A Whole Mess of Excellent Resources to Consider in These Unsettling Times

The good folks at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) recently put out a list of all kinds of helpful resources for pastors and worship leaders trying to navigate the uncharted waters in which we find ourselves at the moment in the wake of the coronavirus.  Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity is probably well familiar with the wealth of great material generated by the CICW, but, just in case, here’s a link to what they shared recently: COVID-19 and Worship: Resources for Churches Adapting to Social Isolation.

A1frC+NSx1L._US230_In particular, I would recommend the article “How to Lead Worship Online without Losing Your Soul–or Body” by David Taylor.  If you only have time to digest one item from CICW’s bountiful supply, start here.

Continued blessings during this difficult season.  The Lord be with you!

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A Thought to Consider in Light of the Well-Intended (and Possibly Completely Correct) Exhortation to Seize the Moment of “Unprecedented Opportunity”

It seems anyone with a platform of any kind has something to offer the Church in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.  (My plan for this blog, in fact, had been to share some thoughts from go-to thinkers on worship and the Church-in-culture, and I still might do that some time.)  One of the persistent themes concerns the necessity to view this crisis as an “unprecedented opportunity” to affect our world for Christ.  In two separate sermons I caught yesterday, the pastors encouraged us, especially those with significant shelter-in-place time on the horizon, to use this time well.

For the record, this is my default setting.  I’m the firstborn, Type-A overachiever who groans every time Martha gets unilaterally bashed (in sermons on Luke 10:38-42) with nary an acknowledgment that, in that Jewish culture of hospitality, Mary wouldn’t have had the luxury of simply being had not Martha (or somebody) been worried about doing.  If I’m inclined to side (or at least empathize) with Martha regarding typical protocol for welcoming a guest (even a divine one), I’m even more inclined to embrace this get-to-it perspective in the midst of a very atypical world pandemic.  Indeed, my gut tells me to add my voice to those now providing consider-this how-to’s and encouraging believers to make sure we grab this moment for the Kingdom.

And yet. . . .

(It’s not for want of opinion that I refrain.  [Well, OK, just one: Xer and Yer worship leaders, if you’re going to ask Boomers and Builders to sing along with your live-streamed/pre-recorded worship set in the confines of their kitchens, laptops in tow, please let them sing a song or two from the soundtrack of their faith, too.  If ever there were a time to put “It Is Well with My Soul,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and “How Great Thou Art” into regular rotation, this is it.])

But something in my soul pushes back a bit on this carpe diem mentality.  Maybe I’m the only one for whom this is true, but whenever I hear exhortations like those I’ve heard numerous times the past several days, I am way too inclined to jump into the process without doing nearly enough praying, fasting, contemplating, or consulting with folks far more expert in all kinds of areas than I.  I leap into fix-it mode with spiritually reckless abandon, buoyed by the mantra that these “unprecedented times” and the attendant “unprecedented opportunity” demand my such-a-time-as-this, sold-out activity.  Now.  Said activity can tempt me to put the spiritual cart before the horse and threaten to cause me to forget from whence comes my strength.  Maybe I’m the only one for whom this is true.

Psalm 46 has been quoted a lot of late, especially the first three verses; I used them myself in a devotional a few days ago: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”  And praise God for those truths.  But I’m drawn at this moment to the well-known end of the psalm, verse 10, where God says, “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

41z4RqttYwLJohn Goldingay, writing in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, says this about that verse:

[T]he challenge to [be still] also issues an important challenge to the people of God to give up thinking it has responsibility for its destiny or that its task is to bring in the kingdom of God, extend the kingdom of God, or further the kingdom of God.  Scripture does not think in such terms.  The psalm makes clear that the city of God is not a mere heavenly community . . . but an earthly reality.  But in this city, it is not for us to fix things.  It is for us to expect God to fix things.

For any pastors or worship leaders who, like me, especially in the wake of urgent exhortation, are prone to take on mantles of responsibility without thinking enough about the One who wraps us in those mantles, I offer the words of Eugene Peterson in the unsettlingly titled The Unnecessary Pastor:

  1. We are unnecessary to what the culture presumes is important. . . . We are viewed as persons who provide a background of social stability, who are useful in times of crisis and serve as symbols of meaning and purpose.  But we are not necessary in any of those ways. . . .
  2. We are also unnecessary to what we ourselves feel is essential: as the linchpin holding a congregation together. . . . We have important work to do, but if we don’t do it God can always find someone else. . . .
  3. And we are unnecessary to what congregations insist that we must do and be. . . . They want pastors who lead.  They want pastors the way the Israelites wanted a king. . . .

I don’t necessarily know what this means in practical terms in the days ahead–these thoughts are by no means fully formed–but I am reasonably confident the Church will rise up and be the Church in the weeks and months ahead, with or without its members’ full appreciation of the unprecedentedness of the opportunity before her.

The Lord be with you!

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A Time of Worship in the Academy before Sending Students Home

Judson University made the decision last week to suspend traditional instruction, sending students home to finish the semester via online/digital methods.  Numerous schools are doing the same; it feels like the prudent thing to do.

Typically, Judson’s Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts celebrates graduating seniors with an end-of-the-semester bash the last week of April.  When the decision came Thursday morning, the DCWPA leadership decided we’d do the best we could to pull together a service honoring those students, even at short notice.  I’m pleased to report that had everyone not known the celebration was planned with only 18 hours’ notice, it certainly wouldn’t have been obvious.  Several of the eventually graduating seniors thanked us afterward for our efforts.

As DCWPA director, I typically offer a devotional thought in our opening liturgy, and I thought I’d share it here:

This is not supposed to be happening.  We shouldn’t be here.

It is happening.  We are here.

The people of God decried their Babylonian captivity in Psalm 137: “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a pagan country?”  For our purposes today, we might amend the lament as follows:

At worst, how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in the midst of a global pandemic?  At best, how can we sing the songs of the Lord while toiling in virtual, online classrooms devoid of the body-physical interactions that make the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts such a special place to so many people?  Fair questions.

But think on this.  Sometimes we are grateful for God’s numerous blessings, and so we worship passionately.  Sometimes we are confident of God’s provision in our lives, and so we worship passionately.  Sometimes we are mindful of God’s sovereignty over all creation, and so we worship passionately.

But sometimes I resent my lot in life, especially after I scroll through social media and see how wonderfully every single blessed one of my friends is doing, but when I choose to worship regardless, through that process I usually find myself grateful for God’s provision at the end of my worship.

Sometimes I fear for the future—the future of the world . . . the future of Christian higher education and the school that shaped me so well 35 years ago and to which I’ve dedicated the majority of my adult life . . . the future of my family—but when I choose to worship regardless, through the process I usually find myself trusting God for all my needs at the end of my worship.

Sometimes I feel the world is spinning out of control, going to hell in a handbasket, but when I choose to worship regardless, through that process I usually find myself in awe of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence at the end of my worship.

Dr. Ed Thompson, whose name (and that of his wife, Prof. Alice Thompson) graces our building, in paraphrasing the old gospel song, was fond of saying, “We don’t sing because we’re happy; we’re happy because we sing.” 

We then sang “Cornerstone” and confessed our sins together, in a prayer read responsively:

Worship Leader: Let us pray.

People: O God, we confess in times like these we fall back on old patterns of behavior that aren’t healthy.

WL: You call us not to fear; too often we do.

People: Remind us of your words in the Sermon on the Mount: “That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?”

WL: You call us to pray; too often we don’t.

People: Remind us of your words spoken through the apostle Paul: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

WL: You call us to walk by faith, not by sight; too often we walk by sight and allow our sensory input and our feelings to cloud our faith.

People: Remind us of your words we just heard, spoken through the prophet Isaiah, that “those who trust in the Lord will find new strength” available for the powerless and those who feel powerless.

WL: We confess our frailties to you, O God.  It is You (not we) who have made us; you know us better than we know ourselves.

People: Lord, today and every day, please help our unbelief.  Amen.

DCWPA senior prayerFinally, we received assurance of pardon, feted our grads, and closed in prayer.  It was a wonderful, if earlier than preferred, way to send our students off into an unknown future.  In like manner, may the Lord be with you as you navigate these uncharted waters (for most of us) in the weeks ahead!

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A Thought or Two on “Learning to Like Contemporary Christian Music (the music I hate)”

If you read this blog with any regularity, chances are good you have already encounteredNeely jazz musician Adam Neely’s most recent video.  It had over 350K views this past weekend, so it’s obviously being shared frequently.  If you haven’t encountered it yet, it’s worth the 13 minutes, for there is a lot of substantial stuff here (so don’t feel guilty when the click-bait title does what a click-bait title is supposed to do in social-media circles).  The video is produced very well, and Neely has a lot of interesting things to say, including his dissecting the music-theory nuts and bolts of contemporary Christian music (ccm) and his discussion of the concept of “musicking.”

But a key blind spot in Neely’s approach here is his inability to differentiate between (ccm) and contemporary worship music (cwm).  The two are cousins, to be sure, and they share numerous family traits.  Moreover, the line between the two has become blurred in recent years as more and more songs that show up on K-LOVE one month show up in contemporary worship services the next.

Christian-music historians would tell us this has, since the dawn of ccm in the late 60’s and 70’s, always been the case to an extent.  But for every “Easter Song” the Second Chapter of Acts sang . . . for every “My Tribute” Andraé Crouch sang .  .  . for every “Great Is the Lord” Michael W. Smith sang–all songs that ended up in the hymnals of the 80’s and 90’s–there were scores of their ccm songs that never made the leap from the radio to congregational singing.  Contrast that with today, when a much higher percentage of songs seem to serve both functions: good tunes to listen to in the car during the week and good songs to sing in church on the weekend.

Particularly in Neely’s assessment of longtime worship leader Don Moen’s teaching video on the dangers of overplaying in cwm, we see the trouble of lumping ccm and cwm together indiscriminately.  If Moen’s band were operating with ccm in mind, then I would resonate completely with Neely’s frustration with Moen’s apparent stifling of his musicians’ impulses–in effect, neutering their musicianship and robbing their efforts of the kind of God-given joy that accompanies the creation of good art for the believer.

But since Moen’s band is, in fact, facilitating the people’s song in corporate worship, his admonition re: not drawing undue attention to the band members’ chops, a concept about which I’ve written elsewhere, is spot on.  You want to play like Phil Keaggy–who has long contended his ferocious efforts on his ax are meant as a personal offering to the Lord–do it on the concert stage, not in the worship service.  The music used in both might be almost indistinguishable at times these days; the end goals of both efforts, however, while linked in one sense, are by no means completely the same.  Failure to draw a distinction between the raisons d’être of each diminishes both.

Still, I applaud Neely for posting this and sparking some good dialogue.  I wish there were more cwm songwriters and worship leaders taking some of his overarching principles to heart.  Perhaps this video will help.

The Lord be with you!

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Reflection #44 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 44 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #44: Contemporary American worship can learn a thing or two from Taizé worship.

I teach a class at Judson University every two years called Worship Resources.  The course has two foci: 1) I endeavor to introduce students to the wealth of resources available to them these days, instruction which often comes courtesy of fabulous guest lecturers I’ve come to know over the past 30 years of doing worship ministry; 2) I take the students on a number of field trips to Christian worship experiences that are off the beaten track of the contemporary worship with which they’re very familiar by the time they set foot in my class.  Time and again, student evaluations list the field trips as the highlight of the class, and longtime Judson Worship Arts alums frequently wax nostalgic about them as well.

Taize picEspecially when the subject of Taizé worship  comes up.  We happen to visit a church (Ascension Church in Oak Park, Illinois) that has offered a monthly Taizé service for over 20 years, and the primary liturgist, David Anderson (no relation), has led all that time.  The sanctuary is beautifully ornate, the acoustics are fabulous, and there’s always a full congregation.  It makes for a really wonderful service.

Several years ago, writing in Worship Leader magazine, I argued that it was “time to take Taizé out of the quiet, candle-lit cathedrals and into the media-frenzied converted warehouses where many of us worship these days.”  Why?

  1. Taizé worship counteracts the self-focus about which many detractors of current worship practices groan.  The extent to which self-reference predominates in contemporary American worship is debatable (and I would argue is getting better), but wherever congregations focus more on me than Thee, Taizé choruses, with their frequent emphasis on rejection of self and embrace of God, put things in proper perspective.
  2. Taizé worship fosters communal worship.  . . . Taizé, with its simple and easily learned melodies, takes the emphasis off the presentation and puts it on the participation.
  3. Taizé worship is a great way to involve musicians who normally don’t get a chance to share their gifts in contemporary worship.  Do you have a first- or second-chair-in-the-high-school-orchestra violinist in your youth group?  Any stay-at-home moms who used to play flute in the marching band back in the day?  Excellent Taizé orchestrations for almost all of the songs are available through GIA Music. . . . Exploring some of the better Taizé choruses can help worship leaders expand their church’s musical palette.
  4. Taizé worship can translate into contemporary worship.  It’s a misconception that every Taizé tune is slow and sedate.  In three separate worship ministry settings (two churches and one Christian college), I have seen more upbeat Taizé fare (and a few slower pieces) work with a typical praise-band lineup of electric instruments and drums.  It takes a little bit of effort, but it can be done.

I concluded by suggesting two strategies for any who might take the plunge and introduce a Taizé chorus into their worship sets: 1) Do the songs in English, saving “singing them in their original languages for smaller, more intimate gatherings where there will likely be better buy-in for this kind of display of diversity”; and 2) avoid the typical vocal descants that waft over the congregation’s vocals in many Taizé worship songs.  Instead, turn the descants “into verses (sung either individually or corporately) and let the choruses function as they would in a typical A-B format.”

I’ll stop here to admit the chances that Taizé will start rivaling Bethel or Elevation for space on the CCLI Top 100 are slim to none.  The whole ethos of Taizé is so countercultural in re: to how so many of us understand worship these days that few will be the worship leaders who embark on such a risky experiment.  Given that reality, here are two things you might try that reflect the spirit of Taizé without embracing the songs themselves.

First, consider teaching new songs during your pre-service time.  Rather than introducing new songs by inviting the congregation to join along as soon as they feel comfortable–i.e., fostering and tolerating a lack of participation, at least initially–why not ditch the energetic walk-in music and the video countdown and have your band run through a new song to give the congregation a taste of what’s to come?  In every Taizé service I’ve attended, the worship leader has taught a song or two beforehand, and it makes for more satisfying singing when those songs are then sung a bit later.

Second, find songs that feature a greater variety of harmonic expression beyond cwm’s ubiquitous I-IV-V-vi patterns.  The Taizé songs I’ve done with the Judson University Choir this year (“In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful” and “The Kingdom of God”) each feature six chords, used in interesting combinations.  I’ve also used “Laudate Dominum” in the past, with a full praise band locking into the deep 3/4 groove.

In the unlikely event that I get any takers on this score, I’d love to hear feedback on your efforts.  The Lord be with you, and try to catch a Taizé service sometime in 2020!  You won’t regret it!

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Reflection #43 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 43 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #43: I wonder how often highly programmed contemporary worship grossly fails to account for the spiritual emptiness of many of the congregants on any given Sunday morning.

While in this current state of limbo re: regular church attendance–while my wife and I have been on a three-plus-year hiatus from parking in the same space and sitting in the same pew/chair in the same church Sunday after Sunday; i.e., while not having to go to church to receive a paycheck–I have regularly been surprised how often I have come to corporate worship in a state of spiritual depletion.  Yesterday was one such occasion.

Twenty-nineteen was a rough year for a number of reasons.  There were numerous blessings, of course, as there always are, but I found myself too frequently walking by sight and not by faith, too regularly viewing my glass as 10% empty as opposed to 90% full.  It’s humbling to be in worship education and to think periodically, “I still believe all this, but I sure don’t feel it at the moment.”  I’ve done this long enough to be comfortable acting-as-if when I need to, and I think there is great merit, to be sure, in pressing on in the midst of doubt and questioning–exercising spiritual muscles, through pain, believing there will be benefits on the back end someday.  (There always are . . . eventually.)

Yesterday started out like so many days before.  We walked in (late) and made our way to the balcony, so our tardiness wouldn’t be too noticeable and to afford a sense of anonymity.  The worship leader, Tim Caffee, 832910_3956x3956_500a former student, had just finished (I found out later) leading one of the congregation’s favorite “Go, God” up-tempo numbers and, just as we walked in, felt led of the Holy Spirit to shift gears midstream into a (mostly) unscripted time of reflection.  With a simple acoustic guitar providing a I-IV vamp underneath, he began speaking Truth to the congregation.  Charismatics would have received them as prophetic words; Reformed believers would have called them exhortations.  Call them what you want; they were exactly what I needed yesterday morning–and they certainly felt inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Speaking occasionally in the third person and occasionally on behalf of the Almighty in the first person (while clearly making evident which was which), Tim welcomed those gathered into the fullness of the blessings of belonging to Christ . . . in a loving relationship.  One phrase he uttered, “Jesus gently wants to wash away your cynicism today,” felt as if it had been given just for me.

I fear for the vast majority of my 30 years in local-church worship leadership I routinely grossly underestimated the level of spiritual depletion in a percentage of the congregants on any given Sunday.  How often did I attempt to whip my stoic Scandinavian brothers and sisters into a frenzy in order to help them feel excited about Jesus?  How often did I use music to manipulate in order to achieve what I thought was what those under my leadership needed?  How often did I, frankly, treat congregational singing as a tool to numb people’s pain–like one might use drugs, alcohol, or cheap sex–quickly and momentarily satisfying a felt need without taking the opportunity to get at root problems?  Not wittingly, of course, but while encouraging worshipers to “celebrate Jesus,” “[run] out of that grave,” and/or “bow in humble adoration and there proclaim, ‘My God, how great Thou art'” (this isn’t just a contemporary worship issue), how often did I merely serve up a shot of spiritual cortisone when some kind of ministerial out-patient surgery would have been more appropriate?

I hear the concerns.  Megachurch worship leaders: “We can’t do that kind of thing because I have a fixed time for my set.”  Reformed worship leaders: “What if we enter into one of those unscripted moments and someone in the congregation attributes some indigestion-inspired ‘word of knowledge’ to the Holy Spirit and spends five minutes ‘blessing’ us with that revelation?”  Southern Baptist worship leaders: “There’s no room for planned spontaneity in Fanny Crosby or Bill Gaither.”  Yeah, I get it.

I also get that our job is to lead worship, not just play music.  So much of what I see in contemporary worship (and, believe me, I saw the same thing in the traditional worship of my youth) would suggest to an outsider that the worship leaders believe the congregation members have also been thinking about this set for the past three to six weeks.  Have also been praying over the song selection.  Have also been working on the transitional comments.  Have also been–out there in the “Sacred Grounds”/”Holy Joe”/”Cup of Life” atrium–spending the 15 minutes prior to the service preparing their hearts for worship.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Worship leaders, may you in 2020 see our Lord refresh you as you endeavor to speak relationship to your flock, to sense their level of spiritual depletion on any given Sunday, and to respond (even by calling a PCO-busting audible on occasion) with boldness as the Holy Spirit leads.

The Lord be with you!

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Blessings for 2020 from a Small, Traditional Church

Happy New Year!  Fall semester was very busy at Judson University, and so the posts on this blog have been few and far between for the past few months.  I hope to get back into the swing of things beginning this week.

My wife and I are still nomadic where church attendance is concerned these days (ending up where our daughter has served as a children’s ministry coordinator some Sundays and where our son plays in the praise band on others), so we occasionally visit churches where some of my students and recent alums serve in worship ministry.

Yesterday we attended one such church, a small, Southern Baptist congregation in a very multiculturally (and socioeconomically) diverse part of Elgin, Ill.  Back in the 80’s, the late senior pastor taught as an adjunct bible professor at Judson, and I took his class on the prophet Jeremiah. Later, his son came to Judson as a basketball player during the time I was on the hoops coaching staff; he later went on to marry one of my sister’s best college friends.  The current pastor was a campus leader when I ran the chapel ministry at Judson, and the last three worship leaders have been students of mine.  Lots of connections.

Reveling in all those ties was nice, but two things blessed me even more.  First, the quality of the congregational singing was fabulous.  This church pursues a mix of musical styles, so we sang “10,000 Reasons” at the front and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” at the end; in both 20200105_103923cases (and during the other songs in between), the congregation, about 100 in attendance, sounded like 500.  Part of that was due to the architecture in the church (high ceiling, lots of wood on the floor along with a bit of carpet), which fosters resonant corporate song, but part of it had to do with the songs themselves (pretty familiar across generational lines) and how they were presented (piano, acoustic guitar, violin, and cajon).  All three factors contributed to a rich congregational singing experience.  (Notice the Christmas trees still up on the twelfth day of Christmas, the day before Epiphany.  I love it when low-church fellowships embrace the liturgical calendar.)

Second, the sermon, excellently delivered, focused on expectations for 2020, with the end of Hebrews 4 and the beginning of Hebrews 5 as the Scriptural focus.  The pastor gave us three certainties for the new year: 1) We’re going to have needs (be they spiritual, physical, relational, financial); 2) we’re going to need help; and 3) we’re not alone.  While he emphasized that final point with the description of our great High Priest, the sun, which had been hiding behind clouds on an overcast morning, all of a sudden burst forth, flooding the sanctuary with light, as if to punctuate the truth of God’s presence in our lives at all time.  Emmanuel, God with us, indeed.

Blessings for a wonderful 2020!  The Lord be with you!


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