Who are we leading?

I created a post back in August talking about fear and how we represent the message of Christ, and upon a closer review realized that my thoughts didn’t quite make sense.  I was challenged by a friend & colleague to take another stab at articulating my thoughts.  Here are the reflections I had by the time my brain had stopped…

I picked up Craig Groeschel’s most recent book The Christian Atheist during the Leadership Summit.  Before you freak out at the title, let the subtext put the title into proper perspective for you: believing in God but living as if He doesn’t exist. Reading it has reminded me of countless previous church experiences I’ve had where the church completely misrepresented the Gospel.  So often the church misses the whole point of knowing and sharing Christ and what it means to follow Him.

Don Cousins, the director of ministries at the church I work at, shared in a staff meeting recently how so many churches “take the gospel only so far.”  A pastor teaches about the spiritual gifts and how important it is for each and every person to find their gift and develop and cultivate it, and the congregation gets all excited about it and fired up and wants to find their gift and develop it, and then the pastor ends his message by saying, “… so go find out what your gift is and develop it.”  …  And that’s as far as the church leadership takes it.  No coaching, no assistance, not even a half-hearted point in the right direction.

Only a fraction of the people in church that day may actually go out and try pursuing what their gift is.  A few may even stick with it for more than just a few days.  But they’re expected to find their own way into a world that is strange and sometimes frightening because they’ve never been there before, and they don’t get any further because there is no one there to lead them, to help them.

So often I find I expect people to engage to a certain level during corporate worship.  I desire for the entire room to have their hands raised, fully immersed in the Spirit, voices raised so loud you can’t hear the band.  For a long time I talked about my desire for there to be a buzz of anticipation about what’s going to happen that day during service, a “what’s God gonna come and do” on the lips of every person who’s gathered at each venue.  I expect every person who’s shown up on that particular day to have experienced the incredible and undeniable mercies and miracles of God that week.  I expect to find people whose faith is like mine, people who are basically just like me…

Worship leaders and musicians, as passionate and emotive Christ followers, fall victim to this tendency pretty easily.  We’re driven by the emotion and passion in music, we feed off the energy and excitement in the room as we lead worship.  And, while there’s nothing wrong with that as long our hearts are leading from a place of authenticity and adoration of Jesus, we get frustrated when we don’t receive that feedback.  I know I do.  Having played major concerts in huge venues and been in edgy rock bands where everyone’s jumping around and “rocking out” to the music, I love getting caught up in the response to the vibe being created by the music.  But not everyone knows how or wants to plug into the musical experience that way.

Imagine you live next to a well with the clearest, purest and most revitalizing drinking water on earth, and it’s your job to tell all who pass by about it and provide it for them.  The only catch of this particular well is, you’re the only one in the area who knows how to use the machinery that lowers the bucket down to the water and then bring it back up.  You’re so excited about the well and about your job as the well’s official announcer that you walk around with a bullhorn telling all within hearing range about the well, pumping a big sign up and down in the air with the words “FREE WATER, TAKE AS MUCH AS YOU LIKE” painted in huge, bold letters, but you never actually set down the sign and work the bucket machinery or even take time to teach someone else how to work it…

I forget that people show up to church without knowing why they’re there or even how they got there.  I forget that people show up as they have for years and years because that’s what people are supposed to do every Sunday, and then they leave God in the parking lot as they drive to Panera Bread for lunch.  I forget that people only had enough gas in their car to get to church and have no idea how they’re going to get back home.  I forget that people show up with hearts that are hurt, angry, bored, shamed, bitter, full of sorrow and confusion and questions.  I forget that the church is made up of people who are completely different from me in every single way.  People with stories that would make my skin crawl and my heart snap in two.

I forget that I’ve been hurt, angry, bored, shamed, bitter, full of sorry and confusion and questions.  I forget that I’ve led worship from these same desolate places, I’ve had to guide a congregation to a place of joy when all I was feeling was painful sorrow.  But the beauty is, these are the places where so often God is able to work in us the most.  That’s been very true for me in the past.  When everything else falls away, I finally reach that place where He’s the only thing I have left, and then I realize that He’s really all I need.

Expecting everyone in the room to have reached the exact same checkpoint in the race we’re running like the apostle Paul talks about is absolutely foolish.  We must remember that people from all walks and stages of life and faith come through our doors every single week.  Next to the person with closed eyes and raised hands who is singing words that have become as familiar to their heart as breathing, there stands someone whose eyes flicker around the room trying to figure out what’s going on, whose hands are buried deep in their pockets, and who hasn’t said a word other than “hello” to the usher who handed them their info guide.

We did the worship exercise a few weekends ago where our worship leaders encouraged the people in worship to try changing their posture, to try to experience something more, something deeper, to encourage the churchgoer who is nervous, or angry, or broken to take a baby step in a new direction toward the person of Christ.  Remembering those challenging times in our own stories and communicating the realities both of those challenges alongside the authority with which Jesus can conquer those challenges is what allows us to help that person who is nervous, angry, and broken find the high, wide, and deep love of Christ their Saviour.  Sometimes when all we see is a person standing completely still instead of “responding to the worship experience,” that person is in the midst of the deepest connection with their Creator that they’ve ever experienced.

We can only lead from a place where we’ve been ourselves, and that rings true both for where we are serving as leaders in our community as lead worshippers, and for all the valleys we’ve struggled through along the course of our journey.  If you’re a leader in your church, your community, wherever and whatever it is, remember that Christ created the church to serve all who are seeking to deepen their relationship with Him, from the ones who have devoted every waking moment of their lives to seeking and serving Him to the ones who have never before set foot inside a church.  Our role is to help usher them all into the presence of God, so let’s do it as a people who have experienced His saving grace and are daily in need of it.  Let’s know who we are in Him so we can come to Him in earnest, seeking His heart and His love and His promises.

A spirit of fear…

Ever been to a baptist youth camp?  There’s a running joke within the church world about the last couple days of one of these week-long retreats: the Do-You-Know-That-You-Know-That-You-Know question:

“If on the way home from this retreat tomorrow, your van got into a car accident and you didn’t make it, do you know that you know that you know that you know that you know that you’re goin’ to heaven?”

A valid question.  Macabre, perhaps, but valid.  But it’s as if the youth leaders & counselors at these events have forgotten how permanent the bond between God and His children is.  John 10:29 (The Message): “The Father who put [my flock] under my care is so much greater than the Destroyer and Thief.  No one could ever get them away from Him.” Basically: once saved, always saved.

But what’s their motivation for these questions?  Did someone guide them through the “Sinner’s Prayer” and either forget or mix up a couple words?  Was their conversion based purely on the emotions they were feeling at the time due to the worship music?  Were they just trying to impress the cute boy or girl next to them and praying for them?  There’s an air of dread in their hearts and minds, and if this child ends up not going to heaven it’s all their fault.  So they backtrack, they prod and question with the relentless mantra: “Do you know that you know that you know???”


Fear of the powerful hand of a mighty and jealous God.

Fear of the desperate and judging eyes of the parents of each of these kids for not doing enough.

Fear of the reality of hell.

I picked up Craig Groeschel’s most recent book The Christian Atheist during the Leadership Summit.  I’ve only gotten about twenty pages in and I’m already unsettled by how we as the church have so often misrepresented the Gospel, how we’ve completely missed the point of knowing Christ and what it means to follow Him.  The subtext of the book’s title sums it up perfectly: believing in God but living as if He doesn’t exist.

It’s like living next to a pond with the clearest, purest and most revitalizing drinking water on earth and never drinking from it.  You just set your little plastic lawn chair up right next to a big painted sign that reads “FREE WATER, TAKE AS MUCH AS YOU LIKE,” and you plop yourself down in your little chair, proud to stake your claim that this is where you call home in spite of never having tasted the water from the pond.

I’m thirsty.  I’ve been in this desert for long enough, and I’ve decided to keep looking for oasis after oasis until I finally hike between the mountains and cross the Jordan.  When I find that pond, I want to drink and drink and drink as if my life depended on it… because it does.  I want the courage to keep going back to it, constantly refreshing my body, my soul.  I don’t want to live as if I’ve already done enough, because I never could do enough to sustain my own life.

I want to live a life that not only says my God exists, but He is the very reason I exist.

Both Audience and Leader…

I’ve always felt that worship should be done without a stage, without a platform.  The purpose of worship through music isn’t to perform songs that are fun to sing together to the folks that showed up at church on any given Sunday, it’s to proclaim adoration and love and awe to the Creator of the universe through the medium of melodies and song of His creation.  I’d much rather the band and vocalists leading in worship weren’t elevated on a platform, instead being on the same exact physical plane as the crowd.  Worship gatherings I’ve been a part of where this is the practice have always seemed more conducive to directing the focus of our praise through singing and playing to God rather than just being shouted forward at the stage and the blaring speakers.

So here’s a thought.  We’re all on the same level.  Who’s leading everyone?  Me?  Well, I can play guitar and sing and coach and prod and guide and bring people along with me into the presence of God to a point, but I’m not worthy to usher an entire room of people into the throneroom of His Grace.  There is such a tremendous gap between us and our Father, and there was only one person on earth in all of history who could close that gap.  Christ alone was worthy to intercede for us, and when He ascended into glory He gave us the Holy Spirit, our mediator, who intercedes for us now.  The Spirit is the very presence of God around us, upon us, within us.  Who better to lead us to the throne of grace than the Spirit?

Going back to Matt Redman’s The Heart Of Worship Files, he talks about this very idea of the Holy Spirit being the “real worship leader.”  Philippians 3:3 says, The real believers are the ones the Spirit of God leads to work away at this ministry, filling the air with Christ’s praise as we do it. We couldn’t carry this off by our own efforts, and we know it…. That last statement is the key.  Our worship without the Spirit is empty.  Our words and thoughts are meaningless without the means to communicate them to God.  So the Spirit inspires the words, providing to us the realizations we are meant to discover as we sing and as we pray.  It’s not about how well we feel we communicated a song from the stage, or if there was any vocal cheering that accompanied the claps at the end of the worship set.  It’s our being open to the Spirit leading us in what to say and how to say it, in what kind of posture we hold as we proclaim His goodness and claim His love and promises.

The Spirit’s leading doesn’t exonerate us from our responsibility to prepare ourselves in leading, however.  As lead worshippers, we still have to learn our songs accurately, taking the time to practice & hone our craft of playing an instrument or using our voices to ensure we don’t create distractions for the crowd, being conscious of what’s happening in the worship gathering and directing the flow.  But ultimately, we are partnering with the greatest worship leader in the universe when we invite the Spirit to guide us into His presence.  Takes some of the pressure off, doesn’t it?

Worship aerobics…

I returned this morning to a book I haven’t opened up and read in years: The Heart Of Worship Files by Matt Redman.  My previous foray through this compilation of insights and revelations Redman has realized over the years was, in a word, brief.  I’ve always been a quick reader, but as you can imagine, my retention level falls proportionally lower as the speed at which I read gets higher.  I was more interested in finishing this book than finishing a single thought from it.  This time, I opted for a different approach and took my sweet time going through the first four-and-a-half pages and was immediately marked with a revelation about what I just read.

In this first little blurb of a chapter, Redman explores the difference between the outward expressions worship leaders tend to search and prod for in their congregation: checking the ratio in the room of raised vs. unraised hands, the mental “Clap-O-Meter” worship leaders bust out at the end of a song to evaluate the crowd’s response, etc.  Being an extrovert and a musician, I’m much more prone to expressing myself outwardly than inwardly, so those types of responses tend to hold more value to me, and I often gauge my “performance” as a worship leader on those specific forms of feedback.  Did I really hit the intensity of that song and encourage people enough to shout aloud and clap their hands?  “C’mon, people, we cheer for our favorite sports teams louder than we cheer for our King, let’s give Him everything we’ve got!”  Good motivations, but I think I’m misguided in my execution of lead worshipping.

I recalled how stirred my spirit was just a few days ago during the Leadership Summit conference as we worshipped with the Willow Creek team via satellite.  I’ve found I tend to have a difficult time worshipping if I’m not a direct part of the team leading the worship.  Not sure if it’s deep-seated pride in the gifts & talents I’ve been blessed with in music, envy at not being on stage, distraction at the quality level of the worship being shared, or just my passion for being a part of the process.  Sadly, I also don’t believe the last of those four options is the most common one I hold in those moments.  But during the Summit, I experienced a different sort of response in my own heart, more of a revelation at what those words really mean.  And since I wasn’t concerned about making sure the band was in the right section of the song, or trying to keep my guitar in tune, or trying to evoke a response from a crowd of people, I was able to focus just on the words I was singing…

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
Holy, holy is He,
Sing a new song to Him who sits on
heaven’s mercy seat…

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty,
Who Was and Is and Is To Come!
With all creation I sing: Praise to the King of kings,
You are my everything, and I will adore You!

I’m such a perfectionist when it comes to music that I often find the music takes hold of me more firmly than the thoughts & words that are only framed by the music.  God created music, there’s nothing wrong with it and with enjoying it, but the notes and chords and swells and rhythms are merely the vessel through which the messages of Christ’s hope, and love, and salvation and glory are proclaimed.  Instead of focusing on an outward response, I experienced an inward revelation of the glory of Jesus and the rest of me responded accordingly, lifting my hands to the heavens in adoration of my Savior as opposed to lifting my hands because that’s what you’re supposed to do when singing in a church service.  I want to sing not because it’s my job at my church to lead people in song, I want to sing because my heart can’t contain my joy and wonder at the One who is the Holy of holies, the One who loves me more than I could ever deserve.

So I will sing.

Patience or Priority?

The Apostle Peter was a very interesting individual.  He’s described as big and burly, a hardworking fisherman who often spoke and acted impulsively and, occasionally, irrationally.  Whatever was on his mind he would speak aloud.  Whatever fire burned in his heart stirred him into motion.  He didn’t seem to consider the consequences of his words & deeds until after the fact, and Jesus is seen repeatedly trying to get through to him with admonishment, with rebuke, with repeated instructions.

Peter sort of reminds me of myself at times.  What’s in my head, I want to get out and share, contribute my $.02 even if it doesn’t actually further the conversation.  When an idea comes to mind of something I can, should, or want to do about something or with someone, I’m usually hard-pressed to resist the urge to get going on it yesterday.  As I closed in my last post, patience tends to be a pretty challenging concept for me to grasp and put into practice.

But in Peter’s case, it seems to be less about patience and more about priority.  I read a chapter from John Maxwell’s book The 21 Most Powerful Minutes in a Leader’s Day, and he explored the transition Peter made from the unremarkable life of a fisherman in Galilee to the impassioned leader of the first Christian church.  He watched how Jesus made choices, observed as his Teacher made the tough decisions no one else would be able to make because of the end result He had in mind.  Peter learned what it meant to fully invest in something greater than himself, and how to lead from that place to ensure he was always staying on track with the command his Master taught him: to bear witness to the world that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

I’m realizing how paramount it is for me to pause while making a decision and weigh all the variables, to identify the contrast between what is good and what is best, what is important versus what is critical in any given circumstance. Sometimes the lines get blurred and it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between the two.  Being able to discern this difference is what sets a leader apart from the followers.

I need to learn how to decide what comes first, and that knowledge can only come from one place.  If I am to be Kingdom-minded, I need to think like my King.  And in order to think like my King, I need to spend time with Him.  So, time comes first.

Lectio Divina…

… an ancient method of prayer that consists of four steps.  In English, it’s called “sacred reading.”

Another book was left on my desk this morning: Read. Think. Pray. Live. by Tony Jones.  Never heard of him, but he’s from New Jersey, so he’s okay in my book.  And before you roll your eyes, stop using Jersey Shore, Jerseylicious and The Sopranos as your indicators of what New Jersey and its natives are like.  Yikes.

I was guided by a well-placed index card to the fourth chapter: Lectio, which means “reading.”  This is Bible Reading 101, as basic & simple as it gets.  “This is the kind of pace you should read.”  “Here’s a recommended way to sit so you can focus calmly.”  “Here’s what you should think about when deciding on the time of day to read.”  Wow.  Sometimes I just need the process spelled out for me.  I like procedures, I like templates, tried & true methods.  But I often find it difficult to create the method on my own.  I guess I didn’t realize how far back to being a beginner I need to go to get the hang of my quiet time with my Savior.  It’s so elementary, and I say that with more wonder and realization than chiding.  It’s really not that hard!  It just requires effort.  Another sacred thorn in the side of my foolish passivity.  I might get out of this desert yet.

In the midst of this chapter was a heading that leapt off the page at me: PICKING THE PASSAGE. This has been an area of tremendous struggle for me.  I habitually gravitate toward the same passages, the same books I’ve read over and over.  Or, I play “sword drills” and let the pages fall where they may, followed by randomly picking a passage with eyes closed and finger pointed down towards the open sheets of paper, and I find myself struggling to find any meaning within the words I just read.  Usually, I’m left completely empty.  Without context, without any idea why this particular passage passed beneath my gaze, unsure if God took charge over the laws of physics and forced those particular pages apart and then caused my eyes to seek those words in particular, or if it was just the luck of the draw, a random throw of the dice.

Our spiritual walk isn’t a gamble, and we shouldn’t ever treat it as such.  There’s too much at stake.  There’s no room for playing roulette, no room for taking wild guesses at what He (to Whom nothing is ever a surprise) is aching to show us.  God is specific, there is no gray area with Him.  How dare I treat His Word with such fleeting hope, with no real confidence!  If He approached our future the same way, the word “hope” would disappear from our vocabulary, having never existed in the first place.

So how can I break this pattern of reading at random?  Make a plan.  First thought: find the right translation for me.  I received a Bible several years ago that was in the New Living Translation.  (If you’re concerned about it being truly accurate, check out their website for more info on how the translation was made.)  I call it the “Plain English Version,” it’s a bit more conversational without being anecdotal and I’ve really taken a liking to it.  I’ve also started to like The Message translation, it’s a bit more “artful” than the New Living and is actually a paraphrase version that was created to bring the words into a more modern idiom.  I’ll often use it alongside another translation (usually the NLT) to gain even more clarity on a confusing passage, and I’ll also use it for a more poetic view at the scripture for songwriting.  By using translations that read a bit more relevantly to me and my understanding, I find life and clarity in passages that previously would have seemed tired or confusing.

Second thought: try using a “read the Bible in 1-2-3 years” program.  YouVersion.com has one, and I’m going to give their program a go.  It’s a vastly different approach to just reading the Bible cover to cover, which I did a number of years ago.  For one, reading the Bible cover to cover can be both boringly predictable and frighteningly daunting.  Instead, going through specifically chosen passages laid out by someone who has a deep knowledge & comprehension of scripture can open up entirely new realms of understanding, even in passages you’ve read a thousand times before.  In these programs, the passages to be read on any given day often tie in with each other thematically.  I’m really looking forward to seeing the connections between scriptures that were penned centuries apart by so many different historical figures.

The other major theme here is finding the right environment, the ideal place to quiet myself and read, where I’m subject to little to no distraction.  Even while typing this blog post, I’m tempted to open up another browser window to check out the latest technology news, or check the email that just came in even though I know I can’t address it until later in the day, etc.  Like most musicians I know, I get distracted far too easily.  I love reading.  I love stories and history and immersive plot.  The Bible has plenty of all that, but I find it hard to keep myself focused enough to absorb any of what I’m reading because of everything else going on.  I need to separate myself from the world for a time, dig my heels in and just go for it.

Oh, and one more ingredient: patience.  Lord only knows I don’t always have it, and He knows I dread asking for it.  It’s high time I buckled down and started practicing it.  Care to join me?

You said the secret word!

A friend recommended I read a section from the book An Hour On Sunday by Nancy Beach, the former Arts Leader at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago.  It’s a great read for anyone who’s done any kind of arts ministry for a long time and needs some encouragement and guidance on surviving in the church arts world.

I went through Chapter Seven: Well-Ordered Hearts and Lives.  Some key thoughts I received right off the bat:

  • While the end result of ministry can move people in striking ways, beyond anything we possibly had in mind for it, it all comes at a tremendous cost to us: time, energy, interpersonal relationships, etc.
  • My talent isn’t the greatest gift I bring to the church, even as a staff member.  The greatest gift I bring is my very life.
  • Take the time to minister!  Don’t just hand it off to someone else because “they’re better equipped to handle it.”

Proverbs 4:23 – “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” We can’t serve from a heart that’s exhausted, embittered, distracted.  We also can’t serve from a heart that only comes to life on weekends.  There needs to be an influx of life happening throughout the week!  It’s an active and participatory process that requires practice and honing and repetition.

Many of us find it exceedingly difficult to do the work we are called to do and be the kind of people God asks us to be.  If we’re not careful, we begin to see ourselves as victims, to make excuses, to look for wiggle room so we can somehow be the exception to rules for godly character.  It’s not that we don’t long to be fully devoted to God, but too often we allow deadline pressures, relentless ministry demands, and overwhelming standards to become excuses for slippage.

-Nancy Beach

How true.  Excuses, no matter how valid, are still excuses.  My wife is going through a very difficult time right now in her job life, and it’s taken a substantial toll on her, and by proxy, me.  Right now she needs my strength to lean on, and if I’m not renewing my own strength, I will be utterly useless to her, and by default, I’ll be even more useless to myself and in my own job & causes.  I don’t blame her for it; I could never blame her.  I chose to partner with her through thick and thin when I asked her to marry me, so I will share the burden.  But Jesus never intended the burdens of this world to overtake us, because He said He would take it from us and give us a lighter one (Matthew 11:30).  And I can’t let the frustrations she’s experiencing rule the day for either of us.

Some responses to the chapter:

  1. I need to make sure I am taking care of myself.  God knit me together in my mother’s womb, my body is His temple, and I have to keep it properly maintained.  I’ve been eating better; I’ve been proactive about getting enough sleep; I’ve been exercising, albeit not as regularly as I want to be.  Discipline.  Sounds like the operative word for me right now.
  2. I need to make sure I’m always reconciled to those around me, whether it be my wife, my parents, her parents, my bosses, my coworkers, my cohorts, etc.  I don’t think right now I’m in a place where I’m at odds with anyone.  If and when I am, I have to make peace so it doesn’t spill over into other areas of my life.
  3. I have demonstrated a severe lack of discipline in spending quiet time with my King.  Severe.  Inexcusable, but forgivable.  Praise God for that.  This is probably the first major step in guiding me out of the desert of passivity I’ve been in.  (There’s that operative word again… discipline.)
  4. How do I feel coming into a weekend?  Sometimes I’m feeling good, other times I feel dread.  It comes down to preparedness.  It stands to reason that emotional & spiritual preparedness are just as important as musical & logistical preparedness, if not far more so!  If I’m more prepared emotionally and spiritually, I’m better equipped to deal with the rest.
  5. I know what it is to minister out of weakness.  I have led worship while being far down in the depths of sadness and despair.  I vividly remember what that was like.  The only way I made it through was by His grace.  How much deeper could I go with Him if I sought that grace week in and week out when I’m not in a deep and dark valley?
  6. I really, really don’t like the unexpected.  I’ve tried really hard to handle it well, to be patient, flexible, understanding.  Things happen, and there’s no way around them when they do.  But I need to demonstrate patience, flexibility, and understanding so my team and collaborators aren’t thrown off or made nervous by any mishandling of the situation.  As a leader, I am charged with being an example to my team.  If I lead well, they will follow.  If I suck at leading, they’ll go elsewhere.  I don’t want to risk that with our team, both for their sake as well as my own.

So what are my next steps?  Well, the operative word DISCIPLINE comes to mind once again:

  • Discipline not only in setting aside the time to spend in reflection and reading scripture and books, but in actually using that time for that purpose and not getting distracted.
  • Discipline in finding resources to glean from on my own, not just going on what’s left on my desk by dear friends (although it’s always welcome, I just can’t rely solely on that, they’re walking my walk for me if that’s the case).
  • Discipline in not looking at the time, to “clock in and clock out” of my quiet time.  I don’t think heaven has a punch-clock.
  • Discipline in looking for ways to interact with others outside of the musical sense, reaching out to those in need, being aware of what’s happening underneath it all.

I’m sure there are more, and I’ll most likely be adding to this list in the future.

What’s your list look like?