Ten Worship Leading Non-Negotiables

1There is so much good and helpful advice for worship leaders out there that I thought I’d try my hand at condensing it all down into 10 non-negotiables.

  1. You are not the center.
  2. You make Jesus the center.
  3. Your priority is helping the congregation sing with faith.
  4. You support your pastor.
  5. You choose songs that are full of truth.
  6. You use musicians who are gifted and have soft hearts toward Jesus.
  7. You tailor the keys and arrangements of songs to serve the people in the room.
  8. Your family comes first.
  9. You’re never alone with someone of the opposite sex who isn’t your spouse.
  10. You won’t ever compromise numbers 1-9.

May we be worship leaders who, at our core, love Jesus, love our congregations, and love our families.

We Believe Our God is Jesus?

1What do you do when one word introduces theological imprecision to an otherwise good song? This is the dilemma in which we find ourselves with a song titled “Once and For All” featured on the new Passion album “Let the Future Begin”, written by Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, Jason Ingram and Matt Maher. It’s a great song written by great worship leaders, but I want to highlight how one word can present a problem.

The first verse, second verse, and bridge have solid lyrics and a memorable melody. They say:

Verse 1:
Once and for all, the Father’s love
He is the light in the darkness
He took on flesh and took our place
The weight of the world on his shoulders

Verse 2:
Once and for all, our debt is paid
There on the cross it is finished
The Lamb of God for us was slain
Up from the grave he is risen

Bridge:
Jesus, Jesus, God from God, Light from Light
You are our salvation
Jesus, Jesus, God from God, Light from Light
Your Kingdom is forever

Nothing is the matter so far. The verses and bridge all point to the person and work of Jesus, him being the demonstration of the Father’s love, the one who secured our salvation once and for all, and the one who is very God and the light of the world. Great stuff.

But then we have the chorus. And in the chorus is one word that presents a dilemma.

Chorus:
We believe our God is Jesus
We believe that he is Lord
We believe that he has saved us
From sin and death once and for all

Did you catch it? It’s in the very first line of the chorus. The other lines are good and strong, but the first line, “we believe our God is Jesus” is the issue. You might think I’m being incredibly picky. Maybe I am. OK, I probably am. But let me try to explain:

To be clear: we do certainly believe that Jesus is God. There were early Church fathers who spent their lives defending this doctrine. Jesus is fully man, and he is fully God, and this is a clear and foundational doctrine of our faith. 

But to be just as clear: we believe that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We worship a God who is one in being yet distinct in three persons. Neither the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit is any more or less “God” than the other “person”. It’s a mind-boggling truth, but it’s one we embrace, and it’s one that this good song, in one little line, makes unnecessarily fuzzy. And the fact that it’s the first line of the chorus makes it a prominent fuzziness.

To say “we believe our God is Jesus” should feel just as odd to sing as it would be to sing “we believe our God is Spirit”. Your reaction should be “well, yes he is, but he’s also Father and Son”. To say that “our God” is only one person of the Trinity is a bit of shame, particularly in a song that will be downloaded and purchased hundreds of thousands of times, be incorporated into thousands of churches’ repertoire, and inwardly digested by the people singing the words on Sunday mornings all over the world.

When I heard this song for the first time, I wondered whether anyone else thought it was odd to say “our God is Jesus”. As I looked at reviews of the album online (which, I have to say, is a really great CD and has some wonderful songs on it and I recommend it) no one raised any concerns.

I did read one review that mentioned this song and said, interestingly, that it “…is a remediation of the Nicene Creed, and… proclaims the attributes, character, and mission of Christ”.

Not quite to the first part of that statement. The Nicene Creed is a robustly Trinitarian statement of faith which begins: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty…” continuing with: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light…” and concluding by saying that: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…”

So while this song does feature the phrase “We believe…” and “God from God, Light from Light”, it could hardly be called a “remediation of the Nicene Creed”.  But I agree that it proclaims Jesus’ “attributes, character, and mission”.

I really do like the song! Just not the first line of the chorus and I wish they had changed the one word to avoid all of this confusion. If the line said “we believe our King is Jesus”, I think that would be an improvement.

I asked Dr. Lester Ruth, Research Professor of Christian Worship at Duke Divinity School, whether he thought I was being unreasonable in my criticism of this line in the song. He kindly responded and said:

Great question. You hit the nail right on the head. If our God is Jesus, then one has to wonder who the Father is in “The Father’s love” and who the God is of “Lamb of God”. Does this just mean “Jesus of Jesus”? Of course not…

I don’t think that single line (“…our God is Jesus…”) should disqualify the song, particularly if you can couple it with other liturgical items that bring out a more Trinitarian, New Testament way of speaking. Put the song in a good, strong, more balanced context. The line is not wrong per se but it is not the best way to express things.

I thought that was very helpful feedback.

I also asked Simon Ponsonby, the Pastor of Theology at St. Aldates Church in Oxford, for his thoughts. He said:

In an age when so many worship songs are little more than self-centered emoting, void of theology and a vision of God’s glory, I am grateful for song writers who are attempting to write in a modern idiom, biblical, theologically robust songs, that exalt God. This song is just such an attempt by a gifted song writer.  The question for me is not so much about the phrase “we believe our God is Jesus”  – though the sentence does sound unusual to my ears –  rather, in a song that echoes the Nicean Creed, I personally would have liked to see a similar Trinitarian completeness.  The statement “we believe our God is Jesus” without reference to Christian belief also in God as Father and Spirit, might appear to some observers to reduce God to Jesus per se.  And that is not what I believe.

So from all of this, there seem to be 5 takeaways:

  1. To say/sing “We believe our God is Jesus” is not technically wrong, but misleadingly incomplete.
  2. This line doesn’t disqualify this otherwise good song, but raises the stakes of completing its theology with the other songs/liturgy surrounding it.
  3. If the song really were a remediation of the Nicene Creed, it would have been more careful.
  4. One word can make a huge difference in a song.
  5. I need to use the phrase “per se” more often in my writing.

I’m grateful to God for worship songwriters like Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, Jason Ingram, Matt Maher, and so many others who seek to serve the church by providing it with fresh, congregational songs of praise to the glory of God. It’s harder than it looks to write good worship songs, and these guys consistently do a good job and I am one of millions who have been blessed and edified by their work.

In this instance, I think this line slipped past some theological editing that would have made the song a lot better. My hope is that this post will convey my thankfulness to these songwriters for their work, and encourage all of us to be careful in what words we put on our congregations’ lips.

If You Can’t Think of Songs for Sunday, Stop Thinking About Songs for Sunday

1There are times when choosing songs for corporate worship on Sundays is easy. Themes, keys, grooves, transitions, dynamics, blend of new versus old, etc., all seem to come together in beautiful stream of inspiration, as if the very gates of heaven have been opened and you are guided by God himself which songs to sing.

Then there are times when choosing songs is not so easy. You stare at your song list in a haze of depression, with every option feeling worn-out, too new, too fast, too slow, not right, done too recently, a bad fit, or uninspiring, and you pray that Jesus would either come back between now and Sunday morning, or zap with you a lighting bolt of creativity. That lightning bolt never comes.

And the computer screen stares at you, menacingly, waiting for you to think of a brilliant list of songs.

So what do you do when you can’t think of songs for Sunday?

Stop thinking about songs for Sunday.

You’re not likely to make any huge progress when you’re in that murky haze of song-selection burn-out. Move on to another task, go mow the lawn, play with your kids, sing some worship songs under your breath (or louder) while you wash the dishes, and clear your head as much as you can. Get the song-selection part of your brain completely turned off. You might be surprised how, once you’ve stopped thinking of what songs to sing on Sunday, God finally tells you what songs to sing on Sunday.

Song-selection brain freeze can be brought on by many different factors. Fatigue is the number one factor; when you’ve been picking songs for services for weeks and months with no break. Spiritual dryness is the second factor, when you haven’t been worshipping God in the intimacy of your home or car. And finally, mental ruts keep you going back to the same sources, same routines, and the same favorites. You can’t break through all of these things by thinking really hard and having an “aha!” moment.

So in the short term, when you can’t think of what songs to sing, stop thinking of what songs to sing. Clear your mind, and you’ll find that when you reach for the tupperware bowl in your pantry, you all of the sudden get an idea for your opening song.

But in the long-term, if you’re experiencing this murkiness on a regular basis, you need a vacation. You need at least two Sundays off in a row. You’ll find that you come back refreshed with clearer vision and clarity about things like what songs to sing. Give yourself a break!

Songs That Echo the Gospel of Grace

1I’m finishing up a seminary class on Paul’s epistles, and came across this really helpful quote from a commentary on Colossians by R.C. Lucas. When he comes to the passage familiar to many worship leaders, from Colossians 3:16, (“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”), he explains:

What is at issue here is the content of the young church’s hymns. The history of Christian awakening shows that whenever the word of Christ is recovered, it is received with great joy, a joy that can fully express itself only with songs of praise. What the apostle is concerned to see is that these songs are consistent with the word of Christ, or as we are bound to say nowadays, scriptural. A fair test of this is to be found by whether or not they echo a heartfelt spirit of thankfulness: genuine Christian praise is not primarily a vehicle for the expression of spiritual aspirations and experiences, so much as a celebration of God’s mighty acts in Christ… A gospel of grace must be echoed by songs of gratitude for grace.

Our job as worship leaders is not only to serve as guards of the content of the songs our churches sing; but as cultivators of the spirit with which they’re sung. It’s not enough for the content to be solid, although that’s important. We must help our congregations experience and express thankfulness and gratitude for grace. I heard Louie Giglio say in a sermon from his church that “extravagant grace leads to extravagant worship”. Paul would agree!

The Useless Sound of an Indistinct Bugle

1My almost 2-year-old, Emma, is starting to talk. It’s super cute and fun, and we are loving it. The only problem is that no one else can understand what in the world she’s actually saying.

For example: “goke” can mean “milk” or “broken”. Or “shah” means “straw”. Or “gang gang” means “candy cane”.

She’s talking alright. But it’s indistinct. What she’s saying isn’t clear enough for most people to understand.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul spends some time giving them instructions on corporate worship. Apparently some of them are getting together and having a wonderful time using the gifts of the Spirit, but no one else who walks into the room has any idea what’s going on.

He says to them, in one of his more wonderfully pointed moments:

…if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:8-9)

The specific thing he’s talking about is the use of the gift of tongues, but the principle applies much more broadly. The principle is this: when you get together as Christians, make sure what’s going on is as clear as possible.

Imagine the uselessness of an indistinct bugle. You hear it off in the distance and you think it’s calling you to battle. But the person next to you disagrees completely. He says it’s announcing the arrival of royalty. Someone behind you speaks up and says you both have it wrong. It’s the sound of a musician playing a ballad for his lover.

Total confusion.

So imagine the uselessness of indistinct message in our songs. You hear it and you think it’s talking about Jesus’ second coming. Your friend hears it and says it’s about the trials we face. You get an email from someone thanking you for that very same song that she says is talking about her loved one who’s in heaven.

Huh?

It’s comforting that God knows our hearts completely, regardless of whether we use the right words. We don’t have to articulate ourselves to him perfectly for him to get the picture.

But if the Apostle Paul were to walk into your service this Sunday and sing the songs you pick, would he say you were “uttering speech that was not intelligible” or that you were “speaking into the air”? That wouldn’t be a good thing.

As worship leaders we should aim for clarity and distinction in our proclamation of the good news of the Gospel so that everyone who comes in, and who has ears to hear, can hear. And understand what in the world you’re actually saying.

Leading Worship In the Shadow of Tragedy

1Yesterday’s mass shooting an at elementary school in Connecticut is the kind of tragedy that makes everyone – Christians, non-Christians, atheists, agnostics – take a step back and wonder how and why something so awful could happen. The fact that everyone who will be walking into your Sunday morning services has been asking those questions should give worship leaders and pastors reason to think very carefully about what they’re going to sing and what they’re going to say.

First, worship leaders, don’t attempt to be the consoler-in-chief tomorrow. You might be the first person “up”, but that role falls to your pastor. It’s appropriate for you to say something like “This morning as we stand to sing, most of us are singing with heavy hearts after what we’ve witnessed this past week. So as we stand, let’s declare what we know to be true: that God is faithful, God is good, God is sovereign, and God sent his son to rescue a very dark world”. That’s all, roughly, that you need to say. Let your pastor do the rest. And let your songs preach.

Secondly, it’s not too late to change your song selections for the morning. Here are the songs we’re singing at my church tomorrow in case this is helpful.

1. Blessed Be Your Name (Matt Redman)
– Opening song
– Helps us articulate praise to God in the midst of joy and sorrow
– “Blessed be Your name… when I’m found in the desert place… on the road marked with suffering… though there’s pain in the offering…”
– “You give and take away…”
– We will keep the arrangement of this from getting too rocky

2. It is Well with My Soul (traditional)
– Song after the welcome, where our pastor will have people be seated and will address the tragedy and lead in prayer
– The 4 traditional verses assure us that when we experience peace, or sorrow, or trials, because “Christ has regarded (our) helpless estate, and shed his own blood”, we can say “it is well”. Verse 4 reminds us that one day Jesus will return.

3. How Long? (We Have Sung Our Songs of Victory) (Stuart Townend)
– Offering
– The verses contain cries to God like “Lord we know your heart is broken by the evil that you see…” and “…but the land is still in darkness and we’ve fled from what is right. We have failed the silent children who will never see the light”.
– The chorusses echo so many places in the Psalms and say “how long… before the weeping turns to songs of joy?”
– The last verse gives hope: “But I know a day is coming when the deaf will hear his voice, when the blind will see their Savior, and the lame will leap for joy. When the widow finds a husband who will always love his bride, and the orphan finds a Father who will never leave her side.”
– The version on iTunes that you should buy is the one off of the “Pour Over Me” album
– We’re singing this during the offering, and not expecting people to sing along.

4. There is a Higher Throne (Keith and Kristyn Getty)
– Communion song
– A song about the hope of heaven, where Jesus will “…wipe each tear-stained eye, as thirst and hunger die…”

5. Come Thou Long Expected Jesus (traditional)
– Communion song
– “Come, Thou long expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free. From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in Thee…”
– We will take the chorus from the old Vineyard song “All Who Are Thirsty” with the simple lyrics “come, Lord Jesus, come”, and use it as a chorus on this hymn.

6. Everlasting God (Strength Will Rise) (Brenton Brown)
– Closing communion song
– A song of faith: “Our God, you reign forever. Our hope, our strong deliverer… You are the everlasting God… You do not faint, You won’t grow weary.”

As Bob Kauflin tweeted this morning (12/15/12), we should be regularly singing songs that help us lament the brokenness and darkness and fallenness of this world. But particularly after tragedies like this, when everyone has been shaken by seeing evil on display, pastors and worship leaders have to be willing to change their game plan and help people not only grieve, but grieve with hope in a good and faithful God, who sent his Son to suffer and die in our place, who knew grief and loss, and who was raised to life, ascended to heaven, and will run day return to “make all the sad things come untrue”.

What to Sing on Ash Wednesday

Yesterday I received a question from a worship leader about what kinds of songs to sing on Ash Wednesday. My answer to him wasn’t terribly profound or detailed, but since Ash Wednesday is this week, I thought I’d share my response here in case it’s helpful to anyone else:

I’ve always struggled with picking songs for Ash Wednesday myself.

I think that people wrongly think that Ash Wednesday/Lent is about self-determination to grit their teeth and give up chocolate for 40 days to show God how much they love him and impress him. I think Lent works better when it’s seen as a season to cherish Jesus more.

So, I know this sounds simple, but really any song on the glory of Jesus and his finished work. This goes against what some people want on Ash Wednesday. They want to hear/sing things about something THEY’RE going to do. Determination. I try to make a point of avoiding those songs and helping people understand there’s nothing to be gained by focussing on our own efforts.

So, in summary, pick songs about Jesus for Ash Wednesday. And Lent. And Easter. And the rest of the year too, I suppose.