Search this site
My Book


Coral Ridge Music Releases - Chelsea Chen Live at Coral Ridge

Friends, I'm so excited to let you know about the release of a live concert recording that our young organist, Chelsea Chen, performed last year on our 7,000-pipe Ruffatti organ. There's a lot of off thinking out there when it comes to musical style in the church these days. One of those skewed ideas is that the pipe organ has no place in the modern church music paradigm. A year ago I engaged an experimental thought project about what the future of the pipe organ might be because of the shifting of the guard in old downtown historic churches, and only a few months ago, I sat at a conference table at Wheaton College with a selected handful of faculty, publishers, and artists who were all asking the question about how the pipe organ fits in the present and the future of church music. I'm thrilled to be a part of a church that is asking that question and seeking answers through generous practices like melding rock music with all of the wonderful aesthetics a pipe organ has to offer.

As we go about those explorations, we continue to be committed to supporting local, national, and international organists who are at the top of their field in our annual concert series.

When I sat through Chelsea's concert last year, I witnessed several in the audience whose preconceptions about the organ were blown away by the sounds, colors, styles, and expressions that an organ can offer when commanded by the hands, feet, intellect, and artistry of a great organist. Chelsea Chen Live at Coral Ridge is a time-stamped testimony to the continued relevance and power of an enduring instrument in the history of church music. 

The whole concert was glorious. My favorite moment was the surprising color that came from "Miroir," by modern composer Ad Wammes. Its minimalist feel with its salsa-like groove struck a particular chord with me.

Please tell all your friends about this project! It's available on iTunes and bandcamp.


The Difference Between Worshiping God and Worshiping Worship

(a reworked post from 2011)

“Idolatry happens when we take good things and make them ultimate things.”  ~Tim Keller 

The following comparisons are meant to be provocative and evocative. Even if stark statements like these generalize and absolutize a bit too much, one thing I have learned from reading the reformers is that the discipline of "dialectic," as they called it (roughly, the practice of pitting ideas and statements against each other for the sake of disputation and dialogue), yields a lot of helpful clarifications. So, I encourage you to take these in that light.

These observations have overflowed from the boiling pot of my own wayward heart and ministry. Read one way, these are my personal confessions on public display. At one time or another, I have been guilty of crossing the line into all of these.  Truth be told, for followers of Jesus, “worshiping God” versus “worshiping worship” is less an issue of either/or and more an issue of both/and--part of our lifelong journey of being simul justus et peccator.  Christians who have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them and yet still fight the sin in our members know that even our best praise is mixed with some idolatry.  As Coral Ridge's weekly doxology sings, "My best good works are powerless to satisfy Your righteousness." May the Spirit continue to root out our idolatry and beat back the flesh.  Lord, have mercy.

* * * * *

Worshipers of God care less about their personal preferences in worship.
Worshipers of worship care intensely about their personal preferences in worship.

Worshipers of God are more easily blessed in worship.
Worshipers of worship are more easily bothered in worship.

Worshipers of God approach worship as receivers and vessels.
Worshipers of worship approach worship as appraisers and evaluators.

Worshipers of God tend to approach their pastors and worship leaders more often with words of encouragement and thankfulness.
Worshipers of worship tend to approach their pastors and worship leaders more often with words of criticism and admonishment.

Worshipers of God more instinctively flex when elements are out of their comfort zone.
Worshipers of worship more instinctively bristle when elements are out of their comfort zone.

Worshipers of God are inspired by beautiful art to love God more.
Worshipers of worship are inspired by beautiful art to love beautiful art more.

Worshipers of God easily overlook and forget glitches and “errors” that happen in worship.
Worshipers of worship fixate on and can’t get past glitches and “errors” that happen in worship.

Worshipers of God tend to leave a “good” worship service loving God more.
Worshipers of worship tend to leave a “good” worship service loving worship services more.

Worshipers of God tend to leave a “bad” worship service loving God more.
Worshipers of worship tend to leave a “bad” worship service bothered.

Worshipers of God tend to leave worship with a renewed sense of awe and thanksgiving.
Worshipers of worship tend to leave worship ready to dialogue about what worked and what didn’t.


The Worship Pastor - Book Update #1

(Read the initial post)
(Read Update #2

Book Update #1

Thank you all for your continued interest in the content of my book, The Worship Pastor. It's scheduled to release in October 2016 (that's NEXT year, folks). Some of you have been asking about its progress, so here's a brief update.

My manuscript was due on October 1, and I met that deadline...thankfully. The editor has been reading through it and passing it on to a few other readers for feedback. I'll work on polishing off some final edits in December, and the project, as far as the content goes, should get wrapped up by the end of the year.

Why, then, will it take so long? As seasoned authors know (I'm a newbie), it takes a while to get the book proofed and typeset so that it's ready for printing. Typically, once it's typeset, it gets passed to a few people for edits. A few designs will need to be made for some of the charts and graphics I employ throughout the book, and hopefully the book gets into the hands of some folks who would be willing to endorse it. In short, the design and review process takes a while, even before the book goes to print.

But...that's where it's at. It was a joy to write. It ministered to me and spoke to me in the midst of some pretty heavy pastoral situations in 2015. I'm not quite sure how it all got finished, but I ended up hitting the deadline and my target word count. The Worship Pastor hopes to straddle a (maybe impossible) divide as a resource both for young, emerging worship leaders who aren't devouring books at a massive rate (therefore, short-ish, somewhat stand alone chapters and technicalities relegated to footnotes), and educational institutions and educated pastors and worship leaders (therefore, substantive footnoting and interaction with theological concepts).

Again, everyone, thanks for your interest. I'll try to keep you updated as it develops. In the meantime, though, be aware that I'll be out and about dialoguing about these ideas, and I'd love for you to join me in one of these places. First stop: Pittsburgh and Grand Rapids in January!


Oceans, Rivers, and Other Two-Sided Biblical Images in Worship Songs

Two Thirds of Our Globe (and worship songs, so it seems)

It's high tide for nautical themes in worship songs. "Oceans"-makers, Hillsong Worship, have another album out, OPEN HEAVEN / River Wild. The title track alludes to the outpouring of the Spirit prophesied in Joel and bridges the connection to what happens in worship. There are a couple of metaphors running through the song--prominent biblical imagery for the Holy Spirit: fire and rain. The Bridge gets to the center of the aquatic theme:

Living water
River wild in me
Immerse me
In Your mercy
Open heaven
Crashing over me
Restore me
In Your glory

I love the cross-pollination of biblical metaphors. I hear hints of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels and Revelation ("living water"), Hebrews' language for God ("consuming fire"), and lots of pneumatology ("fire," "burn," "rain," "flood"), baptismal language ("Immerse me"). There's a kind of under-the-surface Trinitarianism haunting the song, whether or not the songwriters had that in mind. I'm grateful for that.

Oceanic Psalms

I was recently reading Psalm 88, and I was reminded, though, that the nautical imagery of Scripture is more broad than some of our worship songs may lead us to believe. Now, we can grant that there are plenty of worship songs, recent and fairly recent, that have highlighted sea-storm imagery as a picture of suffering, uncertainty, and doubt (e.g. Elevation's "Last Word," Hillsong's "Cornerstone," even "Oceans" to a degree), but I'm referring here more specifically to the biblical pictures of waves crashing and bodies of water overwhelming and overtaking us. Psalm 88 shares a different perspective on what that experience is like:

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily upon me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
(Psalm 88:6-7, NIV)

It reminds me of another Psalm that we often take out of context and put on it a positive spin when the Psalmist's experience is anything but positive. After talking about his downcast soul, the Psalmist exclaims:

Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me. 
(Psalm 42:7, NIV)

A Double-Edged Sword

Scripture's maritime themes are actually a wonderful illustration of the way God works in our lives. Water, over and over again, is used as a two-part sign. The same split Red Sea that heraled the redemption of Israel came crashing down, drowning Egypt in God's holy condemnation. The imagery of water-changed-into-something is simultaneously a sign of blessing and future joy (think of Jesus turning the water into wine at Cana), and judgment of sin (think of Moses turning the water into blood). Noah's flood was both condemnation and liberation. Baptism itself is a gruesome murder scene (drowning the Old Adam in death) before it is freedom (resurrection in Christ's life) (Rom 6). 

Paul has labeled this dialectic, this Scriptural understanding of the two ways God's Word comes to us, the "letter" and the "Spirit." He says, "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor 3:6). This "letter" is "the ministry that brought death...engraved in letters on stone...the ministry that condemns men" (2 Cor 3:7-9). This "Spirit" is "the surpassing glory" of "the ministry that brings righteousness" (2 Cor 3:9-10). The Reformers, picking up on this and taking cues from the way Paul uses this dialectic in other passages like Romans 3 and Galatians 2, labeled these two voices "Law" and "Gospel."

The Naked God

I think Paul's theology of Law and Gospel is helpful when we think of employing Scriptural imagery like "oceans" and "rivers" (and "fire," for that matter) in our worship songs. We need to be remember that being immersed in the flood of God's presence is first terrifying (Law) before it is comforting (Gospel)...just ask Isaiah. We need to remember that asking God to "consume me" is first judgment (Deut 4:24; Heb 12:29) before it is grace (Eph 5:18). "Immanuel" ("God with us") was for the prophets a frightening reality before it was a comforting one. 

And a song like "Oceans" teeters there, exposing what Luther called Deus nudus ("the naked God," or "the hidden God"), that mysterious and frankly scary side of God that we barely understand: "You call me out upon the waters / the great unknown / where feet may fail." Granted, the song is more about Peter, faith, and trust in the midst of uncertainty, but you hear in those lines a nod to oceanic themes being something other than just a warm, cozy blanket.

Let's Round Out the Imagery

My encouragement with this post is to allow the Psalms to offer course corrections and fill out the Scriptural voice. In any era, and on any bandwagon (or yacht, as it were), we'll always inadvertently forget a few important items at port once we set sail into the great unknown. Those of us who write, think, and live in the modern worship era need to be aware of a few blind spots when it comes to worship and some of the more negative, heavy, and weighty realities of the Christian's life before the face of God. I'm thinking here of confession, lamentation, suffering, etc. 

My hope is that there will be a few brave, influential songwriters who will write some oceanic songs that sound more like Psalms 42 and 88, so that we can be more fully immersed in our experience of the letter and the Spirit and give voice in our worship to all the fears, doubts, concerns, and burdens that we all bring to the table when we gather for weekly worship.


Join Me in January!

I'd love to invite you to two different opportunities to connect and grow in worship leading and songwriting. I'll be collaborating with some great institutions to do some important teaching and reflection on our craft, and I'd love for you to join me! The first will be an opportunity for a more intimate gathering, and the second will be one of the best mega-worship conferences on earth.

Writing Songs for Today's Church

Trinity School for Ministry (Ambridge, PA) | January 4-6, 2016

This will be a more focused and intimate gathering on the campus of an established Anglican seminary outside of Pittsburgh. I will be joining veteran worship leader, songwriter, and thinker, Andy Piercy, and author and Yale professor, Dr. Maggi Dawn. We will all be bringing some pretty unique perspectives to songwriting, and I think that the coming together of these angles will yield some fascinating discussions. I've been to one of these seminars before as a participant, and my favorite part was the interaction with the great group of folks in the room. I've made some lasting friendships and partnerships in this venue.

My angle will be in talking about the nature of songwriting in interaction with the hymn tradition, "Making Old Things New." The cost is $120 for the three days. Read more about it here.

Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship

Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI) | January 28-30, 2016

I love this conference. It is massive, deep, and rich. There is something for everyone, and you won't be disappointed. I will be participating in three things:

Thursday Morning: Best Contemporary Worship Music You May Not Know
A panel discussion with David M. Bailey, Bruce Benedict, Emmett Price, Wen Reagen, Sandra van Opstal, moderated by Monique Ingalls

I love these people. This will be a fascinating discussion. 

Thursday Afternoon: The Worship Leader as Pastoral Musician
A panel discussion with David M. Bailey, Rawn Harbor, Ed Willmington, Monique Ingalls, Sandra van Opstal.

Ditto what I said for Thursday morning.

Friday & Saturday Workshop 
The Worship Pastor: Thinking Through the Pastoral Dimensions of Worship Leading

This will be my seminar where I explore many of the themes in my forthcoming book, The Worship Pastor. Here's the description:

Whether we know it or not, we worship leaders are pastors. The services we plan and lead have a formative effect on the worshipers with whom we gather weekly. The question is not if people are being formed by our leadership, but how. In this workshop, we will explore various vignettes, different lenses through which we might see the pastoral ministry of worship leading. In a mixture of biblical framing and practical application, we will look at the Worship Pastor through metaphors like Prayer Leader, Theological Dietician, Caregiver, Mortician, War General, and Emotional Shepherd. 

As you can imagine, I'm pumped about this one. 

The good news about this conference, too, is that if you don't like me, it's so big you can totally avoid seeing me altogether and still get a lot of positive things out of this week! :) Check out the conference website here.



Should We Do Worship Songs from Churches With Bad Theology?

This is a hot-button issue. And on this one, I differ with a lot of people that I highly respect and appreciate. Over at Reformed Worship, I argue for an open-handed yet pastorally sensitive approach to incorporating worship songs from origins whose theology might be suspect. Please go read my article, "Worship Songs as Trojan Horses."


Thoughts on Missional Worship

Occasionally, I guest post over at the Reformed Worship blog. Most recently, they published some practical reflections of mine on the relationship between worship and mission in a post entitled, "The Biology of Missional Worship." I highlight an important recent book on the subject and the great metaphors contained therein. And then, based on one of my favorite worship theologians, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, I offer an additional metaphor.

Usually, worship and mission are discussed in separate spheres, such that when they are finally discussed together, it often seems like we need to do a lot of reconcilation work. In another post, I talked about how some of the branches of the missional movement has tended to downplay worship. Likewise, we might say that there are some churches whose focus is so singularly on the corporate worship experience (all their resources of time, energy, and man/woman-power go there) often lose sight of the call to mission that is in the very DNA of what it means to be the Church. My plea in this post in Reformed Worship is for us not to see worship and mission in competition but in symbiotic (mutually life-giving) relationship. Again, I offer a metaphor that I think helps.

Go read the post! (And, keep in mind that these thoughts get fleshed out in greater detail in my chapter, "The Worship Pastor as Missionary," in the forthcoming book The Worship Pastor [Zondervan, 2016]).


A Theological Reason Why Worship Leaders Need to Take Naps on Sunday Afternoons

I'm Not Playing Around

Maybe it sounds a bit cheeky. Perhaps it sounds like overextending an idea's reach or, worse, a justification for sloth. However, I think there's a very good theological reason why we worship leaders often find ourselves pillow-side on Sunday afternoons. For me, it's very personal and autobiographical.

I began thinking about all this over the last few months as our church is picking up the pieces of a major tragedy. Since the news hit our church family several months ago, I've found myself more exhausted on Sunday afternoons. I began to take inventory. Was I getting up earlier than usual on Sunday mornings? Was I staying up too late on Saturdays? Was I putting together more demanding and difficult music? Were our liturgies more complex, requiring additional brain power and on-the-ball concentration? Was it my thyroid? Did my wife just have another baby? Am I just getting older?

No, not really. 

The Center of the Ring

Scripture tells us that worship is a fierce battleground. When the people of God gather for praise, prayer, confession, lamentation, and hope--when we gather around the gospel--God, in real time, sets up a heavenly outpost smack dab in the middle of the prince of darkness's territory. In military terms, worship is the "red zone" of Christ's war against Satan. How do we know this?

Remember that key moment at the beginning of the ministry of Christ when, after being filled with the Holy Spirit, He was sent into the wilderness and tempted by Satan. It was, for Jesus, the place where the King of Kings would first face off against the prince of this world, to claim, in effect, "Your days are numbered, and there's nothing you can do about it." Recall, though, Jesus' final temptation:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." (Matt 4:9, ESV)

What Satan wants more than anything else is worship, adoration, adulation. The devil seeks to be God, and he is literally hell-bent on deceiving this world into believing that God really isn't God. Satan, more than anything else, longs to rob Christ of the worship He is rightfully due.

So when the Scriptures tell us that "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12, ESV), make no mistake that worship is the center of that wrestling ring.

War Generals

Jesus, as King (with the ancient concept of King in mind), is the chief Warrior. "Lord Sabaoth" (i.e. the Lord of Hosts, the God of Angel Armies), is His Name. He has "King of kings and Lord of lords" tattooed on His thigh (Rev 19:16). 

We worship leaders stand behind our King as one of the War Generals, leading the battle of praise each Sunday. We operate on the front lines, wielding the weapons of prayer, song, and especially the Word of God. Spiritually and physically (the two are not as so easily divisible as some philosophers want you to believe), it is hard work.

People often speak of worship as a "recharging" and "refueling." This is very true. For in worship, the Son of Man comes to serve, not be served. We receive the blessings of Christ by Christ. Still, we can equally say that when we are engaged in worship, and when the people of God are engaged, worship is an exhausting enterprise. You may look around the room, and it may appear to be just another average Sunday--the mixed crowd of yawners, phone-checkers, hand-raisers, and weepers. But make no mistake, the spiritual realm is bustling with life, frenzied activity, and, yes, war.

And as is the case with many hard efforts, you often don't realize how exhausting it is until after it is over. Worship, as warfare, is physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually exhausting. Filled with the Spirit, it is lighter labor and an easy yoke, but it is nevertheless still work

So, while there may be other good reasons to take a nap on Sunday afternoons (including the fact that it is the Christian's day of rest), remember that worship is war, and war is wearisome. Therefore, worship leader, in the deepest sense, when worship is over, rest in peace.

* * * * *

Shameless plug: This is an area of exploration in my forthcoming book, The Worship Pastor, due out with Zondervan in Fall 2016. I have an entire chapter devoted to "The Worship Pastor as War General." Read more about the book here.