ve also noticed an instruction sort of like this: “When appointed, the following hymn or some other song of praise is sung or said, all standing…” Notice the phrase “or some other song of praise”.

Did you know it said that? You don’t have to sing the Gloria. You can sing some other song. There’s usually more wiggle room in prayer books than people think. It’s wonderful when you realize that.

If you sing the Gloria in your church, try replacing it with a song of praise from time to time (or every week, or once a month), or even a block of songs. In most cases, you’ll have the support of the prayer book. This helps this portion of the service not get so formulaic and predictable.

The Doxology
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him, all creatures here below…” In most churches that follow a more formal liturgy, this song is sung every Sunday at some point in the service, and for people who have grown up hearing it every Sunday, it can be the most meaningful song in the entire service. That’s a good thing and that’s a bad thing.

You can always count on the congregation belting out the Doxology. It’s a great, ancient text the focuses our attention on the glory of God in three persons and calls us to praise Him along with all of heaven. It’s a wonderful, wonderful song in the Church’s repertoire.

But you can also count on a song losing its power when it’s sung every single week. This is why for the services at which I lead music, we sing it once, maybe twice, a month.

This can create a logistical problem, since in many churches the congregation sits for the offertory then stands for the Doxology while the offering is brought forward. If there’s no Doxology, then when is the congregation supposed to stand and let the offering come forward?

One answer: do a song for the offertory that’s congregational and have the people stand once the collection is done and join in singing part of the song in place of a Doxology. Tell the ushers that their cue to come forward is when you ask the congregation to stand.

Easy. Now you’re keeping the Doxology from becoming a token song and you’re freshening things up a bit.

An aside: keeping a service that sticks to a formal liturgy from feeling dead is all about little changes like this. You usually can’t make a huge change. But you can work around the edges and do things here-and-there that can make a huge difference when all added up.

The Sanctus
“Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are filled with your glory…” I posted some alternatives for the Sanctus several months ago and encourage you to read this post for some ideas. Don’t let this high point in the liturgy become robotic.

Agnus Dei
This might be referred to as something else (like a “fraction anthem”) in your church, but this is a song that is sung towards the end of the communion liturgy, after the priest has broken the bread. The traditional liturgical text is something along the lines of “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”

I have to be honest and say that in my experience, growing up liturgical churches, this is one of the greatest missed opportunities for preaching the gospel through music.

Right here, as people are preparing to come to the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and wine, and after they’ve heard the retelling of the story of Jesus instituting this Sacrament, is the perfect moment to sing the Gospel. Instead, frankly, we too often sing a dirge-like, dreary, minor-key song.

I get it – and I absolutely see that there are places for those kinds of songs and for praying for God’s mercy – but I think we serve our congregations better when we draw their attention to how God has already shown us mercy in giving us his son to take our place on the cross and receive the punishment we deserved to secure us eternal peace with God.

So instead of singing a traditional Agnus Dei, I draw from these. They each take about 1 or 2 minutes, which is the traditional length of the song in this spot. I pick and choose some verses and chorus, which I’ll detail below:

1. Here is Love Vast as the Ocean
– Traditional hymn
– Verse 1: “Here is love vast as the ocean, loving-kindness as the flood, when the Prince of Life, our ransom, shed for us his precious blood.”
– Verse 2: “On the mount of crucifixion, fountains opened deep and wide. Through the floodgates of God’s mercy flowed a vast and gracious tide.”

2. Jesus Paid it All
– Traditional hymn.
– Verse 2: “For nothing good have I, whereby thy grace to claim. I’ll wash my garments white in the blood of Calvary’s Lamb.”
– Chorus: “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe, sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.”
– Verse 4: “Lord, now indeed I find, thy power and thine alone can change the leper’s spots and melt the heart of stone.”

3. The Power of the Cross
– Stuart Townend and Keith Getty
– Verse 1: “Oh to see the dawn of the darkest day, Christ on the road to Calvary…”
– Chorus A: “This the power of the cross: Christ became sin for us. Took the blame, bore the wrath, we stand forgiven at the cross.”
– Verse 4: “Oh to see my name written in the wounds, for through your suffering, I am free…”
– Chorus B: “This the power of the cross: Son of God, slain for us. What a love! What a cost! We stand forgiven at the cross.”

4. Jesus Thank You
– Pat Szcebel
– Verse 1: “The mystery of the cross I cannot comprehend… You the perfect Holy One crushed your son, who drank the bitter cup reserved for me.”
– Chorus: “Your blood has washed away my sin…, the Father’s wrath completely satisfied…, once your enemy, now seated at your table, Jesus, thank you.”

5. Grace Flows Down
– David Bell, Louie Giglio, Rod Pageant
– Verse 1: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. Amazing love, now flowing down from hands and feet the were nailed to a tree. His grace flows down and covers me.”
– Chorus: “It covers me…”

Those are just five suggestions of alternatives to a traditional Agnus Dei. There are many more songs/hymns you can adapt for this purpose.

Go for it.

Thinking Surgically When Leading Liturgically: Owning It

My wife makes the most delicious chocolate chip cookies.

But she hasn’t always.

At one point in her life, I’m sure when she was first starting out (before I ever met her), she made some mistakes. She put too much flour in. Not enough sugar. She didn’t bake them long enough. They came out too hard. They came out too soft.

But now, they’re always perfect. Really. I wish you could taste them.

One other thing I’ve noticed is that she no longer looks at the recipe. She’s made them for me enough times that she knows the recipe by heart. In other words, she “owns” the recipe. It’s hers. It not just written down somewhere, but she knows it well and has made her own adjustments to it to make the cookies taste just right.

No one likes eating a bad cookie. When you look at it and pick it up it has such promise. Your mouth begins watering. Then you bite into it and are filled with disappointment.

It’s not the cookie’s fault that it tastes bad. It could be the person who wrote the recipe, or the person who didn’t read the recipe correctly, or the person who left them in the oven too long. But you can’t blame the cookie itself.

A good cookie is a work of art. It’s a thing of beauty. It’s something that satisfies whoever eats it. It’s the fruit of a good baker who knows his or her way around a kitchen and who owned the recipe to the point of deliciousness.

The same principle applies to liturgy.

You’ve got to own it for it to be really good.

You’ve got to get enough experience and familiarity with the different recipes and ingredients that you can put it all together and make it delicious. A worship leader is like a baker: you want to feed people something good, something Gospel-filled, something long-lasting, and you have different ingredients to work with.

Depending on your denomination/culinary style, you’ll have some ingredients that are required and some that are optional.

In my setting, in a communion service, we must follow a certain order, have a certain number of readings (one of which is the gospel reading), a sermon, prayers, offering, communion liturgy (four prayers to choose from), and closing prayer (two prayers to choose from). Our prayer book makes clear what isn’t negotiable. If we are to tinker with any of those things, it’s our pastor’s call. He’s the head chef.

But there are other things that are optional. We can sing one opening song or four. We can have songs in between the readings or no songs at all. We can have the Nicene creed directly after the sermon, or go directly into a time of prayer. The offertory song can be congregational or an anthem. We can sing many different songs as a Doxology. I can have us say or sing a Psalm or other portion of scripture during the songs. We can sing special music during communion or hymns or newer songs.

Whatever kind of church you’re serving, you’ll be more effective the more comfortable you are with the recipes. Until you are, odds are that your liturgy isn’t going to be as satisfying as it could be. There is some bad liturgy and bad theology in every prayer book, but the more comfortable you are with it, the more you’ll be able to throw in other ingredients to offset the bad and make the final product more edifying.

Become well versed in whatever liturgy source from which your church draws. Look at the different types of services (i.e. morning prayer, evening prayer, Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation, etc.) and look through old church bulletins to see what adaptions to the recipe have crept in. Maybe the adaptations are good. Maybe they’re not so good and you should revert back to the original!

You’ll usually find that the older versions of prayer books are more doctrinally sound than the newer. The newer the prayer book, the more watered-down and politically correct its theology, the less hard-hitting view of our sinful nature, the less central role Jesus holds, and the more wimpy its prayers. Look for versions of your church’s prayer books from 30, 50, 100 years ago, and in most cases you’ll find better ingredients and more trustworthy contributing chefs.

Last tip: pay special attention to the “mays”. As in, “a song may be sung” or “the Nicene creed may be omitted” or “the officiant may say”. It’s in these “mays” where you’ll find some wiggle room for “owning” the liturgy, making some adjustments, and keeping things from getting bland. No one likes eating a bad cookie. They deserve better.