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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Lessons for Congregational Singing from Advent Worship

It’s been a busy fall semester at Judson University.  I hope to begin writing weekly posts again soon.  Until then, yesterday’s worship reminded me, once more, of the more-often-than-not quality of congregational singing during Advent, prompting this re-post from last year.  I hope it resonates with you.

There are lessons to be learned about congregational singing from typical churches’ Advent worship.

I had not planned to write about this subject until yesterday, but the power of the congregational singing–the best I have heard in a long time–compelled me to reflection.  We visited a church we attend frequently, a large-but-not-huge megachurch in the northwest Chicago suburbs.  Though I generally prefer a more intimate setting for worship, the leaders here do an excellent job of maintaining aspects of church life more usually found in smaller congregations.  For example, they are employing an Advent wreath in worship this year (and did so last year, as well), they typically sing at least one hymn in their sets, they use the call-and-response “The Word of the Lord”/“Thanks be to God” after the public reading of Scripture, and they occasionally ask congregants to hit their knees for corporate prayer.  In other words, while they certainly are seeker-sensitive, they are not seeker-driven (and I would argue, and have in this article on churches’ quest for cultural relevance, that utilizing these vestiges of “traditional worship” in no way discourages most unbelievers and, in fact, often piques the curiosity of true seekers).

downloadThe above notwithstanding, I simply wasn’t prepared for the exuberance of the congregational singing yesterday morning.  The whole room resounded in song.  I could actually hear other voices with unusual clarity (for contemporary worship).  I even asked the production team members afterward if they were piping the congregation through the house mix (they weren’t).  If, as Aaron Niequist is fond of reminding worship leaders, the purpose of congregational singing is . . . wait for it . . . congregational singing, why don’t most congregations sound as robust as did those assembled yesterday morning?  Here are three congregational-singing lessons for the other 11 months of the year to be learned from my Advent-worship experience yesterday.

Lesson 1: Use familiar songs that have been sung for generations.  Yesterday we sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” in the primary worship set.  Notice the adjective is familiar, not simplistic.  There’s nothing simplistic about the chromatic harmonies (full of notes outside the key signature) of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or the chord pattern of “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” with its use of a III chord and secondary dominants, structure hardly ever employed in contemporary worship music (cwm).  (Contemporary worship songwriters, take note: You can have wonderfully singable songs that break out of the I-IV-vi-V mold.)  What are the non-seasonal equivalents of the above?  Hymns, of course, but when’s the last time you sang a song from the dawn of cwm as know it–something like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” or “Mighty Is Our God” or “Forever” or “Beautiful One”?  Or a popular song from the Jesus Movement like “Seek Ye First” or “Easter Song”?  There’s nothing wrong with singing the latest and greatest from Hillsong United, Bethel, or whatever song-producing community is hip right now, but if you want to facilitate congregational singing that will raise the roof, you have to go back to songs of shared experience (across the generations) with much greater frequency than currently occurs in contemporary American worship services.

Lesson 2: Strip back the accompaniment.  The service yesterday (see picture) featured the worship leader on guitar and lead vocals and a pianist (with a real piano–not just a keyboard encased in the shell of an upright for cool visual effect).  No driving drums.  No booming bass.  No shredding electric guitar.  No background vocals.  Just the unadorned sound of two acoustic instruments and one voice.  For ears accustomed to worship services featuring loud noise and frenetic musical activity with precious few lulls in between, such sonic minimalism was a welcome relief, to be sure, but the greater good was that without the extra barrage of sound, the congregation was compelled to fill in the gap, and fill it in they did!  Of course, you can’t lead contemporary worship these days with just a piano, guitar, and solo voice on a regular basis (can you?), but how about one week every other month?  Or be bold and schedule a service for a cappella singing, without accompaniment, and be prepared to be shocked by the sound of human voices as you’ve never heard in contemporary worship before.  (Use SATB vocals with your strongest singers.  I used to do this once or twice a year in the churches I served, and the results were always incredible.  Yes, it works for both cwm and hymns with a little bit of planning.)

Lesson 3: Remove other distractions.  Kill the fog machine for a week.  Keep the light cues bare bones.  Avoid ADHD video edits.  Keep the stage set simple.  The fewer distractions your congregation members have to avoid in order to focus on their primary task in corporate worship, the better they will sound.  It works during Advent.  Why not try it, at least occasionally, during other times of the year?

The Lord be with you as you facilitate the people’s song in worship!

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Reflection #42 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 42 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 #42: Happily, there seems to be a spate of contemporary worship songs of late that tell “The Big Story,” the gospel message, in song.

My very first class at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies was team-taught by Wheaton College’s Dr. Andy Hill and Dr. Lester Ruth (right), who now is download (1)research professor at Duke Divinity School.  Lester asked us to pay attention in the next few worship services we attended to how long it took before what he called “The Big Story” was articulated in the service in some manner.  The Big Story is the four-chapter story of the gospel, beginning with Creation and moving through The Fall, Redemption, and Restoration (or Consummation).  Recognizing how infrequently I had heard that message in worship of late–in the aftermath of seeker sensitivity and other church-growth strategies–I was determined to tell The Big Story much more regularly in worship.  I endeavored to do so when I served as a weekend-warrior worship leader, and I do so now in my role as the director of the Judson University Choir; we end each concert of worship we facilitate by singing through the four chapters of The Big Story.  

In contemporary worship music (cwm) circles, the Gettys have been doing this for a while, of course, and God bless them for their efforts as the most-popular proponents of contemporary hymnody.  But it’s been good to see so many other writers incorporating The Big Story’s essence.  To wit . . .

Were I to pick nits, I’d ask for Chapter 1, “Creation,” to be included a bit more regularly, and I’d put forth the notion that I-IV-vi-V/vi-IV-I-V power ballads are not the only musical style that can support “The Big Story,” but the fact that more and more cwm songwriters are moving beyond self-referential lyrics into more “cosmic-story” language (or, at least, combining the two) bodes very well for the future!  Here’s hoping it continues.

The Lord be with you, songwriters, as you bring to bear the full weight of The Big Story as often you can!

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Reflection #41 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 41 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 #41: Now that I no longer receive a paycheck to go to church, I understand the desire to keep contemporary worship services to 75 minutes or fewer.

When I was a paid staff member at six different churches for most of my adult life, I never in a million years would have written the above statement without the dependent clause that begins the sentence.  I knew enough about church history to assert that many believers in bygone eras devoted great swaths of their entire Sundays to corporate worship.  The Sundays of my childhood and youth were spent in church most of the day–by the time you factored in Sunday School, morning worship, late-afternoon youth group, and evening worship.  And some worshiping communities still today make corporate worship the focal point of lengthy and sustained time spent together each weekend as the Body of Christ (many African-American churches, for example).

I confess that when I was the staff member primarily in charge of worship service orders, I bristled internally whenever lay leaders (usually elders or deacons) raised concerns about service length.  To my shame, I shamed them with unvoiced-but-deeply-felt holier-than-thou sentiments that equated the fervency of their faith walks with their willingness to support corporate worship that, on occasion, lasted for for an hour and a half or a bit longer.  Now that I am a “mere” parishioner, I find myself looking at my watch with much greater frequency when services stray beyond the 75 minutes that seem to represent the de facto time limit for contemporary worship in evangelical America.  I think more about how to get to the parking lot most efficiently, about where we might go out to lunch when the service concludes, about all kinds of other things that rarely crossed my mind when I was leading worship and wanting to emphasize one kernel of truth from the pastor’s sermon in my spoken introduction to the closing song.

In other words, now that I’m no longer praying about, laboring over, and rehearsing through worship services–when I’m, frankly, just showing up on Sunday morning in various stages of unpreparedness like the vast majority of lay congregants–I find (surprise) that my knee-jerk expectations for what transpires and (for the purposes of this post) how long it will all take have changed.  In theory, my doctoral studies in worship inform each worship experience I attend, and not insignificantly; in practice, now that I’m not leading worship for a living each weekend, the degree doesn’t factor in all the time–and, when it does, it sometimes is the lens through which I justify a critical spirit.

downloadI confess this here because I guess, especially as I started my grad-school worship studies, I wish somebody had taken me aside with greater regularity and reminded me that shepherds generally have much more success when they guide graciously, and not much when they push indignantly (or while smiling through gritted teeth).  Dr. Darrell Harris, founding chaplain of the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, warned my classmates and me in the summer of 2003 that the education upon which we would soon embark would “ruin” us for ministry if we weren’t careful.  He was right, and I wish I had sought his counsel a lot more than I did re: how to deal with that.

Worship leaders, it’s so hard to put ourselves in the mindset of our church family members (who, if we’re brutally honest, usually do not–and can not–care about corporate worship as much as we do).  I would encourage you to try to do so much more often than I did when I was a worship leader.

Blessings for the starts of your ministry years this weekend.  The Lord be with you!

 

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Reflection #40 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 40 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 #40: Contemporary worship leaders miss an opportunity to add meaning or flow to their worship sets when they ignore the option of modulating keys in the midst of certain songs.

A few weeks back, I wrote a post suggesting there were several things contemporary worship leaders could learn from the Gaithers.  Space did not allow for a longer list (and, to be truthful, this one didn’t come to me at the time of that post), but as I’ve reflected on the Gaithers’ ministry of late, and listened to a bit more of their late 70’s and early 80’s oeuvre, I’ve been reminded of a musical technique largely ignored in the contemporary worship music (cwm) I hear these days: the mid-song/near-the-end-of-song modulation–something Bill Gaither modeled to perfection in his arrangements for the Bill Gaither Trio.

Let’s acknowledge this right up front: You might not have the kind of musicians who are conversant enough with the Nashville Number System to handle changing keys gracefully.  You certainly need a certain caliber of musician to pull this off.  Moreover, adding a second key to a song in your set, even if you only play in that key for a third or a fourth of the time you play in the primary key, requires twice the work of prepping charts and rehearsing the band.  On certain Sundays, you might simply not have the personnel or time to make this happen.  But when you do, here are three reasons to consider adding the periodic mid- or end-song modulation to songs for congregational singing.

1. Modulating mid-song can give a lift to repetitive material the congregation has been singing for a while.  Unlike some of my generation, I am not a fierce advocate of avoiding repetition at all costs, and I don’t make jokes about “7-11” contemporary worship songs.  (As one of my grad school professors noted, folks who complain about repetition in cwm might have a tough time in heaven, having to listen to the four living downloadcreatures and their day-and-night/never-stopping rendition of “Holy, Holy, Holy.”)  Still, some songs do run the risk of becoming a bit bland near the end, so why not help the cause by taking the energy up a notch with a modulation?  The classic example here is Darlene Zschech’s “Shout to the Lord”–which gets a lift from A to B at the 3:12 mark in this version.  Another familiar tune that often features a modulation is Chris Tomlin’s “Forever”–which modulates from G to A at the 3:54 clip in this rendition.

2. Modulating mid-song can lend emphasis to the building of a narrative.  Sometimes, especially in songs that are more strophic (i.e., verse-chorus) in composition, modulating for the final verse can give more weight to, well, weightier content.  An excellent example of this dynamic can be found in Keith and Kristyn Getty’s “The Power of the Cross”–which modulates to C from B-flat at the 4:05 mark in this arrangement, just as the lyric testifies most firmly to the cross’ power, with lines like “through Your suffering I am free!” and “Death is crushed to death; life is mine to live!”  Strong lyrics–especially if they serve as the culmination of a narrative that, even in the relatively short span of a congregational song, tells the essence of the gospel–often benefit from the kind of emphasis a modulation brings.

3. Modulating mid-song can aid flow by placing the end of one song in the same key as the beginning of the next.  Nothing is more jarring to even mildly musically sensitive ears than ending a song in one key and starting the next in another without so much as a hint of harmonic transition.  Modulating the last verse or chorus of a song–even if it hasn’t become too repetitive or doesn’t benefit from a narrative-emphasizing lift–in order to put it into the key of the next song in your setlist can help make for a more smoothly flowing set.

If you embrace this concept periodically, yes, it will create more work for you, and, yes, it will challenge the musicianship of some of your band members.  But with the ubiquity of online resources like CCLI’s SongSelect (one example of many) that can put charts in different keys with a click of a mouse, there’s every reason to employ the occasional mid-song modulation in your worship sets, particularly when doing so would accomplish one of the three worship-enhancing goals above.

The Lord be with you!

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Three New Worship-Leading Initiatives for the New Ministry Season

editToday we welcome the Class of 2023 to my alma mater and employer, Judson University.  The excitement on campus last week–both that of the student leaders who returned early on and the new students who arrived on Friday–was infectious.  In my role as Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts, I get to take an active role in helping articulate and facilitate the culture into which my colleagues and I receive the students the Lord brings to us.  It’s an exciting time of the year, and, I confess, I still get butterflies every mid-August.  (I think when I cease having that nervous energy, I’ll know it’ll be time to hang up the pedagogical spikes.)

How about you, worship pastors, directors, and leaders?  Do you feel a sense of holy excitement as you enter into a new ministry season?  (I affirm that practitioners of contemporary worship would benefit from ordering their efforts more regularly according to the church calendar, but I recognize that the default setting for many of us is, in fact, the academic calendar–which, to be fair, does allow for some ebb and flow and captures, to a small extent, the essence of what our Catholic brothers and sisters refer to as Ordinary time.)  Do you enter the fall with an enthusiastic holy expectation as you seek the Lord in your planning for corporate worship?

Having experienced over 25 years’ worth of starts to new ministry years during my time as a weekend warrior, I know occasionally you enter this time of year feeling the well has run dry, at which time a few Holy-Spirit-inspired fresh ideas often can jumpstart your creativity.  So here are three ideas that might prove beneficial to you.  The extent to which they are divinely inspired I’ll leave to your discernment, but I have seen each energize worshiping communities in the past, and I pray they might be of some use to you today.

1. Put your worship set at the end of the service every once in a while.  Many of us in worship-leadership positions subscribe to the notion that an excellent definition of worship is simply this: God reveals, we respond.  (See longtime worship educator Ron Man for a marvelous, succinct summary of the revelation-and-response dynamic.)  In contemporary worship, so often we are invited to sing after what feels like woefully insufficient guidance in appreciating God’s revelation; many of our church services just launch right into congregational singing without so much as a call to worship or a word of Scriptural exhortation.  Putting the bulk of the congregational-response-in-song time after the sermon and/or the sharing of the Eucharistic meal allows those gathered a full complement of revelation prior to the invitation to respond.  (Thanks to worship leader Ryan Flanigan, curator of the Liturgical Folk network, for sharing this idea several years ago.)

2. Try a week of congregational singing without instruments on occasion.  Some churches do this all the time, of course, and I’m not advocating that approach.  But I used to go sans instrumental accompaniment about twice a year in the two most-recent churches I served, and the response was fabulous.  You need to choose the music wisely, of course, and you need your A-list vocal team members on board that weekend.  Hymns work well in this context, as you would guess, but certain contemporary songs serve the overarching goal better than you might initially expect.  Anything by the Gettys and songs in A-B design are good places to start.  (If you want to put a date on your calendar for planning or accountability’s sake, consider shooting for March 1, 2020, the next global A Cappella Sunday sponsored by the Center for Congregational Song.)  One by-product of doing this on occasion is that those cwm writers who excel in writing interesting melodies and who aren’t slavishly locked into I-IV-vi-V harmonic structure quickly rise to the fore, hence serving as good models for any budding songwriters in your midst.  Which leads nicely to point three. . . .

3. Begin conversations with interested members of your congregation re: starting a songwriting group.  The goal here is not to try to emulate any of the well-known, church-based songwriting collectives (Vineyard in the not-too-distant-past; Hillsong, Bethel, and many others currently) in contemporary Christendom.  If no one outside the walls of your sanctuary ever uses your church’s songs for worship, so be it.  The goal is to begin to explore, in song, those aspects of the Christian faith that develop indigenously from the lives of your parishioners–to give musical voice to the work the Holy Spirit is doing in your particular fellowship.  If songwriting isn’t your strongest gift, bone up on the basics via any number of videos or books on the subject.  Work for at least six months before ever utilizing a song in a worship service–and then be sure to bring it back around often enough for it to become familiar.  Do no more than one new song each quarter for a year or two until the congregation becomes accustomed to the efforts.  Make sure the first several are co-written by several members of your team.  Then sit back in gratitude at what Creator God is doing in your midst.

The Lord be with you this ministry season!  May your Kingdom efforts bear fruit, as you rely on the Holy Spirit’s guidance and sustenance.

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Reflection #39 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 39 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 #39: Contemporary worship’s thorough emphasis on every aspect of an individual’s relationship with Christ often diminishes a healthy and biblical global perspective.

For all the wonderful and extremely important impact of worship renewal over the past 30Duke7 years or so, especially contemporary worship music (thanks, Adam Perez, right, for stating it so succinctly recently), contemporary worship, as a general rule, at least as practiced in suburban America, does only a fair-to-middling job helping its adherents foster a healthy global perspective–a perspective concerned as much about what God is doing around the world (and especially where people are hurting) as it is about strengthening individuals’ walks with the Lord.  Dr. Lester Ruth, one of my first grad-school worship profs, labeled the churches that camp on either end of this continuum as “cosmic-story churches” and “personal-story churches.”

Let me use a specific example to illustrate a general point.  My family attended a worship service yesterday morning that was excellent in many, many ways.  Unfortunately, however, at no point in the service, at all, was there mention of the tragic shootings in El Paso and Dayton over the weekend.  As much as those in attendance were encouraged, in the words of Godspell‘s “Day by Day” (which took its cues from the 13th century’s St. Richard of Chichester), “to see [God] more clearly, love [God] more dearly, and follow [God] more nearly,” they were not encouraged to get worked up about or even to pray for the many whose lives were changed significantly for the worse and forever in a moment’s time.

Rather than reinvent the wheel here, let me cut and paste what I consider to be an antidote to this kind of myopia in corporate worship from the blog I wrote shortly after suburban Chicago had a mass shooting earlier this year.  Here’s what I suggested worship leaders do the weekend after a national tragedy (you can read the whole post here):

1) Don’t ignore the tragedy.  Terrible events like this happen so frequently that we risk becoming numb to them if we don’t fashion some kind of response.  To whatever degree that is true for individuals, it’s even more important for churches–especially when the tragedy hits close to home. . . .  While we can’t address every single act of evil or every natural disaster in our worship services, we must confront the brutal manifestations of our fallen world when they happen in our backyard.  [Theologian Karl] Barth’s exhortation for preachers to prepare with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other serves as great advice for worship leaders, too.

2) Don’t be afraid to go off script.  With the advent of worship-planning software . . . worship leaders construct worship-service orders further in advance than ever before.  While I generally applaud this preparation, we need to be willing to change directions pretty quickly when a tragedy happens in our community.  [I then detailed the change in the pre-sermon worship time I felt compelled to put forth after a similar instance 11 years prior, in which I led with material from Ps. 22 and transitioned into a time of lament.]

3. Don’t sugarcoat the tough stuff; wrestle with it.  The Sunday after the loathsome synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh last fall, the worship leader of a church service I experienced online began the set with “The Lion and the Lamb.”  My initial fear, that he was going to ignore the shooting altogether, was alleviated when he transitioned into a prayer for the victims, but, in doing so, he missed a chance to wrestle with hard truth.  “Who can stop the Lord Almighty?” the congregation had just sung/asked together, and a worship leader more in tune with fostering congregational spiritual formation might have responded, before transitioning into the next song (or the prayer that followed, in this case), “Well, there are 11 families in Pittsburgh this morning that might suggest one deranged guy with an AR-15 can and did.”  That could have led into transitional comments about the difficult-to-grasp but real sovereignty of God, the problem of pain and suffering manifested in times like this, or a whole host of other things, but the juxtaposing of the triumphal “Lion and the Lamb” with the brutality of the Pittsburgh shooting—without putting both in context—was a missed opportunity.

May the Lord be with you, contemporary worship leaders, as you seek to help the members of your congregations think more purposely about things that matter to the heart of God in addition to their personal faith walks, important as they are.

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What Contemporary Worship Leaders Can Learn from the Gaithers

To whatever extent I might heretofore have had a modicum of street cred with Gen X and Millennial contemporary worship leaders, I am probably going to lose it with this post.  Oh, well.

I grew up in the 70’s and thus experienced what I would categorize as contemporary Christian music’s (CCM’s) pre-adolescence.  (For good, accessible reads on CCM’s birth, consider Don Cusic’s history The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel and Christian Music and a wonderful chapter in Richard Mouw and Mark Noll’s study of hymns in American Protestantism Wonderful Words of Life, “‘I Found My Thrill’: The Youth for Christ Movement and American Congregational Singing, 1940-1970.”)  By the time the first albums of Love Song (1972), The Second Chapter of Acts (1974), Keith Green (1977), and Amy Grant (1977) arrived on the scene, Bill and Gloria Gaither were already passé in my eyes (and those of countless Jesus People).

IndianaHistoricalSocietyPhotos057Sure, the Gaithers had contributed “Because He Lives,” “He Touched Me,” and “Something Beautiful” to evangelicalism’s musical lexicon (and, eventually, hymnals), but I didn’t feel they could offer much to my generation.  And even though my dad foisted their music on me–we had our own version of the Gaither Trio, with Dad as Bill, Mom as Gloria, and me as Danny/Gary McSpadden–I dismissed them as culturally irrelevant.

A few posts back, I mentioned a summer project of digitizing some newspaper and magazine articles, but I also have been transferring some audio cassettes to CD’s.  Because the Gaithers have been favorites of my mom’s for 50 years, I recently converted a couple of their live albums for her, Moments Are Forever (1977) and Live across America (1980).  Many years sufficiently removed from too-cool-for-school immaturity, I discovered that Bill and Gloria were terrific worship leaders–and not just for senior citizens–from whom contemporary worship leaders, if they will put their preconceptions aside, can learn much.  Here are three simple principles for worship-leading gleaned from those two Gaither live albums.  (Note: Although the musicianship of the Gaither Vocal Band in the 21st century far and away supersedes anything the Gaithers did as a trio in the 20th century, the worship-leading lessons show up more readily from that bygone era.)

1. Show some reverence for the past.  If your only exposure to the Gaithers comes through the 783 Homecoming DVD’s they’ve released (OK, maybe it’s 629), you might think revering the past is all the Gaithers do, so you have to reach back to those early years of the Trio to appreciate how smoothly their concerts flowed from songs that were, by then, universally loved and recognized to newer songs that, primarily because Bill wrote with Average-Joe congregations in mind, soon became eminently singable standards.  (The resurgence in hymns in the past 10-15 years in contemporary worship certainly speaks to this concept.)

2. Use thoughtful spoken transitions to enhance the congregation’s worship.  Gloria, in particular, was known for her lengthy monologues (see “There’s Something about That Name”), and contemporary worship leaders can’t take that much time in our producer-counting-down-the-allotted-time-in-your-in-ear-monitor culture.  But we can, and should, offer brief “verbals” (as one local megachurch’s worship team calls them) to help our congregations appreciate why we have chosen to put these particular songs on their lips–and we shouldn’t absolve ourselves from this responsibility by assuming everyone in attendance will connect the dots on their own and intuit the greater, overarching narrative threads of our worship without a little assistance.  (They won’t.)

3. Don’t shy away from emotions should they well up.  Listen to either Bill or Gloria speak and eventually you’ll hear them testifying through tears.  Darrell Harris, a founder of the Star Song label, for which the Gaithers recorded for a spell, says, “Both are very comfortable with their tears and never hold them back.  They will talk right through them, just letting them flow.”  In our tightly structured contemporary worship services, we can’t have a leader tearing up every other song, but if God’s faithfulness, provision, and love don’t cause worship leaders to get emotional every so often, someone might need to encourage them to let the passion wash through them and spill out onto the congregation now and again.

So, millennial worship leaders, now that I’ve convinced you to give your grandma’s favorite octogenarian church musicians a try, what songs might you consider?  Here are three (of many) that could be employed in contemporary worship today (in addition to Matt Maher’s renditon of “Because He Lives”):

1. “It Is Finished” starts with typical southern-gospel/Second-Coming/victory-in-heaven rhetoric but then ingeniously (“Yet in my heart the battle was raging / Not all prisoners of war had come home”) brings it back to today and the victory we have in Jesus right now.

2. “Canceled/Worthy” is a less-familiar offering but perfect for redemption celebrations.  Set in 6/8 meter, it’s hard not to get caught up in that rhythm, which underscores the goodness of having “all my debts canceled, Satan’s threats canceled”; “Now I stand worthy . . . through the Lamb” indeed!

3. “I Then Shall Live” sets Gloria’s lyrics to the familiar Finlandia melody of classical composer Jean Sibelius.  This is a perfect closing song for a service on the Church’s mission in the world (“may You feed a hungry world through me”) and, in my opinion, the Gaithers’ best lyric.

The Lord be with you, worship leaders!  And thanks, Bill and Gloria Gaither, for your many obvious contributions to the Church’s congregational song and many less-obvious-but-significant contributions to worship leadership!

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Reflection #38 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 38 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 #38: Preaching in the contemporary American church unwittingly but not infrequently places improper focus on the deliverer, not the Deliverer.

78711Mark Galli, of Christianity Today, is one of my favorite church-culture commentators, and, as I have mentioned recently, he just launched a new series, The Elusive Presence, that has, in my opinion, hit the mark on a number of topics.  This past week he covered preaching in the contemporary American church in an article prophetically titled “And Now, the Star of the Show. . . .”  I encourage you to read the entire piece, but here are some particularly profound thoughts.

Galli’s primary point deals with content in contemporary worship.  He sees two main areas of concern, the first being a misguided focus on the horizontal.

Preaching is one time in the week when we have the opportunity to hear about something other than ourselves, other than the horizontal. It’s the time to hear about God and the wonder and mysteries of his love, of what he’s done for us in Christ. But more and more, evangelical preaching has become another way we talk about ourselves, and in this case, to learn about the preacher. . . .

Today, it’s not uncommon to hear a sermon in which the opening, closing, and key illustration from the sermon’s main point is taken from the life and experience of the pastor and his family. Such sermons do a wonderful job of helping listeners connect with the pastor. And pastors keep using them precisely because when people leave the service and shake their hand, they say what a wonderful sermon it was, with comments like, “I love hearing about your family” and “Your kids are so cute” and “I really identify with you.”

Really? We want our congregations to identify with us? This is precisely the problem with [using] personal illustrations: It inadvertently puts the spotlight on the preacher. Within a few months of such preaching, everyone knows the quirks of each member of the pastor’s family, his triumphs and failures in key parts of his life, his passions and his dislikes, and so forth. In the end, they know more about their pastor than they know about Jesus.

The second concerns our evangelical penchant for elevating the practical, which I would suggest is a by-product of seeker-focused approaches to corporate worship.

We evangelicals are suckers for the practical sermon that tells us how to live for Jesus. But too often, the practical crowds out the biblical. A sermon on “Five Ways to Keep Your Marriage Strong” might mention Jesus or the Bible here and there, but take away those references and the substance of the sermon remains the same: great, practical relational psychology. In a similar vein, we hear sermons on how to manage one’s finances, with the key insights drawn from financial self-help literature, decorated with verses from Proverbs. And then there are the sermons on raising children and finding a career and work against abortion so on and so forth. Such sermons are full of sound and wise advice, and we need sound and wise advice on many topics.

The question is: Is this the most vital, relevant thing we have to communicate in worship? The one time in the week in which we gather to praise and glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is this really the most important thing we can say? Have we exhausted the treasures and wonders of God’s Word? Have we said all we can say about the glories of salvation? Or are we bored with talk about God, so that we revert once again to talk about ourselves and how to make our lives more manageable?

Interestingly, Galli recommends bringing back pulpits to help militate against the pastor’s self-referential tendencies.  (I made reference to this in an earlier blog post in this series.)

[W]e might bring back pulpits. It doesn’t have to be the kind that remind us of churches of yesteryear. How about designing a contemporary pulpit that accents the fact that the preacher has been commissioned by the church, and that the sermon is finally under the authority of the church—all of which is under the authority of God? Something that says in its design that in this moment, the sermon—the spoken word of God—is not about the speaker of that word but about the God who stands with and above the preacher.

He also advocates for shorter sermons, something I also recommended in a previous post.

[P]astors might shorten the sermon so that the service is not dominated by one person and one voice. We can make room for more singing. Make room for more prayer. Make room for silence. Maybe make room for the regular celebration of the sacraments/ordinances. In other words, we can make room for God.

The Lord be with you, worship leaders who preach, and may our congregations take away more about Jesus than they do about us (i.e., as southern gospel music’s The Kingdom Heirs sing, “Just Preach Jesus”).

Coming next week (Lord willing): More reflections on the contemporary American church.

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Reflection #37 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 37 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 #37: The upside of contemporary worship’s come-as-you-are informality and spontaneity is often mitigated by worship leaders’ off-the-cuff rhetoric that, if not outright heretical, can paint a very insufficient, incomplete, or ill-informed picture of our Triune God.

I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English/Communication Arts.  I appreciate those truths conveyed in my communication theory studies regarding the value of understanding your audience members and their real and felt needs as you craft your message.  I acknowledge that studied perceptions (accurate or otherwise) of 21st-century parishioners’ needs motivate much of what we do in contemporary worship these days.  And I accept that all the above often leads to dressed-down rhetoric that eschews any semblance of formal scripting.

In practice, however, the applications of this well-intended theory often lead to verbiage that is suspect, at best, where theological truth is concerned.  Say what you want about centuries-old liturgies passed down through the ages.  Decry how, in the hands of passion-bereft worship leaders, such creeds, prayers, and recitations promote dry, tired worship.  (And, I confess, I was in my late 30’s, in my grad-school studies at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, before I experienced liturgy routinely and regularly effected well.)  But by the time those well-worn scripts–amended, edited, and shaped over time–reach us in the year 2019, they have, almost always, been shorn of any obvious theological inaccuracies (applied universally, recognizing distinct denominations’ various perspectives and those points of Truth about which Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians disagree).

In most churches my wife and I have attended over the past two and a half years of our church visits, it seems as if a desire to avoid stiffness unwittingly leads to unintended flippancy.  Mark Galli, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, puts it this way in an article  from his ongoing series on the current state of evangelical Christianity, The Elusive Presence, entitled “The Temptations of Evangelical Worship”:

We sing various choruses that say, “Bring down your glory” and “show us your face.” But we do not know what we’re asking for. People in the Bible who actually encountered God’s glory fall on the ground in fear. For example, after the miracle of the fishes, Peter knows he has seen glory and that he is in the presence of the Glorious One. He doesn’t give God an ovation. He doesn’t weep with joy. He falls on his knees, begging Jesus to depart from him. The glory of Jesus has made it clear to him that he is a sinful man (Luke 5).

The same thing happens to Isaiah in the Temple. When Isaiah is given but a glimpse of God’s glory, he doesn’t break into song, singing a praise chorus. He actually thinks he is about to die: “It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies” (Isa. 6:5).

51UUjlwIR5L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Transforming Presence: How the Holy Spirit Changes Everything–From the Inside Out, a new book from Daniel Henderson to which my mother introduced me, has some practical suggestions for avoiding both stiffness and rhetoric that promotes any number of inaccuracies re: the presence of God in our worship (particularly the notion that unless we do certain things when we gather God might not “show up” in our midst, the corporate worship version of putting the cart before the horse).  This instead-of-that-try-this list (from which I am cherry-picking particular examples) appears in an appendix at the end of the text entitled “A New Covenant Worship Vocabulary”:

“Lord, we welcome you” vs. “Lord, we are grateful for Your indwelling presence” or “Thank You for welcoming us at the cross.”

“The Holy Spirit came” vs. “The Holy Spirit worked powerfully in our lives.”

“Release Your Spirit” vs. “Bring us into complete submission and responsiveness to Your Spirit.”

“Holy Spirit, fall” vs. “Holy Spirit, fill, control, and dominate our lives.”

“Pour out Your Spirit” vs. “Take charge of our lives as we submit to Your indwelling Spirit.”

“Welcome to the house of the Lord” vs. “Welcome to the gathering of God’s people.”

“Flood the atmosphere” vs. “Take control of our hearts.”

“Let Your glory fall” vs. “Jesus, You are our glory.  We seek Your will and word.”

“Let our praises fill this temple” vs. “May the indwelling Spirit inspire our praises.”

“Thank You that we can come into Your presence” vs. “Thank You that Your presence has come into us–through the work of Christ.”

Nit-picking?  Arguing semantics?  I don’t think so.  More like putting the same kind of effort and energy into carefully choosing the words we use in our services that most of us put into doing our best to make every aspect of church-weekend life culturally relevant–from the parking lot to the nursery to the gathering for corporate worship.  Worship leaders, I encourage you to think carefully about these matters that are, I would argue, as important as your song selections and band rehearsals.  The Lord be with you!

Coming next week, Lord willing: More observations on worship in the contemporary American church.

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