Reflection #14 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 14 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 #14: Pulpits are endangered species in the contemporary American church . . .

. . . which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The average old-school church pulpit weighs–I don’t know–500 lbs.  It’s cumbersome, hard to move.  It swallows up smaller preachers, bringing to life the phrase “talking head.”  Preachers still need a place to put their Bible, sermon notes, and, er, water bottles, though, so the modern “pulpit” across the spectrum of the contemporary American church tends to be a round, high-top table, very much like the kind you see at your trendy, neighborhood dining establishment.

What’s to like about this?  Plenty.  Basic communication theory, covered a few blog posts ago, posits that removing (or muting or lessening) physical obstacles that stand between the sender (in this case, the preacher) and the audience (here, the congregation) increases the effectiveness of that communication.  Speaking from a high-top table, as opposed to a fortress-like pulpit, gives the preacher a more direct visual line to the congregation, removing (or at least mitigating) a barrier to the successful dissemination of the sermon/homily/testimony.

What’s not to like about this?  Not much, but I do offer a caution.  Healthy worship balances God’s transcendence (His “otherworldliness”; “God of wonders, beyond our galaxy”) with His immanence (His omnipresence; “He’s only a prayer away”).  Contemporary worship already leans, hard, in the direction of promoting God’s immanence.  Churches that use high-top tables in place of pulpits would do well to find other ways to convey God’s transcendence in their worship services.


Judson University President Dr. Gene Crume with honored Professor Emeritus Dr. Stuart “Doc” Ryder, Judson University Homecoming 2018

On a completely different subject, this past weekend was Homecoming at Judson University, both my alma mater and my employer.  Academic year 2018-2019 marks the 50th year of service for one of the three father figures in my life–the other two being my own father and Dr. Ed Thompson, Judson’s first choir director (both of whom have been acknowledged at other times in this blog).  Dr. Stuart Ryder, 88, universally known and loved as “Doc” on Judson’s campus, received a special commendation for his innumerable contributions to the Kingdom and Judson University over the course of the past 50 years.

The commendation came with a proclamation, with a series of “Whereas” statements, as is common, and I thought I would cite a few of them here, concluding with an exhortation based thereupon:

Whereas Doc Ryder, having lived in the campus apartments for roughly 35 of his 50 years at Judson, quickly became a fixture at and a promoter of all manner of extra-curricular campus activities, including hosting an annual Halloween party, acting in several Judson theatre productions, lip-synching for annual talent shows (“When You Wish upon a Star” being particularly memorable), and attending all manner of concerts and recitals—thereby embodying the notion that a professor’s influence, should that professor wish it to be so, can extend well beyond the classroom;

Whereas, indeed, Doc Ryder has served as mentor to hundreds of Judson students over the years and counts missionaries, pastors, business executives, civic leaders, and educators of all stripes among his protégés;

And whereas Doc Ryder has with great regularity and generous philanthropy supported numerous Judson University causes—included among them the Harm A. Weber Academic Center, the baseball program, the Communication Arts Conference, and the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts, particularly the renovation of the space that became “Doc Ryder” Studio B. . . .

There were others, mostly related to academic initiatives and committee participation, but these three get to the core of Doc’s influence over the years–as I have witnessed it from the vantage point of student, colleague, and friend.  The willingness to give of oneself and one’s resources undergirds all three of the examples, and it motivates me to similar ministry as God gives the strength, Christ provides the ultimate example, and the Holy Spirit grants the inspiration.

Worship leaders, I encourage you, if you don’t have one already, to seek out a mentor who can speak truth and encouragement to you.  Don’t “Lone Ranger” worship ministry.  That’s a recipe for disaster, at worst, and burnout, at best.  Once you have a mentor and have worked with him/her for a while, then look for ways to “pay it forward” to a younger person who’s a member of a generation one or two behind yours.  Simultaneously being mentored and mentoring sets you up for much fruit in your ministry!

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Pastors and GQ.


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Reflection #13 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 13 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 #13: Churches with multiple satellites that pipe in the sermon from the home campus are adding new dynamics to the age-old method of “doing church,” but the jury is still out as to whether those dynamics will ultimately help, hurt, or not change too radically the nature of corporate worship in the local church, historically speaking.

20180225_142848In the northwest suburbs of Chicago, we have no shortage of megachurches, most of which have an array of satellites, each 25-50 miles removed from the mothership.  Most of these churches have five or six satellites; one has 10-15.  My son, Austin, plays in the praise band at a satellite campus of one of our area’s more-visible megachurches, so I have become more familiar with satellite churches of late, and I find there are several things to appreciate.

Chief among them are the resources that wealthier home churches provide for the smaller satellites, which otherwise would not be able to utilize the sophisticated and expensive ministry tools commonplace in most megachurches.  Especially in the case of megachurches merging with smaller churches that were dying slow deaths (the modus operandi of one of our area megachurches), the satellite birthed from that merger begins its life with an established church culture and an established congregation–one which, perhaps, simply needed the megachurch’s influx of energy and cash in order to thrive (as megachurches define that term, anyway).  If this smacks, in part, of colonialism, the members of satellite churches with whom I’ve spoken are not raising a stink about it–but, again, my research is not extensive.

I also wonder if younger people, whose reliance on screens is well documented, might actually get more out of messages delivered via video feeds.  Do the difficulties millennials and Gen Zers have with face-to-face interpersonal communication (due to years of screen-fixation) translate to oration?  Could it be that younger folks pay more attention to and retain content from messages given by the two-dimensional image of a pastor than a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood sermonizer?  Like the implications of this question or not (and I don’t), it’s an intriguing hypothesis for a future doctoral candidate’s dissertation.

Anyone looking for reasons not to like the satellite-church concept, on the other hand, doesn’t have to look hard.  An obvious detriment centers on the duties of the satellite-campus pastor, whose primary role in the church, historically speaking, gets usurped via video sermons piped in from the home church’s senior pastor, usually an extremely competent public speaker.  Yes, most satellites give the campus pastor something to do on Sunday mornings–announcements, words of greeting, even pastoral prayers–but those important tasks notwithstanding, the minute the corporate attention shifts to the larger-than-life image of the mothership’s main guy (they are almost always men) delivering the main event, the one entrusted to the actual shepherding of the satellite flock seems smaller-than-life in contrast.

Some satellites attempt to mitigate this awkwardness by scheduling the campus pastor to preach periodically–about every fifth or sixth week at one sorta-megachurch I have attended a few times.  That helps.  At another megachurch satellite, the campus pastor typically comes onstage two-thirds of the way through the worship set to give a reflection, lead in a corporate reading, or offer rhetorical material to help the congregation “connect the dots” of the elements of corporate worship (see my blog from July 2 of this year).  Although this gives the campus pastor an important role, to be sure, it also lessens the role of the worship leader, the person who would normally speak at those moments, assuming s/he has been encouraged to be a worship leader and not just a music leader (also discussed in the July 2 post).

Is there a better way?  Historians of the 22nd century will have to determine the “betterness” of the various approaches to satellite campuses currently at work in the contemporary American church.  That (and my general wariness of anything that smacks of capitulating to trendiness) acknowledged, I do like the method chosen by the sorta-megachurch with 10-15 satellites mentioned above.  Yes, all the satellites keep to the same general, overarching all-church calendar and use the same sermon series with the same Scripture passages.  But rather than recording the message of the large home church’s primary pastor and sending it across Chicagoland to the various smaller churches–which reinforces the truly-first-among-kinda-equals dynamic–the campus pastors in this satellite network all give the same sermons to their own congregations in their own ways.  They meet together ahead of time, craft the main outline points of the sermon in community, and then flesh out the rest with their own introductions, conclusions, anecdotes, illustrations, and sub-point exegesis–personalizing the mass-produced message for individual congregations in a way a one-size-fits-all recorded video never could.  That’s a lot of work, but I think each campus’ parishioners would argue it’s time and energy well spent.

I am guessing megachurch satellite campuses are here to stay–at least for a while.  The Lord be with all who labor in these vineyards as you strive to make the local church all it can be as the Holy Spirit gives you wisdom and strength.

Coming next week, Lord willing: High-top tables as pulpits.

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Reflection #12 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 12 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 #12: The busyness of the playing of the average praise band drummer is usually in inverse proportion to his/her age.

If the above assertion is accurate–and it has been for the visits my wife and I have made to numerous Chicagoland churches in the past two years–what should a conscientious worship leader do to address the issue, assuming the worship leader finds busyness on the kit a problem?  Three suggestions, but first a quick word of encouragement re: how to offer constructive criticism encouragingly–especially if trying to guide a younger person.

Studies are rife supporting the notion that we hear negative feedback with more intensity than we do positive feedback.  Anecdotally, in my teaching career at Judson University (which began in 1991), when poring over student evaluations of my classes at the end of every semester, I am prone to ruminating over one semi-negative comment from a student in the midst of a sea of otherwise-glowing reviews from the vast majority of the class members.

Hence, in my own opportunities to offer constructive criticism to younger folks (which I did with frequency when I directed the chapel ministry at Judson), I eventually made it a habit to give feedback via what I called the “Oreo Method.”  Even if my assessment of a student’s performance was mostly negative, I somehow found a way to acknowledge, first, one thing the student did well.  Then (even if it was the primary observation, dwarfing all others) I would suggest what could be done better (never what was “bad”).  Finally, I finished “on a good note,” and gave the student encouragement re: one more thing that went reasonably well.

I know good, well-meaning Christian leaders who scoff at this approach, ticking off all kinds of rationales for “speaking truth in love,” giving an “accurate assessment” of the use of gifts, and all kinds of ways of communicating that whatever someone did was not sufficient or good enough.  (They often work in churches or parachurch organizations that put a premium on presentation–as if technical excellence was tied closely to holiness, as if smoothness of content delivery was indicative of spiritual maturity–and they would look at my approach as fostering mediocrity and coddling those who need to be challenged if they are to reach their full potential.)  I disagree; moreover, I am willing to believe the Holy Spirit will direct my path and that of anyone I am evaluating so that opportunities to address concerns arise over a period of time.  There’s no need to share feedback that is overwhelmingly negative in one session.  (Obviously, there are extreme cases where someone behaves severely inappropriately or consistently misses a well-articulated mark that all recognize as important for accomplishing the job, but those are different situations.)

So, with a busy young drummer who is in your praise band, what might you do to help him or her develop more-appropriate playing for the setting?

AbrechtFirst, introduce your drummer to Carl Albrecht, who, for many years, was the primary drummer for worship leader Paul Baloche and other Hosanna/Integrity artists.  I’ve attended a few conferences where Albrecht presented, and I’ve seen him become visibly moved talking about how the drums can, when played with sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit (and the worship leader), be used in mighty ways to bless God and His people.  Any resources he releases will be rich in content–both technical and theological.  You can see his most recent work here: Carl Albrecht’s website.

Second, gently convey the notion of the “Fraction Principle,” a concept introduced to Doerksenme by worship leader Brian Doerksen (“Come, Now Is the Time to Worship,” “Refiner’s Fire”).  In short, if there are six musicians playing in the band, each musician should be contributing one-sixth of the musical material.  Drummers are particularly susceptible to the temptation to overplay (so many options!), but gentle counsel in this regard can pay huge dividends.  A more thorough explanation of the the Fraction Principle can be found here: Brian Doerksen’s “Fraction Principle,” as explained by Dan Wilt.

Third, appeal to your drummer using the “still, small voice” metaphor.   Simply put, the best drummers for corporate worship are those we don’t notice in any particular way, who don’t draw particular attention to their chops.  An apt biblical metaphor here can be found in the account of God’s communication with Elijah in 1 Kings 19.  Though God throughout recorded history up to that moment had surely spoken in dramatic fashion at times, this time He was not in the strong wind, the earthquake, or the fire.  He was in the “still, small voice.”  That’s how Elijah clearly heard the word of the Lord that day.  There’s a lesson there for drummers . . . and all of us who lead worship in a band setting, for that matter.

Playing energetic drums without overplaying takes effort.  Worship leaders, if this is an issue for your team, may the Lord be with you as you encourage your drummers!

Coming next week (Lord willing): A few thoughts on the satellite-and-video-sermon strategy.

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Reflection #11 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 11 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 #11: I often find myself conflicted about what many of us wear to church on Sunday mornings.

As I have mentioned previously, for most of my adult life–31 out of 34 years (taking a few years off to get married and adjust to that new reality)–I got paid to go to church.  To be accurate, I got paid to lead worship (in different capacities) at six different churches in Cincinnati, Ohio, and various parts of Chicagoland.  But on those mornings when the alarm rang far too early for comfort, I confess I found comfort in the paycheck waiting for me in the church office.

Once I stepped away from church-sponsored worship leading, one of the biggest and most surprising changes in the way I approached Sunday mornings was how quickly I embraced the contemporary American church’s current ethos re: what constitutes appropriate attire for worship.  (More so than in most of these blog posts, the following does not apply across the board.  In the typical African-American church, for instance, most congregants still adhere to the concept of wearing “Sunday best” attire.)

Dad CHPEarly in my ministry, I was hardly ever without a coat and tie (and sometimes a full suit) on Sunday morning.  (I came to this habit partly because of the example of my father, Dr. Simon Anderson, the college professor, who was so committed to solidifying the ridiculous jump in socio-economic status his hard work and education had afforded his family that he was always dressed to the nines–to the extent that the man once wore a three-piece suit and fedora to the Van Halen concert to which he took his Music Appreciation class.)  As soon as I no longer found myself on the platform at church, however, my sartorial fastidiousness evaporated pretty quickly.

But, I confess, I don’t always feel comfortable in the comfort of my casual dress, and I wonder if, perhaps, there are deeper issues at stake for believers, if collectively we should think a bit more about what our typical church-going attire communicates–to others and to God.  Since I don’t have this all figured out and am still wrestling with the implications of what I’m suggesting here, I close these reflections with five questions to ponder.

  1. How would the Didache (Wikipedia on the Didache) read had its authors been primarily fashion commentators as opposed to liturgical and ecclesial historians?  In other words, what would have been considered normative and appropriate attire for “parishioners” in the first century?
  2. Regarding the layout and adornment of our worship spaces, Aaron Niequist, in hisuntitled wonderful primer on practice-based worship The Eternal Current, writes, “Physical space is not neutral.  The room itself preaches.”  Can a similar statement–“What we wear to church is not neutral; our attire itself preaches”–be made?
  3. How does the internal dialogue “What should I wear to church this morning?” relate, if at all, to spiritual maturity and/or respect for the Almighty God?
  4. When Samuel anointed the new king of Israel, all of Jesse’s more-qualified-for-the-job sons were bypassed, initially stupefying Samuel, in favor of David, the runt of litter.  God said, “People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7, NLT).  What are the applications, if any, of this verse for the discussion of what we wear to church?
  5. In 2 Sam. 24, now-King David, in order to atone for the sin of taking a hubris-inspired census of his kingdom, builds an altar to the Lord at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.  When Araunah offers to provide the supplies for the sacrifice, David rejects the offer, saying, “No, I insist on buying it, for I will not present burnt offerings to the Lord my God that have cost me nothing.”  Looking at this Scripture metaphorically, and extending this account beyond sophisticated exegesis, can we, nevertheless, appropriate the gist of David’s sentiment for the purposes of evaluating our church-going wardrobe?

As I say, I’m conflicted on this issue.  When you figure it out, please let me know.  The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Praise band drummers.



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Reflection #10 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number ten 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 #10: Churches that can’t afford a full-time worship pastor but can afford rock-concert light assemblies and Hollywood-ready screens and projectors might want to rethink their budget priorities.

As my wife and I have traveled from church to church in the past two years on what I have called The Worship Leader Roadshow, I have occasionally been concerned when former students of mine, who would love to quit their Starbucks gig and serve the Church full-time, labor as part-time weekend warriors in churches that, from the perspective of what they have spent on their sound and lighting systems, could afford to bring on a full-time worship pastor if they would prioritize different aspects of their worship ministry.

No pastor or elder board would be so crass as to say, “What’s really important about worship ministry is having cutting edge a/v tools; worship leaders are a dime a dozen, and any young person who plays halfway decent guitar and looks reasonably cool will suffice to lead us in worship.”  But that’s sometimes the message that gets communicated, intentionally or not.  What’s often missing in situations like this, it seems, is an appreciation of the role of corporate worship in a congregation’s spiritual formation–and how a humble, well-trained worship leader/pastor/shepherd can be crucial (as important as the pastor) in nurturing said corporate spiritual formation.

51i+lbFbe9L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes I think the best blog posts are ones that point readers to a source with which they might not be familiar.  Hence, let me introduce you, if you haven’t met her before, to Marva Dawn, who has written wonderfully about worship as an agent of spiritual formation.  I will allow her words to support my argument, as she writes as passionately and eloquently as I could on the subject.  The following comes from her excellent collection of essays, A Royal “Waste” of Time, in the section titled Being Church: Forming Character:

What many churches do [in their efforts to attract unbelievers] is eliminate anything that is different from the surrounding culture and reduce their worship services to a few songs that are simple to sing, a band that always plays in ways that sound familiar, and a preacher who does everything else.  The misconception frequently touted is that worship should be user-friendly.  I am certainly not advocating worship that alienates or is totally inaccessible, nor do I think people ought to need a great amount of education before worship can be meaningful to them, but I am warning against the constant reduction of anything that stretches people, of anything that makes them uneasy.  The Scriptures make it clear that being confronted by God is not always comfortable or comforting.  Reductionistic worship is extremely harmful because it sacrifices the identity of the Church (which people in our unchristian culture of course don’t understand yet) and of God, for God is not easily understandable. . . . User-friendly worship seems to me to sacrifice an awe-full lot of God.  Moreover, believers must learn that faith is not always going to be comfortably understandable as we live it out in daily life, nor is it always cozy to be a disciple. . . .

If children join the Boy Scouts and don’t understand how to tie knots, the troop won’t eliminate knot-tying. . . .; instead, the Scouts do all they can to help the children learn it. . . .

[W]hat we must do instead of reducing worship is continually teach people more and more the meaning of what we do in worship and immerse them in the beauty of its practices. . . . [W]e should not reduce the splendor of worship; instead, we must make sure that we have found a balance of both accessibility and richness, mystery and instruction.

The kind of congregational formation to which Dawn calls us here and elsewhere–513JJHntElL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_particularly the sometimes harsh (and, hence, I feel, unfairly dismissed) Reaching out without Dumbing Down and the wonderful short read, How Shall We Worship?–does not happen by accident.  It doesn’t happen via technology.  It happens best when a dedicated, full-time, trained worship leader/pastor/shepherd focuses all his or her energies, being led by the Holy Spirit, on helping the pastor and elders of the church discern how best to structure and lead corporate worship in ways that glorify the Lord and educate and edify the Body.

All of this might be accomplished in conjunction with expensive a/v technology, of course.  But if the expensive a/v technology is the priority–over and above bringing in a full-time worship leader/pastor/shepherd to utilize biblical, historical, and theological best practices for corporate worship with the goals of blessing God and spiritually forming congregations increasingly into the likeness of Christ–that does not bode well for the Church.

The Lord be with you in your efforts to prioritize your worship budgets well!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Why I understand better the desire to wear jeans on Sunday morning these days (and why I’m still conflicted).

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Reflection #9 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number nine 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 #9: The “overwhelming, never-ending” I-IV-V-vi harmonic structure of so many contemporary worship songs underserves a Church whose Subject and Object of worship is the Creator of the infinitely diverse universe.

imagesHang around musical children for any length of time, and you will eventually hear two of them at the piano playing the two parts of “Heart and Soul.”  They will play, without apparent fatigue (and without adding the virtually unknown bridge, which would help to alleviate the water-torture-like repetition), for a long time.  They will switch parts.  They will play in different octaves.  But they will pound out the same basic patterns until most adults in the room want to scream, “PLEASE PLAY SOMETHING ELSE!”  (If you’ve only heard kids render this song, here’s what it sounds like in its original context: “Heart and Soul.”)

I often feel this way whenever I listen to extended doses of contemporary worship music these days.  The same chords (uppercase Roman numerals = major chords; lowercase = minor) used in “Heart and Soul”–I, iv, IV, and V (the tonic, submediant, subdominant, and dominant, respectively, in music-theory-speak)–show up in alarming regularity in contemporary worship.  Oh, they get mixed around a bit, to be sure.  Sometimes it’s I-IV-vi-V (the beginning of “What a Beautiful Name”); other times it’s IV-I-V-vi (both the verses and choruses of “10,000 Reasons”); and sometimes it’s vi, V, IV, I (the chorus of “King of My Heart”).  But those four chords reign supreme.

Sometimes exclusively, I’m afraid.  Yesterday afternoon I printed out the chord charts for the Top 20 current contemporary worship songs, as tracked by CCLI (CCLI Top 20).  Here’s what I discovered:

  • 10 of the Top 20 use the I, IV, V, and vi chords exclusively
  • 5 of the Top 20 add a ii chord (supertonic) for a total of five chords
  • 2 of the Top 20 add a iii chord (mediant) for a total of five chords
  • 2 of the Top 20 add a ii chord but drop the V chord, an interesting touch, for a total of four chords
  • Only 1 of the Top 20 (“Revelation Song”) ventures into out-of-the-ordinary territory, utilizing the rarely heard v chord and the flat-VII (subtonic)–no V and no vi–but this excellent change of pace is muted by the use of the same exact I-v-bVII-IV pattern, with no variation, for both the verses and the choruses.  (A similarly daring song, harmonically speaking, “Worship the Great I AM,” with its I-bIII-bVII-IV structure, also uses the same four chords, in the same order, for both verses and choruses.)

My little research project didn’t factor in tiny differences like suspended chords, chords with a major or minor seventh, or chords with the third or the fifth in the bass–nor did I consider introductions or instrumental interludes, which occasionally deviate harmonically from the the rest of the song (like “In Christ Alone,” with its v chord, which opens both the introduction and the instrumental interlude).  That acknowledged, I would argue that contemporary worship music needs to break out of its harmonic rut.

“What’s the big deal?” some might ask.  God is being glorified.  The Church is worshiping, it can be argued, more passionately than it has in years.  How can that be wrong or bad?  It’s not, necessarily–but it’s also not evidence of worship musicians studying to show themselves approved (2 Tim. 2:15) where the craft of songwriting is concerned.  While I don’t wish to make Rory Noland and Greg Ferguson’s harmonically rich and satisfying “He Is Able” (with its nine different chords!) the standard, and I don’t expect every songwriter to be able to pull off the wildly inventive harmonic structure Jason Ingram, Reuben Morgan, and Stuart Garrard achieved in the first two verses of “The Greatness of Our God,” I am calling for better craftsmanship, as a general rule, in contemporary worship music, especially re: harmonic structure.  If you are a writer of the Church’s songs, let me offer two quick and easy ways for you immediately to improve your efforts.

First, study the masters–and I don’t mean Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman, as much as I downloadoften appreciate their music.  You can do a lot worse, for example, than listening to a steady diet of The Beatles.  Put their two greatest hits collections–1962-1966 (the “Red Album”) and 1967-1970 (the “Blue Album”)–on regular rotation for a couple of weeks, and see if feasting on Lennon/McCartney songs (both eminently singable and stunningly diverse, harmonically speaking) doesn’t open up pathways of creativity for you that have previously been untapped.  Paul Simon, especially of late, would be another.  Joni Mitchell is a third.  These are pop music’s Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.  Why would you not want to study them?

Second, at least for a month or two, don’t allow yourself to write anything that falls back on the I-IV-V-vi patterns.  Use iii chords, flat-VI or flat-VII chords, or iv chords–anything but the usual.  Just do it.

The Lord be with you, especially you songwriters, as you seek to honor Him with your best efforts!  The Creator of the infinitely diverse universe deserves no less.

Coming next week (Lord willing): Worship budgets.


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Reflection #8 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number eight 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 #8:  The pastor’s dress code (or lack thereof) seems to matter a lot less than it once did.

Anyone expecting scintillating insights on this topic can stop reading now.  Yes, I know bloggers are supposed to take a stand, proffer an opinion, and avoid on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-hand-that rhetoric, but I’m as ambivalent on this issue as anyone could be.  These reflections don’t always make their way to assertions.

When I was younger, most evangelical pastors dressed like CEO’s (represented here bytony-evans the sartorially splendid Dr. Tony Evans, Dallas’ Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship).  Pure and simple, this was the expectation, and it crossed all denominational lines.

headerImage-stanleyLetterAny pastor who dressed as casually as most evangelical pastors do today (represented here by Andy Stanley, suburban Atlanta’s North Point Community Church) would have faced scrutiny from an elder board, a worship committee, or a pastor-parish council.

Any pastor who dressed as casually as the most laid-back evangelicals pastor do today brian_tome(represented here by Brian Tome, Cincinnati’s Crossroads Church) would have faced discipline from an elder board, a worship committee, and a pastor-parish council.

And yet. . . .

When Tony Evans graced the stage at Judson University when I was directing the chapel ministry, he delivered one of the most memorable sermons on the will of God I have CWPA Demoss Stacked FC Logo PRINTever heard.  I once calculated the number of chapel services I attended in my 22 years as the driving staff force behind Judson’s chapels: just shy of 2,000.  I can’t recall details of most of them, but I remember Evans’ words 20 years and 1,000 chapels later.  (The gist of his message on the will of God focused on the intersection of God’s gifts and our passions.)

I’ve never heard Andy Stanley live, but the sermon series he did a few years ago on Romans, Free (including this particular sermon: Andy Stanley on freedom from sin), made a profound impact on my understanding of Romans 7, and I immediately adapted some key concepts from his message in the work I do with the Judson University Choir (Judson University Choir sings “Greater Still”).

I’ve heard Brian Tome in person many times.  When my father retired from 40+ years of weekend music ministry at five different Cincinnati-area churches, he and my mother began attending Tome’s Crossroads Church.  It was the last place I anticipated my former conservatory-professor father, with his Ph.D. in music, and my mother, who sang opera in college, desiring to attend, but Tome’s passionate and relevant-to-the-age preaching spoke to my dad in ways that most other pastors hadn’t.  I am profoundly grateful for the ministry of Crossroads Church.

I confess I’m a little old-school on this issue; I still prefer listening to pastors who don’t look like they stopped by the church on their way to the afternoon’s WWE matinee.  So I’m glad there are still pastors who don’t feel if they wear a tie or clerical collar and something other than designer jeans it will negatively impact their ministry.  But I use the examples above to testify that God has moved in my life through the preaching of pastors decked out in reverend rig across the “Dress for Success” spectrum.

So what are the guidelines?  Basic propriety and common sense should play important roles, of course, but, after that, let me suggest what to do by illustrating what not to do.  If we subscribe to Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 10:13, paraphrased here, that while all things are permissible not all are helpful, one thing we can do for sure is not allow societal expectations and misguided desires to be relevant at all costs to dominate our decisions.  (You have probably seen this, but, even if so, it’s still worth a second look: “Contemporvent” Worship.)  Your church’s cultural context (history, denominational ties, location, and a host of other factors) should be taken into consideration, as well, but this will be different for every church, making one-size-fits-all dictums problematic.

The Lord be with you, especially all you pastors–as you strive to dress for pulpit ministry in ways that will not get in the way of the gospel . . . even as we acknowledge the dynamics on this issue seem less important than they once were, a good thing, generally speaking.

Coming next week, Lord willing: The ubiquity (and near exclusivity) of the Four Chords of Contemporary Worship.

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