In our fast-paced culture of instant satisfaction and the breakneck speed of change, we often neglect working towards quietness and having a stillness of heart that looks in the face of noise and says, “I am at peace.” The words listed above are often foreign to us; uncomfortable, even. As we become more and more accustomed to noise, silence becomes even more foreign.
We can not escape the noise and busyness that surrounds us. As appealing as it may be at times, we do not live in a monastery where silence is sacred and solitude is praised. So our challenge is to embrace a lifestyle of peace and quiet from within and impose it on our surroundings, rather than allowing the noise of external forces to dictate the attitude of our hearts. Stillness becomes a lens through which we view and live in the world and it directs how we respond to life’s challenges and struggles.
It is safe to say that I’ve been wrestling with peace. When the Bible talks of peace, what does it mean? I’m finding the writings of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Frederick Beuchner helpful, but the practical consequences have yet to yield fruit. Nonetheless, I will share some thoughts I’ve gleaned along with questions I’ve yet to answer.
Solitude is not as concerned with physical seclusion as it would appear. The most effective and the most biblical kind of solitude comes not from our surroundings but from a Spirit-empowered, Christ-like peace that is countercultural and against the desires of our earthly bodies. Merton writes that it is “not an absence of men or of sound around you; it is an abyss opening up in the center of your own soul. And this abyss of interior solitude is a hunger that will never be satisfied with any created thing.” Simply escaping noise is not the solution. If it were, the only way to quiet our hearts would be to live in some form of isolation or a lifelong retreat from noise. Therefore, this peaceful contentment is not dependent on external silence. Rather our quietness is the same in interruption as it is when left undisturbed.
Which brings me to my first practical dilemma. How earnestly I seek this solitude but how quickly it leaves when my “silence” is interrupted! How impatient I become when I am disturbed from my thoughts! When something intrudes on “my time” I respond as one who is grieving the loss of precious quiet instead of one who carries peace from within. What this reveals is that my solitude is not inner-solitude but still dependent on external environmental factors to produce inner-silence. I have yet to learn that quietness comes from within. Beuchner writes in Whistling in the Dark that “Silence can’t be anything but silent. Quiet chooses to be silent. It holds its breath to listen. It waits and is still.” When my hearts is quieted, I begin to hear things we would have never heard before, even in the midst of others and surrounded by noise. This is the goal of solitude: to be and to be still. What I mean by this is that our existence is defined by stillness in all that we do. We live our lives as all people do, but we do them with a kind of stillness that is unique. Otherworldly, even.
I believe at our core, we are resistant to rest. We rebel against it. Some of this may be cultural and environmental conditioning, but I believe it is an issue of the heart as well. When a heart is at rest, it is on the verge of spiritual cultivation and that may not be the most comfortable season to begin. It is not natural to be still.
In Isaiah 30, the prophet describes the Lord’s displeasure at the rebellious nature of his people. The basic issue was that the people were making plans that did not come from God and they were relying on their own wisdom, power and directives to carry out their own purposes. That sounds a bit like you and I, if we are honest with ourselves. In Isaiah 30:15, the Lord states:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.
Quietness and trust proceed and interact together. I believe one of the reasons why we rebel from rest and quietness is because it requires trusting something other than ourselves and we do not like to admit that. We rebel from quietness because it will force us to reflect, to be still and to acknowledge our own weakness and brokenness. There have been times in my life where I have deliberately and adamantly avoided quieting my heart because I knew the consequential discomfort that would follow. When this happens, I’m clinging to my own powers rather than Christ. My trust is placed in something unstable, and there is no way to rest in that.
Israel’s issue with rest was wandering trust. It is our issue as well.
Peace, then, can not be passive. For peace to occur, there must be some heart-directed action towards the True Peace. With this engagement comes a trusting of his power, a reliance on his might, and a violent surrender of all that is burdensome, wearying and cause of worry. I use the term violent to communicate that there must be a death warrant placed on fear and anxiety in the face of the peace of Christ that guards our hearts and minds (Phil 4:7). Peace and stillness can be disruptive and uncomfortable at first because it is a shifting of reliances.
Seek peace and stillness of heart. Fight the rebellion from within that says, “Embrace noise” and “Keep up the pace.” Slow down. Listen. Learn. Be comfortable with the sound of silence, the stillness of a moment, the peace in all circumstances. This is the only way to find peace and rest, for our peace comes from Christ and his victory over death and the hope of his coming to make all things right.
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col. 3:15-17).
Being involved with music in church is a blessing that comes with a few challenges. I won’t list them here, for that’s a task for another day. I believe one of the most important challenges is realizing that worship ministry is pastoral ministry primarily, and music and arts ministry secondly. What I mean by this is simply that it is an act of pastoral leadership and pastoral care. It is about people first, and music and arts second.
It should be pretty obvious that in order to have an impact on people, you have to be with them. I have been combing through Arthur Mann’s reader entitled Immigrants in American Life and he describes the mid-19th Century political climate that immigrants found themselves. George Washington Plunkitt was a politician in the 1850’s in New York City. He held the title of what was know as a ward boss. Plunkitt capitalized on the increasingly important people group by adopting a brilliant political strategy of avoiding mailers and biased literature. He opted to simply spend time being with the people he represented. Because of this, the immigrants looked to him boss as a friend, adviser and protector. The knew he was on their side, at least politically. In exchange, they gave him their vote when election time came. Plunkitt breaks the system down quite simply:
To learn real human nature you have to go be among the people, see them and be seen. I know every man, woman, and child in the Fifteenth District, except those born this summer — and I know some of them, too. I know what they like and what they don’t like, what they are strong at and what they are weak in, and I reach them by approaching at the right side.
There’s only one way to hold a district: you must study human nature and act accordingly.
I believe there is some profound wisdom there. Obviously, Plunkitt’s reasons for being among the people are politically motivated and Plunkitt was guilty of graft and other dodgy political activity. But he understood how unify people toward his goal of election: be among them. Know them as neighbors and friends. Live with them. Mourn with them. Rejoice with them. Walk and sit with them. To use his words, approach them by being right there beside them. Sounds like a definition of community to me, actually. And it precisely describes how Jesus ministered to people.
Maybe it is just me, but one of the most difficult challenges in worship ministry is remembering people. Individual people. It is easy to look at a group of people and see them as a congregation. But it is much different to view them as a collective of individuals, making up the body of Christ. These individuals have hurts. They have worries. They have needs and celebrations. They have stories to tell and questions to ask.
The stage, therefore, is not a separation of leader and people. It is an avenue of engagement. It is a door of opportunity. The most important personal interactions will happen before or after the service and these interactions are of the utmost importance and should not be neglected, forgotten or avoided. I believe this changes how we lead worship during a service, as well. It is a body of people gathered, not just a room full of people. It is a communal act of hearing God, and responding. It is a beautiful act of adoration and praise coming from people we know and love. When we know our congregation, there is natural movement towards a unified song of praise. If my congregation is only a sea of faces, I’m spending much of the service trying to “read” them and gauge their reaction. When I am alongside them, the dynamic changes.
So my question to you (and mostly myself) is:
How close are you getting to the people you lead?
Dr. Mike Mitchell says that “ministry happens in proximity.” This comes directly from the way the Jesus’ was among people. He certainly when off alone to pray, but when he encountered crowds, he had compassion on them like sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36). Look at Jesus interaction with a leper in Luke 5:12-13. Lepers were to be avoided, not touched. But Jesus was comfortable being with them, and he healed them. He came alongside them and treated them as they were: Image bearers of God, handcrafted by the Creator.
When we see the people sitting in the chairs in this light, worship ministry becomes so much more exciting. It is not simply putting together a set list of Biblical songs that tell a story to communicate the Gospel (though that is important!). It is doing all that alongside the Body of Christ. This is the privilege and the challenge. It is not all roses and rainbows. People are not easy to deal with, but they are our family. And it is the pastoral duty of the worship team to lead while being alongside.
Mann, Arthur. Immigrants in American Life. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
Mitchell, Michael. Leading, Teaching and Making Disciples. Bloomington, IL: CrossBooks, 2010.
People love stories. We have and we always will. One of the reasons I love reading fiction is that it tells me a story I haven’t heard before. Reading history also quenches our thirst for learning how a story unfolded. I believe this is why movies that tell great stories impact us so deeply. Even the greatest production and special effects can’t mask the fact that a story is weak and full of holes. It may get people in the door of the theater, but they may leave unmoved by the story told. In those cases, the movie is simply a source of entertainment to leave reality for a few hours. But the story of the movie did nothing for them.
It is not the church’s role to entertain, but to proclaim.
We are to tell a story, not create an event.
Entertainment is centered on ourselves – our likes, our preferences. It implies that we are the recipients and we are the reason for the gathering. Now there is some transactional activity that occurs in worship, but this is not the purpose. For instance, sitting in the presence of the Lord moves me emotionally and spiritually in a seemingly mystical way that is beyond my comprehension. But again, this is not the purpose. If this was the purpose, worship would be, as James K. A. Smith calls it, a “refueling event.” We do receive something, for being in the presence of God is transforming and life-giving. If worship is perceived as a refueling event, it is not about Christ. It is about me.
But we must be careful not to overemphasize the fact that we are receiving. Worship must always begin with glorifying God, praising Him for who he is, all he has done, all he is doing and all he will do. By worshipping Christ, we proclaim that his death, resurrection and his eventual coming again are the reason we gather. And in doing so, we tell the marvelous story of salvation and invite others to join in this wonderful story of life and freedom.
All of this may seem very simple and you may be thinking, “I know this already!” If you are like me and you spend a good portion of your time planning services and worship sets, I pray you will think a little deeper about the origin of some service elements or song choices. Regardless of whether we realize it or not, we are telling a story in each service. So we must ask, “How am I telling this story?” Is the story telling the beautiful story of the Gospel or is it designed to meet entertainment needs? I believe doing both is missing the point, in a way.
The other day I was reading Glenn Packiam’s blog and he was describing the first time he went to an Eastern Orthodox Church. In this blog he writes that Eastern Orthodox services (along with many other traditions) are planned by theologians, not creative directors or production managers. Does this mean we have to go to seminary and be Bible scholars to plan a service? I don’t believe so. But what we can learn from this is the intentionality behind everything. We must know the why behind the what.
I call this being Intentionally Christocentric.
(I found this blog about Christocentric Worship straightforward and clear.)
Put inquisitively and poignantly: Is everything we do pointing to Christ or is it putting on an event? Am I telling the story of the Gospel or simply putting songs together?
Intentionally telling a story communicates the story’s importance. Being intentional about every part of each service communicates that the Gospel is the central reason of our gathering and that Christ is the reason we sing.
The story we tell is greater than any other story we could create or imagine. If we settle for a “story of earth” we settle for something powerless and lifeless. We use what is from the earth to tell the story of what is beyond earth. Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote, “The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realise, is to feel ourselves to be at home here on earth.” The story we tell should be beyond what is here on earth, but it should be told in a way that is accessible and understandable.
I must admit, sometimes my own “version” of the story takes precedence. I struggle with the thought that I may get in the way of the greater story, by my own preferences and disposition. At the beginning of each service, a bit of fear creeps over me. Not because I am playing music in front of people, but the thought that I would somehow miscommunicate the foundational truths of the faith or that something would be unclear. But I must also realize that I am not the reason people gather. God will be God. He will use what He will use. May I simply be intentionally Christocentric in my planning, and simply get out of the way, letting the Spirit of the Living God move and work as the story is told and believed.