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.

Is There Any Power Behind You?

1In Isaiah chapter ten, the prophet is warning the nation of Assyria of their impending destruction when he asks an interesting question. Speaking to the king about his pride and arrogance and over-confidence in his military might he asks:

Can the ax boast greater power than the person who uses it? Is the saw greater than the person who saws? Can a whip strike unless a hand is moving it? Can a cane walk by itself? (Isaiah 10:15, NLT)

It’s a question that exposes the king’s “evil boasting” (Isaiah 10:16) and God answers it with a word of rebuke.

And it’s a question that people in ministry, particularly worship leaders, should consider. Because it gets at the heart of something crucial: whether or not there is any power behind what we do.

An ax looks awfully threatening, a saw looks pretty scary, a whip looks sharply painful, and a cane looks somewhat helpful, but unless these tools are in the hands of someone with strength, they’re dormant and useless.

You see, it’s not about your credentials or degrees or experience or resume or congregation size. That might get you to a certain level for a certain period of time but it won’t endure.

The only way you’ll endure as a worship leader is by the anointing (literally the conveying of God’s power upon you), or the “unction” of God. Without the power of God behind you, you’re a powerless ax, an un-used saw, a coiled-up whip, or a stowed-away cane. It’s the power of God, his anointing and his wielding, that causes you to have any power at all, any long-term effectiveness, and any fruitfulness.

May we never fall victim to the kind of pride, arrogance, over-confidence, and “evil boasting” that we see in the king of Assyria in Isaiah 10. May we always remember and pursue the mighty power of God to stand behind us and use as he wishes as tools in his hand for the glory of his name.

The Holy Spirit: Prophecy Practicalities

I think that for many people, when they hear the word “prophecy”, one of two things comes to their mind. First, they might picture a crazy person, or a man with a really long beard wearing a toga, or someone who isn’t quite “right” in the head. Or secondly, they might picture a fortune teller. Someone who uses strange means to tell the future.

These misconceptions are widely held, particularly in the church, and so the gift of prophecy is squelched, viewed with suspicion, and even joked about. Prophecy seems a bit loopy, dangerous, and outside of the mainstream. All it takes for many Christians is one person who abuses or misuses this gift to convince them that prophecy is better off locked away where it can’t hurt anyone.

And so in the Church, and in most churches, the gift of prophecy lies dormant. The result is that we trade one extreme for another. One abuse for another. By assuring the gift is not abused, we assure the gift is not used. By assuring we don’t lose order in our worship services, we assure that we are in complete control. We gain the allusion of safety by closing our eyes to the Spirit. Why do we think this is a good option?

In The Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy asks if Aslan is safe. Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe…? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

I’m convinced that one of the top ways to ensure dead worship services is to make them safe. Of course we want to cultivate an atmosphere of grace. But when we seek to cultivate safety at every turn, we do our congregations a great disservice. To encounter more of the depths of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, we must sacrifice safety. Then we can see more of how good he is.

Prophecy isn’t telling the future. It’s conveying something God has shown you spontaneously (1 Corinthians 14:30).

Prophecy isn’t perfect. It isn’t “thus sayeth the Lord”. It should always be tested. It’s “here’s what I think God is saying” (1 Corinthians 14:29, 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21).

Prophecy isn’t intended to divide. It’s intended to build up, to encourage, and to comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3, 14:31).

Prophecy isn’t meant to be hidden. It can sometimes assist in evangelism (I Corinthians 14:24-25).

Prophecy isn’t just for spiritual giants. It’s a gift God might give anyone (1 Corinthians 12:11).

So, if we are “eager for manifestations of the Spirit…” (1 Corinthians 14:12), if we want to build up the church (1 Corinthians 14:5b), and if we want to obey a “command of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37b), we should “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that (we) may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1). It’s not always safe. But God is always good. And the Holy Spirit will help use this good gift to show the goodness of God in a way that is “done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). It’s the best of both worlds.

Here are some practical ways churches and worship leaders can be more open to prophecy.

Encourage it. At the beginning of a prayer time, or a time of singing, or a whole service, encourage people to be asking the Holy Spirit to speak to them: either something just for them, or perhaps something for the broader group. It might be a single word, or an image, or a few sentences, or a bible verse, or some other impression. If you’re involved in leading a service in any way, think about how you can raise people’s antennae for the Holy Spirit.

Model it. One of my core convictions about worship leading is that “what they see is what you’ll get”. In other words, if you want to see a congregation engaged in reading the bible, you have to model it. If you want to see people comfortable lifting their hands, you have to model it. And if you want to see people comfortable exercising the gift of prophecy, you have to model it. Take a risk and articulate a prophetic impression God has given you. Even if it’s not terribly profound. Model it, model it, model it.

Leave room for it. This will look vastly different based on your kind of church, venue, size of congregation, etc. In a small group you have more safety to leave space and silence for people to speak up and share words of prophecy. In a large group, this isn’t always such a good idea. Since there might be nonbelievers in the room, and since we want to do things decently and in order, you’ll want to still leave room for it, but have a pastor or an elder assigned to “test” any words of prophecy before they’re shared with the larger group.

Remove the mystique. In your modeling of the gift of prophecy, and in your encouragement of this gift, make it obvious that nothing spooky is happening, no one is putting on a toga, and no one is going to start revealing everyone’s embarrassing sins. Keep it real. All this is is God, a good Father, giving good gifts to this children, for their good, and for the building up of his church.

I’ve recently been encouraged to not squelch this gift in my own ministry. From time to time I’ve shared prophetic songs on this blog (here, here, and here). All this is is a strong sense I have while leading worship (or sometimes before) of something God wants to convey. I then sing this impression while joining it with a melody and chord progression. I most recently did this on my church’s fall retreat and you can hear it below.

You who feel defeated
I am your victory
You who feel downcast
I am your joy
You who feel condemned
I am your righteousness
You who feel lost
I am your home

So hide your life in mine

When you are in Christ
I give you new life

And every sin is paid for
And every pain I bore
And every loss I know of
I am your Redeemer
I am your Redeemer
I am your Savior

So hide your life in mine

The Holy Spirit: Tongues and Prophecy

Talking about the Holy Spirit without mentioning the gifts of tongues and prophecy would be like talking about music without mentioning F sharp. Maybe if we ignore it, it will go away.

This topic is controversial and divisive. Within the body of Christ there is a broad range of strong opinions. And so it can be tempting to ignore it. But why ignore a gift of God?

The first time the phenomenon of tongues appears is in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. The apostles were all gathered “together in one place” when they heard something like a “mighty rushing wind” and “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4).

In this instance, the languages the Spirit inspires are actual human languages for the purpose of proclaiming the “mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). We know this because in Acts 2:8, the onlookers ask “how is it that we hear, each of us in his own language?”

The second time this phenomenon appears is in Acts 10:46. We’re told that as Peter preaches, the Holy Spirit falls, is poured out on Gentiles, and they speak in tongues and extol God.

The third time is Acts 19:6 when new Christians receive the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in tongues and prophesy.

It spreads in the early church in Paul gives a lot of instruction on it in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 12 he says that God gives the gift but not to everyone. In chapter 13 he says it doesn’t matter if you speak in tongues unless you have love! In chapter 14 he says he wants everyone to speak in tongues, and even more to prophesy, but goes into detail about how the gift can be used in a way that edifies the church and glorifies Jesus.

Speaking in tongues
Is unintelligible. Thus if it happens in public it must have an interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:13). Therefore it is not as valuable as human words (1 Corinthians 14:19). If not exercised carefully it can turn off non-believers (1 Corinthians 14:23). So speaking in tongues in public should be done with great care.

Praying in tongues
Unintelligible to the person praying. Therefore the mind is disengaged (or “unfruitful”) but the “spirit prays” (1 Corinthians 14:14). It’s directed to God (1 Corinthians 14:2). Paul speaks in Romans 8:26-27 about how

“the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

This is a great gift from our heavenly Father for our private prayer and worship.

Prophecy
Intelligible. Spontaneously revealed. Human words. Can have mistakes, so it should be tested (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). It is used to build up, encourage and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3). It can be used evangelistically to disclose secrets of the heart (1 Corinthians 14:24-25). So, understandably, Paul values this gift and says that we should too! (1 Corinthians 14:1).

Have these gifts ceased?
1 Corinthians 13:8-12 says:

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

If you read this passage to mean that “when the perfect comes” is when we see Jesus “face to face”, then you might call yourself a charismatic, or a continuationist. You (and I) believe that the gift of tongues and prophecy continue to this day, while we and the world remain imperfect, longing for the day when we see Jesus. These gifts should be exercised in submission to the word of God and with care, but they should be exercised!

But if you read this passage to mean that “when the perfect comes” is when the bible is done being written, then you might call yourself a cessationist. You believe that these gifts have ceased and are no longer available.

Sandy Millar, the former vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton was once asked, “can you get into heaven without speaking in tongues?” His response was, “yes… but why would you want to?”

I hold the conviction that scripture clearly teaches that the gift of tongues and prophecy is for today, should be eagerly desired, and will continue “until the perfect comes”. The testimony of the bible is supreme and sufficient, but I can add my own testimony to the power and the value of these gifts in my own life and ministry. I’ll share some examples later in the week.

I think the reason why this issue is so divisive and controversial is because of the great power that the gift of tongues and prophecy contains to demonstrate the glory of God. Of course that would be divisive. With scripture as a foundation, I hope that one of the ways God can use me over the course of my life is to encourage Christians, and more specifically worship leaders, to “eagerly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy!” 

The Holy Spirit: Is It a Sin to Not Pursue Spiritual Gifts?

“Is it woefully inconsistent… that there’s no overt pursuit, or maybe even interest in practicing the gifts (of the Holy Spirit” in our churches?

This is a good question.

Paul commands us in 1 Corinthians 14:1 to “…eagerly desire spiritual gifts especially that you may prophesy“. How do we “eagerly desire” them? Is it then a sin not to?

I found this video by Sam Storms helpful and convicting and think you might too.

The Holy Spirit: Go On Being Filled

One of my mentors is a British clergyman who was one of the pastors at my church when I was hired. He’s a man of God who loves the Bible and loves the Holy Spirit.

When he would teach on the Holy Spirit at our Alpha courses he would tell the story of when, on rare occasions, living in England and not making very much as a Vicar, he would take his children out to eat. He would tell his children in no uncertain terms that they could get one soda and one soda only. After that it was water. This is because, as you may know, in England there are no free refills. Then when they would come to the United States on vacation he would tell them they could order all the sodas they wanted!

His point and his punch line was that in this respect, and in this respect only, God is more of an American than an Englishman. God is the God of free refills.

First things first: you don’t come to Jesus apart from the Holy Spirit. In Titus 3:4-6, we’re told that God “saved us, not because of works done by us… but by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ…” You can’t become a Christian without the Holy Spirit.

And when you become a Christian you don’t receive 2/3 of God, as if the Holy Spirit comes later. 2 Corinthians 1:22 and Ephesians 1:13 tell us that the Holy Spirit seals us and guarantees that we belong to Jesus. When you put your trust in Jesus Christ, the Spirit seals you.

But in Ephesians 5:18, Paul commands the church to “be filled with the Holy Spirit”. The English language doesn’t quite do justice to Paul’s intent here. In the Greek, this command is a present imperative, indicating that this isn’t speaking of a onetime filling, but rather a regular pattern of being filled. So “go on being filled with the Holy Spirit” is more like it.

This makes some of us nervous, but it was normal language in the New Testament. In Luke 4:1, Jesus is described as being “full of the Holy Spirit”. In Acts 4:8, Peter is “filled with the Holy Spirit”. In Acts 9:17, Ananias lays his hands on Saul so that he can be “filled with the Holy Spirit”. Barnabas is described as being “full of the Holy Spirit and faith” in Acts 11:24.

And lest you point out that all these references just mention one person one single time, look at the three separate instances in Acts when the disciples are said to be “filled with the Holy Spirit”. First, in Acts 2:4 they’re “filled…” and begin to speak in tongues. Second, in Acts 4:31 they’re “filled…” again. And then in Acts 13:52 they’re again “filled with the Holy Spirit and with joy”.

Why else would Jesus describe the Holy Spirit as “rivers of living water” (John 7:38) and not a pool? A river is a constant flow whereas a pool is a dormant supply. God reconciles us to himself through Jesus, and by the work of the Holy Spirit, and then longs to continue to fill us and fill us and fill us again. He really is the God of free refills!

Resistance to this comes from a number of different places, of course.

Maybe we’ve seen abuses of this and we’ve experienced churches where it’s either implied or explicitly stated that people who have been converted still need to “receive” the Holy Spirit. This isn’t biblical and it leads to confusion and abuse.

Or maybe we’ve seen the excesses of this and we’ve experienced churches where the Holy Spirit is used to give license to chaos or disorder or shaky theology derived from a pastor’s “revelation”. This is contrary to scripture and leads believers and non-believers alike to the opposite excess of, in essence, turning the spigot of the Holy Spirit off.

The norm in the New Testament and the clear encouragement from Paul’s letters to the early church is a regular, ongoing, filling of the Holy Spirit. This isn’t wacky charismania, it’s biblical and good and exciting.

Worship leaders need to understand this for the sake of their ministry. Leading from a place of dormancy or burn-out isn’t what God intends. Leading from a place of being filled and being flowed through with “rivers of living water” is.

I think Bach understood this. At the top of all of his sacred works are the initials “J.J.” for “Jesu Juva”, or “Jesus help”. And at the bottom were the initials “S.D.G.” for “Soli Deo Gloria”, or “glory to God alone”.

God has given us a helper – his Holy Spirit – for every minute, every day, every service, every rehearsal, and every time we lead worship. So we shouldn’t feel selfish or embarrassed to pray the ancient prayer of Christians through the ages: “Veni Sancte Spiritus”, or “come Holy Spirit”. Fill us afresh, help us and empower us, for the glory of God alone.

The Holy Spirit: Dry Bones Brought to Life

In Ezekiel 37:1, all he can see is a valley full of dry bones. It’s desolate, hopeless, and shocking. But just nine verses later, these bones are made to be an “exceedingly great army” (verse 10). What made the difference? The breath of God (verse 9).

God compares the dry bones to his people, at that time the “whole house of Israel”, who are dried up, without hope, and cut off. He tells Ezekiel to prophesy to them that he will (1) raise them to life (verses 12-13) and (2) put his Spirit within them (verse 14).

Fast forward to John 7:37-39 and we’re about to see this prophecy come true. Jesus, the one who has come to raise the dead to life, gives an invitation to the dry bones standing in front of him: 

“if anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes is me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. 

The dry bones are still dry bones at this point but the water is coming. The dead are still dead but new life is coming.

Jesus brings that new life when he is crucified and then raised to life. Then in John 20:22 “he breathed on (his disciples) and said to them, “receive the Holy Spirit…” What a powerful picture. The very breath of God, present at creation (Genesis 1:2), given to particular people at particular times in the Old Testament, and speaking through the prophets, now breathed out on dry bones by God himself.

The Holy Spirit is who God uses to make what were once useless and cut off dry bones into an “exceedingly great army” for his glory (Ezekiel 37:10). The Holy Spirit gives that army its life (John 6:63) and power (Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit leads the army into truth (John 16:12-15) and is its helper (John 14:16-17, 14:26, 15:26). He gives gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4) and dwells in us (Ephesians 2:22). I could go on.

In most of our congregations, or least the ones that I’ve observed (that’s a relatively small percentage, but go with me here…) my hunch is that our people might feel more like dry bones. And based on my conversations and relationships with other worship leaders over the years, what we see when we look out over our congregations during corporate worship might more closely resemble Ezekiel 37:1 than they do Ezekiel 37:10.

It’s not that they’re dead or hopeless (since Jesus has given us life!) but they sure do act like it. I think what’s missing is (1) an emphasis on, (2) an awareness of, (3) a desperation for, and (4) a boldness in the Holy Spirit. I’ve been convicted of this recently in my own life and in my worship leading – and I’ve had a growing sense that this is something that could use some highlighting in the worship leader world.

So part one was a lot of background to say that the Holy Spirit is the very breath of God in our very midst, present in creation, once reserved, and now poured out on all flesh. My point today is that the Holy Spirit turns dry bones into a great army and we can’t afford to ignore the Holy Spirit if we hope to look like one. My encouragement to myself and to other worship leaders is to reencounter the Holy Spirit if you’ve forgotten about him and the rest of the posts from here on out will be some practical ways we can do that.

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down – that the mountains might quake at your presence! (Isaiah 64:1)