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.


Book Review: Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope by Trevin Wax

Counterfeit Gospels is one of those books every Christian leader – and every Christian should put on their “required reading list”.  It pulls no punches and will probably convict (offend?) everyone who reads it at some point within its pages.  Trevin Wax tackles one of the most important questions the Church is struggle with today: namely, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”  The heart of Christianity is the Gospel, but there is so much uncertainty and disagreement among Christians leaders (and Christians in general) over what “the gospel” is, it leads to disagreement over what it means to be a Christian.

Wax identifies a three-pronged approach to understanding and sharing the gospel: The Gospel Story, The Gospel Announcement, and The Gospel Community.  He identifies six different counterfeits in this book: The Therapeutic, The Jugmentless, The Moralistic, The Quietist, The Activist, and the Churchless Gospels, first identifying what the real Gospel is and then disarming each of these counterfeits.  I’ll be honest to tell you I was convicted during my reading of this book that I’ve fallen sway to varying degrees to some of these counterfeits, and I believe any honest believer would find themselves hard pressed not not find themselves in the same boat.  If you’re comfortable in your understanding of The Gospel and how you live your Christian life then this book probably isn’t for you, but if you want to honestly examine whether your beliefs measure up against the truths of Scripture then take the time to read this book and contemplate the truth found within its pages.  This is a definite 5/5 stars.

Worship in a Transformational Church

I have just finished reading excerpts from the book Transformation Church and I have to admit that the 25 page chapter on worship in this book is perhaps the best writing I have ever read on the topic of worship and church music, period.  As a worship leader/church music director I’ve read a lot on the subject, but Ed Stetzer and Thom S. Rainer hit the nail on the head.

Transformational Church is a book which reports the results of a ground breaking study done on the American Church which identified seven principles of what the authors term “Transformational Churches”.  What exactly is a TC?  In short, it’s a church where members are learning to live move like Jesus, where the church is growing not just in numbers but also spiritual maturity.

I’ll be honest and tell you up-front I didn’t read the entire book.  Instead, I decided to focus on that area of the book related to the ministry over which I have the most direct impact: worship and music.  I didn’t start that way, but after reading the introduction to the book where they lay out their research, summarize their findings, and also identify each of the seven principles, I decided to focus my time on the principal of worship.  So the only principal of the seven I read a chapter on was the principal worship.  For the record, then, I read chapters 1-2 and 7.   The 25 pages of chapter seven, however, took me three days to wade through (instead of less than an hour), and I’ll be going back to the chapter to re-read it again and again and I work to implement their suggestions in my ministry.

Will I read the other chapters?  Yes, but for now I need to focus on what I am responsible for and not allow myself to get side tracked.  I will say I did skim some of the other chapters, particularly the ones on mission mentality, leadership, prayer, and building relationships.  While the study focused on those areas from a church-wide perspective I was able to read the principles in relation to just the music ministry, so I will be going back to do a more focused-study of them later .  My theory on music ministry (and really leadership in general) is that the music ministry (or whatever ministry you are leading) is a microcosm of the entire church, so principles that can apply to the entire church can be applied in the specific ministry.

Let me speak specifically about the chapter on worship: it summarized the principles of worship precisely while at the same time bravely opening up Pandora’s box in discussing musical style.  While I take issue with their final conclusion on the issue of a blended service (something I’ll write more about on my blog, I Respond to Jesus, directed specifically towards church music and worship directors in the coming days), I agree with their over-all assessment, reminding the readers that in the end everything is about God and not about our own personal preferences.  Perhaps the best way to summarize where the chapter goes is to reflect on this question raised in the chapter: “Do we see evidence of God changing lives as a result of our worship services?”  If you want to see how to answer that question in the affirmative, then check out this book!

One final note.  While the book is published by Lifeway and the study was conducted by Lifeway Research, it is not a Baptist book by any means.  In fact, the churches studied in the book (and mentioned by name) are from many different denominations – I can’t even say the majority of them are Baptist.  They did a fantastic job of looking at the broad spectrum of churches in America today.

For more information on the study you can visit the Transformation Church website by clicking here, view an introductory video on YouTube by clicking here, or even access their online community on Facebook by clicking here.

This is a chapter that needs to be read by every church music director, and the book is one that really needs to be read in its entirety by every pastor and church leader in America.   This book definitely gets a 5/5 stars

Cross posted on Read to Grow

LWLC Day 2: Overwhelmed (Morning Notes)

Because there was so much covered today, I’m actually going to break this into two separate posts.  This will cover my morning sessions and I’ll do a second one on the afternoon sessions.

If I had to pick one word for the day it would be overwhelmed.  Yep, that’s the word: overwhelmed.

More specifically, overwhelmed by God (what’s the subtitle of Francis Chan’s book Crazy Love, something like Overwhelmed by a Relentless God?  That sure describes today!)

After a breakfast of pancakes and sausage I attended the opening general session which had a devotional given by Randy Vader, the CEO of Praise Gathering Music.  He spoke about the preeminence of Jesus in our worship times and challenged us to keep that focus as we plan.  It reminded me of my favorite quote by Mark Driscoll: it’s all about Jesus, it’s always about Jesus, and it’s only about Jesus.  Specifically, he shared some specific guidelines to keep in mind while planning worship.  Those guidelines  include remembering that God is sovereign, Jesus is Lord and pre-eminent in history, today there is forgiveness and pardon of sins, and peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of God.  By planning worship in light of these truths, I can help usher the congregation into God’s presence so they can respond to him.

This is keeping the focus on leading people to Jesus.  It was (and is) an overwhelming concept to think about how it is my responsibility every week to focus people on Jesus and not spend so much time worrying about other things.  I also have to remember, though, that not only is it my responsibility but my privilege as well.  I try to remember, though I too often get distracted, that when I plan a worship service I need to constantly ask, “Will this focus people on Jesus?”. Too often I get distracted by song selections, choir anthems, special music, or the like.  What I need to focus on is leading people to Jesus.

On a related note, I spent some time speaking with a gentleman at dinner who is the director of the church music program at a prominent seminary.  He was sharing the story of a tradition they had at one of the colleges he worked at.  For their chapel services they had a Christ Candle at the front of the church.  But the candle didn’t stay lit like in liturgical churches, and it was generally lit by lay people.  The practice?  If you had led someone to Christ since the last service you were supposed to go up and light the candle before the service began.  If the candle was lit at the beginning of the service, the pastor might ask who lit it and invite you to share your story.  Now that’s a cool way to keep Jesus and the sharing of Jesus at the forefront of our minds!  Again, as he told the story to me I was overwhelmed by the idea of how rarely I would be lighting the candle at my own church if we had this tradition (or should I say underwhelmed?)

The highlight of my day was the AM worship service.  This morning’s worship was absolutely phenomenal.  Jay Rouse (of Praise Gathering Music) led the worship.  We sang some wonderful songs, one of which was Mighty to Save.  Behind Jay on the stage stood the Mississippi Baptist All State Youth Choir.  While we sang there were three boys who were just singing their hearts out to the Lord: bouncing up and down, simply rejoicing in the truth that Jesus “rose and conquered the grave, yes you are mighty to save!”  Again, I was overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and passion for Jesus as they exhibited it to us and it stirred me to a deeper interaction with our holy and awesome God.

Every song we sang was special, and it was such a rejuvenating experience to be in the congregation and singing instead of having to lead.  Don’t get me wrong, I love leading, but sometimes it’s refreshing to be a follower.  I’ll just end by saying it has been a long time since I have had tears in my eyes during worship.  I was totally overwhelmed by the grace of God and his love for this fallen guy and all he’s blessed me with.  It was overwhelming (yes, I know that word is getting overused…)

Lifeway Worship Leadership Conference – Day 1 Overview

So here’s the run down from the day…  Melissa and I left this morning to drive to Ridgecrest and stopped at a fantastic Greek restaurant for lunch in Asheville named the Apollo Flame Bistro.  This was one of the best Greek places I have been to in a very long time, and easily in my top 3 favorites for Greek restaurants we’ve been to…  If you’re ever in the Asheville area you need to visit this place – fast and friendly service, decent prices, and fabulous food!

Now that that’s out of the way….

Melissa dropped me off at the conference center about 1:45, which gave me some time to go through the conference schedule and make a rough plan for my time here.  They have many sessions to attend, all figured into about five different tracks for learning.  My focus for the sessions will mainly be in three areas:

1) Choral music – attending reading sessions for various publishers in the hopes of finding some new, great choral literature for this year; I have purposefully maintained a healthy amount of choir budget for the year so that I can purchase music based on what I find here;

2) Worship leading – I’ll be focusing specifically on styles and culture in worship (for both congregational musical style and worship leading style)

3) Worship planning – with a focus on team building, team growth and development, and the use of long-term planning tools.

Because today was only a partial day I only attended two sessions – one reading session with music by multiple publishers and one choral rehearsal.  Every day we will have worship services, and the volunteer choir will be assisting in leading.  I wanted to attend the first rehearsal to see if it is something I wanted to participate in.  I have not completely decided yet whether I will go back or not.  I enjoyed the rehearsal, and really enjoyed the director, but part of my reason for coming here is for renewal and I’m not sure participating in the choir will re-energize me as much as being a congregational member in the services (it’s nice to not be on stage every now and then, considering I am up there every week, not to mention it rehearses in addition to the regular conference sessions).

Two things I did particularly enjoy about the rehearsal, though.  One was just seeing how another director conducts rehearsals, which is always a great experience.  If for no other reason I may sit in on a rehearsal or two so that I can just pick up some pointers and techniques.  The other was being reminded of what it’s like to sit in the choir instead of stand in front of it.  I’m not sure of the musical training of everyone in the room, but I got the feeling many were trained musicians like myself.  We learned music very quickly, yet there were still spots we had to focus on and rehearse multiple times.  Once or twice I even found myself struggling as we sight-read through sections; I reflected on the fact that my choir members must feel the same way on certain weeks!  It was a good reminder to me that I can’t assume everyone gets things on the first go-around and we will sometimes need to stop and go over sections multiple times for mastery – and I can’t get frustrated when that happens!

For dinner I sat with three people from Tennessee – two music directors, and one of them was with his wife.  As we talked I learned that one of the music directors was also a part-time director and had been at his current church about 9 months less than I have been at my church.  I also had a fantastic conversation with the other gentleman’s wife, who was an elementary music teacher.  I shared my history of teaching music in the public schools (a total of 7.5 years), and we discovered we had many of the same views and philosophies on how music should be taught to kids and of its importance in childrens’ development.  We shared stories of various programs and initiatives we have done (and she is currently doing), and I even found out she has a school administration degree as well!  It was a nice time of getting to know some people with similar interests and responsibilities as me.

Since I didn’t get to go for my morning walk when I woke up today I decided to venture out after dinner and a Skype with Melissa and the girls (isn’t it amazing that not only can I talk to Melissa and the girls but I can also see them when I’m away!?!?!).    I began by walking to the prayer chapel and prayer gardens, which was a fairly easy stroll down the paved road.  Let me just say that the prayer gardens are absolutely gorgeous – I may spend some time there with a hymnal, my Bible, and my iPad doing some planning!  Perhaps the most beautiful prayer gardens I’ve ever seen (sorry, I don’t have a camera with me, so I can’t take pictures, otherwise I would).  After that I decided to walk the wooded trail up to the lake and back, and then I just walked a little around the campus to get somewhat familiar with it.  All in all, it was a little less than 2.75 miles, which was a good workout for the evening.  One thing that probably isn’t a good thing, though, is that I discovered the ice cream shop is actually just outside my the door – perhaps only about 100 feet away!  I resisted the urge to stop by tonight, but I’m sure I’ll have to make a visit later in the week (perhaps even tomorrow! :))

I ended by slipping into the back of the PM concert to hear the end of the Tennessee Ladies Chorus and Tennessee Mens Chorale.  They sang two songs that got to me.  One was Come Thou Fount, which reminded me of the depth of God’s grace (I’ll blog more on this tomorrow or the next day).  The second was a song entitled Let it Be Said Of Us by Steve Fry.  I was not familiar with song, but I have already purchased a congregational copy and orchestrations so I can teach it to my congregation!  I hope they find it’s text and tune as meaningful as I do.

I’ll close this rather lengthy post with the words to this beautiful song (which are Copyright 1994 Maranatha! Music (ASCAP) / Word Music, LLC.):

Let it be said of us that the Lord was our passion
That with gladness we bore ev’ry cross we were given
That we fought the good fight that we finished the course
Knowing within us the pow’r of the risen Lord

Let it be said of us we were marked by forgiveness
We were known by our love and delighted in meekness
We were ruled by His peace heeding unity’s call
Joined as one body that Christ would be seen by all

Let the cross be our glory and the Lord be our song
By mercy made holy by the Spirit made strong
Let the cross be our glory and the Lord be our song
’Til the likeness of Jesus be through us made known

A Requiem for Education

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem (or Ein Deutches Requiem for all you musicians). This 70+ minute piece for chorus and orchestra is my favorite large choral piece of all time. I’m going to make a connection to education, but you’ll need to read through a few paragraphs to get a background so you’ll understand where I’m coming from and the connection I will make…

To truly appreciate this choral masterpiece I believe you have to have a basic understanding of both music history and church history. The German Requiem stands as a unique composition for a requiem. Historically, requiems were written by composers following the basic structure of the requiem mass, or mass for the dead, of the Catholic church. They had historically been very dark and, quiet honestly, depressing (the most famous is Mozart’s Requiem). The Latin texts were prayers for the deceased.

Brahms’ requiem, however, stands in marked contrast to this tradition. First, it was written not in Latin but the vernacular of his countrymen (German, in this case). It also has as its text selected verses from the Luther Bible. The text is not one of petition on the part of the deceased, but peace and comfort for those still alive, while at the same time offering hope for a life after the present. It is not necessarily a “Christian” text as much as it is a spiritual text, however, all the lyrics do come from Christian scripture, though the ideas espoused in them could be common among many religions.

There are a couple of key points mentioned in this previous paragraph that are important to note. First, the text was German and not Latin, and that from the Luther Bible. For those who are not familiar with Christian church history, Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation during the 15th century, and one of the key strands of the Reformation was translating the Bible into the language of the people. Luther himself spent countless hours translating the Bible into German, because he believed that lay people should be able to read and understand the Bible without having to trust in the priests of the Catholic church (which was required since very few read Latin). Obviously his work was greatly assisted by the invention of the printing press. Brahms offers a change from tradition by using a libretto written in German and not Latin, thereby widening the audience that would understand the text.

Second, the fact that the libretto itself is one of peace, comfort, and hope instead of despair, petition on behalf of the dead, or looking forward to the Day of Judgment as the Latin version of the mass prescribed. Whereas the traditional requiem was a prayer for rest for the deceased, Brahms’ focused on offering comfort to the survivors.

In addition to these historical features from church history, we also need to recognize that Brahms was a Romantic composer, writing at the height of the Romantic period. Beginning in the early 19th century (with music from the later part of Beethoven’s life) music began to shift in how it was composed and created. Music began to explore human emotion and story at a much deeper and profound level than it had ever had before. In fact, Brahms’ masterpiece was written after his mother’s death (though some scholars believe there were connections to the death of his good friend Robert Schumann about a decade earlier). The German Requiem is, in many ways, a musical attempt to work through the grieving process of Brahms’ loss. As you listen to the piece you can sense the various stages of grief in the music – anger, denial, and even acceptance by the end. This can be sensed both musically as well as in the text.

So what does all this have to do with education? If you have read this far – thank you! Here’s the point. Brahms offered a piece that, in some ways, serves as a turning point (a revolution perhaps?) for music. He is a composer writing during a very transitional time in music history (the Romantic period), and he composes a work that is unlike almost any other. Some scholars even measure the impact of The German Requiem down into the 20th century with other masses that were written that followed a similar theme. In short, Brahms, in his requiem, offered a change of perspective from looking down at the dead to up to the living.

Yet how often do we in education spend our time looking down at the dead (“We’ve always done it this way”)? How many students’ lives do we inevitably impact because we blame everyone and everything for the problems we face instead of taking both responsibility for mistakes and initiative for successes? I’m not suggesting that education is the savior of the world, but I am saying we often blame others for our own mistakes (“If their parents would…” or “If their previous teacher would have…” or “Why doesn’t the administration….”) Fill in your own blanks.

What we should be doing is looking forward to what we have to offer students and our world. We need to encourage our students and tell them the good things they do, not tear them down. Those of us in leadership (myself included – perhaps especially) – need to make a bigger deal of praising and acknowledging the positive work done by teachers and other personnel at our schools (after all, how could the school function without the custodians, secretaries, and cafeteria workers?). Instead of spending a life time focusing on the negative we need to shift our focus to the positive.

And I have to say there are several people in my district that constantly challenge me to do that – and for that I’m thankful. Let me offer some specifics for what we can do as leaders to help encourage a positive perspective instead of a negative:

1) First and foremost (and perhaps, most difficult), is to model a positive attitude and create a culture of success for our staff;

2) Praise those who need to be praised – both privately and publicly;

3) Hold accountable those who are not doing what needs to be done – and do it privately. I’ve sat through too many faculty meetings where general negative feedback is shared, and the people for whom it’s intended are the ones that are always absent or fail to understand it’s for them; let’s stop that and just start confronting them when they need to be confronted (this is actually what many of the really good teachers request!);

4) Encourage and empower creativity and extra effort – and get on teachers who tear others down for going above and beyond. Too often in education we allow teachers with “seniority” but a sour attitude to destroy initiative and kill excitement; too often in education I hear people put down those who go the extra mile because then it makes those who do less feel bad. Instead of encouraging those who give 150% we tear them down so they feel guilty for trying, and then we end up with a culture that accepts only 50%. This needs to stop – begin to encourage and praise those who deserve it!

As I listened to the concert this past week I was struck by how Brahms’ change in perspective could be applied to education so easily…. The hard part is actually doing it.