Longing for Now

I was reminded recently of several old hymns the church has sung over the years.  As a worship pastor, I’ve sung and led songs from many generations and traditions, but I admit there really is something special about the simplicity of an old hymn – the uncomplicated melody, the story it tells, and the theological truth it often reveals.  I believe a church that never looks back to its musical roots is missing – no, neglecting – a treasure trove of timeless truths revealed in its many hymns.

Several of these hymns stood out to me, however, in the unique way they viewed earth, heaven, and this life.  This got me thinking.  I often criticize a lot of modern praise music for being “dance club party music” with Jesus’s name thrown in for good measure.  We see this in a lot of modern church settings where the experience takes precedence over substance.  This is not every church that has loud, celebratory music, mind you, but there is a growing trend of attending worship as an event, rather than living worship a lifestyle.  Already critical of much of our modern praise, I contrasted it with the lyrics to many of these old hymns, and the difference was…stark.

The verses of many of these hymns seemed to lament over the troubles of this world.  Words like weight, burden, and weary were coupled with actions like, longing, waiting, and suffering.  The choruses spoke of the bright days ahead in heaven when we will finally see Jesus face to face.  It brought to my mind a hymn I’d heard and sung many times before.  You may be familiar with it too:

Oft times the day seems long, our trials hard to bear,
We’re tempted to complain, to murmur and despair;
But Christ will soon appear to catch His Bride away,
All tears forever over in God’s eternal day.

It will be worth it all when we see Jesus,
Life’s trials will seem so small when we see Christ;
One glimpse of His dear face all sorrow will erase,
So bravely run the race till we see Christ.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these words, or any of these hymns for that matter.  Indeed, the world presents us with many trials – some of which can seem impossible to withstand.  Heaven, in all of its splendor, will be more glorious than you or I could ever possibly imagine.  These things are true, and hymns like this are a precious reminder of the eternity that awaits us, but I wonder now how much these heavily heaven-focused hymns (say that 5 times fast!) have influenced and shaped the theological worldview of entire generations of the church.  How often has the church presented the Gospel – the good news of the salvation available through Jesus Christ – as much more than punching your ticket to an eternity away from the flames of hell?  I don’t have any hard facts or figures to answer that question, but I’ve seen many churches die over the years because their congregations became satisfied with waiting for heaven, rather than living out the joy of salvation.

The salvation paid for by Jesus is undeniably wonderful.  I look forward to the day I will gather around with other saints and praise God for eternity.  I also believe there is an incredible purpose in this life that God has given me for today.  There is joy today to be found amid the trials and the hardship this world may afford.  If we live as if heaven is the only prize we receive as Christians, our churches will die because we’ve stopped living to share the joy of God with others.  It’s no surprise there are so many experience-driven churches that a pushing so hard in the other direction – making each gathering the equivalent of high-energy, high-volume dance party.

My hope is that as we – the body of Christ continue to find our identity, we will be keenly aware that there is a glorious eternity that awaits us, but there is also full, abundant life awaiting us now – at this very moment.  I don’t believe we can worship appropriately without living as if both of them are equally important.  Life’s not all a dance party, but there is joy in a Christ-filled life.  Life’s not all a dreary, pain-filled mess, but there is much hard work yet to be done.

If we live as if this life and next are beautiful parts of the same story, we will begin to see the church doing more of what it was made to do.  Those who call on the Lord will not only be saved, but will live for telling others of what Jesus has done for them.  There will be days of high-energy celebration.  There will be some days when we mourn and cry with those who have experienced hardship and loss.  There will be work to be done, but it will be a joy to labor for the purposes of God.  He makes the trials of this life bearable and gives us purpose in the here and now.

And yes – when we see Him face to face, it will be worth it all.


Pastor of Entertainment

There’s one thing I can count on nearly every Sunday following one of our worship services at Decatur First.  As I’m putting things away, sharing in conversation, or headed to the car someone will stop me to offer a handshake or a pat on the back and tell me, “You really sounded great out there today.  I love your music!”  It’s a wonderful thing to hear.  I put in a lot of time practicing, honing my craft to make sure that I’m a good steward of the talent God has given to me, so knowing it is well-received puts a smile on my face.  But sounding good is just a tiny sliver of what I really, truly desire for our worship time.

In the church (or anywhere, really) great music can be a powerful tool to help connect the heart and the mind, which is fantastic for evoking an emotional swell in the midst of a worship service.  Because music is an art it can, and should, have elements that engage its audience on an emotional level.   Skilled musicians understand this and use it. –  Why do you think we pay good money and flock to concerts to hear our favorite artists play?  Being there as part of the experience connects us to songs that have stirred us at some time or another on an emotional level.  We’ll sing at the top of our lungs, we’ll dance in the aisles, we’ll shout and clap our hands.  And after a couple of hours, we’ll leave on a bit of an emotional high, all for the sake of great experience.  Funny enough, the same can be said about many times I’ve been part of a church service.

So what, then, separates a gifted worship leader from a gifted musician?  As I mentioned, I’ve been to church services that looked pretty similar to the hypothetical concert described above.  The music has been phenomenal.  The clapping, the dancing, the singing – those things were all there.  The emotional swell?  Check.  On the surface, they can appear nearly identical, but there is is one giant, crucial difference between leading worship, and leading a concert – the audience.

Let me give you an example of some of the questions I have been asking myself over the last few years when planning music for a worship service:

  • What music will engage our congregation in singing praise with passion?
  • What songs will cover the worship tastes of each generation?
  • What songs will fit well with the theme of pastor’s message?
  • Is this a good week to introduce a new song?
  • Is there a song I’ve played too much and needs to be given a break?

Some of these questions may be very familiar to fellow worship leaders.  And I believe these are good questions to ask, but I contend that these questions are not the most correct questions to consider.  Why?  Because each of these questions assumes that the primary audience for the worship leader is the congregation.  I’m not sure why this is so often difficult to remember, but God is, always has been, and always will be the intended primary recipient of worship.  A worship leader’s responsibility is to bring the church to unified adoration of our God and creator.  Worship’s most important function is to stir the heart of God, but so often, the worship leader struggles instead to find music or create an experience that will stir the hearts of the people.

I’ve been stuck in that pattern of thinking for longer than I’d care to admit.  Recently, however, I’ve been reminded of something that has begun to reshape the way I view worship leadership.  That “something” is this:  The moments in my life where God has moved most powerfully were not at large, impressive gatherings – not at places with the most well-rehearsed bands or the most beautifully arranged music.  Some of my most Spirit-filled encounters with God were in places where our praise was led by an inexperienced kid with a guitar and a decidedly average group of vocalists.  Other times the Spirit of God fell and we weren’t singing at all – He simply showed up and lives were changed.  He moved because He was invited to move.  That’s all it took.  That’s all that mattered.

I believe that God desperately wants us to remember that and take it to heart.  Worship leadership is so much more about invitation than technical perfection.  Before the first chord is struck, before the first note is rehearsed, and before the order of worship is even put together, the single most important thing a worship leader/pastor can do is seek God with desperation.  Read scripture daily – pray constantly – get alone and sing praises to God.  Draw near to Him.  Don’t just rehearse music – encourage and build up the worship team to seek God with the same desperation.  Make God your greatest joy and delight.  Overflowing with the praises of God makes you a living, breathing conduit of His spirit to those you lead.

Don’t stop rehearsing.  Don’t stop looking for songs that people will enjoy!  God takes delight when we seek to honor him with excellence and skill.  I love the words of the psalmist in Psalm 33, that urge us to play with passion:

Let the godly sing for joy to the Lordit is fitting for the pure to praise him.  Praise the Lord with melodies on the lyre; make music for him on the ten-stringed harp.  Sing a new song of praise to him; play skillfully on the harp, and sing with joy.”

Excellence without mission, however, is never the end goal.  If I’ve created an entertaining experience and no one was led closer to faith in God, I have squandered the talent He’s given to me.  Did our praise music sound good this week?  If so, that’s great, but what I really want to know is if God’s Spirit was at work in our worship time drawing hearts closer and changing lives forever.  I’m happy if what I do is entertaining, but there’s a very good reason why my title will never be Pastor of Entertainment.  That’s not what I am meant to do.

The Leader’s Call to Repentance

Hello, my name is Daniel, and the last few weeks of my life I’ve been living with this…tension.  Not overwhelming tension.  Not even a harmful tension.  Just the kind of tension that begins to gnaw away at your sense of comfort.  A tension that has been telling me that something isn’t sitting well within me – a tension that I’ve been acquainted with before.  Allow me to explain.

A couple of days ago, I returned from a pretty large gathering of ministers and leaders in one of the premier events for my affiliated denomination – a three day conference focusing on the missional outreach of the church.  I left this gathering with a new arsenal of ideas and inspirations, and even more, I left encouraged about the ones upon whom the call of spreading the Good News of Jesus has been placed.  It’s a great community of believers serving a great God.

Like many Christian events, each morning and evening were bookended by worship services filled with music and teaching.  The praise experience, in particular was dazzling.  Talented musicians and vocalists lined the stage, and with flawless execution they played and sang their hearts out to beloved worship songs, hymns, and everything in between.  The lights pulsed and blinked with precision, shining through perfectly balanced levels of smoky haze and putting an exclamation mark on particularly spirited sections of song or lyric.  We, the gathered, were enveloped in a pleasing ambiance of worship.

We stood, clapped, and raised hands to about 15 minutes of worship music and then – just as it had been planned, the moment was over.  It was time to move on to the pre-message video and eventually the evening’s speaker.  The tech crews and musicians did what they were asked to do, but in my heart, something was missing.  I felt guilty for even feeling it.  And honestly, as a worship pastor, I’d done the same “stuff” many times before.  The worship formula for me has been essentially the same since I accepted the call to ministry 7 years ago: find good truth-filled songs, sing three or four of them during a service, and then turn things over to the preaching pastor.  So why did I feel so…uncomfortable?  The service that night was not much different than what I’d normally do if I were up there.  Still, that tension in my heart began to bubble over.

After the service was over, a pastor friend and I were reflecting on the night, when I asked him what he thought about the praise time.  To my surprise, he revealed to me that he, too, was feeling a tension – even a spirit of cynicism during the service.  Then he said something that broke my heart:  “You know, I felt they had some really good musicians, but no leaders.”  I’m not sure if he knew, or even knows now just how much those words pierced my heart.  There is a distinct difference between a singer of worship songs and worship pastor, and for the first time, I wasn’t sure which of the two I’d been all this time.

I don’t know if I can remember how many times I’ve planned a worship service with the stated objectives of:  fitting a sermon theme, finding the right balance of choruses to hymns, and finding the right keys for that week’s music set.  After those objectives were accomplished, I and the praise team would practice them later that week, and play them on Sunday.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Some weeks, our congregation would respond with a wall of singing that would literally shake the platform; other weeks it felt like we were singing to 750 stone pillars.  It was amazing how my fervor for leading the next week seemed to rely solely on how our praise set was received the week before.  What I do know, is that our congregation does seem, for the most part, to enjoy the music.  At least that’s what many of them have told me.

But even now I’m sitting and thinking about how I felt a few nights ago.  It’s the reason I’m choosing to begin writing my thoughts out for others to read.  Sometimes All too often, music is not enough.  On occasion, the music can speak on its own.  But that night, I wanted to be led.  I needed to be led.  I wanted someone to look up from their iPad for just a few moments, and in an unrehearsed moment of vulnerability, share unscripted praise, or a prayer – or a scripture.  Something.  Anything to connect our hearts with God before the drums began and the lights began to spin and flash.  And now I understand where I’ve often fallen so short as a worship pastor.  Those people in our church that I love so dearly want more than just a catchy song.  Sometimes they just want to be led.  A worship pastor needs to be so close to God as to discern when to go off the rehearsed script and be obedient to the leading of the spirit.

Shouting into the microphone “Let’s sing!”, or “Who’s ready to worship?” just isn’t enough.  I want to be better, because God deserves better, and His Church deserves better.  The most effective leaders are often the most dedicated followers.  God, may I learn to follow You – because there are many following me and I’ve not always known where I’m going.