Paying for School

My ongoing adventures in life and the pursuit of more...

Thursday, August 11, 2016

My Problem with Worship part 4: (A multi-part post...)

You can find part one here, part two here and part three here.

So, my big idea is this, as we’ve commodified worship a number of unintended but detrimental consequences have occurred. The story behind Matt Redman’s song, “The Heart of Worship” illustrates one pastor and a congregation’s effort to face and overcome some of these consequences.  That a song about that church’s struggle with worship being reduced to our musical preferences became a huge successful song on the worship charts is a perfect illustration of the power of the Powers.

We will sing about not singing and the irony will be lost on us.

That’s not Matt Redman’s fault, that’s my fault, I led that song a lot without even once thinking about the irony.  The best way to worship with that song is likely not to sing it and instead, share the story and invite people to bring their own offerings.

Not thinking about what we’re singing is, for me, an issue.

In part one, I wrote, “We have neglected to pay attention to what we sing.  Our songs will shape our theology if our theology hasn’t shaped our songs.  I’m part of a movement that holds at its core a belief in an enacted inaugurated eschatology. My experience is we quite often sing songs coming from other perspectives that are inherently based on other central beliefs that are in conflict with our own.  We have sacrificed good theology for “a good beat I can dance to.”  We don’t have to, we just do. I believe that within our movement we’ll soon wake up to find the songs we sing have moved us a long way from the radical middle.”

The context of my thoughts about this is the movement of which I am a part.  But I think anyone, in any church with a statement of faith, a mission statement or even a motto needs to give this some consideration. What in the world are you saying with your songs?

I remember attending a worship service at a church several years ago that sang a song whose title I can only guess is, "Money Cometh," based on the repetitive phrase in the chorus.  I attended another church that sang Kevin Prosch's song, "Show Your Power" and found myself awkwardly singing different lyrics than the rest of the congregation when we came to the line that Prosch wrote, "We ask not for riches but look to the cross..." They would not sing, "We ask not for riches..." negative faith baby.  So the lyrics were were written so they could ask for riches while they looked at the Cross. 

A few years ago, as a church planting pastor and a worship leader, I attended a small gathering of academics and theologians – professors and smart people and such – to talk about post-modern hermeneutics.  I was the dimmest bulb in the room and my mind was blown over and over.  During a break, I was standing by two other participants and listening as they were talking about a very popular worship song at the time.  “When it gets to…” and he quoted the line, “I stop singing and look around to see if anyone else seems aware of what they’re singing.”  Having just led that song the Sunday before, it had never occurred to me to stop, nor had I really thought much about that particular line – because the chorus was awesome and I sounded really good on it too.

Considering what they were saying, I realized I didn't believe what I was singing either, it painted a very ugly picture of God if a person thought about it, and I didn't want our church singing that line either.

Overhearing their brief exchange started me thinking more about what I was singing.  It made me realize that the songs we sing shape what we believe about God as much or more than the messages I preached.  Never once did I hang out with someone during the week when I heard them unconsciously repeating lines from my message but I often heard people singing a line or two to themselves from a song from the past Sunday morning worship time. I never had someone ask me, mid-week, if I would repeat the message from a week before, but I did have people ask if we were doing that song again.

Our songs don’t reinforce the pulpit; our songs are pulpits.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

My Problem with Worship interlude: (A multi-part post in which I offend many friends)

One of my favorite stories about worship leading comes from Eddie Espinosa.

Eddie tells a story about one of the members of his worship team coming to him to complain that worship had become boring and flat.  His band member zeroed in on the problem, Eddie always had a prepared set list for worship and what he needed to do was toss the list and follow the Spirit.

Eddie listened, didn’t argue and took in what his bandmate was telling him.

And then he went home and prepared for worship the next Sunday just the same way he always did.  He prayed, listened, considered songs, listened and came up with a list.

But this time he made two small changes.  He hid the list.  He didn’t give the list to his bandmates.  The other change was that he asked God for permission not to follow His lead.  What he meant was that while he normally would drop in a song if he sensed the Spirit leading in a particular direction in the midst of worship, this time he would stick to the list, no matter what.  He felt God was with him.

Sunday morning the band sound checked, ran over a couple songs, seemingly at random and then chilled until the service started.  Once the worship service started, Eddie played his set list just as he had prepared it, start to finish.

Worship went so well that his complaining bandmate came to him after the service really excited.  Instead of complaints he told Eddie how amazing the morning worship had been and he told Eddie he knew exactly why it had been so good…because he’d thrown out the list!

And that’s when Eddie told him the truth.  He’d used the list, just like he had every other time. And he’s done the songs in the order they were on the list, just like every other time.

Eddie’s story isn’t about making a list or not making a list, but it does reveal just how subjective our singing experience can be. 

As a worship leader I’ve led some Sunday mornings where I was pretty sure God had left the building and I wished I could’ve gone with Him.  And then mid-week I’ve received an email about how “powerful” the worship time had been that week for someone there.  Other times I’ve felt like we were in the groove and if we were ever anointed it had been that Sunday, only to have another leader tell me how flat and dull worship had seemed that morning.

As a preacher, I’ve preached sermons I felt went nowhere and sermons I felt were almost worthy adding to the back of the Bible.  And just like with the worship songs, the reactions from others have been contrary to my own experience and perspective.  There’s a lot of subjectivity that takes place on a Sunday morning but to be honest, most of the pressure for how a morning goes lands on the worship leader.

They succeeded/failed to create the atmosphere for the Holy Spirit to move.
They succeeded/failed in getting hearts to open up to what God wanted to do.
They succeeded/failed in ushering us into the secret place.

It wasn’t me screaming at my wife on the way to the service, or yelling at my kids all morning to get them ready.  It wasn’t that I haven’t looked at my Bible app since we left the service last Sunday.  It has nothing to do with my total disengagement with prayer since the last Amen the previous week.  The problem rests solely with our worship leader not jiggling the right levers that got me with the feels.  It was the poor song selection.  It was the bands lack of attention to their transitions.  Or it was simply because the stupid fog machine broke down between first and second service and I can’t get my praise on without diffused light and copious amounts of fog.

Worship is a performance but it never has to be entertainment, even if we are entertained.  A performance is something we do together, share together and own together.  Entertainment is something we grade, we consume and when it doesn’t keep us engaged we move on to another vendor. 

Internal. External.

There is a subjective nature to our worship service that begs for leaders, senior leaders, who will trust their worship leaders and work collaboratively with them.  We need senior leaders to communicate with our congregations that we are all responsible for our worship experience and Sunday mornings are the summation of our experience that started on Monday morning and not a pep rally to get us through the week.

and thus I conclude this interlude...tomorrow I conclude my ranting...

on worship.

As always, leave your comments after the beep, I love to hear from you.

*Eddie's story appeared in Things they Didn't Teach Me in Worship Leading School, Tom Kraeuter, Emerald Books, 1995.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

My Problem with Worship pt. 3 (A multi-part post in which I offend many friends)

Part one is here.  Part two is here.

Let me sum up the big idea of part one and two – we have turned worship into a commodity. We leverage it to obtain market share and we treat songwriters, worship leaders and worship music like cogs in our machine.  This has created a number of unintended consequences.

Back in the day, John Wimber, who became the catalyst of the Vineyard Movement, knew music and knew musicians because he was one.  That’s exactly the kind of leader you want to lead a movement with the songs of worship and the experience of the presence of God at its core. Heart of an artist, mind of a strategist, imperfectly perfect to nurture the vulnerable and artistic hearts that gathered to sing and seek, hungry for an authentic experience of God’s presence.

John’s leadership was critical because he understood that the journey to the heart of God always had a singular result – to be propelled back out into the world to love the lost and least, to be the Church. Worship was more than the songs we were singing in the Vineyard, worship was a life laid down in surrender and obedience – a willingness to be a fool for Christ.

And then, worship became popular.

I remember when Christian radio wasn’t playing worship because everyone wanted to listen to contemporary Christian music – it was about God, it was about living for God but it wasn’t usually about God or to God.  It was more often a sermon set to music, sometimes heavy on emotion – “hey kid, who are those Christmas shoes for?” – but it moved away from worship songs.

And then, worship became popular.

The Vineyard had a lot to do with this – not exclusively, but the Vineyard was very influential in making worship (and forgive me for this expression) relevant again. John and the Vineyard influence went overseas – not to plant Vineyards at first, but to come alongside and work together with the churches in the U.K. that were hungry and open to what John and the Vineyard had to offer. It was like fanning a flame or pouring gas on a match – like all these songwriters had just been waiting for someone to say it was o.k. to give birth to new songs and new sounds.  John brought a spark but the tinder was there and ready.

And then, worship became very popular.

And then someone said, “Hey, we can make some money off this!”

Little companies sprang up and big companies bought them and worship as a commodity quickly took shape. And worship filled the airwaves again.

First we bought CDs packed full of amazing songs.  Then we bought CDs with a couple amazing songs.  Then we bought CDs hoping for at least one amazing songs.  Because when we commodify something, we lose interest in quality in our drive to have product to sell.  Eventually we saturate the market to the maximum of what it will bear. And then just a little bit more.

And we start ripping songs, trading and sharing songs because as consumers we know the man is sticking it to us with a 12 song CD that only has two tracks we really like so we’re totally justified in sharing and not paying for our tunes ‘cause, y’know, it’s the man. 

And the artists suffered.  The creators piece of the pie became infinitesimally smaller.  Getting on a CD now was just “giving people exposure” for which they should be thankful and they should stop asking or royalties.

What does all this have to do with how worship became songs?

As we commodified worship, it required us to elevate singing in order to secure our futures.  It’s like toothpaste or shampoo – in order to get your dollars, we have to make the paste about more than teeth and the shampoo about more than soap for your hair.  We’re selling you a brand, a lifestyle, a chance at romance, self-esteem and admiration.  We can’t really brand serving homeless people a meal or speaking out against human trafficking or showing hospitality to strangers or building a racially diverse community or doing most of the things that love does.  Mind you, we’ll brand it and commodify it when and where we can, but it’s just a lot harder than commodifying songs to sing.

Rather than following the Wimberism that the “meat is in the streets,” the commodification of worship has led us to believe that what we do in here is the meat.

And so we influence the Church at large to embrace the belief that songs are our worship.  When we sing is when God shows up.  Because we’re doing this song, miracles can finally happen here.  Social Justice is a code for liberal theology and works based faith, we’ve transcended that with worship and the Spirit will change the world in response to the sweet songs of love we gather to sing.  I don’t need to tell anyone about Jesus or live like Jesus with my neighbor, I just worship him and people walking by will be hit with waves of the Holy Spirit and want to follow him.

Then we started judging Sunday morning worship by whether we did that song we really like, the one that gives us the feels.  Was “Oceans” in the set? Then the anointing was present.  Was “Oceans” still in the worship set? The anointing has obviously left that worship leader/team.  And we’ve reduced our worship experience to measuring the ability of the leader and team to give us the feels rather than our ability to pour out our hearts to God, lose and find ourselves in the Father’s heart and to be compelled by his great love back out into a world full of pain and need.

Recently, I heard someone say, to oppose the powers, you’ve got to oppose the Powers.

I’m writing this as a follower Jesus who loves to worship with songs, who learned to play guitar so he could write songs and sings songs to Jesus.  I’m writing this as a follower of Jesus who has been shaped by worship music by people with last names like Barnett, Tuttle, Doerksen, Park, Smith, Ruis, Prosch, Redman, Mark, Beeching, Hughes, Houston and others.  I am not suggesting that present day worshipers don’t minister to people beyond their songs.  I am simply observing that powers have generally coopted our worship wherever possible, commodified it and marketed it to the singers of the songs by reducing worship to this single expression for which we can be charged a reasonable fee.

And our artists become baristas. (no offense to baristas, I need you too!)

I will now put on my tinfoil hat and sit quietly in my corner.

Monday, August 8, 2016

My Problem with Worship pt. 2: (A multi-post in which I offend many friends)

Since this is a blog and not a thesis, I’m going to make some observations that I won’t be able to back up with statistics or footnotes to research.  This doesn’t mean that my observations have no merit or are not true.  But they will just be observations that come from my experience.  Feel free to tell me how it really is.

In my original post I wrote, “We’ve created a culture that has mistakenly come to believe that worship is primarily songs we sing about God or to God and that loving God is best and most adequately accomplished through singing songs.”

I am convinced this belief has taken root in our church culture because we have commodified worship.  We’ve found a way to harness the winds of heaven in a way to benefit ourselves. And by “we,” I specifically mean those in senior leadership of the Church. Worship has become a commodity by which we secure market shares and fortify our positions.

I’m old enough to remember when contemporary worship started to gain traction.  I’m a veteran of the ‘worship wars.’  I can still recall when, “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me…” was both contemporary and risky to sing on a Sunday morning. I’ve survived a church split where the style of worship was ground zero for the pent up frustrations of two similar but distinct groups of people.

But we’ve crossed the Rubicon, even if skirmishes continue to break out in some places.

And do you know when the tipping point came?

Ever see a gas war?  I used to drive through a small town with 3 gas stations situated on 3 corners of a 4 way intersection.  They always had the same price on gas.

Until one of them blinked.
And then down came the price for a time. First in one, then in the other two. Market driven competition.

In the worship wars, someone blinked.

Someone told their former senior pastor they were now going to another church because they used guitars and drums in their worship.  Blink.

It was less an ideological shift and more a pragmatic shift.  Not for everyone, but for the mainstream folks, we went from killing the musical prophets one month to investing in new sound systems the next.  And in most places, non-musical pastors started telling gifted musical people how to play, what to play and with whom to play.

And as soon as we pastors saw how the musical people created “the feels” for people, we both feared and adored them.  We feared them for their influence and we adored them for their influence.  The fault was not in our stars, but in ourselves.

And frankly, we still fear and adore those who lead our worship.  And so we’ve been handicapped from the start of this adventure. Senior leaders know that those who gather can just as easily scatter and often have.  So senior leaders do what every human is tempted to do when they are scared: they control.

And there are so many ways to control.

Sometimes we control with honey.  We make promises that range from paid salaries or stipends to goals of getting your music recorded and published.  We tell you how wonderful you are and valuable you are, under the umbrella of our covering. Or some other non-sense that puts you under me.

Sometimes we control with a stick.  We berate worship leaders on their song choices, the length of time the songs took that service, the lack of response from the congregation.  We wonder to our worship leaders if maybe they aren’t harboring some hidden sin.  We accuse them of building their own empires or having a “spirit of pride.” And we keep those who are wired to be sensitive and who tend towards self-doubt off balance and disempowered. Hungry for our benevolent approval or fearful of our anointed disappointment.

And so we created an us vs. them world, when really there’s only ever us.

But as soon as you’re a “them” and you’re not an “us,” it’s ever so easy to turn you and what you do into a commodity.  Rather than I/Thou, we maintain an I/It relationship which never produces life. 


What happens next?  Tuesday…how worship came to mean singing.

Friday, August 5, 2016

My Problem with Worship (A multi-part post in which I offend many friends)

The root of my troubles with worship is this: commodification, the source of all kinds of evil. 

As soon as we figured out a way to make money* off of Jesus and the stuff of heaven, we started dancing in the dragon’s jaws. We have to be on guard about this constantly in North America.

(I know most of my musician friends would love to make money from their music and very, very few of them actually do.  The couple that I know who have or do make money off their music also happen to be some of the most generous people that I know and they would be embarrassed to find out how the stories of their generosity have leaked out. Making a living at writing, producing or leading worship isn’t what I’m talking about.)

What I will be writing about in this multi-part post:

1) We’ve created a culture that has mistakenly come to believe that worship is primarily songs we sing about God or to God and that loving God is best and most adequately accomplished through singing songs.

2) We have neglected to pay attention to what we sing.  Our songs will shape our theology if our theology hasn’t shaped our songs.  I’m part of a movement that holds at its core a belief in an enacted inaugurated eschatology. My experience is we quite often sing songs coming from other perspectives that are inherently based on other central beliefs that are in conflict with our own.  We have sacrificed good theology for “a good beat I can dance to.”  We don’t have to, we just do. I believe that within our movement we’ll soon wake up to find the songs we sing have moved us a long way from the radical middle.

3) The intimacy, vulnerability, simplicity and honesty that was the heart (as I perceived it) of Vineyard worship is being altered by #2 above and as a result we are beginning to experience a new norm in preaching and teaching that neglects these same virtues.

4) We relate to our worship leaders, songwriters and singers as commodities. Within the worship community they find encouragement, support and understanding from one another, but seldom do they experience these things from senior pastors and leaders. Us vs. them feelings are generated by the way senior leaders relate to worship leaders and communities.  Bands and worship leaders come to our churches to play and lead worship and regularly receive, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” but we are giving them nothing or whatever is right next to nothing for what they've done.  

To be clear, it’s not the songwriters in the Vineyard that are at the root of this.  It is the diminished emphasis we are giving to worship and worship music generated in and by the Vineyard that I believe is at the heart of this. It is our propensity to commodify.

It’s a leadership issue, not an artist issue. 

As local pastors, we have adopted a new credo – growing my church is the most important thing on my agenda.  It is my only agenda.  If we’re growing, God’s blessing is on us and therefore on whatever I do or don’t do to get there. I am judged by the size of the church I attend or lead.

A friend of mine was leading worship at one of our churches during a season of personal grief as one of his children was attacked by cancer.  This season drew deep and powerful songs of lament from my friend who was kindly asked by leadership to, "stop singing the sad songs..." because it was bringing the worship vibe down on Sundays.

So much for weep with those who weep.  

And so we play to the crowd because attendance and offering equals salvation and success.  We reinforce this on so many levels that it must be true. We emulate other wildly ‘successful’ senior pastors and ignore when they crash and burn or leave a trail of broken and bloody people “under the bus.”  We ignore all the stories we know of worship leaders and worship pastors (in and out of our movement) that have been burned out and tossed aside like commodities rather than image bearers.  We stop listening to our veterans and the wisdom they have earned because we need what’s new, what’s sexy, what’s getting air time on the radio.  Because we’re competing for market share and we have to produce something better than the church(es) one block over.

And deep down, you know that’s true.

Worship has become commodified.  And worship leaders are a commodity.  And our worship services have become about the market. Again, this commodification is not the work of the artists, but the system of which we are a part.  And that atmosphere you permit is the product you will create.

The Church is at its best as a prophetic witness to the world by living with a different agenda, in a different way that looks more Cross than marketplace and looks at people as image bearers and not fodder and see worship as a way we live and not a commodity we leverage for a greater share of the market.

And thus ends my homily for today…

Feel free to comment and suggest ways to fix me or fix the problem.  
Part two will be posted Monday.

(* and money's just a symbol.)