Category: Music

Singing Together

Have you ever tried to something alone that was designed to be done with others? The other day I was at the beach with my family and I went down early to put up the big tent so we could have some shade while sitting and relaxing. But as hard as I tried, I found it very difficult to put this large tent up by myself. It would have taken only a few minutes with another person, but for one person it was quite a struggle. Putting up a tent that large was meant to be done with a few people, not just one person alone.

I believe singing in church is meant to be done together. Surely there are some with mics and some without, but we are gathered to sing together not to simply listen to others sing. Some people have the gift of singing, but that should not stop people from lifting a joyful noise. Our singing does not have to be perfect for it to honor God. In the church I grew up in, there was a little lady that sat behind us every Sunday who could not carry a tune to save her life. But the genuineness and sincerity of her praise was moving.

I love the language Psalm 100 and it mentions the communal activity of gathering and singing praise:

1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
2 Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
3 Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
5 For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

A few thoughts. First, the Psalm implies that people are already singing before they come into His presence. Singing praise to God is something that defines our life, not simply something done at church. We enter his presence already praising God. And secondly, the response for being His people (those He cares for and protects) is to sing together in praise as one people joining in one voice. There is no better way to thank him than to praise him. Entering his gates with thanksgiving is something we do together as a singing people.

There is some science behind the value and power of singing together. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and music producer, has spent years studying the impact of music on the brain. He found that when people sing together, the brain releases oxytocin, which could be called the “trust” hormone. We develop a sense of community when we sing with others. If one of the goals of your worship ministry is to create a community of worshippers, this is good knowledge to keep in mind. When people sing together, they feel connected with one another.

So a few questions to ask:

1.) Do you sing songs that the average congregant can sing?

2.) Are songs in keys that only a professional singers could sing?

3.) If your church does not sing in the way you would like, why do you think that is?

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Ears to Hear: Parables and Beatles Bass Lines.

As a musician, it always surprises me that I can listen to a song that I’ve heard hundreds of times and suddenly “find” something new. Sometimes it is a very subtle part or something layered deep within the mix. Sometimes it is something that seems distinctly obvious but is being overshadowed by something that caught my ear first. Either way, it is always a joy to listen to a song and come away with a new perspective on the contents.

I’ll never forget the moment I was most impacted by Paul’s bass playing. I was in a hotel room in Paris and was winding down after a long day of sightseeing. Having spent a week in England prior to this, I found it fitting to listen to some Beatles as I was going to sleep. I had also just finished reading Here, There Everywhere so I was listening to their albums a bit differently and much more critically. The movement, precision and subtle genius on “Lovely Rita” from Sgt. Peppers literally sat me up in my bed. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The song had new life. The low end was driving the song and I could then hear nothing but the bass line. From then on, the entire album sounded different as I honed in on different parts. I’m sure I had heard these things before, but now I heard them.

He who has ears, let him hear. (Matt. 13:9)

Jesus talked about this kind of listening when he explained his parables. It is one thing to listen to the story he is telling, but it is another thing completely to fully understand the message and apply it to my life. The other day I came across a quote from Soren Keirkegaard on how we as Christians react to the teachings of the Bible:

The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close.

Reading the teachings of Jesus inspires two responses: to follow or not to follow. There really is no in between. In our society, it is so unpopular to be black and white, but these aren’t my words, they are Jesus’ (Matt. 6:24). When we read his words, we must be willing for our lives to be open to whatever way he may bring about his Kingdom on earth. Having ears to hear might mean doing something radical. Or it might be abiding in his presence, trusting and being content in where you are. That is the power of such divine revelation. As we contemplate, pray and obey it changes they way we see the world. And it changes us.

I think about what “Lovely Rita” would sound like without that bass line. It would probably be quite boring and would lack the spark that gives the song such energy. I don’t want a “bass-less” version of my faith. I desire wisdom, knowledge and understanding rather than ignorance, comfort and safety. Following Jesus demands much more than casually reading his teachings and accepting them as nice stories. What he desires for us is life, freedom and joy that comes from humbly obeying his perfect teachings.

He who has ears, let him hear.

-SHF

How Do We Measure Worship?

I’ve been a Coldplay fan since 2002. Yes I keep track of these things. I had the opportunity of seeing them on the Viva La Vida tour and as I’m writing this, I’ve just seen them on their most recent tour. Great band and a great live show, as always.

It is no secret that we are wired to worship. Spending five minutes in a concert of a popular band and its clear. If you were to take video snapshots of people in the crowd and mute the music, it could be a scene from a powerful worship service. People are going to worship something. The Israelites continually dabbled in the religious practices of the Canaanites when they forgot about God’s faithfulness, and we do the similar wandering here in the present. The “tempting other gods” just look different. Last time I checked, Coldplay doesn’t require child sacrifice to attend their concerts, but I could have missed it…

So my question is: How are you measuring worship?

What is it that makes a “good” worship service?

If you are measuring the worship of your church solely by the amount of people with their hands raised or beating their chests, you may be getting a incomplete picture of the worship life of your church. As a worship leader, it feels great when you look out and the majority of the congregation have their hands raised and seem fully engaged. But as leaders, we must go deeper in our evaluation in our church’s worship. While congressional response can be and should be a very good indicator, there has to be more to it than just the outward expression. How do we know they aren’t just worshipping music or even the worship team? Its possible to get caught up in the music at church and express genuine affections for Jesus but that could be the only worship experience during this week. (I’ve been there.) This is similar to a concert attendee. The excitement and passion for the band stops at the concerts closure. This is a tragic mentality for worshipping the Almighty.   As leaders, we should continually be looking for ways to bring our congregations to a deeper place in a lifestyle worship, because it is an amazing wellspring of life that knows no end. And those ways look different for every congregation.

But please don’t think I’m belittling the importance of physical expression. The Psalms are full of encouragement to raise your hands, clap, shout etc.  So there is no excuse for having boring music. If nobody is enagaged, there’s something going on that needs to addressed. And if the song you are playing on Sunday morning is serenading people to back to sleep, it is probably one worth skipping. As I’ve written about before, worship is most powerful when truth and experienced are combined in a way that is tangible to a congregation. The firm, unadulterated, truth about God combined the emotionally powerful, sonically beautiful experience of music and song is the best way to ensure that your congregation is getting fed in a way that leads them towards spiritual growth.

The concert I attended last week was a great experience. Was there any life-giving truth in the lyrics of the songs? Not really. But the music was exceptional and I had a great time and there’s nothing wrong with that. But worship must be more than a good time or a pleasant musical overture before the message. We are responsible for inspiring our people and providing the means to encounter a holy God and that’s not light nor an easy task. It is a wonderful burden.

In trying to evaluate the worship life of the church, consider these questions:

Is life change happening?
Are people learning more about God’s character as they worship?
Are they experiencing His power and presence outside the walls of the church?

At Seacoast, we evaluate the lyric content of the songs we present to the congregation because it is important to be intentional about what people will be proclaiming about God. We want them to be saying and singing things that are true, things that matter and teach them about God. I love hearing the stories of life change happening during worship because of a lyric or a moment when the presence of God was a reality for somebody. Those are the Kingdom victories and that’s how we should measure the effectiveness of a worship ministry.

-SHF

Don’t Take Congregational Singing for Granted.

We are fortunate to be living in the modern world. I can watch TV from my phone and use Google earth to “travel” to any city in the world. It is an incredible time to be alive. It is also a great time to be a believer, especially in America where we are free to worship without persecution or government oppression.

This past spring, I completed a research paper on worship in early church and I’m in the midst of writing a similar paper on worship after the Reformation. (If you are interested in reading or looking for a sleep aide, email me and I’ll gladly send email you a copy). It is amazing to learn there was a time in the church’s history where the only people allowed to sing in the service were professional choirs of singers and priests. That doesn’t exactly inspire a community of believers to come together in song. And all those enriching and creative original songs your church loves to sing? Those would have been outlawed as well. There were church leaders who thought the only kind of song that should be sung was one that used exact Biblical texts as lyrics. The motive was to maintain pure worship, yet it squelched human creativity by adhering to the simplest form of worship possible. For over ten centuries this was how the church worshipped through music, and songs were only sung by believers outside the walls of the church.

Fortunately, it was not to remain this way. Martin Luther, also an accomplished hymn writer, encouraged congregational singing and wrote hymns with this in mind. Along with his other reforms, Luther helped to revive the wonderful sound of God’s children singing praises to Him. While the battle continued to rage for many centuries, original hymns for the congregation were composed, integrated into services and joyfully received as the church became a singing church once again.

Some questions for the modern worship leader (myself):

1. Can people sing along to the songs you’ve selected?

2. Are most of your songs in keys that only a professional singer can sing?

3. Are there entire sections of the song that are too high for anyone else to sing but you?

4. Do you take for granted the fact that your congregation is welcomed and encouraged to sing with you?

As a musician I completely understand the other side of this coin.

-Singing a song in a lower key might be boring.

-Favoring familiar songs gets old if you offer multiple services which translates into doing the same 15-20 songs over and over and over…

-Sometimes a more creative song is more fun to play.

However, as worship leaders (not performers), we must always be asking ourselves: Is this song conducive to leading people to sing praise to God or is it serving our own interests?

As always, have a great week!

-SHF

How Are You Using Art?

Like anything good and beneficial, art and the use of art is a gift from God. Also like any gift from God, we must be careful in how we use those gifts. Let’s say God gave me with ability to speak eloquently (He surely didn’t!). I could use that gifting in a way that honored God, or I could use it for my own personal gain. Of course we aren’t perfect and sometimes we use our gifts to glorify ourselves.

I recently finished a class on church history. There have been some quite interesting debates on the use of art within the history of the church. The modern church’s struggle over whether or not to utilize a “produced” service full of artistic elements or a less produced service leads me to believe that the church in many different cultures is trying to figure out whether one type of service is a better way. Let’s look at a very similar debate from way back in the 12th Century. Some, like Peter the Venerable, thought that art could be used as an aid to devotion to God. People in the other camp, like Bernard of Clairvaux, thought that art could distract believers in worship and helping the poor. So the discussion is not knew. It is obviously an important conversation to have and it still exists today.

I’ve been in well-produced services that were Spirit-filled and still had many elements that completely Spirit-led. I’ve also been in some that felt contrived and not very genuine. I’ve also experienced incredible times of worship when the power goes out and all that’s left is a singing congregation. On the other hand, I’ve attended some poorly planned and thrown together services that were a complete distraction to me personally.

I don’t think there is a right way to do these things. If it was an issue that needed a right and wrong, God would have given us the answer in Scripture. I think it comes down to two things : motive and honesty In order to discover motive, it takes a great deal of relational honesty. By relational I simply mean your relationship with God. If you pour your heart into planning every aspect of a worship service, right down to the second, as an offering to God, then it is a beautiful offering to Him for the benefit of his people. But you must be honest in identifying your motives. However, if your planning is to awe or to continue to entertain your congregation, the motive for Godly approval has shifted towards pleasing man. You may be able to fool people, but God knows what is going on in your heart. (Read about Jesus’ knowledge of our thoughts and perception into our hearts in Luke 9:46-50 and Matt. 12:25) This is where things get dangerous. Regardless of the style, sound, elements of your worship service, you must ask yourself this question and honestly answer: Am I doing this for the glory of God or for my own glory?

Have a great weekend!

-SHF

Christ vs Christian Culture

Has the culture surrounding our faith distracted us from the Christ-centered demands of the faith?

Secular culture tells us one thing. Typically, the Bible teaches us the exact opposite. Living for Christ rather than living for yourself, etc. However, Christianity has a culture of its own. There are Christians who are “cool” and then there are those who perceived as “kind of weird”. And then you’ve got different sub-cultures of Christian culture. The musicians, the pastors, the creative types, the theologians, the writers, the “lay people”, the coffee drinkers. They have their own sub-culture which makes up part of the whole culture. Yes, you’re right, it sounds very strange.

If you are a Christian musician, you must wear these clothes, have this equipment and use this certain type of technology. Its ludicrous. But I’m not standing on a soapbox preaching only to others, I’m screaming at myself here as well. Hear me though, there is nothing wrong with dressing nice, having nice things, or having a certain style of guitar. The Lord does wonders with technology. The danger is that we can very easily find our identity in such items while being completely blinded by our idolatry because we’re spending time in Church. We’re wired to worship something, and if we’re not careful, we can worship Christian culture.

All this may have become with a portion of the Church’s desire to be “so relevant” to nonbelievers. If I here the word relevant one more time, I may puke. The Gospel is already relevant to everyone, we don’t need to change it to make it more appealing. Truth resonates on its own. If I’m trying to bring people to believe the sky is blue, I don’t have to spend weeks showing them pictures of how cool the sky can look and telling them how beautiful it is. I simply need to take them outside and point upward. Making exemptions or additions to Truth is a dangerous path to travel.

So, the question must be asked, “Is what I’m doing/wearing/participating in being influenced by my relationship with Christ or is Christian culture telling me how to live?”.

The Power of 5 Notes.

I see this video was posted summer of ’09, but I’ve never seen it before. Fascinatingly, Bobby McPherin takes the 5 notes of a Pentatonic scale and creates something powerful with the help of an audience. The audience catches on in no time.

Go to a piano and pick out the following notes: A, C, D, E, and G and you can do the same thing. The human brain has an amazing amount of creative potential. For more, check out a book called This Is Your Brain on Music.

What are you going to create this week?

What makes a good worship song? Thoughts from Stuart Townend.

I recently stumbled upon a recorded workshop with Stuart Townend entitled “The Principles of Songwriting“. I found it very helpful, inspiring and convicting whether your writing original songs or selected songs for a set. So the purpose of this blog is to share some of his major points.

Townend defines a great worship song as “one that stirs, inspires, and enables an individual or congregation to worship in spirit and truth”. He also states that writing songs is about serving the church, not having a place to try out your creative projects. Along this topic, he also stressed that promotion comes from the Lord; meaning that its not our job to push our songs on other people/churches/artists. This is quite humbling. The Lord will use a song in the way he wants. Townend believes there are 4 purpose for a worship song. It can be sung: 1.) Around the world  2.) In a network of churches  3.) Local church  4.) Personal time with God. Not all songs are going to be sung by every believer. Some songs will deeply impact the lives of a local church and that is the sole purpose God has for that particular song. Some songs minister only to our own hearts. So its important to remember that the Lord will use original songs in his own way, and being open to that can save you a lot of spiritual headache.

So what makes a good worship song? Townend offers 8 Thoughts.

1. Declares Biblical Truth. Pretty simple here. Songs that focus on God, not us and explore the character of God.

2. Allows People to Say Something – When people hear the song and sing along, they think, “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say to the Lord, but couldn’t quite figure out how to say it”. Being it touch with the congregation helps tremendously.

3. Facilitates Response. This gives people a chance to respond to what they’re singing.

4. Singable. Pretty straight forward here. Singing melodies that aren’t boring but also are not too complex. Remember, writing worship songs isn’t about proving our musical creativity.

5. Strong All the Way Through. The desire to avoid “filler” sections in lyrics and overlook the importance of every line.

6. Says Something Others Don’t. Look at the songs you typically sing. Are there any themes/characteristics of God that are sung about. If so, write songs about them. Townend mentions there are not many songs that written primarily about heaven or the unified Church.

7. Too Many Songs Trapped in One Style Can Be Limited. Being open to other styles/sounds that may be slightly out of your comfort zone.

8. Doesn’t Use Cliches. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Look into expanding your vocabulary by reading, listening to great songwriters and reading poetry. He also cautions against allowing rhymes to shape the direction of a song.

Hope this encourages you as much as it did for me.

-SHF

If you don’t have Truth to sing, don’t sing. Part 1.

Being honest or authentic about something false doesn’t make it right. As a sit here writing, I have a glass of water sitting by my computer. If I choose to hold that glass of water over the floor and turn it upside down, I have two options: 1.) I can believe that its contents will hit the floor or  2.) I can believe that the water inside will stay inside the glass. Even if I sincerely and honestly believe that the water will stay in the glass, I’m not exactly following in line with the truth of the situation. The water is going to hit the floor.  The same truth applies to our belief systems as it also applies to our worship. What we say and sing in worship must be grounded in Biblical doctrine.

Now when I say Biblical doctrine, that doesn’t mean its boring or cold or it has a lot of thee’s and thou’s. Look at “Our God” by Chris Tomlin, “If our God is for us, then who could ever stop us? If our God is with us, what can stand against?”. That’s right out of Romans 8:31. That’s just one example. Doctrine is not a bad or uncool word, it is simply a set of beliefs. When I say that our worship must be grounded in Biblical doctrine, I mean that the words we sing must be true about God. Because of this, the words might not always be convenient to us or make us feel comfortable and fuzzy inside. In the context of music, what we sing about has big importance in the worship life of the Church. So if you aren’t singing truth in the Church, don’t sing. Like I wrote earlier, building on truth doesn’t make music boring, it makes it powerful. The world doesn’t need any more confusion about what kind of God we worship.

I could cite some examples of some songs out there in CCM, but that may be another blog post. I tend to get fired up and I don’t want to say something I may regret. So I’ll need to sit on that for a while. However, one of the countless reasons I love the team at Seacoast is that there is a desire to ensure that what is sung on the weekends is singing Truth while still being Spirit-led and Spirit-filled. Dig it. I write this blog out of love for the Church. I want people to grow closer to God in worship and I’m passionate about seeing people learn more about who God actually is through singing. My prayer is that this post doesn’t sound like I’m pointing fingers , I’m simply saying that our worship can be led by our feelings as longs as our heads and hearts are led by the Word.

This blog is the result of my own thoughts over the past few weeks as well as the reading of Glenn Packiam’s recent blog post. He puts these thoughts together much better than I ever could, so check it out!