Why the Doxology & Theology Conference is Worth Checking Out

November 13-14
Louisville, KY 

There are a handful of conferences that come around every year or two that I think are worth a worship leader's time and investment. They're not all the same, and they therefore don't serve the same purpose. I tend to think of conferences like these in two broad categories. The first are the "big tent" conferences. A great example of this would be the National Worship Leader Conference, now hosted regionally 3-4 times a year. Big tent conferences will try to bring a lot of people together, and they're usually willing to absorb a fair amount of tension in the vision, theology, philosophy, and outlook of worship. The second category of worship conference is the "niched" conference. This type of conference is there to articulate a specific vision for and outlook on worship.  The Doxology & Theology Conference (less than one month away!) is this kind of conference.

Why Go to a Worship Conference in General?

Before I advocate for D&T, the question should be asked as to whether conferences are valuable at all. I see worship conferences as having a two-fold value, neatly divisible in even halves. 50% of the value of a conference is its content and insight, and 50% is the networking. Even if I'm not much of a "student-type" or even if I'm not in a very teachable place (my life is busy, I've got other things occupying my attention), there is something refreshing to the soul about stepping outside of your world, zooming out, and getting a perspective of the forest instead of always inspecting the bark of that one tree that you live next to. EVERY time I go to a conference, something about the content will take me by surprise, illumine my life, and affect my ministry back home. But I also go simply to meet people, have conversations, hear stories, and establish more contacts. Usually, I'm frantically trying to get their name down so that I can follow them on twitter or connect with them on FB or Instagram. I can't tell you how much I've learned from and forged friendships through conferences followed up by social media. It's been remarkable, and it is a great habit to be ever widening your own circle of contacts and "influencers." And there's an ecclesiastical-theological truth here: the more of the body of Christ I know, the better I know Christ.

Why Go to This One?

So D&T is a conference with a specific theological vision. To be clear, it will talk about worship from within a theologically conservative and evangelical framework. It will view thoughtful cultural engagement as important, and it will articulate a gospel- and Christ-centered approach to worship and ministry. If you wanted a more thorough understanding, check out the book, Doxology & Theology. In the past, it has gathered the types of worship leaders who have been associated with churches connected with bigger wheelhouses like the Gospel Coalition and the Acts 29 network, so you can expect similar (though not identical) spheres of thought. You will find that the content has been influenced by pastors and theologians like D. A. Carson, John Piper, and Mark Dever, and worship thinkers like Bob Kauflin and Harold Best.

This year's conference is focused on "The Life & Labor of the Worship Leader"...a topic which is near and dear to my heart. I'll be doing a breakout on the subject of how worship leaders can think of themselves as pastors and engage their jobs more pastorally. If you're in or around Louisville, or if you can swing a last-minute trip, I'd encourage you to come!


If You're Interested in Deeply Studying Gospel Centered Worship

If you're like me, thinking about furthering your education in the area of worship studies, you're less interested in flashy admissions campaigns and impressive campus acreage. I want two things: A handful of great professors zeroing in on excellent subject matter.

There's a lot of talk out there about "gospel-centered" this and that, and a lot of people have spilled a lot of digital ink explaining how diluted and convoluted that discussion has become. Such is the fate of "gospel-centered worship." Nevertheless, if I myself were to put flesh on the bones of that phrase, I'd want to do it in a similar spirit to the theology and worship of a particular time and place in history. This time and place has gone under-appreciated, under-mentioned, and under-studied in our typical "gospel-centered worship" discussions. I'm talking about the English Reformation. 

Something special occurred in England in the 1500s as the Reformational streams from Calvin and Luther converged in those Western isles. Two things were happening in the lives and hearts of some key movers and shakers. First, the doctrine of justification by faith alone was rocking their world and radically reorienting the way they saw and thought about everything, from theology to farming. Second, those movers and shakers were in the process of reforming worship around this doctrine, rewriting liturgies through the lens of grace.

In short, sixteenth century England was a distillery for a kind of 200 proof gospel-centered worship. Honestly, the more I read and think about it, the more I want to read and think more about it. 

And this is why I'm going to be switching my doctoral emphasis to the newly-created Theology and Worship of the English Reformation track at Knox Seminary in their modular Doctor of Ministry program. Full disclosure: Knox sits across the street from the church I serve here in Ft. Lauderdale, and many of the professors are now my good friends. That said, I have not been asked, coerced, or bribed into this post. :) It's not propaganda. I believe in the subject-matter. I believe that studying it could unleash a fresh doxological reformation in the church. And I would love it if some of my friends and readers, who may be ready for something like this, would join me in this program.  Here's the track description:

The Theology and Worship of the English Reformation Track is designed to equip those in ministry to understand the doctrinal and liturgical reforms of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The received traditions of Catholic faith and practice were rethought in 16th century Britain along the “evangelical” lines of the Reformation, resulting in a consistent though broad Protestantism lived and expressed through the Book of Common Prayer. The early English evangelicals did find a middle-way of sorts, but not as is often imagined a via media between the Reformation and Rome. Rather, the English Reformation listened to and learned from both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions and attempted to express and embody a Protestantism that could include both (or at least not exclude either).

This track encourages an understanding of the mutuality of theology and worship and considers the complexity of contextualization, as well as the process of learning from the past for the sake of the present.

That last part is what I've found most intriguing about the worship revolution happening during the English Reformation. It was a project in contextualization. And that is so much of what good worship leaders do--wrestle with contextualizing timeless, Spirit-filled truths and traditions for new generations of worshipers.

The four scholars heading up the track are thinkers I can vouch for. I've sat under the teaching of all of them in one way, shape, or form: Ashley Null (the world's leading Thomas Cranmer scholar), Gerald Bray (a walking encyclopedia of church history, but particularly the Reformation), Jonathan Linebaugh (one of the most integrative thinkers I've ever met), and Justin Holcomb (just plain coolness).

So...if any of this is intriguing, take the next step and check out this amazing, one-of-a-kind program. It's built for full-time practitioners (like me) to jump in and out of intensive studies. It's not a "worship degree." I think it might actually be better than that. 


The Tension Between the Bland-Voiced Worship Leader and the Stylized Artist

We worship leaders feel an insane amount of conscious and unconscious pressure to sound as good as the latest recordings and rising-star reality shows. Even if we're not in "fancy" churches with great sound systems and heightened expectations, we all are pressing against the heavy burden to measure up. Sometimes, that pressure leads us to feel that we need to have that "artist's voice"--wispy, soulful, quirky, frilly, bombastic, indie, overstated, understated, or whatever else is our ideal. We seek to have something that makes us "legitimate" as a singer.

I confess that I feel a kind of reversed version of this every time I step up to a mic to record a vocal track. Let me explain. When I first started out formally leading music in churches, I had a handful of mentors who (wisely) encouraged me that my most important duty was to tow the melodic line with a clear, consistent, straightforward vocal tone. I was to give the people a strong lead by sticking to the rhythmic patterns that were "on paper," avoiding fanciful runs and ornamentation, and offer a clear, bright, cutting tone that let everyone know where the musical ground zero was. I wasn't to be overly stylized or artsy, for that would have created unnecessary difficulty for the congregation in trying to sing along. In other words, I was taught that overdoing it, in the congregational setting, was selfish rather than serving.

Well, as it turns out, after years and years of doing this on a week in and week out basis, this bland, straightforward voice became my voice. I didn't have any other voice. And then I stepped into the recording world. I found my voice dull, a little operatic (because my training, thank God, was classical), uninteresting, and even unpleasant to my ears (a lot of great vocalists still feel like this...self-criticism never stops). And to this day, every time I record, I have anxiety when it comes time to lay down the vocals. The voice that plainly and simply leads congregations isn't always the best voice on a recording. 

Many people will pause here to point out that this is the crux of the problem: recording and performance-driven sensibilities (all part of the "industry") have injected their sensibilities into the bloodstream of congregational music, making every worship leader feel like they need to be the next great voice, and brainwashing congregations into having unreachably high standards for their "artist." And while this is true, I think a case can be made that a worship leader, if their calling is to record, should try to learn to wisely straddle these two worlds when it comes to their vocalizing. 

To summarize, first, a song-leading voice isn't always a good recordable voice. My own recorded voice is something about which I still admittedly feel a fair amount of insecurity. But I've somewhat made my peace with the fact that my primary vocation is not as a kind of soloist-in-residence but as a pastor and congregational song-leader. I think the best worship leaders, who really care about the church singing, pursue a pretty straightforward vocal tone and presence. 

Second, a recordable voice isn't always a great song-leading voice. I've worked with singers who have beautifully stylistic, curiously interesting, brilliantly unique voices, and many times, those voices are horrible lead voices for congregational singing, even with well-done amplification. (As a sidenote, I've also noticed that people with stylized voices have trouble leading in acoustic settings with no amplification, because they don't necessarily know how to focus their tone and provide a loud, clear melody for people to follow.)

Thirdly, I know several worship leaders whose song-leading and recording voice are one and the same, and they work perfectly well in both settings (I wish I were one of them, frankly). It's a nice balance of simplicity and elegance.

Finally, it's okay to pursue both if one is called to both. I admire the worship leaders who get the difference and understand how to live in and transfer between contexts. And I think any vocational artist who's called to serve as songleader in a local church should make this a pursuit.


Do Lyric Statistics Indicate a Shift in Worship?

Bruce Springsteen's Lyrics, in a CloudWord Stats

Yesterday, Duke scholar Lester Ruth (someone whose work every worship leader should pay attention to) tweeted this interesting stat:

Continuing hymn/CCLI song comparison. Most frequent human verbs in hymns? "sin" and "see"; in CCLI songs? "sing" and "praise"

His sources for study involve, first, a look at the 70 most republished evangelical hymns up to 1860…so, material that many evangelical historians would classify as more “classic” hymns (as opposed to the “gospel hymn” era of post 1860 through the mid twentieth century). He is comparing these hymns to the lyrics of the 108 songs which ever appear on a CCLI top-25 list.

It is extremely hard to assess global data in a way that allows one to make accurate generalizations about shifts in the worship climate of evangelicalism, but I do believe that the kind of work Dr. Ruth is doing is getting closer toward something that allows for objectivity.

Let’s flesh this out. First, we’re talking about human verbs in worship songs, so this doesn’t include or observe divine action.  This is from the vantage point of our action. Secondly, we are talking about the top songs in general rather than the entire sung corpus of any local church.  Still, I think these stats give us some hooks to hang our thoughts on when it comes to what might appear to be some shifting theological emphases in evangelical worship.

God's Salvation & Human Triumph

It’s interesting that the most common human action-words of yesteryear were terms that are tied up more centrally in the narrative of the gospel. The gospel is predicated upon a realization and recognition of our sin, and many have said well that our recognition of the immensity of God’s grace is directly proportional to how deep and dark we see our sin. The second word, “see,” may not appear at first glance to be a gospel-narrative word, but it is. Looking and seeing, from the Pentateuch to Revelation, is one of the primary actions associated with salvation and reception of God’s grace. Think of Moses holding up the snake in the wilderness (Num 21) and Jesus’ exposition of that as a prefiguring type of Himself on the cross (John 3). Think of all the biblical language that invites people to “come and see what God has done, his awesome deeds for mankind!” (Psalm 66:5, NIV). Think of “beholding,” a synonym of “seeing,” and a host of scriptural quotations pertaining to salvation and God’s actions should start flooding the mind.

Note also that the most common human action-words of days gone by reveal an emphasis on the weakness and passivity of humanity. When I think of “sin,” I’m not usually tempted to think highly of myself. When I think of “see,” I’m inclined to ask, “What or Whom outside of me am I seeing?” I’ve talked on this blog many times about the prevalence of triumphalism in our worship (“God, this is what I’m doing for You”). The shift from “sin” and “see” to “sing” and “praise” I think at least hints toward the triumphalistic trajectory. “Sin” and “see,” though our action, really anticipate God’s action. “Sing” and “praise” are wonderful, biblical actions, as well (they're imperatives all over the Psalms). But the spotlight is definitely more on us.

Asking Fundamental Questions

Even if you think my analysis is reading in my own biases (which I admit could really be at play here…I’m going on words devoid of their lyrical context, and I’m hyper-sensitive when it comes to triumphalism vis-à-vis the gospel), just take a step back and ask some more fundamental questions.

If I’m reading through the scriptures and seeking to develop a full-orbed biblical theology of corporate, gathered worship, what human action-words should we expect to find? Perhaps it is “sing” and “praise,” especially if you’re just camping out in the Psalms. But once you move beyond the Psalms and listen to the full Scriptural voice about the core themes of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, an entirely different set of human actions comes to the fore, perhaps best summarized in themes of repentance and faith.

Finally, could we also be seeing how music, particularly singing, is starting to move to a more dominant position in the eyes of evangelicals with regards to what worship is? Nowadays, it's not uncommon to hear people say, when referring to music, "wow, the worship time was great." Or, we often hear, "first we'll have a time of worship [i.e. singing], then the sermon." It's pretty fair to say, I think, that NO Christian, prior to the twentieth century, would have understood what those expressions mean. The equation of singing with the totality of worship (not as a part of worship, but what worship centrally is) would not compute for nearly two millennia of Christian doxology.

At any given moment in history, it’s hard for people to lift their heads above the fray and take inventory of the water they’re swimming in. At least we can say, in the face of these stats, that we need to pause and reflect on shifts like these and what they mean. Even if our conclusions are dreadfully off (which mine could be), the exercise keeps our evaluative and critical antennae up, which can’t hurt as we seek to faithfully shepherd and pastor God’s flock in worship.


Destroying Self-Worship with Selfless Songs

Please stop what you're doing and treat yourself to this amazing post over at Liberate by a worship leader I respect and appreciate, Sam Bush. He spends some time exegeting the hymn, "Hallelujah! What a Savior," by Philip Bliss...a favorite of mine and a staple here at Coral Ridge. He hits on themes I try to bring up that I don't think enough attention is drawn to in discussions of the "aim" of worship songs.

Some quotables:

One reason why it might remain on the fringe is because it lacks any mention of Christian responsibility. There are no pledges to be faithful, no requests for teaching. The main focus, from beginning to end, stays fixed on Jesus Christ, the “Man of Sorrows,” and each verse ends with an exclaimed “Hallelujah! What a Savior!”

One of the miracles of worship is that, even if only for a moment, one’s mind isn’t focused inwardly. Martin Luther, expounding on Augustine, describes human nature as incurvatus in se, something that is “so deeply curved in on itself that it only bends the best gifts of God towards itself.” Luther admits that even worship can be turned into self-worship since our nature “so wickedly, cursedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake” (Lectures on Romans). 

Go read the post!


Four Exciting Projects in the Hopper for Coral Ridge Music

Coral Ridge is a busy place. With my own eyes, I'm witnessing a movement, a kind of new reformation, taking place in our walls, in our community, and around our region. And I'm witnessing a gospel revolution continue in my own heart and family. It's the reason I moved down here in the first place.

Coral Ridge Music is a kind of subset of the larger vision and mission of both Coral Ridge and Liberate (read my thoughts on why you should come to the conference). Its goal is to provide gospel-saturated music and worship resources for the broader church and to be a part of the culture-making that happens through the arts in South Florida. The first few projects out of the gate were our six-song EP, His Be the Victor's Name and our fabulous summer interns' EP, Faith and Love and Every Grace. Within the next six months, we're looking to roll out four more things--three albums and a concert series.

Beginning in Two Weeks: Coral Ridge Concert Series

Coral Ridge is launching our new and improved concert series in a few weeks. The aim of the series is to be a part of how the arts make and bless culture in South Florida. CRPC has had a rich past of fabulous concerts over the years, and we're continuing that legacy with our own twists. It will host everything from killer local blues-funk acts, to an organ festival, to the Naval Academy Glee Club.  It promises to be an exciting year! If you're a local South Floridian, check out the website and get your tickets. Oh yeah, and we've got Keith & Kristyn Getty coming this Christmas. :)

November 2014: The Magnificent Three EP

Several years ago, I caught the Trinity bug. Upon reading a compelling article by Lester Ruth in this book, I became pretty obsessed with helping encourage a greater overt Trinitarianism in modern worship, which led to my own chapter in this book. I also began writing songs for our congregation about the Trinity. I wrote Trinitarian songs of confession, songs of gathering, Communion songs, and on and on. The Magnificent Three is a collection of what I think are the six best songs. The album is stylistically diverse and musically quite un-cohesive. And I love it. We've got a dance-tronica track, a couple of more typical-sounding pop worship songs, a groovy, bluesy sing songy number, and a Petty-with-a-dash-of-Hendrix song produced by an amazing local talent, all headed your way. If you come to the Doxology & Theology Conference this year, you will get the album for FREE! Here are the full lyrics to the first song, a Trinitarian hymn of gathering (but it won't sound like a hymn):

1. Father, how great Your delight in the Son
Infinite joy ere the worlds were begun
The fullness of Love found in Him, with You one
Father, how great Your delight in the Son

2. Jesus, You reign at the Father’s right hand
In pleasure You rule o’er His sovereignty’s span
You joyfully follow the Father’s commands
Jesus, You reign at the Father’s right hand

And, now called into Your delight
As we strain to gaze at Your light
With the hosts of the heavens all veiling their sight,
We cry,”Holy, holy, holy”...

3. Spirit, You light up the Father and Son
With pleasure You join their affections in One
So pour out their glory as we humbly come
Spirit, You light up the Father and Son

So we join Your myst’ry divine
As we sing Your Love before time
And we lift up our voices midst glory sublime
And cry,”Holy, holy, holy”...

4. O worship the Father, immortal, in light
O worship the Son, at His right hand of might
O worship the Spirit, eternally bright
With saints, angels, elders, and martyrs in white

So we join the great One in Three
In the praise that ever shall be
And in Christ, through the Spirit, our Father we seek.
And cry,”Holy, holy, holy”...

Winter/Spring: Chelsea Chen, Live at Coral Ridge

Back in March, our organist, Chelsea Chen, played a fabulous concert of diverse music. She made the organ at Coral Ridge sound more brilliant and complex, and her repertoire spanned everything from Bach to rhythmic contemporary arrangements, to her fun montage of classic Super Mario Brothers music. We recorded the concert and are working on sweetening up the sound before we press it and give it out for the world to enjoy. 

February 2015: Come and Make Us Free EP

We'll release another six-track album at the Liberate Conference in February. Many of the songs are current Coral Ridge favorites, including the title track, which is a powerful song of confession, and our remake of an old hymn, which we call, "Christ Surrendered All."

As always, our albums will be accompanied with a host of resources--lead sheets, chord charts, and request-able Finale files. But they'll also always be available, song by song, here on my site.


On Worship That Makes Us Feel Lousy

Worship should be uplifting, right? It should make us feel great, right? Well...sort of. Worshipers and worship leaders need to take a good, hard look at the Scriptures and ask, "What is the Bible's vision of worship?" THAT starting point--not what worship we grew up with, not what worship gives us goose bumps, not even what our favorite worship leader or blogger tells us--is the only way to begin finding healthy, wholesome answers.

So, for example, we open up to the Psalms, God's only inspired grouping of top-150 worship songs. What do we see? What fills its contents? What language does it employ? What are its postures? What emotions spread across its spectrum? Well, among other things, there is a whole lot of not-so-pleasant feelings. Dark feelings. Honest feelings. Lousy feelings. And there's a reason for that. 

Over at the Worship Cohort, I spring off a wonderful quote by Matt Redman and explain why good worship should make us feel painfully scrutinized, uncomfortably exposed. In fact, if you've experienced a worship service where you haven't felt like a helpless mountaineer atop a cave-less mountain peak during a lightning storm, you haven't experienced worship's fullness.

In this post, I explore Isaiah's own journey into lousy-feeling worship, and I explain how the Biblical and Reformational dynamics of Law and Gospel are at play when we gather corporately as God's people. Here's a choice, quote, but please go read the post.

Do we worship leaders recognize that part of worship’s job is to make us feel uncomfortable for a time? Contained in a well-balanced, full-bodied worship service should be at least a moment where each and every one of us feels jerked to a halt under the white-hot scrutiny of God’s holy eye. The holiness of God should feel, among other things, like the unrelenting sun in a shade-less desert. You can’t run from its blistering rays.


If You Can Only Go to One Conference This Year...

We couldn't say it ten years ago, but nowadays, there are so many great conferences to choose from. God is raising up amazing conferences on church life, worship, spiritual formation, preaching, the Christian journey, mission, and on and on. But though I will attend and be a part of several conferences over the next twelve months, one, I believe, stands out. It stands out because I've witnessed what it does to people for several years now. I'm talking about the Liberate Conference.

What is it About?

The Liberate Conference is dedicated, each and every year, to championing how the message of the gospel impacts everything. Some conferences have general themes that often feel loosely tied together by common words and phrases. This conference is laser-beam-focused on how the good news for desperate sinners like you and me teases itself out in every arena of life. This is a conference for the burned out and tired. It's a conference for people whose life and ministry feels weighed and found wanting. It's one of the few (maybe only) conferences where you don't walk away feeling more burdened with all the things you need to do to right the ship, but rather resting and restored in the fact that Jesus already did it.

This year's theme is "It is Finished." All aspects of the conference are dedicated to exploring how Christ's finished work on our behalf sets us free from all kinds of tangible, enslaving burdens.

Who's Speaking?

Tullian Tchividjian
Steve Brown
Elyse Fitzpatrick
Eric Metaxas
Paul Tripp
Derwin Gray
Sally Lloyd-Jones
Scotty Smith
David Zahl
Justin Holcomb
Jessica Thompson 

...and more (including me) 

What Am I Doing There?

1. I'm leading music throughout the conference. It was the highlight of my year last February to lead singing for a packed house full of people desperately shouting their need for Jesus. Our musicians and I (including my partners in crime: Julie Anne Vargas, Chelsea Chen, Matt Calderin and Jeff Adkins) will pull out all the stops with our own unique pipe-rock sound. :)

2. I'm speaking on liberating worship. I will be leading an hour-long breakout at the pastors' pre-conference on Thursday (2/19), at 2pm. I will be sketching what I think are the most important aspects of worship as it relates to the gospel of the finished work of Jesus. I'll talk about everything from service-structure and song-selection to how we actually pastor people in the gospel through our planning and worship leadership.

3. We'll be releasing our third EP, "Come and Make Us Free," with Coral Ridge Music. Every conference attendee gets a FREE ALBUM in their conference pack. It will include six tracks of gospel-soaked originals, including our confession song, "Come and Make Us Free," and our reworked versions of a few hymns. (If you're only noticing that we have one EP so far, that's because we're releasing another one in November.)

The Deets

Feb 19-22, 2015
Ft. Lauderdale, FL (Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church)
It's $80 for a single ticket and $65 for a group of 5+, if you register before 9/30. 
(From there, the prices go up!) 


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