What to Do with Advent – Pt. 1

We’re now in the season of Advent, the liturgical season leading up to Christmas. The word Advent means, literally, “coming” – and this season helps us not only remember the expectation for the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago but to prepare ourselves with expectation for Jesus’ coming again in glory.

If, like me, you lead worship at a church that observes this season in some way, you’re probably wondering what kind of songs work as Advent songs and what you’re supposed to do during this liturgical season. Here are some suggestions for ways you can help your congregation prepare for Jesus’ coming over these next few weeks.

Wait until Christmas to sing Christmas songs
Shopping malls put Christmas decorations up right after Halloween. Radio stations play Christmas music while Thanksgiving turkey is still on your plate. Why in the world would we wait so long to sing Christmas songs at church? Because the waiting makes a point. Making your congregation wait until Christmas to sing Christmas songs is a tangible way of fostering an atmosphere of anticipation and expectation. It might even unsettle some people. But through your intentional leadership, you can help people see that this is a season to prepare for Jesus’ coming. Go crazy on Christmas Eve, Christmas day, and the Sunday after Christmas. Hold your horses during Advent.

Sing Advent hymns
Some ideas:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (iTunes download)
Probably the most well-known Advent hymn. It has 8 verses, some of which were meant to be sung on certain days of the week leading up to Christmas. I usually use verses 1, 4, 6, and 7. There are lots of different versions of the text of this hymn floating around. I use the text from the 1982 Episcopal hymnal, although I’m sure there are better texts out there.

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
Sometimes I’ll give this hymn a driving 4/4 beat, and in between some of the verses I’ll use the refrain from Brenton Brown’s “All Who Are Thirsy” that says “come, Lord Jesus, come”. Here is a really rough recording (i.e. sound board mix – reduced quality for space reasons – with mistakes – never intended to be posted on the internet…) of us doing this at my church in 2006.

Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending” (verses 1, 2, 3, 5) (iTunes download)
Not the most well-known hymn in the world, but one of my favorites. I prefer the tune Helmsley. Don’t rush it and sing it too fast. Let the words really sink in.

Creator of the Stars of Night” (Alex Mejias’s version – iTunes download)
A simple, tender Advent hymn.

Other hymns that aren’t technically “Advent hymns” but that still have a theme of expectancy for Jesus’ return:

“How Great Thou Art” (lyrics) (iTunes download)
Verse three talks about “When Christ shall come…” Sadly, the version by Paul Balohce that I link to above omits this verse.

Jesus Shall Reign” (iTunes download)
I like the additional/alternate lyrics courtesy of Robert Critchley. Chord chart.

“Come Thou Fount” (iTunes download)
The often-omitted fourth verses talks about “…that day when, freed from sinning, I shall see thy lovely face…” and says “come, my Lord, no longer tarry…” A great prayer for Advent. I like the additional/alternate lyrics courtesy of Bob Kauflin.

My friend, Alex Mejias, has just released a great CD of re-worked Advent hymns. Check it out at his website, http://www.highstreethymns.com. Or purchase it on iTunes here.

Tomorrow I’ll share some contemporary songs that work well during the season of Advent.

Songs of Thanksgiving

Seeing as how it’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, hopefully you’ve already picked songs for your service tonight or tomorrow morning. But in the event that you’re scrambling for some last-minute ideas, or continuing the theme of thanksgiving this coming Sunday, here are some songs that I’ve found to be good fits.

My criteria for a good “Thanksgiving song” is one that helps the congregation articulate gratefulness to God for what he’s done for us in Jesus Christ, and how he’s proven his faithfulness to us. I’m not terribly concerned with how often the song says the word “thanks” or the phrases “thank you” or “home made pumpkin pie”.

“My Heart is Filled with Thankfulness”
Keith Getty and Stuart Townend
Sheet Music/lyrics
iTunes song download

“Forever (Give Thanks to the Lord”
Chris Tomlin
Sheet music/lyrics
iTunes song download

“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”
Words by Robert Robinson, 4th vs. alt. words by Bob Kauflin. Music by John Wyeth.
iTunes song download

“Great is Thy Faithfulness”
Words: Thomas O. Chisholm. Music: William M. Runyan
iTunes song download

“Blessed Be Your Name”
Matt and Beth Redman
Sheet music/lyrics
iTunes song download

“Jesus Thank You”
Pat Sczebel
Sheet music/lyrics
iTunes song download

“Once Again (Jesus Christ)”
Matt Redman
Sheet music/lyrics
iTunes song download

“Receive the Glory”
Bob Kauflin
Sheet music/lyrics
iTunes song download

“What a Faithful God”
Robert and Dawn Critchley
Sheet music/lyrics
mp3 download (#34)

“Thank You, Lord”
Paul Baloche
Sheet music/lyrics
iTunes song download

Avoiding Abrupt Endings

It’s awfully jarring to be riding in the passenger’s seat while cruising 35 mph along a city street when all of the sudden the driver slams on the brakes. One second you’re looking out of your window at buildings and houses – and the next your head is bouncing back and forth against the head rest with no warning. Not very pleasant.

Similarly, it can be awfully jarring to be standing in the congregation, singing a song of worship when all of the sudden the worship leader slams on the brakes, and the song suddenly stops. One second your attention is fixed on God’s goodness and glory – and the next you’re acutely aware that everyone has stopped singing, the worship leader is turning his pages and taking his capo off, and your hands are still in the air. You figure you should put your hands down. Again, not very pleasant, and a bit embarrassing.

It’s probably safe to say that one of the most important goals of any driver is to prevent his passengers from experiencing whiplash. It doesn’t make for a very pleasant experience for them, it won’t exactly make riding with you an attractive option in the future, and it’s not what they’re looking for when they get in your car and strap in.

For the same reasons, it should also be an important goal for any worship leader to prevent his congregation from experiencing whiplash. It’s good to try to avoid abrupt endings.

Here are some ways I’ve found it helpful to avoid giving the congregation the sensation of having the brakes slammed on a song:

Ease on the brakes
Most worship music CDs don’t slow songs down at the ending. Instead, they might fade them out, stop them without slowing down, or cover up a “hard break” with applause. That’s nice for a CD, but usually not ideal for a congregation. While you certainly want to vary how you end songs and transition into the next, and it may be appropriate at times to have a “hard break” or encourage clapping after a song, a congregation is always grateful for a heads up. Start slowing the song down on or near the next to last measure and bring it to a nice smooth landing. Your goal isn’t to impress, but to pastor. This may mean sacrificing a cool sounding ending for a predictable one.

Linger on the last chord for a few measures
If I’m leading a song that’s in the key of G and we’ve come to the end, it might be appropriate to just linger on the G for a few measures, perhaps moving back and forth between that and a Gsus, or some sort of simple and predictable chord progression. I might keep playing the same tempo as the just-ended song, or slow it down, or start playing the tempo for the next song while still in the key of G. This provides a bit of a buffer after a song and helps avoid an abrupt ending.

Sing the last line a few times
Avoid singing the last line of a song just because it seems like that’s kind of what you’re supposed to do. It can become mindless repetition and lose effectiveness if it happens every time you sing a song. But if you’re ending a song and feeling like you’re coming close to slamming on the brakes, just go ahead and let the band cut out, the tempo slow down, linger on a chord or two, and then sing the last line together a few times. Maybe go back and sing the whole chorus, or the first verse, or the bridge. You don’t always have to end on the chorus. Whatever it is, there might be something you can repeat to help soften the ending a bit.

Choose songs in complimentary keys
I’m asking myself a lot of questions when I’m choosing songs – one of which is “will it feel musically natural to move from this one song to the next?” While it’s not the most important question and there may be occasions when it works to move from one song to another in a totally different and non-complimentary key, I will most often try to avoid putting myself and the congregation in a situation where there will have to be a clear break between one song and the other.

I try to keep in mind the Nashville numbering system when considering complimentary keys.

A quick crash course for those who don’t know what this is:
If I’m in the key of D, D is the “1”. E is the “2”, F# is the “3”, G is the “4”, and so on. If I’m choosing a song to follow up this current song, the three keys that lend themselves most naturally to a smooth transition would be stay on the “1”, or move to the “4” (key of G), or “5” (key of A). I won’t have to do an awful lot of maneuvering to get there.

This number system would apply to any key. If in the key of A, A is the “1”, B is the “2”, C# is the “3”, and so on.

I recommend Paul Baloche’s DVD, Music Theory Made Easy, to look at this idea in more detail.

You can get from any key to any key, of course, outside of my little box, and sometimes do it very smoothly. It just takes some thought and practice.

Think through and practice transitions
Don’t just pick 5 or 6 songs or hope they’ll flow well together. Think through and practice how to transition between them both musically and thematically. Choosing good keys and consistent themes make this a whole lot easier. Sing and play through them, in time, visualizing how it would feel on Sunday morning. If you’re not comfortable with it, keep practicing.

Every Sunday as your congregation “gets in the car”, they’re putting a certain degree of trust in you – that you’ll lead them well, that you’ve prepared for the trip, and that they can look out the window at the beauty of God without interruption. Take it easy on the brake and your congregation will be grateful.

The Problem with Postulating

highhorseI stumbled upon this quote by an Anglican pastor in which he offers criticism of “new Christian music” and I thought it was worth sharing:

There are several reasons for opposing it. One, it’s too new. Two, it’s often worldly, even blasphemous. The new Christian music is not as pleasant as the established style. Because there are so many new songs you can’t learn them all. It puts too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than Godly lyrics. This new music creates disturbances; people act indecently and disorderly. The preceding generation got along without it. It’s a money making scene and some of these new music upstarts are lewd and loose.”

The Anglican pastor’s name is William Romaine and his critique was featured in An Essay on Psalmody. It was written in 1723. The “new music” he was referring to? The hymns of Isaac Watts.

It’s really easy to criticize new music, idolize old music, and demonize what you don’t like.

A few words of caution (and these are just as much for me as they are for anyone else):

Every song is new at some point
When Isaac Watts wrote “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, the church was primarily singing the Psalms. This song was radical in several ways. It was new. It was in the first person. It wasn’t strictly sung scripture, meaning it was of “human composition” and highly controversial.

It’s now considered one of the greatest hymns ever written.

Christians are encouraged by scripture to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16)

Paul’s encouragement to the church in Colossae teaches us a good deal about how we should sing. One thing to learn is that we should sing different kinds of songs, written by different kinds of people, and written in different times. The “psalms” were just that – the same Psalms we read and sing today. “Hymns” probably referred to songs written and sung in the New Testament church. And “spiritual songs” were most likely songs unique to each congregation.

Anyone who postulates that we should only sing one kind of song from one time period is not basing that argument on scripture, and that’s dangerous.

A song doesn’t have to last hundreds of years in order to be worth singing
There is a school of thought that says we should only sing songs that “have stood the test of time.” I would disagree.

While the Psalms have been preserved for us, we’ll never know (until we get to heaven) what “hymns and spiritual songs” Jesus sang with his disciples (Matthew 26:30), or the New Testament church sang when they gathered together.

While Jesus did sing the Psalms that have lasted even until today, there were “hymns and spiritual songs” that did not last, yet were still good enough for him and the New Testament church to sing. If Jesus could sing songs that only lasted for a while, we can too.

Yes, we should sing songs that have stood the test of time. But we can also sing “hymns and spiritual songs” that the Holy Spirit has inspired for certain seasons.

God “mocks proud mockers”
One of the most chilling warnings against pride is found in Proverbs 3:34. It says God “…mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble”.

It’s a good thing to develop healthy and scripture-based discernment with respect to what songs are worth singing in church and what songs are not. Many that are written today are not. But it’s not a good thing to develop a prideful and preference-based mockery of songs that you don’t like.

If you’re choosing and leading songs while prideful about how good they are and how bad others are, you may very well face God’s opposition (James 4:6).

I pray that God would keep me humble and discerning, and protect me from proud mocking.

The point isn’t the song. The point is the Savior
We should not be primarily interested in preserving a certain library of songs, protecting against an invasion of new music, persuading people that what they like is bad, or advancing our own musical preferences.

We should primarily, secondarily, and thirdly be interested in magnifying the greatness of God as revealed to us in the face of Jesus Christ. If we can best do this with an old Isaac Watts hymn, then let’s do it. If we can best do it with a song written yesterday and found on iTunes, then let’s not hesitate.

If our focus on song style blinds us to the primacy of God’s glory, woe to us.

Lord, help those of us who lead your people in singing your praise to be humble, wise, discerning, filled with a passion for your glory, and filled with your Holy Spirit.

Lord, What Songs Do Want Us To Sing To You This Weekend?

BlankPaperIt’s Monday afternoon. Two weekend services are completed, rehearsals done, chord charts recycled, PowerPoint presentations moved into the archive folder, song list a thing of the past, and the clock ticking until the time when the next service starts this Saturday. I’ve got to do it all over again.

What songs, what key, what order, what theme, how to transition, what to say, what to repeat, what song to introduce, what new song to reinforce, what arrangement to use, how to begin the service, how to respond to the sermon, is the band able to play these songs well, is there a hymn that I’m forgetting about that could work, have we done this song too many times, does anyone besides me find this song helpful, are these songs doctrinally sound, how might the Holy Spirit want to move through the singing of these songs? So many questions. Every week.

Early on in our marriage, I asked Catherine: “what goes through your mind at night when you’re trying to fall asleep?” She said something like: “probably our marriage and how we’re doing with each other. How about you?” I said, sheepishly: “the song list”.

Every week I feel a burden to choose songs wisely, carefully, and sensitively. I’m learning how to relax and not think about it all the time, but it’s certainly one of the responsibilities I take most seriously. The songs I choose this week will be sung by about 1,000 people this weekend, will shape their theology, will stick with them long after they’ve gone home, and will consume about half of the meeting.

So every Monday, with a blank screen in front of me, I pray: “Lord, what songs do you want us to sing to you this weekend?” I’ll spend a few hours each day from now until this Thursday (when I finalize the list) asking him to help me discern his leading as I look through a list of a couple hundred songs. This question, a simple prayer, is a good way to start.

There are a few other questions I find helpful to ask the Lord each week as I seek to choose the songs we’ll be singing corporately.

What will you be saying through your Word?
This weekend, October 17th and 18th, the assigned readings are Ephesians 3:1-13, and John 5:1-9, with the Ephesians reading being the sermon text. The sermon title is “Grace and Power” and John Yates is preaching. Now that I know this information, it’s my responsibility to read through these passages carefully, talk with John either in person or via email, and ask for the Holy Spirit’s help, so that I have an idea of what God might say through his Word preached and read. Once I have that – it will help me know what direction the songs should go, particularly following the sermon.

What have you been saying these last few weeks?
Since September 13th, our weekend sermons have been walking through the book of Ephesians. Last week (yesterday), we looked at Ephesians 2:11-22, and remembered how God, through Christ, has made us his own and sealed us with his Spirit. I might seek to reemphasize that amazing truth this coming Sunday as we gather to sing.

What songs do I seem to be gravitating towards?
When I’m gravitating towards certain songs, it may be because I just happen to like those songs, but it may also be because God is directing me towards them. Pray and ask the Holy Spirit to put the right songs on your heart.

How can I best serve the congregation?
I want to choose specific songs for each specific group of people at each specific service. To help me do that, it’s a good idea to take into account as much information as I possibly can that will help me choose wisely.

There is no such thing as a perfect song list. There will always a song that might have worked better in a particular slot. But spending time prayerfully seeking God’s guidance will make the difference between a random batch of songs and a Holy Spirit-inspired song list.