Words Matter


We often talk about how words have the power of life or death, but I’m not sure we actually believe that the words we say really matter all that much, at least when it comes to worship.  For if we did I think we’d say (and sing) very different things than we often do.

I’m often bothered by what I call the “me” focus focus in worship  While it’s not something I’ve written on lately – actually, in a very long time – it is still something that I spend much time contemplating and praying about.  I struggle with trying to change people’s focus and help them to see that while they may feel like they are worshiping God because they are having a very real emotional experience, their words would suggest otherwise.

Take, for example, a popular worship song I hear on the radio and in churches: Healer.  Now before I make it sound as if I hate the song or if the song should never be sung in a church let me assure you I don’t hold to either of those beliefs – I’m simply going to use this song as an illustration to a larger point I want to make (specifically, that words matter). If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a video of it so you can watch (and listen to) it.


Did you catch the chorus?

I believe you’re my healer, I believe you are all I need, I believe.

I believe you’re my portion, I believe you’re more than enough for me.  Jesus you’re all I need.

What could I possibly have wrong with those words?  It’s really quite simple: it’s the first two words “I believe.”  Go back and listen to the song again – it starts as a direct proclamation to Jesus (“You hold my every moment…”), but then instead of proclaiming truth we start talking about what we believe.  Too bad in our society and culture what we “believe” doesn’t seem to hold much water anymore – it’s understood by most as nothing more than an intellectual ascent to an idea, but whether that idea (or ideal) has any impact in our everyday lives is pretty much up for grabs.  Do you think I’m over-stating this?  Tell me, what would your spouse (parent, child, friend) say if you looked at them and said, “I believe I love you.”  What kind of statement is that?  You believe you love me?  Why not just tell me you love me?

And I have to wonder if that’s what Jesus thinks and feels when he hears us utter these words of “belief”.  Why can’t we just say to him, “You are my healer.  You are my portion.  You are enough for me.” rather than infect them with the words “I believe”?  I understand the intent here is probably to make it personal so that we perhaps “own” the words and internalize them.  But the fact is that’s now how our minds work – in our culture to say “I believe” is a way to distance ourselves from the idea and weaken it; it’s a way to say say that what we are talking about is really just our perception of reality while acknowledging that our perception may be false.  Let’s get political for a moment to illustrate the point: which is more offensive in today’s culture – to say, “Gay marriage is wrong” or to say “I believe gay marriage is wrong”?  It’s the former – because it makes a claim as fact, while the latter is simply my own belief, or preference, or interpretation.   Or let’s flip it around…  “Gay marriage is right and should be allowed legally” versus “I believe gay marriage is okay and that we should allow it legally”.

Are you starting to see the difference?  One allows for argument because it claims a truth while another simply subscribes to a personal opinion.

Ironically, even the secular world realizes this.  Check out the following advertisement about the power of words:
A friend of mine recently told me of a blog post with the title, Stop Singing Oceans which reinforces this idea that our words matter.  And I can’t disagree with him (or the author of the post)!

So how does this words matter stuff related to what I’ve called the “me” culture in worship?  Simple.  The focus of the words in the song Healer I quoted above have a very clear focus: the person singing.  The lyrics themselves do not point to the healer (well, at least not for all but the last phrase of the chorus), they focus on the one holding the belief.  And that, dear friends, is a huge difference.  If our focus should be on Jesus – who he is and what he has done – then why would we allow it be infected with any hint of us?  The Bible has a very clear definition of anything that we place before God – it’s called idolatry.  Call me a cranky old-timer if you want (though I’m certainly not old :)), but I just get so tired of listening to Christian radio and singing songs in worship services that seem more focused on us than they do on God.

Words matter – they literally matter.  Not just because they are both a reflection of what we are thinking but also because they direct our thoughts.  But even more than that, words matter because they have a spiritual life to them.  Must I remind you that Jesus was called The Word?  Must I remind you that God created the entire universe by speaking it into existence?  Or that the Bible is called God’s Word?  Or that we are told that “The Lord gave the word“?

And just in case you’re still doubting me, I challenge you to try something.  For the next week when you talk to other people – whether Christians or not – instead of using the universal (and often less-offensive) term “God” try actually using the name “Jesus”.  What you’ll most likely find is that if you don’t speak Jesus’ name verbally very often but rather default to “God”, “Lord,” or some other generic term, that saying the word “Jesus” is uncomfortable and feels strange.  Why?  Because there is power in the name of Jesus, because our words matter – the literal, individual words we choose.  And our enemy knows this.  He knows that as long as we don’t use the name “Jesus” there is ambiguity in our speech.  He knows that when he convinces us to talk about “our beliefs” that he has disarmed us because we no longer claim The Truth but rather A Truth.

And that, my friends, is not a place I want to be.

Me-Centered Worship


I have just finished reading the story of the Exodus – where God takes on Pharaoh and miraculously delivers his people from Egypt by performing 10 wonders (or plagues, depending on which end you are on!), culminating in the awe-inspiring parting of the Red Sea.  Having been working through this for a couple of weeks now, the drama has continually been building up to the point where the people finally experience the full salvation of God from the hands of Egypt and get to watch as the Lord destroys the Egyptian army in the blink of an eye when they find themselves at the bottom of the sea.  And then we arrive at chapter 15 of Exodus:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said:

I will sing to the Lord,
for He is highly exalted;

This seems so simple, and I’ve written about it before, but for some reason it jumped off the page at me today.  Here in Exodus we have the first recorded song in scripture, and I want to spend a minute looking at just the first line.  Do you notice why the people sing?  It’s because “He” is highly exalted.  Other translations say it’s because “He has won a great victory” or “He has triumphed gloriously”, but what is important is to notice that it’s because of Him.

Seems simple enough, yet as I thought about this I reflected on how backwards we have it in our culture.  Our culture is so self-focused and me-centered, that we really think worship is about us.  Not just in our songs (I’d be curious to take modern worship songs and even old hymns to count the number of times “I” or “Me” is mentioned rather than “Him”, “He”, or “You”), but in our attitudes.  Why don’t we sing in church?  Here are some reasons I’ve heard and continue to hear:

  • I don’t like the style
  • I don’t feel like it
  • I can’t sing very well
  • I can’t hear myself (it’s too loud)
  • I hear the person next to me (who can’t carry a tune and distracts me)
  • I don’t like the song
  • I don’t know the song
  • I can’t sing this song – it’s too hard
  • I _________________ <fill in the blank>

It’s me-centered worship.  Two years ago I wrote specifically about men singing in worship services, and it still irks me.  Our worship shouldn’t be dictated, determined, or driven by us (preference, emotional state, etc).  Our worship is to be dictated, determined, and driven by the God we serve.  Look back at Exodus 15:1 – the people sang to the Lord for the sole purpose because he deserved it.

Not convinced yet?  Think it’s easy because they had just experienced the miracle of the Red Sea crossing?  Take a look at these verses (which I also read today):

Psalm 61:3, “for You have been a refuge for me, a strong tower in the face of the enemy.”

Psalm 62:1-2, “I am at rest in God alone, my salvation comes from Him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I will never be shaken.”

And then look at Psalm 63:1-8

God, You are my God; I eagerly seek You.
I thirst for You;
my body faints for You
in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water.
So I gaze on You in the sanctuary
to see Your strength and Your glory.

My lips will glorify You
because Your faithful love is better than life.
So I will praise You as long as I live;
at Your name, I will lift up my hands.
You satisfy me as with rich food;[a]
my mouth will praise You with joyful lips.

When I think of You as I lie on my bed,
I meditate on You during the night watches
because You are my helper;
I will rejoice in the shadow of Your wings.
I follow close to You;
Your right hand holds on to me.

Look again at verse 4…. David says he lifts his hands why?  Because he feels like it?  Because the key change in the music demands it?  No, he lifts his hands because of God’s name.  In other words, because of God.

Worship isn’t for us, it’s for Him.  And it’s not for Him because we feel like it, but because he deserves it (and he deserves it whether we feel like it or not).  Recently I listened to a sermon by a former pastor of mine who now serves at A2 Church in Birmingham, Alabama and was so profoundly challenged and encouraged by it I forwarded the link on to the band leadership and the general leadership at my church (groups of which I’m involved).  Of particular interest to me was the 2.5 minute excerpt between about 3:25-6:05 where the pastor starts talking about the importance of Sunday.

And here’s my conclusion based of my reading and as I reflect on the sermon linked above (which I encourage everyone to listen to): until we can see for God for who he is, until we can set aside ourselves in worship, until we can deeply and truthfully begin to comprehend that the resurrection of Jesus means something beyond ourselves and our personal salvation then our “worship” will always be me-focused and me-centered.  Until we walk into church and realize that we don’t sing because we want to or because we feel like it but rather because God deserves it then worship in our churches will always be driven by performance-ism and have a self-centered focus.  In short, if you can listen to just the first 6 minutes of the sermon linked above and NOT have an overwhelming, emotional, and fully human response leading to awe and amazement, then you need to examine and reflect on who you think God is and what your relationship to him is like.  Worship isn’t driven by us and who we are, it’s driven by God and who he is.

We don’t worship for any other reason that because God deserves it.  To not worship for any reason is to suggest that God is undeserving and our feelings, thoughts, and attitudes are higher than he is.  And the word used in scripture for considering something higher than God (giving worship to anything but him) is idolatry.

 

A Response to Mark Gungor


Last week a friend of mine shared Mark Gungor’s post titled Attention All Worship Leaders. Musicians and Singers.  In it, Gungor identifies four “big problems when it comes to music” in the church today.  While I agree with some of what he says in the post, I believe he’s completely off base in a major way when he talks in big terms about the role of music leaders in the church.  Some of what he says is, well, just down-right disheartening and, to be quite honest, I’m glad I don’t attend his church – and if I did, I think after reading this post I would have to seriously reconsider whether I did or not.

My major disagreement with him starts fifth paragraph of his second problem.  He writes,

In my church, musicians are on the stage for one reason: They can sing or they can play—period.  They are not pastors, apostles, prophets, evangelists or teachers—they are musicians. They hold no special status like that of an elder or deacon. Quite frankly, their spiritual status is of little matter and in some cases, not required at all.  We don’t put the musicians on our platform through a spiritual filter anymore than we would ask that of the construction workers who built the building.    We do not hire a construction worker based on the condition of his heart, but on the status of his skill.  So it is with our musicians. (emphasis mine)

I can not disagree with him more.  The spiritual status of the musicians on his stage are of primary importance.  Gugnor’s position here reflects a key misunderstanding of the role of music in worship.  Let’s assume for a second that everything is about the music.  If that’s the case, then Gungor’s position is perfectly defensible and even understandable.  If what you are looking for is people to lead and perform music, then, yes, find the best musicians you can find regardless of their character.

But, if you are looking for worship leaders to lead people then character is the utmost importance!  Here’s the point: worship leaders are not called to lead musicthey are called to lead people.  Now that doesn’t mean they have to have “special status like that of an elder or deacon,” nor do they have to be “priests of worship” or have a special “anointing” or “power”.  What they do need to understand, though, is how to relate to people.

If you think I’m misunderstanding him, read these excerpts from his post:

It is always ideal and preferable to have a committed believer lead the music; one who understands who God is and what it is we are trying to do.  But at the end of the day they are up there for one overwhelming reason: They have musical skill….Again, our singers and musicians are up there because they can sing or play—period, not because they have some unique Old Testament version of an “anointing”. (emphasis mine)

Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not suggesting that you can put someone on stage with no musical skill who has a deep walk with the Lord, because both are needed.  What I am saying, though, is that musical skill does not trump one’s walk with the Lord or their leadership ability (though one’s walk with the Lord should certainly trump musical skill, contrary to what Gungor says).

While he’s got plenty of other statements in his blog post that I disagree with, my point here is not to go line-by-line in rebuttal of his position.  I will ask this final question, though, and I’d honestly love to hear (or read) the answer…  Gungor writes,

[C]onsider this: Many (if not most) of the musicians you hear on Christian recordings are not believers in Jesus at all.  Some of them, frankly, are quite accomplished heathens and pagans (I know—I’ve met them).  You think when you hear that big string section on your favorite worship CD that they are all committed followers of Christ?  Hardly.

I’d like to know who he’s talking about here – which artists that I listen to are accomplished “heathens and pagans?”  I’d honestly like to know.  This is not something you can say without actually backing it up with some truth.  And I’m curious, has Gungor called them out on their “heathen and pagan” practices?  Does he pray for them?  Has he challenged them?  Has he brought other believers in to hold these people accountable since due to their hypocrisy they will actually suffer even more in Hell than if they just lived in open rebellion to God?

Again, Gungor’s position is, at it’s heart, a basic misunderstanding of the role of the worship leader in the church.  If leaders are called to lead music then, yes, he’s spot-on in his arguments.  But leaders are called to lead more than music.  They are called to lead people.  And that, Mr. Gungor, is a completely different role than the one you apparently desire at your church.

If you’re looking for proper perspective on the role of the worship leader, I would recommend avoiding Gungor’s post and instead reading the post entitled 4 Characteristics of Great Worship Leaders by Laura Singleton.

Why I Love Tradition


One of the things I love about the Christmas season is that regardless of wherever you attend church, chances are you’ll sing some traditional Christmas carols.  I love Christmas carols; and I love hymns.  It seems that Christmas is the only time of year that those churches who sing only modern music will actually break from the mold and pull out the old hymns.

In the past two weeks we’ve sung (sometimes in a modern arrangement) songs like Joy to the World, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and What Child is This.  There’s something about singing a song that dates back the Civil War (What Child is This?), or a song older than our country (Watt’s Joy to the World from the early 1700’s), or even back to Medieval times (O Come O Come from the 9th century A.D.).  It’s a connection worth remembering.

Don’t get me wrong – I attend what many would consider a modern church, so I having nothing against modern (contemporary?) music.  Yet at the same time, and perhaps it’s because I spent my elementary years attending a liturgical church or my school years attending a Christian school largely influenced by more liturgical churches, I find the traditions of the historical church something special.  There is, after all, a wonder that comes from reciting the Lord’s Prayer with a room full of believers, or a sense of family that is created by the regular participation in communion (Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, whatever you want to call it), or a sense of historical communicated through the words of songs that are centuries – even millenia – old.  It’s a reminder to me that the Church, the body of Jesus, extends not only beyond myself but also beyond the four walls of the building I’m standing in when I worship.  It’s an acknowledgement of community and connection with my brothers and sisters around the globe who may attend a different church than I do, but who, none-the-less, belong to the same Church as me.

One of my struggles with modern Christianity is the emphasis and stress on the individual.  Again, don’t mis-read me here – I believe that we are saved through an individual relationship with God through Jesus.  And yet I’ve seen what I consider simply an infection of the church by the American consumerist mentality that “church is about me”.  If we don’t like the style of music that is played, or the amount of times communion is observed, or where the offering is placed, or even the time of the service or the dress code of the congregation, we leave to find another church because, well, we can – there’s a church on every corner competing for our attendance, and we’re bound to find one that fits “my needs”.  But sometimes – often times – we forget that when we come together corporately we are to worship corporately.  And that looks different than worshiping as individuals.

Which is why I appreciate the institution of traditions in the service.  Not just traditions that are traditions for an individual body (such as, “Since our church was founded 35 years ago we’ve celebrated Homecoming on the 2nd Sunday in September”), but also – and perhaps more-so – the traditions that extend throughout history.  Singing “O come, o come Emmanuel” helps me see myself in that long line of saints that Hebrews talks about.  It takes me back to the the time of the medieval monks, and I realize that I’m singing in a choir that transcends not just space but also time.  I see the body of Christ become much larger than anything I’ve ever imagined.  Traditions help us do that.

Now the extreme of this is to over-emphasize tradition, which is what the Pharisees did and for which Jesus condemned them.  Or the other extreme is to ignore all traditions in an attempt to not over-empahsize them, and we become just as legalistic yet in a different sense.  I’m not advocating either of these.  These thoughts, in fact, are directed more towards those who tend to disregard the importance of tradition than those who over-emphasize it.  Traditions aren’t always bad, in fact they serve a greater good.  I can’t over-emphasize this fact: traditions connect us with the church beyond space and time and helps us identify with the Church – the whole church – in a way that “new” can not.  They must not be practiced to the exclusion of “new”, but neither should “new” (modern/contemporary) be practiced to the exclusion of the old.

In this season of Advent it’s easier to remember tradition and practice it because we see it around us in the secular world: Christmas trees, stockings, outdoor lights, etc.  And as a Church we find it easier to incorporate it into our worship services because, well, who doesn’t like a good ol’ rendition of Hark the Herald Angels Sing – even Charlie Brown sang it!  But traditions shouldn’t be limited to just a couple weeks a year.

Advent, another “tradition”, reminds us that we are eagerly awaiting the return of our coming King; it’s the beginning of a new year, not in our calendar but in the Church’s calendar; it’s the reminder that we are in the world but not of it.  It’s a connection, beyond space to time, to those saints who live around the globe but also who lived throughout history.  And when we dismiss, downplay, or forget that, we do ourselves (and our Savior) a great disservice.

Let’s not forget what Jesus said in Matthew 13:52: “Then you see how every student well-trained in God’s kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it.” (The Message)

 

Perspective


About 8 months ago I was first introduced to the song Forever Reign by Hillsong, and, to be completely honest, I didn’t care for it.  The phrase that particularly frustrated me (for lack of a better term), was found in the chorus: “Oh, I’m running to Your arms, I’m running to Your arms. The riches of Your love will always be enough. Nothing compares to Your embrace, Light of the world forever reign!”

If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you know a frequent focus of my posts is worship.  I actually feel I’ve been rather silent on the issue for several months, due in large part to no longer serving in an official capacity as a church worship leader but also just because I’ve not been blogging much lately.  One of my criticisms of much modern worship music has always been the lyrics, and I’m in the camp of those who sometimes feel like worship songs sometimes sound more like “prom date music” than they do words of adoration to the King of Kings.

That was, honestly, my first reaction to this song, in particular the phrase quoted above.  For several months I struggled with the song because of this vision it created in me – a song I didn’t, as a male, feel comfortable singing to Jesus, who walked the earth as a man.  It just seemed… well… wrong.  It was one of those songs that I categorized as “more appropriate for women” but not necessarily a good song for men.

As I prayed and meditated on this, though, I asked God why I struggled with singing certain songs.  I asked questions such as, “Do I really love God as much as I say I do if I don’t feel comfortable singing these words?”  But I never felt like the answer to that question was in the negative; what I sensed God telling me,though, was that the answer was in how I was viewing Him and understanding the text myself – it was all in my perspective….

One day I received a new “vision”, so to speak, a new perspective.  Instead of seeing the text in a clearly romantic light (that “prom date” idea), I saw it as the love between and father and his children (or, more specifically, between a child and his father).  There is little I enjoy in this life more than to see the look on my daughters’ faces as they run up and jump into my arms.  One day when I came home from work and they did this I realized they could be singing these words about our relationship: that they were running to their daddy’s arms and wanted to be held by him (which they do all the time).

It was at that moment I realized I could say the same about my Heavenly Father.  I didn’t need to see these words as a twisted eros type of love (not that I ever did because I didn’t, I just struggled with finding a suitable alternative).  I could see these words as a little kid running up to his daddy and jumping into his daddy’s arms.  One of my favorite descriptions of prayers is, “If you want to know how to pray just watch how a little kid talks to her daddy.”  So I guess in the same vein, I’ve realized that if you want to know how to view yourself as truly believing the text, “I’m running to your arms,” view it as a little kid running to her daddy.  This new perspective changes everything.