Preparing for Easter

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I have often joked that “it’s always Christmas or Easter in the music ministry.” That’s one of my favorite things about what we do. We are always telling the story of salvation through our songs – from the Incarnation to the Resurrection, anticipating the return of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As we prepare for the wonderful music of Palm Sunday & Easter, click the link below to download scriptures directly related to most of the songs we are presenting the next two Sundays:

Palm & Easter Scriptures 2015

Here is a wonderful (anonymous) lyric first published in 1868 by pastor and composer, Robert Lowry that really expresses the way I feel about this season and our task as worship leaders. (Orchestra members feel free to insert the word “playing” where appropriate!)

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;

Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What tho’ my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho’ the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night He giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it,

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am His—
How can I keep from singing?

NO SHORTCUTS

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We live in a world of shortcuts. And I love it. Let me explain. 

Modern technology – particularly the internet and mobile devices – have made so many tasks easier, faster and better. 

Instead of writing down a phone number or address, we say “send me your contact information” or “call me real quick and I will store your number.” Or . . . when heading out to make a fast food run, instead of taking time to listen to people explain their order, look for a pen or pencil, look for paper, we simply speak the two magic words of the 21st century . . . “TEXT ME”.

Need to listen to a song? I will email you the file and you can pull it up on your phone. Same thing with the printed music or any other document . . . click . . . send . . . read (and absorb?) on the run. 

Shopping, travel, finances – the list is endless – can now all be accomplished with your phone, if you choose. I find myself ridiculously frustrated with any task that can’t be completed “online.” I know . . . it’s an illness of sorts. 

Think about the power of an internet search engine. What used to require getting dressed, driving to the library and looking for hours is now down to stumbling out of bed, picking up my phone and finding the answers I want – literally – in seconds. It really is a new world. 

We are becoming increasingly conditioned to thinking that EVERYTHING should take LESS TIME and require LESS EFFORT from us. And therein lies the problem.

It’s a problem because if we want to achieve excellence in our lives, there really are no shortcuts. It doesn’t matter what area of life we consider: Excellence, growth and transformation will require a lot from us.

If we are unfit and unhealthy, there really are no shortcuts to becoming fit and healthy – there is a price to pay and it may take months to achieve your goals.  If you have a “pretty good” business but your dreams are to become an influential global leader in your field – it will require more of you than you can probably know or imagine at this point in the journey. Talented artists – singers, actors, dancers, writers, designers – are everywhere. But the ones who become truly outstanding and make a lasting impact spend hours and hours isolated in a practice room or studio – away from the applause – struggling to become better at what they do. The same is true for world class athletes . . . the success we see and cheer on the field was actually achieved in hours of training on a practice field . . . often alone . . . when everyone else has called it a day. 

Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2008 book, Outliers, delves into this with great detail as he explains what he calls “The 10,000 Hour Rule.” He examines the world’s most successful business leaders, artists, and athletes and asserts that research shows that more important than natural talent and gifts , these highly successful people (Bill Gates, The Beatles, Steve Jobs to name a few) spent 10,000 or more hours practicing and refining their craft before breaking through . . . 20 hours a week for 10 years, on average.

However, pop culture tells us – and our children – that if you can “break out” on America Idol or The Voice,  you will have made it! In an instant! (By the way . . . where are all those American Idol winners now . . .) Of course, now you don’t need a network TV show to become a star – just a viral video! 

I am blessed to be around lots of high school students as they prepare for their future. As you listen to them, you begin to realize that it has now become so competitive to get into college and there is so much pressure to become “successful” that a great deal of energy is invested not only in discovering “what” I should be doing, but how quickly -and easily – I can achieve this “success”. In other words, I want to be successful – RIGHT NOW. They don’t understand what Gladwell discovered – it may take ten years or more of repetitive, mundane effort to truly break through.  

What does this have to do with ministry? So very much. 

I heard this statement once and it has stayed with me for over twenty years: “Churches stop growing when the cost gets too high.”

When more money, more time and more effort are required to reach the next level, many choose to stay where they are. The problem is, you are either moving forward or you are moving backward. And of course, the statement is not just true of churches but of people . .. we stop growing when we are unwilling to pay the price to grow. 

This past Sunday, the Worship Choir & Orchestra did a beautiful job with the presentation of AMAZING LOVE. And I know that one of the reasons it was such a rewarding experience was because of the additional hours that were spent in preparation. It really is simple – the choir rehearsed twice a week rather than once a week for three weeks and the results were clear. We doubled our rehearsal time. And I have done this long enough to know that if we had rehearsed more often, or for a longer period of time . . . the results would have been even better. The challenge is finding the time and getting people committed to the task – and I am very proud of how our people rose to the challenge. 

The simplicity in this formula is reassuring. If I want to be a better spouse or parent, then I must spend the time investing in those relationships. If I want to grow spiritually, then my prayer time and service must move from casual and inconsistent to persistent and focused. If I want to become healthier physically, then I must make the right choices and set aside time to exercise. And – no matter how talented I may be as an artist, educator, business leader – it doesn’t matter – I cannot only merely rely on my talent or ability – I must spend the time and be willing to make the effort required to reach the next level.

Whatever dreams God has placed in your heart for yourself, your family, or your church – remember – there really are no shortcuts.

 

Random Thoughts for 2014

Here are some thoughts that have been passing through my mind for the last several months that I thought I would share with you . . .

The Keurig Coffee machine, along with a large flat screen HD television (with Apple TV) – at least for me – represent some of humankind’s greatest achievements. They have changed my life. But – I’m not sure for the better. I am drinking way more coffee and watching way more television than I have in years.

There are some things I like about getting older. I like losing the emotional ability to get upset over things that I have learned don’t matter. I’ve even lost the desire to even comment on some of the stupid things I see and hear because I’ve learned that what I say doesn’t make any difference to the people saying or doing stupid things. I like the confidence – or calm – that experience brings. A close pastor friend told me one time, “Once I hit 50, I just lost the desire to try to please everyone and I was perfectly content to do what I knew in my gut was the right thing to do.” I’m 48 and starting to get it.

I am such a blessed person. My family and the people I work with every day are incredible.

We are going to be “empty-nesters” in a few months. I’m not sure how I feel about this and I wonder what life will be like. It’s good to know everyone goes through this. It is funny how some couples describe it as “the greatest thing that ever happened” while others find it a gut-wrenching, dark night of the soul. Stay tuned . . . maybe I’ll know in a few months what I think.

I worry that I have not been, nor am I now, a good parent.

People come to church a lot less than they used to . . . including church members. My upbringing was built on the basis of “church first, then everything else”. That is over. I think part of it is that people have a fuller understanding of grace vs. law – they know that God is more concerned about the condition of their heart than He is about their attendance chart. But – we must be honest and admit that “the things of the world” have an increasingly powerful pull on people and priorities have become misplaced for many believers. Just take a look at Facebook. This attendance trend makes ministry very challenging.

Observation: A lot of really popular, effective new worship songs are AWESOME in the context of a corporate worship experience and also – are just a BEATING to rehearse. A half note or whole note, repeated over and over is not a melody – it’s a chant. Ending a song on the IV or V chord is not cool anymore – or, anyway, I wish it weren’t. Never underestimate the satisfaction of a good strong resolution!

ALERT: Bold statement coming: Some churches are getting rid of choirs and orchestras because they feel led to worship in a different musical style. Many more are using this excuse while the truth is that it’s just a lot more hard work to minister and organize all of those people as compared to maybe 10. And – when you factor in what I said earlier about people attending less, being less committed . . . it makes that choice much easier.

I love Sunday mornings. I have my whole life. I can be tired, distracted, whatever . . . but when I get in the atmosphere of a worship service and we begin to sing together, I experience a lift in my heart and spirit that can only be the Holy Spirit . . . because I realize it is coming from a place I cannot manufacture on my own – I know the difference. I am so grateful to God for this!

IF GOD ORDAINS IT, HE WILL MAKE A WAY

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It’s the first morning back to normalcy after the December Ice Capades swept through North Texas and thoroughly messed up all of my perfect little plans. Ha! Someone said, (I can’t recall and I’m even too lazy to even Google it right now) “We make plans and God laughs!” 

One of the main themes in TWO FROM GALILEE is the miraculous and mysterious sovereignty of God that brought about – at the exact moment of history it must have been – the birth of the Savior of the world. Thus, simply put, one of the “take-aways” from the show is simply that we must submit ourselves and our plans to the will of God and trust Him with all of our hearts. 

 

My character, Joachim, quotes this prophetic passage during the musical:

 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Though you are little among the thousands of Judah,
Yet out of you shall come forth to Me
The One to be Ruler in Israel,
Whose goings forth are from of old,
From everlasting.”

 Therefore He shall give them up,
Until the time that she who is in labor has given birth;
Then the remnant of His brethren
Shall return to the children of Israel.
 And He shall stand and feed His flock
In the strength of the Lord,
In the majesty of the name of the Lord His God;
And they shall abide,
For now He shall be great
To the ends of the earth;
 And this One shall be peace.

Micah 5:2-5 (NKJV)

A few thoughts as I reflect on this passage this morning:

1. God knows the end from the beginning. His plan for a Savior is from everlasting. The Jews wondered for centuries if God would deliver the promised Messiah . . . I think I can wait a few more days before opening night. When we made “our plans” back in February to schedule two weekends of shows – God knew more than we did how badly we’d need them. 

2. We should rest and rely on the “strength of the Lord” as mentioned above and His wisdom rather than our own. Father really does know best. He always accomplishes His will – who can stop Him?

3. We exist to exalt “the majesty of the name of the Lord His God.” It’s never been about us and our show, anyway. It’s really only about  people experiencing the presence of God and knowing that He is Lord. 

4. He (Jesus) is our peace. Oh, believe me – it’s been stressful trying to make the right decisions in the midst of this major curve ball – but I have never doubted that God is in control. Please know, I am not bragging when I say that or pointing up my spiritual wisdom. No – not at all. I am merely giving a testimony that Jesus is our peace – He comes to us in our frustration and our anxiety and our smallness and says . . .”Rest in me . . . relax . . . I got this.” (at least in my translation)

I am truly excited to see what God has in store for this weekend . . . I’m very curious to know just how His plan was better than the one I laid out so strategically and carefully so many months ago. The fact is, I may not know – He may not reveal all of His reasons to me, and that’s OK. My assignment is to trust – and rest in Him. And – there could be another curve ball out there . . . (I really hope not). But that won’t change the fact that He is God and I am not . . . PRAISE GOD FOR THAT!

 

 

 

 

 

IGNITE YOUR PRAISE

As we begin a new year in Worship Choir & Orchestra, our Wednesday rehearsals have been described by the phrase IGNITE YOUR PRAISE as a part of our church’s new Wednesday IGNITE emphasis. Here are a few thoughts on the importance of our role as worship leaders, and our personal spiritual growth using the word PRAISE as an acrostic:

P is for PRIORITY . . .

Meeting each week to prepare for worship helps us prioritize God and our personal relationship with him. 

 

Seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given unto you as well. Matthew 6:33 (NIV)

 

R is for RELATIONSHIP . . .

Spending time with God’s Word through the lyrics and message of the songs builds our relationship with the Lord long after rehearsal is over, as we call to mind the words over and again. As we sing and as we play, we engage (prayerfully!) our heart, soul, mind and strength as the Scripture below commands. The weekly interaction with one another as the Body of Christ – and our “neighbors” develops and strengthens our relationships with one another as well. 

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law? Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

A is for ATTITUDE . . .

Let’s face it – all of us have a bad attitude sometimes! The stress and pressures of life, disappointments, hurts . . . the list of reasons could go on and on. But we have promises from God that we can be renewed in our spirit and attitude through the act of praise. Wednesday rehearsals, I pray, will be a spiritual oasis for you!

 

Put on the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness . . . Isaiah 61:3 (KJV)

 

Those the Lord has rescued will return.
    They will enter Zion with singing;
    everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
    and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
Isaiah 51:11 (NIV)

I is for being INVOLVED . . .

The simple truth is that one cannot truly benefit from being a member of a church unless they become actively involved and connected with other believers. You have to become involved – you cannot lay back and wait for someone to ask you.

The Worship Choir & Orchestra is another family to belong to – united in Christ’s love. And – in so doing – we connect and contribute as a member of the Body of Christ! If you participate in the Worship Choir & Orchestra, I pray you sense a true calling to serve in this ministry – and thus – not to serve would be disobedience.

 

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ . . . If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

I Corinthians 12:12, 26-27 (NIV)  (NOTE: Read all of Chapter 12 to REALLY get this!)

S is for SACRIFICE . . .

Sacrifice?! That’s not a popular concept . . . but the reality is that being a committed member of the choir or orchestra does require a sacrifice of time and convenience that many are simply not willing to make. However – the reality is that spiritual blessing always comes through a spirit of giving and sacrifice. There are Sundays and Wednesdays when fulfilling your calling to the worship ministry will feel like a sacrifice. But that should not make us shy away from serving – embrace the sacrifice and find the joy. 

 

But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen and paid fifty shekels of silver for them.

II Samuel 24:24 (NIV)

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.

 Hebrews 13:15 (NIV)

E is for EXCELLENCE . . .
One of the main reasons we meet on Wednesday evenings is to practice and to prepare so that we can honor the Lord with our very best. Poor musicianship and lack of preparation can lead to distractions in worship. By the same token, music that is well-prepared and presented with freedom and confidence can change someone’s life. It’s like I remember saying a few weeks ago at rehearsal – “The right song at the right time can change someone’s life!” I believe we have been appointed by the Lord for this task – called out to prepare as an army of worshipers – and if we are going into spiritual battle – and we are – we must be at our very best.

 

Sing unto Him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise. Psalm 33:3 (KJV)

And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed singers unto the Lord, and that should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the Lord; for his mercy endureth for ever.
II Chronicles 20:21 (KJV)

 

Let’s Ignite our Praise together – with the right PRIORITY in place, focused on RELATIONSHIPS, with an ATTITUDE of Joy, being fully INVOLVED with a willingness to SACRIFICE, all in the pursuit of EXCELLENCE!

RULES FOR SINGING

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John Wesley, (1703-1791), was a reformer of the Church of England, and the founder of the Methodist Church. Together with his brother Charles, they served as pastors and evangelists both in England and America. Charles Wesley, (1707-1788), was a prolific hymn writer, and we sing many of his hymns to this day. (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, Jesus Lover of My Soul . . .and many more!)

In  the preface to a new Methodist Hymnal, published in 1761, John Wesley presented these “Rules for Singing”. Methodism was new, and this was surely Wesley’s attempt to bring some structure and discipline to worship in these new churches as they broke off from the Anglican tradition and entered a more “free church” experience. Through their outdoor evangelistic services and revival meetings, John and Charles Wesley led a new movement of congregational singing – where the songs were more contemporary to the times and were embraced more fully by all the people as a personal expression of worship – not just trained musicians.

Here are John Wesley’s RULES FOR SINGING – with my thoughts and impressions for your consideration . . .

1. Learn these tunes before you learn any other, afterwards learn as many as you please.

 Wesley seems to be wholly supportive of new songs – but not until you have learned the traditional ones. There is a great deal of value in this rule. I can tell you from years of experience that a worship service with all new, unfamiliar songs is a worship service people in which the people do not participate. And what is the point of that?

 There are reasons why certain hymns and songs become classics and are sung for hundreds of years. We have an obligation to the younger generations to teach these songs and present them in a vibrant, dynamic way to our children – not as relics, or museum pieces – but sung passionately, focusing on the theological truths that the lyrics proclaim.

2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

This is a specific musical instruction to learn the notes and rhythms precisely so that there will be understanding/uniformity from church to church – which is important. More importantly for me, from a spiritual perspective, is that corporate, congregational singing is about the body as a whole, more than our individual preferences.

The musical choices we make must serve the congregation as a whole – thus, the keys and the tempos we choose are all important factors. If songs are too high, too low, too fast, too slow or simply too complicated . . . it limits participation. Paul admonished us to “sing with the Spirit and sing with understanding.” In a musical sense, if everyone sings “their version” of the melody or rhythm, it breeds confusion in congregational worship – not understanding.

3. Sing ALL. See that you join with congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find it a blessing.

 I love this! Often, we do not FEEL like singing or participating, but Wesley says – do it anyway – and see how, in time – the burdens lift from your heart and the blessing comes. Sometimes, singing can become a true “sacrifice of praise” when our hearts and even our bodies tell us we don’t “feel like it.” But as we submit to Christ and focus on Him, our hearts and perspective move away from self and toward Christ and others – that is the call of the Christian life!

4. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.

What a great rule! If we truly understand and appreciate what God has done for us in Christ, then surely our singing will never be lackadaisical or half-hearted. And he is also saying: Show as much excitement for God as you do for worldly, secular pursuits. A more modern take I have heard often on this is: Why is it people can get so excited at a ball game and then act so disinterested in worship?

5. Sing Modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

6. Sing in time, Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all out tunes just as quick as we did at first.

Again, both of these rules emphasize that the corporate musical experience is more important in public worship than our own individual enjoyment or preferences. If we are alone in our quiet time, or singing along with music in the car – we can be as free and individualistic as we please. But – when we are uniting our voices in worship as a Body – we must – as Scripture admonishes us – submit to one another.

 These rules are ESPECIALLY true for a choir! In our efforts to harmonize and unify vowel sounds, harmonies, rhythms and dynamics, we present an “aural image” of the unity of the Body of Christ. This is one of the main reasons we rehearse – to bring about this unity of sound.

In 2013, we are blessed with an amazing amount of contemporary worship music from all over the world. Many of us access it on a daily or hourly basis and we sometimes desire to sing it “just like the recording”. But often – that is impossible in a group setting for many technical, musical reasons. Thus, we rehearse and adapt the music to serve the purpose of worshiping together as a Body.

7. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye on God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or at any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually, so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when He cometh in the clouds of Heaven.

Of course, he saved the best for last! Above all, sing spiritually!

I find the line, “see that your heart is not carried away with the sound” very convicting. As a singer, it is easy for me to get caught up in the sound of my own voice, or even the sound of the song, because I am so “into” the joy that making music brings me. But Wesley is warning us that even that can be a trap if our attention – and intention – is even slightly pulled away from the object of our affection – the Lord Jesus Christ!

“Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself or at any other creature.” What a powerful admonition! As has often been expressed – we sing for an audience of One. Corporate worship is not merely for our own personal edification, or to gain the approval of the congregation or entertain them – it is for God.

Wesley’s rules remind me of Paul’s instructions to the church regarding music:

And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

Colossians 3:15-17, (HCSB)

Further study? You can read more about the Wesleys  here.

 

 

 

Singing with Jesus

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As we prepare our music for the Easter Season, I am reminded of the poignant scene with Jesus and the Disciples, after the Last Supper. This is how it reads from Matthew 26:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying,“Take and eat; this is My body.”

Then He took a cup, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

For all of my life, this simple fact – that Jesus and the Disciples sang together after the supper – was always mentioned as we closed the Lord’s Supper service and we would sing a familiar hymn together. But what did Jesus sing that night?

Biblical scholars agree that it was most likely that Jesus and the Disciples sang Psalms 113-118, the “Hallel” from the Jewish Psalter – as that was – and is today – the custom for Jews to sing and recite on the first night of Passover. And, we know this is why they had gathered together that night – to share in the Passover meal.

As we prepare for Holy Week, I encourage you to spend time meditating on Psalm 113 through 118 and as you do so, place the verses in the context of all that Jesus was facing in the next few hours – the trials, the scourging, the crucifixion. It is truly remarkable to consider. I am especially moved by these verses from Psalm 118 – imagine Jesus singing these words just before His prayer in Gethsemane:

Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful servants.
Truly I am your servant, Lord;
    I serve you just as my mother did;
    you have freed me from my chains.

As we pray, rehearse and prepare over the next few days, let’s place ourselves with Jesus in those moments so that we are not casual or routine in our preparation – but purposeful, prayerful and serious – recognizing the weight and importance of all that Christ suffered – and all that He accomplished on our behalf. 

Singing and music mark the most important moments of our lives: graduations, weddings, funerals . . . and I think it is important to note that Jesus was faithful to sing praise to God as He faced the most difficult task anyone in human history has ever encountered. 

I believe Jesus is still inviting us to sing with Him – no matter the circumstances we face. Let’s worship Him in spirit and truth and give Him our very best this Easter as we join Him in singing praises to the Father.

 
 
 

 

THE SONGS WE SING

How do you choose the songs we sing in church?

Over the years (28 of them leading worship in the church), I have been asked this question hundreds of times. I thought it would be useful to address this question again.

First – it is important to note that in the last 15 years especially, evangelical congregations are emphasizing corporate, congregational singing to a much greater degree than what we all grew up calling “special music.” (Choirs, solos, ensembles, etc., singing “for” the congregation vs. singing “with” the congregation). I believe this is a healthy trend, as the more participatory the congregation is in worship, the more engaged they will be in their hearts and minds. One of the results of this trend is that congregations are singing more new songs and more different types of songs than ever before.

In the past, congregational singing was limited to whatever content existed in the hymnal. The trend toward more and more congregational singing, along with technology (computer graphics, projectors and screens with easily produced lyrics) have opened and expanded the church’s “hymnal” exponentially.

But what types of songs are legitimate for use in church? That question is debated endlessly and volumes of strongly held opinions are available on the topic. I am not sure there is one, correct answer for all churches. It seems to me that every congregation is so unique – how can “one size fits all” musical choices work for each church? There are so many factors that should inform these choices: the make-up of the congregation (diversity of ages and cultural distinctions), the community where the church is located, the denomination or tradition the church belongs to, the unique, God-given leadership of the church . . . it’s a complex and different answer for each congregation, in my view. That is why it is so unwise to simply think that because one approach to worship works in this “hip, cool contemporary church over here” – or in a “traditional mega church over there” is right for every other church. Simply put, every church is different, and their musical worship should reflect who they are.

So then – what music shall we choose? Why do we sing the songs we sing?

We should first look to the Bible, of course. Music and singing are very often mentioned in scripture – In fact, we have the “hymnal” of the Jewish people in the Psalms. References to singing and instruments, festivals, celebrations, and, yes, even dancing before the Lord, are found in the Old Testament.

In the New Testament, we have the example of Jesus and the disciples singing together on the evening of the Last Supper. Paul exhorts us to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in Ephesians and Colossians. It is popular today to try and equate “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” with particular modern forms of church music – but an accurate reading of the Biblical text reveals that Paul was referring to three different types of songs in the Psalter – not “man-made” texts or songs. However, we also have several passages in the New Testament (Philippians 2:5-11, for example) that scholars believe were actually “hymns” of the new, Christian faith – songs focused on the deity and work of Jesus Christ, so we know that new songs were being born out of the early church.

Thus, to put it in the simplest of terms – the Bible encourages us to sing Scripture-based songs, as well as new songs that exalt Jesus Christ as Lord. We should note that musical style has not yet entered the conversation! That is another lengthy and unresolved debate. I will only say that the musical style should support and compliment the message and meaning of the text. I enjoy all types of music, and I believe that a variety of musical expressions, reflecting God’s awesome creative genius, is healthy in the church – provided that the message and meaning of the song come through clearly.

At First Baptist Carrollton, we allow the Biblical text of the message to drive our musical choices. Thus, we choose songs – both old and new – to support the sermon and theme of the day’s message. For us, this is more important, appropriate and significant than choosing songs based on style – either traditional or contemporary. My sense has always been this: Musical style divides people based on their personal preferences, but the Word of God and an emphasis on Jesus Christ as Lord bring unity to the Body.

I say this with humor – but I also know it is true: If you prefer strictly traditional worship music, our services will frustrate you – and if you prefer strictly contemporary worship music, you will also be frustrated! We have made a decision not to emphasize style as the criterion for how we “do worship.” In general, we tend to be more contemporary than strictly traditional, but the fact is that EVERYONE defines these terms differently. What seems contemporary to one person is very dated and old-fashioned to another. What seems traditional to a person from a Baptist background may be completely inappropriate and irreverent to a person who grew up in another tradition. You simply CANNOT win the style game – so I choose not to play it.

We sing the older, traditional hymns because they reflect the changeless nature of God and His faithfulness across all of time. When we sing a song that is hundreds of years old, we are connecting with saints across the years and giving testimony to the fact that our faith is true, faithful, constant and enduring. It is also important to note that these songs that have “stood the test of time” do so for a reason – they are effective and they resonate across generations. We must admit that some of the contemporary songs don’t have that same quality about them. As a case in point, it is always interesting to me that the contemporary worship songs that were the most popular five or ten years ago are now deemed “old hat” by some worship leaders who are the most passionate about contemporary worship.

However, the contemporary songs we sing are just as important as the traditional songs because they reflect that God is active, working and moving in the hearts of men and women today. The new songs remind us that ours is not a “dead faith” or a relic from “the old days.” We are not a museum – we are a vibrant, growing, dynamic, and living church that sees hearts and lives changed every day. The new songs reflect this reality, and they ensure that we are relevant to the culture around us.

The fact is, musical tastes and preferences do change constantly, and church music has always reflected that reality. The most beloved Baptist hymns and gospel songs (“Victory in Jesus”, “Nothing But the Blood”, etc.) were written in the “camp meeting” style of the late 19th and early 20th century that reflected the growth of folk and country music being heard most often in bars and dance halls. These “new songs” had a very difficult time being accepted into Sunday worship in most churches as they were considered “profane”. Sound familiar? They might be acceptable for an outdoor camp meeting or revival, some said, but we should not sing them on Sunday morning . . . some things never change . . .

Finally, when Paul instructed the early church to sing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” he also said that we should “sing with the Spirit and with understanding.”
(1 Corinthians 14:15) Our musical worship must engage both heart and mind – the message of the Word of God – that “understanding” element – must be present.
In addition, he said to “make melody in your heart” (Ephesians 5:19) This is the most important element of all- the condition and attitude of our hearts – no matter what song we are singing! Our hearts and minds must be surrendered to the Lord in grateful worship, thanksgiving and submission. If they are not, it doesn’t really matter what song we are singing, it will not be authentic worship before the Lord.

Let this be our prayer, no matter what song we sing:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
 be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.

Psalm 19:14 (NKJV)

EXPERIENCING GOD THIS CHRISTMAS

As we enter the final week of rehearsals for TWO FROM GALILEE, I wanted to focus on the spiritual themes at the heart of the story. Karla Worley is the book writer and lyricist for the musical. She adapted Marjorie Holmes novel into the structure and form for the show. She writes the following about the spiritual content of the show from her perspective:

A friend pointed out to me that the story of Mary and Joseph is not really about finding true love, but about finding God’s will. At the time, I was studying through Henry Blackaby’s bible study, EXPERIENCING GOD, which outlines seven realities of our experience with God:

1. God is always at work around you.

2. God pursues a continuing love relationship with you that is real and personal.

3. God invites you to become involved with Him in His work.

4. God speaks to reveal Himself, His purposes and His ways.

5. God’s invitation always leads to a crisis of belief that requires faith and action.

6. You must make major adjustments to join God in what He is doing.

7. You come to know God by experience as you obey Him and He accomplishes His work through you. 

Mary, Joseph, and all of the characters in the story are classic examples of these realities as they move through the nativity narrative. The story of the Incarnation is a mysterious, romantic, courageous story of a God who reached down to intervene dramatically in the course of history and human beings who played a role in accomplishing His will at that moment in time. We must remember that they were human beings, with real thoughts and feelings like us: like us, they had their own agendas for their lives, which had to be sacrificed in order to accept God’s invitation to join Him in His work. 

Not everyone in the story declared as Mary, “Be it done to me according to Your word.” Some of them were dragged kicking and screaming into God’s plan. Some of them struggled to believe; some had to change their entire understanding of God. There was tension and dissension among family, between husband and wife, parent and child.

It’s important that we portray these very real feelings and actions, because Christ’s coming was a real and human event, just as it was supernatural and divine. The people sitting in the audience need to see that it was real, that God Himself is real and is willing to deal with very real people in very real situations. 

As we pray and rehearse over the next several days, we need to keep in focus that our purpose is to help the audience – especially those who are lost – experience God. Using these realities as a personal guide, pray and think through these questions:

1. God is always at work around you.

Where do you see this? Are you looking for Him? What does He want to teach you through this production and who does He want you to reach out to, because He is already at work in that individual’s life?

2. God pursues a continuing love relationship with you that is real and personal.

How is your relationship with God at this point? He is pursuing you – are you pursuing Him as well?

3. God invites you to become involved with Him in His work.

What specific actions can you take to join God in the work He is doing around you?

4. God speaks to reveal Himself, His purposes and His ways.

Are you listening for God’s voice? Look for Him and listen for His voice as we prepare!

5. God’s invitation always leads to a crisis of belief that requires faith and action.

What is God inviting you to do that is a crisis of belief for you? Many times, it is obedience in an area of our lives where we have been disobedient. Or – it could be a calling to some new endeavor for Him. Don’t allow this season to pass without submitting to Him.

6. You must make major adjustments to join God in what He is doing.

Everyone in the Christmas story had to make personal sacrifices to follow God. Are you willing to do the same?

7. You come to know God by experience as you obey Him and He accomplishes His work through you. 

I pray that you will experience God in the next several days as He accomplishes His will through us. He has called us to share His story – to use the gifts and resources He has given us to be a witness for Him. Pray that you, and that all of us, will experience God in a very real way as we present TWO FROM GALILEE. Pray that our audience will experience God as they are reminded that Jesus is the fulfillment of every promise of God – and that He is truly “all they ever wanted” . . . even if they don’t know it yet!