When the Church Wounds You

Six weeks ago I began a four-month long sabbatical, for a whole lot of reasons, not the least of which was to have the time and space to heal from a couple decades’ worth of bumps and bruises and scrapes and scars caused by the everyday journeys of life and ministry. The break from weekly worship leading has allowed me to slow down, zoom out, and examine myself and my ministry from 30,000 feet. God has graciously, mercifully, and sometimes painfully, shown me some areas that need his attention, and I’m very acutely aware that there are a lot of people praying for me. The Holy Spirit is doing his work of convicting, counseling, and comforting, and even while I’m knee-deep in five seminary classes this semester, I’m feeling refreshed and renewed.

Every single person in ministry bears their own wounds and has their own stories of how they’ve been hurt. And in the last six weeks alone I’ve had the chance to have long phone conversations with several worship leader friends of mine who are burned out, who have left worship ministry, who are thinking about it, who needed a break a long time ago but haven’t had the opportunity, who have been let go, or who feel like a car stuck in the sand, just spinning their wheels and not getting anywhere. They each have their own stories of being hurt while serving different churches, and while they genuinely want to be effective in ministry, they’re finding that it’s difficult to do so when you’re in pain.

A few weeks before I began my sabbatical I had one of those infamous conversations where someone told me something they had heard from someone else, who had talked to someone else, who had conveyed something they heard second-hand from someone, who heard it from someone somewhere. You know the kind of game-of-telephone thing I’m talking about. The particular thing that was communicated to me, and the particular dubious source from which it originated, was not surprising to me in the least, but it still hurt. Why? Because it happened to rub up against one of those wounds from decades earlier. It wasn’t the thing itself that hurt, but it aggravated an old wound.

I explained that kind of scenario to another worship leader friend of mine by likening it to when you walk into a room and smell something that takes you back to an old house or an old memory from 25 years ago. In an instant, you’re transported back in time. She told me that she knew exactly how I felt, and then proceeded to tell me something that had just happened to her the morning before our conversation. For her, it wasn’t the particular “thing”, but it was how it smelled, and what that smell evoked.

Being in a ministry is a wonderful privilege and joy. And it is also an exhausting and painful experience. When the Church hurts you, it leaves a wound. And when we’re not honest about those wounds, to quote an old seminary professor of mine, “it messes us up”.

We get resentful towards the Church. We become hardened. We react to almost everything with cynicism. We lead out of a defensive posture. And in our heart of hearts, we want to run away. It’s all understandable, and every single person in ministry has experienced (or is currently experiencing) these symptoms. It doesn’t mean anything’s wrong with you, but it does mean God is getting your attention.

These are like the check engine lights in your car, and you have to pay attention to them unless you want to wind up on the side of the road. And we all know people who have ignored those warnings for too long, and pushed it too hard, and eventually broke down. To be honest about our wounds, we need to be able to pull over, stop, allow the Lord to look under the hood, and with the Godly counsel of pastors, friends, counselors, and the healing balm of the Word of God, begin to actually heal. Warning: it will involve some pain, some discomfort, some forgiving, and some rest. It might involve some counseling, perhaps a break from ministry, and some difficult conversations. But you don’t need to pretend you’re not hurt, you don’t need to feel alone in this, and you don’t need to burn out.

Yes, the Church will wound you, and then by God’s grace, he will use the Church to help heal you.

We have to be willing to walk that road of vulnerability and healing. Most of us don’t get sabbaticals very often, but all of us can ask the Holy Spirit to help us take inventory of ourselves – and of how we’re really doing – and let God begin to soften hardened places, heal wounded places, and address neglected areas.

Then, in his sovereign wisdom, God will take our stories and wounds and use them for our good and for his glory, that Jesus would be exalted in our lives and through our songs, magnifying the one who bore our wounds on the cross.

Red Flags

Adding members to a worship team, a choir, or really any volunteer team is one of the most important and consequential jobs of a worship leader. It requires patience (when no one is stepping forward), discernment (whether or not someone is gifted), wisdom (is this person suited for a leadership position in the church?), and leadership (am I building a team or expecting it to fall into place?)

I have made some wise decisions regarding whom to add to the worship team, and I have made some not-so-wise decisions. I’ve learned that there are some things to look out for (i.e. red flags) when considering whether or not someone should be asked to join the worship team.

Here are some red flags to be looking for (in no particular order of importance):

They speak bitterly about former churches
You will not break their cycle of joining a church, being on the worship team, and then leaving and trashing that church to the next church. Instead, you will probably end up joining the club.

They “need” to be on the worship team
Be wary of someone who approaches you about joining the worship team after only weeks at the church, someone who seems overly eager to sing or play an instrument on the team, or someone who is putting pressure on you. Instead of looking for a place to serve, they are looking for a source of self-validation. They really “need” to be up front. Watch out.

They really just want to play music and leave the worship leading to you
I tell my team quite often that I am not looking to build a team of back-up instrumentalists and singers. I am looking to build a team of worship leaders. If I’m auditioning someone and they just seem to be interested in playing music and unable to articulate a passion for helping people encounter God in worship, I would be hesitant to add them right away.

They aren’t committed to the church
Before someone is in a position of leadership at a church, they need to be committed to that church. Set a bar of expectations for the members of your worship team. You won’t regret it.

They say something like “I worship most easily when I’m leading worship”
This is usually code for “when I’m not up front I’m uncomfortable because I’d rather be up front”. People who really want to be up front maybe shouldn’t be up front as much as they’d like, for their own good. (See my post from a very long time ago: “Do You Worship When You’re Not ‘Leading Worship’?”)

They are over-confident
I once had a woman come up to me after a service and say “I would love to join you on the worship team some time. I used to sing many years ago. Feel free to call on me anytime. I don’t need to audition or anything like that. I’d be fine.” You might want to encourage that audition.

They are already over-committed
I’ll always ask a potential worship team member “do you have space in your life for another commitment?” Then I’ll tell them what is expected of worship team members. If they seem excited about making this commitment and able to fulfill it, that’s an encouraging sign. If they seem burned-out just thinking about it, that’s a red flag.

They don’t enthusiastically participate in singing from the pews
Look for them on a Sunday morning when they’re in the pews. Imagine they’re the one leading worship and you’re the one looking at them on a platform. Whatever message they’re sending in the pews will be greatly magnified on stage.

They take it lightly
I remind my team quite frequently that being on the worship team means being in a position of leadership. Make sure that any person you add to your worship team feels that weight and takes it seriously.

Add to your team slowly, intentionally, and wisely. Look for red flags and don’t just hope they’ll disappear. They hardly ever do – and they’re a whole lot harder to handle once you’ve already taken the plunge.

Pressing On, Feeding God’s Sheep

dryYou’ve been a worship leader at your church for nine months now. When you took the job you had high hopes for your new ministry. You really clicked with the pastor and some of the search committee members. You had a deep peace that God was leading you to move to this new city and take on a new challenge. And you knew it would be a challenge. The worship team was a mess, the congregation was opinionated, the sound system was laughable, the song repertoire was weak, the drummer couldn’t keep time, and the previous worship leader had quit after six months. You were comfortable where you were but took this new job out of obedience to God.

Nine months later and it’s been more challenging than you could have imagined. You’re frustrated with your pastor. A few members of the worship team have stepped down and been vocal in their criticism of you. You look out on Sunday morning and it doesn’t look any one wants to be singing any of the songs you’ve chosen. Whenever you try to introduce a new song people ask why you “sing so many new songs”. You sit in your office during the week and feel like you’re trapped in a bad dream. You visit other churches or attend worship conferences and leave more discouraged and weary because you can’t imagine your own church ever looking like that.

Am I even all that good of a worship leader? What am I doing wrong? Was that person right when he quit the worship team and called me an egotistical control freak? Did I make a mistake taking this job? Would anyone care if I just slept in on Sunday and watched football? How amazing would it feel to tell my pastor “I quit”?

You’re confused, burned out, beaten up, angry, and disappointed. Your body is in church on Sundays but your mind has already packed up and moved away. It’s a lost cause. You’ve come to the realization that you’re not cut out to be a worship leader, the church you’ve been serving for two years will never change, and you made a mistake ever taking the job.

Don’t give up, worship leader friend. Press on.

“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! (Psalm 126:5)

You are in the thick of real-life church ministry. It can be discouraging, tedious, boring, low-paying, and dry. But your labor is not in vain. Every day you are able to drive to that church and serve those people, buy your drummer a cup of coffee and then head back to church and practice with him, talk with your pastor, and get up on Sundays with a desire to help people encounter God in corporate worship, you are making the soil more fertile. One drop at a time. You didn’t make a mistake taking this job, you might have just made a mistake thinking it would be easy. It won’t be easy. But if you’re faithful, it will be fruitful. You will reap that fruit one day.

You are doing the hard work a worship leader. It isn’t glamorous. Your worship team won’t be recording an album anytime soon but you love them and encourage them anyway. Your congregation won’t suddenly look like the crowd at the worship conference you attended but you model and encourage heartfelt singing anyway. Your pastor won’t be speaking at any huge conferences next week or writing any books but you honor and pray for him anyway. Your Sunday service is a bit boring and predictable but you keep praying for God to bring a freshness and vibrancy. There isn’t a worship leader in the world who can change a church through his polish and skill. There is a God who can change a church by his Holy Spirit. Keep doing the hard work in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So you’ve been sowing in tears for nine months. You can’t even imagine what shouts of joy would sound like. You’ve worked hard, labored faithfully, and done all that you know there is to do. Your high hope has become deep despair.

To the worship leader ready to quit and walk away in retreat, imagine the story in John chapter 21 went like this:

Jesus says to you, “worship leader, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

He says to you: “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus says to you a second time, “worship leader, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

He says to you: “Tend my sheep.”

Jesus says to you a third time, “worship leader, do you love me?”

“Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.”

He says to you: “Feed my sheep.”

Press on, worship leader friend. May your love for the Savior compel you, and may the power of the Spirit sustain you. Your tearful sowing will one day turn to joyful shouting. Don’t stop feeding his sheep.

Why We Project the Scripture Readings

FullSizeRender 5Earlier this year, my church began projecting the text of our scripture readings on Sundays. In our Anglican service, we have at least two readings from Scripture at each service. There are Bibles in the pews, and most people can now access a Bible on their own phone/tablet, so why project the Scripture text too?

We have at least four reasons:

1. Our international/English-as-a-second-language community has asked for it. Those who don’t speak English as their first language still really want to follow along and be engaged in our services, in English. The readings are difficult for them, because by the time they find/turn to the scripture that’s being read, it’s over! Seeing the scriptures read while they’re being projected is an immense help to those for whom the English language is still new.

2. We want people to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the scriptures as much as possible. The Bible is the “Sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). The more we can get people hearing and reading the Word of God, the better. There is power in actually reading the scriptures together. Hearing them is absolutely essential. We think reading them is essential too. Besides, getting the scriptures to be readable by lay people (in their homes, much less in church services) was a pretty big part of the reformation, and we think that it’s still important today.

3. We project almost everything else in our services, except for some of the liturgy the pastor prays before communion (since it’s printed in our Liturgy Books in the pews). By not projecting the Scriptures, we might inadvertently send the signal that they’re not as important as the song lyrics, creeds, prayers, responses, etc., when, in fact, they’re more important than all of those things combined.

4. We consistently attract non-believers, or new believers. We hear reports every week of people coming to church who have never been to church before, or haven’t been in decades. Through the Alpha course, and through relationships, we are regularly seeing a smattering of people in our services every Sunday who are non-Christians and/or non-churched. They don’t know what the big numbers mean (i.e. a chapter), what the little superscript numbers mean (i.e. the verses), or when Jesus is talking, or when he’s telling a parable, or whether “the Word of the Lord” is in the Bible, or just an extra thing we add. They are complete newbies to the Bible. How wonderful! Projecting Scripture makes it accessible, more follow-along-able, and less intimidating.

We want to encourage our congregation to read along on Sundays, either in the Bibles in the pews, or on their phones/tablets, or on the screens. Or all of the above!

In the words of Thomas Cranmer:

“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

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.