Category: Worship

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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The Beauty of the Process

When it comes to getting what we want:

We like speed,

not serenity.

We like access,

and its expectancy.

We demand now,

but not later.

We love here,

but want to be there.

We love the event,

not process.

We want it all,

not one thing less.

I’m learning that sometimes the process is where beauty resides. Being a disciple of Christ is not an event to which I suddenly arrive. It is a process. It is no secret that some of the best things take time. Some things have a quantifiable end or reward. In those cases the reward and journey are equally the prize. Think of a football team who recently won the Super Bowl. Surely the hard work of the season was rewarding, but winning the championship is an amazing reward as well. If you diminish the value of either the reward or the journey, you miss out on the glory of the entire story. However, many matters of spirituality and spiritual growth are not as easily quantifiable and are much more of a gradual process rather than something that is accomplished overnight or even over a few years.

One of my favorite things about making coffee or tea is the process I go through to prepare my drink. The process of making coffee in a French press is one of my favorite things about making coffee in the first place. My wife recently bought me a nice teapot and the same principle applies there. If I want good coffee or tea, I must submit to the process. Boil water. Grind beans. Pour into press. Pour water into press. Stir. Wait four minutes. Stir again. Pour.

And I’m beginning to see the value in learning to enjoy this ritualistic process of following the steps and seeing the beauty in each passing moment. In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton suggests that every moment is an opportunity to reflect on something about the Kingdom or against it. The same is true with our actions. We can work towards advancing the Kingdom or remain comfortable and likely do more damage than good. I believe God is a God of movement. Even when we are “still” there is work to be done. Sometimes the work is abiding and resting and other times it is tilling the fields or collecting the harvest. The work is simply one stage in the process.

I believe our processes are the same way. With the French Press, if I decide to speed up the process, the rich and bold flavor of the coffee will be lost and replaced with something bland, watered-down and only a fraction of what it could have been. If I see each passing step as an opportunity for Kingdom work rather than “a step to get through” I will see the glory in each moment. It is a temptation to make the process self-centered and perceive the progress through the lens of my own thoughts and feelings. This is the tragic fallacy in following God: creating a followership of God that still manages to be centered on ourselves.

Process also implies forward motion. If I stay in one stage of the process for too long, that greatly affects the outcome as well. Let’s just stay with the coffee analogy. If I pour the water in the press with the grinds and let it steep for hours and hours, the water becomes cold, the grinds become over brewed and the taste is terrible. When I see the opportunity to take a step in progress, I must take it. I realize this isn’t a perfect analogy because sometimes you stay in the same “step” for years or maybe decades. However, I think it speaks to the importance of our need to be aware of that next step and take it when it comes. But before that next step presents itself, sometimes the best thing you can do is simply see the beauty in the current stage.

How am I ruining the process?

Am I missing the beauty of today by anticipating the glories of tomorrow?

What must I do to slow down to not only recognize the process around me but learn to respect and enjoy it?

-SHF

What Does Yom Kippur Have to do With Christian Faith?

Quite a lot.

Yom Kippur began this past evening and continues until sundown today. You’ve probably seen it on calendars and maybe you know what it’s all about. I figured I’d offer a brief look at what it is and what it means for Christians.

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) marks the day on the Jewish calendar where The Lord forgave the Israelites’ sins each year. Leviticus 16 tells us that on this day and this day only, The Lord met the High Priest inside the Holy of Holies at the lid of the ark, also called the Mercy Seat (Hebrew word kapporet). Every year, the high priest offered a sacrifice for sin on behalf of the Israelites. You can read the Lord’s direction on how to build the tabernacle and its contents in Exodus 25-40. Here is what it looked like:

20120922-140540.jpg

Interestingly, the word “mercy seat” appears twice in the New Testament. The first is Romans 3:25. Messianic Jewish translator, David Stern translates the verse in this way: “God put Jesus forward as the kapparah for sin through his faithfulness in respect to his bloody sacrificial death.”

The second place the term occurs is Hebrews 9:5, where it is used in discussing the presence of God descending onto the Mercy Seat (the lid of the ark).

What does this mean? Simply put, God deals with the penalty of sin through sacrifice. In the Old Testament, no sin could be atoned for without the shedding of blood. In order to redeem and reconcile the world to himself, God had to shed blood. But it is not our own blood that is shed, even though we are most deserving of that punishment. Rather, in his unfathomable love He shed his own blood to atone for the sins of all people. The reason why this sacrifice is so complete is because the offering was perfect. The requirement was fulfilled once and for all. As Leviticus 16 tells us, the priest had to be ritually and ceremonially clean in order to enter the Holy of Holies and the sacrifice he offered had to be given every year. Jesus is so much more than ceremonially pure and his sacrifice does not need to be repeated.

With that in mind, read Hebrews 9:11-14. Spend a moment praying over this Scripture.

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:11-14 ESV)

Amen. Amen. Amen.
Thank you Jesus.

-SHF

If you’re interested, here’s some books that might help you if you’d like to learn more:
Jewish New Testament and Jewish New Testament Commentary – David Stern
Jewish Background of the New Testament – J. Julius Scott
Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament – Christopher J. H. Wright
How to Worship a King – Zach Neese

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

Worshipping From the Ground Up.

One of the reasons I love history is because I enjoy studying how something came to be. Whether it is the origin of a nation, discovering the journeys of influential people or surveying the evolution of a particular way of thinking, I love to discover the entire story of the topic right from the very beginning. It is no secret that many great things have humble origins. The savior of the universe was born to an average family in a stable. Look at influential corporations like Apple and Starbucks. They started somewhere, and it wasn’t always glamourous.

Worship must have humble beginnings as well. Worship that originates from any kind of pride or lofty selfish ambition will surely fall face first eventually. So it is best to start with your nose to the ground, so to speak.

In Engaging with God, David Peterson provides a great explanation of the definition of worship and how it encourages such humble beginnings. The Greek word “to worship” (proskynein) is most commonly translated as a gesture of kneeling or prostration while some believe it also references to a kiss of respect or adoration. Either way, one party is greater than the other and the lesser is giving honor to the greater. Peterson also provides an interesting elaboration of the word’s meaning. He says that it is similar to the customs of the time described as “casting oneself on the ground, as a total bodily gesture of respect before a great one, kissing his feet, the hem of his garment or the ground.” I believe this sheds light on the expected attitude of our hearts when it comes to worship. I find this definition amazingly revealing about how I am called to live a lifestyle of worship that continually seeks to honor the one greater than myself.

This lifestyle of worship must be cognizant of God’s presence in our lives. But the simple awareness of his presence in our lives is not enough. We must respond and it is the recognition of that beautiful reality that leads us to the level of devotion and worship which God alone is worthy to receive. When our eyes are opened to the wonders He is working, worship is the only appropriate response. But we can’t see those things if we aren’t spiritually (and sometimes physically!) prostrate towards God.

Worship must be preceded by humility.

Seems pretty simple. But it isn’t that easy.

I’m guilty of attempting to worship God in addition to something else. That is worship preceded by something other than bringing praise to God. My idols include myself, my family, culture, music, Christian culture, etc. My concerns over other areas of my life will gradually work themselves out as I continually remind myself of the need be entirely prostrate before an awesome and mighty God. And I need to be reminded of this need daily, hourly and sometimes every 3 minutes.

Take a minute and take note of His mighty presence in your life. Consider His power, His majesty and the depths of His love and mercy. Respond in humility and respond in worship.

The Questions:

What am I bowing towards?

Is my worship originating from a place of humility or a place of anything else?

Is my worship the entire gesture of spiritual prostration or simply the portion of my soul I’m willing to give up?

-SHF

An Update on My Endeavors.

I figured I would give a little update on my academic pursuits. When I started seminary courses at Liberty in the Spring, I began the Master’s of Divinity program Distance Learning. I’ve loved my time there and I’ve learned so much, but I feel the Lord leading me in a slight different direction. So I’m going to finish my Master of Arts in Theological Studies at Liberty to graduate next May and then pursue another Master’s degree at another school. I still have some time to decide, but there are some schools in South Africa and the U.K. that offer the type of degree I’m wanting to pursue as well as providing the different perspective I’m looking for. And the technological age allows me to study while not leaving my family/ministry/home here in the States.

Any South African program is much cheaper than any other US or UK program because our dollar goes much further there. But the program is organized similar to a UK style of study which is different from the US counterpart. It is based on 1 year of structured coursework and then the following year is spent developing, researching and producing a thesis. Since one of my goals is to eventually pursue a Ph.D, getting my foot in the door of research and writing seems be a great option. I’d graduate from the South African Theological Seminary (or somewhere similar) with a MTh (Master of Theology) in the same amount of time as graduating from the M.Div. program at Liberty (which has no thesis track). I’ve always enjoyed research and this track provides me with the opportunity to chose a research interest and develop my writing skills while being supervised by a mentor in my selected field of study. I’ve already got some potential thesis topics and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into any one of them and learn from an expert.

The options are seemingly limitless, but as with everything I know God will reveal the path by opening and closing doors as needed. We’ve been praying about it and we will continue to seek the Lord’s guidance through every stage of the process. Looking forward to the next season!

For those interested, SATS has a Certificate in Worship Studies that would be perfect for a worship leader. From what I’ve read, it is a great program and would broaden the horizons of anyone who took part. And the price is great. Check it out here.

-SHF

Incarnational Living.

I came across a great quote from Dr. Robert Webber, founder of the Institute for Worship Studies on Christ’s dwelling place within us and how that impacts our approach to worship and ministry.

An incarnational understanding of spirituality affirms that Christ is our spirituality. It is his life, death, and resurrection that make us acceptable to God. We cannot love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind. But Christ can and has. We cannot love our neighbors as ourselves. But Christ can and has.
-Robert Webber

In an age where spirituality is actually “cool”, it is important for Christians to distinguish the drastic difference of being spiritual and being a follower of Christ. If we don’t, its possible that there will be no actual difference in the way we live. The faith becomes more of a label than a lifestyle.

As you can see from reading my blog, I love asking questions of myself (and those reading) when something hits home. Call it Socratic-method lite. It’s also a way to make something a little more tangible. So:

Is Christ my spirituality or have I created a spirituality in which Christ conveniently fits?

Am I living incarnationally or or am I trying to experience the presence of God on my own terms and in my own way?

How am I submitting to the Spirit’s work in my life?

Have a great week!

-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

Keeping the Big Picture in Mind

In my last post, I wrote on the importance of reading and immersing yourself in the Word of God during confusing circumstances. In this post I want to write about a word that I continually need to be reminded of while reading.

The word is context. What is the historical context? What is the literary context? What is the actual content of the passage? As with anything you read, it is imperative that you understand the context of a particular sentence within a paragraph that makes up the chapter which is a part of the book and how the content of the verse fits into the rest of the passage. Imagine trying to study about the 13 Colonies without having enough information about the political, economic and religious climate in Europe and in England. Your study would be void of some critical details that allow the rest of the story make a little more sense and you’d have many questions about this oppressive force with their taxes and quartered soldiers. The same is true with Scripture. If I isolate a passage and have no regard for what is going on in the rest of the paragraph, chapter, or book, I misinterpret the intended meaning of the verse. And seeing how the verse plays a role in the larger picture is equally important. It helps to keep the big picture in mind: the narrative of God interacting with his loved ones in the redemptive story.

Context matters. My wife, for example, hates coming into a TV show or movie without seeing the previous shows or first half of the movie. Even my explanation of what is going on doesn’t suffice. She wants to see it in order to understand completely. Sometimes the same concept is true in music. If you take out a section of a song that is the most exciting part and listen to it in isolation, it doesn’t possess the same power as it does when it is received in the context of the rest of the song. The same desire to understand the big picture must be applied when we are reading and studying the Scriptures.

One example from the book of Ruth. It is truly beautiful story about God’s providence and working behind the scenes to accomplish his purposes. But one of the most important aspects of the book is at the very end where the author describes the genealogy that follows Ruth and Boaz’s (and now Naomi’s) son, Obed. Obed ends up being the grandfather of David and when you look at the genealogy of Jesus given in Matthew 1, the significance of God’s work in the lives of Ruth, Boaz and Naomi becomes even more apparent. Keeping the big picture in mind also allows us to see even more examples of God’s character throughout the Biblical narrative.

There are many resources out there to lend a hand. Let the experts help. Find some good commentaries and check out a book called How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart and also their book How to Read the Bible Book by BookTheir work really helped me learn to study and they tackle some of the tough questions that arise as you read. Good luck and have fun. You’ll discover that the more you learn, the appetite for learning increases as well. We are learning about the Almighty Creator and it is exciting :).

-SHF