Liberating King: An Interview with Stephen Miller (And A Giveaway Too)

1A few months ago at the Doxology and Theology conference in Louisville, I met Stephen Miller and enjoyed getting to know him a bit. Stephen is a worship leader, recording artist, and a song writer, not to mention a husband to Amanda, a father to five children, and a pastor. For many years Stephen led worship at The Journey in St. Louis. He’s now the worship pastor at Real Life Church in Austin.

This week Stephen released his latest album “Liberating King“. You can read a great review of the album on WorshipLinks here. I wanted you to get to know him a bit better, so I asked him to answer a few questions about worship leading and ministry.

JB: Tell us a bit of your story: how you came to put your trust in Jesus, and how you got into worship leading.

SM: I grew up in church. My mom had me there every time the doors were open. I went down to pray a prayer at a Vacation Bible School when I was 8, but I don’t know that I really connected intimately with my belief in Christ until I was a sophomore in high school. God just met me in my bedroom one day as I was listening to this song that talked about Jesus dying for me and I was just wrecked out. I fell on my face there in my bedroom and said, “God I’m yours. Whatever you want. Here I am.” Didn’t think that would be worship leading. I wasn’t into church music at that time. It was all what I call Hand Wavey Guy, leading a choir and orchestra and I just wasn’t into that as a high school kid. But later that year I went to a camp and saw band lead worship for the first time, and I remember thinking, “Maybe that’s what God’s calling me to do.” So my Junior year, my youth pastor asked if I would start leading our student ministry in worship each week, and God just sort of had his hand on it and it grew from there.

JB: What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made as a worship leader?

SM: Man, I wish I could count them all. I think not knowing the people I was leading is huge. I would try to impose my world view on a room of people who just weren’t on the same page. Rather than meeting them where they are, I would just get angry and frustrated and think it was all their fault. But in the end it was a leadership problem for me. God was saying, “Be patient. Stay faithful. Trust me.”

JB: What are three main things worship leaders should always strive to do, regardless of their context?

SM: I think so much of the modern worship leader’s role is a song leader. So choosing songs that present the Gospel in a God-centered, clear and concise manner, then striving to sing those songs as excellently as you can so that as far as it’s up to you, there is no distraction from the glory of God. You want people to see him and respond to his majesty. So I think the third thing is to ensure that your own prayer life and worship life is active and vibrant, and that you are growing in your own knowledge of God each day, as well as walking in the obedience of faith that leads people to worship off the platform.

JB: You wrote a book a few years ago called “Worship Leaders: We Are Not Rock Stars”. How can worship leaders battle the temptations of fame and popularity

SM: Fame and applause are intoxicating, man. They’re like well-trained assassins waiting to take you out. We all love attaboys and attagirls. It’s just part of who we are. But I think that the way to combat that is firstly to realize that your greatest identity is not in your functional role as a worship leader, but as a redeemed and adopted child of God. That you’re a worshiper before you’re a worship leader. When you practice that private life of intimacy with God, it does change you. When you fill your mind and mouth and memory with the Gospel – even when no one is looking – it grounds you and centers you. And then I think having people around you who know you and can help keep you on track and encourage you when you’re distracted or down – that’s so key. That’s the beauty of the local church family too I think.

JB: If you had to summarize the calling of a worship leader in one sentence, what would you say?

SM: Be faithful to love the people God puts in front of you by giving them a huge picture of who God is and what he has done, so that they can respond in worship.

Thanks, Stephen, for your heart to see God’s people sing to him and delight in him!

GIVEAWAY INFO:
If you’d like to get a free copy of Stephen’s new album, leave a comment below. On Friday (5/22) at noon I’ll choose three random commenters and they’ll get a code to download the album for free.

GIVEAWAY UPDATE:
The three winners have all been emailed a free download link. Thanks everyone!

The Embrace of Musical Convergence (And Its Implications for Traditional Church Choirs)

Convergence

There are three common music models in western/protestant/liturgical churches these days:

1. The traditional model. The music is almost exclusively classical, and any contemporary elements are on the fringes.

2. The contemporary model. The music is almost exclusively modern, and any traditional elements are on the fringes.

3. The ping-pong model. There’s a traditional side and a contemporary side. Each side gets its turn, at its own service, or with its own songs, and there isn’t a whole lot of unity or cooperation.

Is it possible for a church with a history of a traditional music program (choir, organ, hymnals, handbells, etc.) to embrace modern forms of music (bands, vocalists, projected lyrics, “worship teams”, etc.) without the traditional music dying as a result?

Yes, it is possible. And that’s what my church, our congregation, our choir, our instrumentalists, and I are pursuing these days.

We’re pursuing a fourth model, which is called “convergence”. Maybe you call it “blended”. It allows for vibrant traditional music, and vibrant contemporary music, and it puts them together in one combined expression. Choir plus singers. Organ plus band. Traditional plus contemporary. 6th century plus 21st century. Liturgy plus spontaneity. We can play ping-pong when it’s called for, but we play together most of the time.

This “convergence” model accomplishes several things:
1. It’s faithful to our past
2. It builds a bridge to the future, and to those from outside our traditions
3. It’s a picture of the body (independence and interdepence)
4. It’s alive and messy and risky and new and exciting
5. It’s about addition, not about subtraction

Most importantly,

6. It demonstrates our unity in Christ

What does this model mean for a traditional church choir?

This model embraces the choir and calls them further up and further in. Is it different? Yes. Is it the traditional model? No. Is it calling more or less out of the choir than before? More!

In this model of musical “convergence”, being a member of the choir is not just about singing the anthem. It’s about singing and leading all of the songs in a service from beginning to end. From the call to worship to the final hymn. Every note of every song being an opportunity for the choir to fulfill a worship leading role, a congregational-singing-cultivating role, a visible role, an audible role, and a pastoral role. From challenging repertoire, to simple liturgical responses, to contemporary songs that will only (and should only) be in our repertoire for shorter seasons, the choir is being called to be an integral worship leading presence on all of it.

Here’s the kicker about “convergence”:

The addition of new things does not mean the subtraction of older things.

The experimentation with new forms does not mean the elimination of older forms. The birth of new songs does not mean the death of old songs. New singers and musicians on the platform don’t mean the replacement of other singers and musicians. We must force ourselves to think in terms of addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division.

The motto of “convergence” is “More! Older! Newer! All of it!” It’s leaning into what God’s doing, it’s being willing to be messy and make mistakes, and it’s trusting that the foundations are strong enough to handle adding some new structures. This isn’t demolition, it’s expansion. There aren’t any wrecking balls in sight, only more bricks.

And the Cornerstone isn’t going anywhere.

Classical musicians need not run in fear at the sight of an electric guitar. A drummer need not be banished to the youth room, hidden behind plexiglass, and surrounded by foam. Traditional choral repertoire need not be thrown into the trash can. There has to be a way for musical convergence to work. It can work when we love one another, when we keep the congregation singing along, when we exalt Christ above all things and above all preferences, and when we’re willing to take risks in an atmosphere permeated with God’s grace.

Here’s to keeping on trying to make musical convergence work!

Instrumental Music During Prayer Ministry

A few years ago I came across a series of CDs called “Prayer Songs”. These are instrumental recordings of Jeff Nelson on piano, and are designed to be played during times of prayer.

From Whole Hearted Worship’s website:

These unique CD’s were recorded in an atmosphere of prayer. As intercessors prayed together in one studio, Jeff Nelson, a gifted keyboard artist, songwriter, and producer, sat at a Yamaha grand piano in an adjoining studio, listening through his headset and musically interpreting the spirit of the prayers. The result is over 4 hours of “fragrant sounds” that will stir your worship & intercession. (The recordings are music only – not the spoken prayers.)

These recordings have served us very well over the years. At a service or a meeting when there is going to be an extended time of prayer ministry, we’ll often play these CDs to provide a buffer of privacy for people, and help people feel more comfortable staying and waiting and praying – not starting conversation or just leaving.

I used to feel like I was stuck playing guitar or piano for a couple of hours while a time of prayer ministry went on. I was thrilled to find these CDs and highly recommend them to you. You can order them through the link to Whole Hearted Worship’s website above.

Music Through the Eyes of Faith – Pt. 2

Yesterday I shared some quotes from Harold Best’s book “Music Through the Eyes of Faith”. (See part one).

Here are some more quotes from chapter 1 (“God’s Creation, Human Creativity, and Music Making”) that struck me as being powerful arguments for using all sorts of varieties of music for God’s glory, and learning how to love them all.

“The creation, at first glance, appears to be full of anomalies. Because there are lobsters and hummingbirds, deserts and rain forests, turtles and people, we might be tempted to believe that a mixture of creative opinions has been at work, as assortment of deities, if you will, who have either compromised with each other or concluded their business in outright disagreement. How could the same Someone think up a hippopotamus and then turn around and imagine an orchid? Is God inconsistent? Does God have any taste? Or is he a Creator whose sense of rightness and beauty are so complete that we will have a more comprehensive way of integrating all of the supposed anomalies and contradictions in human creativity? Is there a way for us to see if or how the music or Eric Clapton or Beethoven can fin a place among the musics of Japanese kabuki, the Balinese gamelan, the songs of Stephen Foster, an anonymous dreamer of songs in Africa, J.S. Bach, and Blind Lemon Jefferson? We need to find ways to validate artistic pluralism without becoming so sloppy as to allow anything.”
God’s Creation, Stylistic Pluralism, and Music Making, pg. 24

“…We may have no more aesthetic right to say that a sunset is more beautiful than an artichoke than we do to say that classical music is more beautiful than jazz or Gothic preferable to Bauhaus. Perhaps we need to compare Gothic with Gothic, jazz with jazz, folk with folk, and so on, before we get involved in trying to decide among them.”
God’s Creation, Stylistic Pluralism, and Music Making , pg. 25

“If the same God can think up a cucumber and a falcon, the same potter can make a vase and a free-form object, the same poet can make a simple couplet or an extended drama, and the same composer a Scripture song or a symphony.”
God’s Creation, Stylistic Pluralism, and Music Making, pg. 26

“A galaxy and a blade of grass may differ, but only in the expanse of quality. This should give us no excuse for overlooking the wonder in a blade of grass. The galaxy and the grass are put together in the same way: elemental particles are chained together, in the one case to make something small and, in the other, to make something exceedingly vast. It is the elemental parts, the “simple particles,” that, yet to be explained, remain the greater mystery. We can make the same mistake with simplicity and complexity that we do with worth and function when we see one as better than the other. What is simplicity in human creativity? Complexity? If complexity means more and simplicity less, then the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is complex and Braham’s “Lullaby” is simple. If complex means complicated and simplicity clear, then Karl Barth’s writing is complex and C.S. Lewis simple. And if the cathedral of Notre Dame is complex, the great pyramids of Egypt are simple. Which of these is better? More profound? … Which is more profound, the brevity of the Golden Rule, or the cumulative rhetoric of the book of Romans?”
God’s Creation, Simplicity, Complexity, and Music Making, pages 30 and 31

Music Through the Eyes of Faith – Pt. 1

In 1993, Harold Best, emeritus professor of music and dean emeritus of the Conservatory of Music, Wheaton College, Illinois, and a former vice-president of the National Association of Schools of Music, wrote “Music Through the Eyes of Faith”, a book written to help Christians think biblically and critically about God’s amazing gift of music.

Every worship leader needs to read this book. Every musician needs to read this book. Every pastor needs to read this book. Really, every Christian should read this book.

My wife will vouch for how enthusiastic I am about this book. My shouts of “this is amazing!” or “can I read this to you?!?!” or “this is really amazing!” rose from the living room for the five or six nights it took me to read through it. What a remarkably rich, thought-provoking, Bible-saturated, well written book. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

I wish I could quote the entire book to you, but I’m afraid that might be illegal. For the next few days, though, I would like to share some of the quotes (some are fairly long – but they’re worth it, trust me) that I found most amazing.

Chapter 1: God’s Creation, Human Creativity, and Music Making
“God is directly and continually engaged with his handiwork. Natural laws continue to work because Christ is now saying so; the galaxies continue to speed away from each other because Christ is now saying so; we continue to live, move, and have our being because Christ is now saying so.”
God’s Names and Creatorhood, and Human Creativity, pg. 13

“Had God not made the creation, God would still be the Creator, self-caused, entirely complete. In a way that eludes us, the triune God can be eternally at work within himself, disclosing the fullness of himself to himself and infinitely rich within those disclosures. What does this mean to our creativity and music making? Above all, it means that we should not make music in order to prove that we are or to authenticate ourselves. God created in us the capability for understanding that we are authenticated in him, not in what we do.”
God’s Names and Creatorhood, and Human Creativity, pg. 14

“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

“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

More tomorrow.

Quotes taken from “Music Through the Eyes of Faith” by Harold M. Best.

Put the Music Stand Away

music_standI have a confession to make. This past weekend I came to the sad realization that I have become addicted to the music stand. I’ve become more and more dependent on it, not merely using it as a back-up, but using it as a crutch.

While leading “And Can it Be” on Saturday night I stumbled for the right chords, forgot the lyrics, and was too distracted to lead it confidently – all because I didn’t have the chord chart on the music stand in front of me. Usually if I don’t know the words I can look up at the screen, but I was too busy trying to figure out which chord came next to remember to do that!

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a complete train wreck, and since I wasn’t leading all by myself, I was able to hide my blunders for the most part. But as I’ve thought more about it, I’ve realized that it was the result of a growing dependence on always having the music in front of me, leading me to become a bit lazy and unprepared. While I’m sure many people didn’t notice, some did, and they were too distracted at times by my lack of practice to focus on the amazing love of the Savior that the song talks about.

My guess is that most worship leaders struggle with this “addiction” to the music stand as well. It seems unrealistic to be able to memorize so many different songs’ music and lyrics, and risky to lead without both in front of you at all times. But what ends up happening is what happened to me on Saturday night – we sing songs off of a page, not out of our hearts. This is a problem.

It probably isn’t realistic to memorize every single song’s music and lyrics. Your brain can play funny tricks on you sometimes, and you can completely forget how a verse starts, what the chord progression is on the bridge, etc. Because of this, it probably is a good idea to have the chord charts close by.

But having said that, it should be a goal of worship leaders to lead songs from their hearts, not from a piece of paper. We will lead more effectively if we have spent time not only getting familiar with the songs we’re going to sing, but allowing the truth in them to effect our hearts. We can all tell the difference between when someone reads a speech from a piece of paper or teleprompter, and when someone speaks from their heart with conviction. It shows a genuine belief in what they’re saying. The same applies to worship leaders.

If I’m standing before a congregation, I don’t want to send the message that I’m just caught up in a piece of paper. Instead, I want to send the message that I am caught up in a beautiful Savior. To do this, I need to prayerfully and humbly seek God’s help, and devote time and energy to memorizing the songs I’m leading as best I can.

This week I’m going to try:

  • Devoting an hour or more to singing and playing through the entire service’s song list once it’s finalized.
  • During the services, only have the chord charts in front me for songs that I don’t yet know by heart. This way I won’t be tempted to look at them out of habit, even when it’s not needed.
  • Prioritizing memorizing the lyrics to all the songs. The music is less important.
  • Going through rehearsal without looking at the chord charts at all. This will show me what songs I need to work on harder.

Paul wrote in Colossians 3:16 to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…” Memorizing the songs we lead is one great way to do that.