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A Brief Theology of Volume Levels in Worship

Regardless of your tradition, volume may be one of the top three perennial “unsolvable” problems in worship planning and leading. No matter which way you go, someone is unhappy. Too loud? People feel discouraged from singing because they can’t hear themselves. Too soft? People feel discouraged from singing because they can hear themselves! And this isn’t merely a problem for churches with million-dollar sound systems and rock aesthetics. It’s a problem I’ve heard articulated by folks who feel the organ is too loud (or too soft) in a traditional service. There are people with hearing problems or hearing sensitivities that complain about how worship can be literally painful to endure. Yet others don’t have a formulated reason beyond “I don’t like it.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a prayer card disguised as a complaint about volume: “Please pray for the drummer who feels it’s his job to make us all deaf” is a paraphrase of one “prayer card” I received years ago on a Monday morning. So, yes, volume is a hot issue.

No Resolution?

And it also seems like it’s not a resolvable issue. Inevitably, if you make a decision which sides with one group’s persuasion, you are deciding directly and actively against another group’s persuasion. For those of us in charge of making these decisions, it feels lose-lose. My general opinion about volume levels has been a kind of happy medium: loud enough that the music fills the space, encouraging the people to sing out without feeling exposed, yet in the quieter moments offers key times where the congregation can clearly hear themselves singing mightily. For me, when I have strived for that, it seems that the complaints have gone down to a minimum (not completely gone!) and musical worship has been most strengthened. However, I think there’s something slightly more nuanced—more pastoral—at play here.

If you’ve read my book, you know it’s my belief that every decision we make in worship is a pastoral one, whether we know it or not. In other words, nothing in worship—not even decibel level—is outside the governance of faithful, biblical reflection. I’d like to offer some brief biblical and pastoral reflections on volume level in hopes that worship leaders, sound technicians, and congregants alike can see that they are all participating in real, biblical, pastoral work as they process and facilitate the “sound environment” of their worship spaces. And to do this, we turn once again to worship’s great biblical barometer—the Psalms.

1. The Bible tells us worship should be LOUD.

Listen to these commands: “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts” (Psalm 33:3); “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” (Psalm 47:1); “Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150:5). Joy, again and again in the Psalms, seems to be associated with pushing the faders up, pressing the organ volume pedal to the floor, and turning the amps up to eleven. The joy of salvation and deliverance is expressed in shouts (Psalm 20:5; 27:6; 32:7, 11; 33:1; 35:27; 42:4; 47:5; 65:8; 66:1; 81:1; 89:15; 126:2; 132:9). Trumpets (no mutes in the ancient Near East) were blasted (Ps 47:5; 98:6; 150:3). So it seems that the loud end of the dynamic spectrum is appropriate for worship music. 

2. The Bible tells us worship should be SOFT.

Equally present in the Psalms is the expression on the other end of the sonic spectrum. “I have calmed and quieted my soul” is what one worship song sings (Psalm 131:2). Psalm 95 provides that contrast. Verses 1-5 express loud, thankful, jubilant worship. But Verses 6-7 encourage a different posture: bowed, quiet, reverent. Alongside the admonitions to leap, clap, and shout are the edifying words that whisper “be still” (Ps 37:7; 46:10) and “wait” (Ps 25:5, 21; 33:20; 37:7; 130:5). As one desperate worship song puts it, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps 62:1,5). In the Psalms, therefore, we hear that low decibels, even a zero reading, are appropriate for worship music.

Pastoral Choices That Lead to “Faithful Feelings”

So if we look to the Scriptures for a “biblical theology of volume in worship,” we hear something that defies almost all our categories. We hear a word that tells us that God wants it all—the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It’s not so much, then, of whether worship should be loud or soft, but at what moments. How might we navigate this wide spectrum as faithful pastors? Well, it might start by recognizing our job as emotional shepherds. We have a role in faithfully guiding the people of God through a holistic experience (emotions included) of worship’s rhythms and story. What if we began to see volume not as something that needed to be solved with a one-size-fits-all level that works for the most people? What if we understood that volume was an affective tool to faithfully and pastorally wield in the art and craft of disciple making? What if we got our musicians, sound technicians, and congregants on board with a mode of thinking that worship is a journey though a story, and that story has ups and downs, highs and lows, louds and softs? What if our congregation learned how to be more faithfully Christian “feelers” of the loud and raucous joy of God’s glory and salvation, of the quiet contrition of confession and repentance, of the piercing moans and groans of lamentation, of the weary sighs of mourning? What if our noise trained us to be more faithful Davids who were loud in their gladness to enter the house of the Lord (Ps 122:1)? What if our silence trained us to be more faithful “watchmen” who quietly waited for the morning (Ps 130:6)?

And now we can see how our aesthetic choices about dynamics are really opportunities for pastoring. We see now that from the electric guitarist’s amp level, to the organist’s use of their antiphonal division, to the sound tech’s fingers on the main faders—these are all moments where every believer can take up their call as a “priest” in ministering to their sister and their brother. Hopefully a post like this can open up fresh dialogue on a topic that in many churches feels weary, old, or hardened.


A Pastoral Reflection on Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"

I've been preparing as a student for a most unique course on "Doctrine for Preaching and Pastoral Care," with Dr. Jonathan Linebaugh at Knox Seminary. It will happen in a few weeks. He has us reading some unconventional (and splendid) material. The course is particularly designed to intersect with my English Reformation tract, as it is attempting to exposit the pastoral heart behind the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Along with a few great theological books, we have been tasked to read novels by George Eliot, Mark Rutherford, Thornton Wilder, and William Inge, and poetry by Oscar Wilde and Samuel Johnson.

Below is what I would describe as a "pastoral exposition" of a moving poem by Oscar Wilde, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." Do yourself a favor and spend an hour soaking in this poem.

* * * * * * *

Where Souls In Pain Find No Comfort

How can a guilty murderer look toward his day of execution with restful surrender, without guile or self-deception? Oscar Wilde’s answer is, “In Christ.” The “Ballad of Reading Gaol” recounts a prisoner’s observation of another prisoner’s peace and freedom as he approaches the hangman’s noose—the unavoidable consequence for killing his wife in cold “blood and wine.” The convict’s freedom was evident in the prison yard—a “light and gay” bounce to his step, and a wistful gazing at the sky as if to say, with Dorothy, “There’s no place like home.”

The narrator exposits the gracelessness of prison, where “souls in pain” find no comfort—not from the Chaplain, not from the Sheriff, not from the Governor, not from the guards who watch the death-bound murderer weep and pray. The other guilty prisoners look upon him and see their own eventual fate, and they dread it. This dread accounts for the shock they experience as they observe his peace. Their “endless vigil” of anxious prayer the night before the murderer’s execution is contrasted with his deep sleep. And he goes to the gallows a free man, freer than anyone in the prison—including Chaplain, Sheriff, Governor, and guard. The noose is the murderer’s gateway to Paradise.

Hopelessness Leading to Hope

Wilde’s prisoner would agree with Paul Zahl that perhaps the best exterior sign on a church’s door should read “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,”[1] for salvation and freedom only begin at the end of Hope, “in the cave of black despair” (II.3.4). Wilde’s murderer found no freedom until he found no hope in himself and was forced to look out and up. And when he looked up, he found that “only blood can wipe out blood, and only tears can heal.” He found “Christ’s snow-white seal” (V.17.3-4, 6). The doomed prisoner discovered the only thing that would set him free: “the loftiest place is that seat of grace for which all worldlings try” (II.8.1-2). The murderer discovered that, even while he was yet a murderer, Christ died for him (Rom 5:8).

Wilde’s ultimate point, though, has less to do with the murderer and more to do with everyone else (including you and me). After a blunt critique of society and the justice system in Part V, Part VI offers the punchline—we are all the murderer. In the Spirit of Christ in His Sermon on the Mount, Wilde ratchets the bolt of the law, so that none can escape its bind:

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword! (VI.3)

The Futility of Separating Wheat and Tares

Perhaps Wilde would have pastors see that there is very little (really no) good in sorting our congregations into the good and the bad. We are all prisoners. We are all murderers. The only response, then, is grace and comfort to every last one of our parishioners. Wilde initially implies that perhaps no word of grace can exist for prisoners of this sort (and therefore us): “What word of grace in such a place could help a brother’s soul?” (III.6.5-6). But he doubles back on the question toward the end, claiming that the Word about Christ is that word of grace which can help. I translate Wilde’s warning to pastors: that pure and precious word of grace is especially given for preachers to proclaim from pulpits.

Wilde’s indictment of pastors is perhaps most pointed in his few mentions of the Chaplain who, in response to the murderer’s anguish, called twice a day and “left a little tract” (III.3.6). In the end, the Chaplain’s ministry was as cold as the Governor who, instead of seeing a person before him, saw the need to uphold “The Regulations Act,” and the Doctor who, instead of seeing a person before him, felt it better to be clinical about death. This all feels a bit like Jesus’ storied reply to the man's self-justified question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). For pastors, then, we must be careful to not make ministry to all the “prisoners” around us clinical and formulaic. We must see that every last one of us is hurting.

Let Us Preserve the Pulpit (and the Worship Service)

May the final gauntlet thrown down on the Chaplain never be thrown down on us:

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonored grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save. (IV.22)

Let us preserve the pulpit, not for good teaching, good advice, good will, or (God help us) good fun. No, let us preserve the pulpit for Good News. Wilde would tell pastors that graceless preaching is “pitiless and hard,” and leads only to soul-rot (V.11), hastening people to their graves beside which such preaching would neither kneel to pray nor offer its cruciform seal.

Perhaps, then, the Governor, Doctor, Chaplain, and guards can be seen as metaphors of what not to do in the pulpit, and what not to do in pastoral care. We are not ultimately executors of God’s law, clinical diagnosticians of our people’s sickness, tract-tossers of Christian platitudes, and gatekeepers whose sole job is to tow the line of church discipline. We are heralds of a Word of peace to a people nightly tormented by guilt.

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” helps me see that even the most hardened person before me is really “the little frightened child” who “weeps both night and day” (V.5.1-2). God, give me eyes to see and ears to hear.


[1] Paul F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 232.

Making Changes to Your Worship Service in the Light of Pastoral Care...what History Teaches Us

You're Not "Just the Music Guy"

We worship leaders tend to think too lowly of ourselves. "I'm just the music guy." If we don't say it, we often think it. Many of us are simply unaware of just how much we shape the people we lead. In fact, the way people are formed through our leadership looks strangely like the way disciples are made under other, well, pastors.

I've been jumping in an out of a teriffic old book called Pastoral Liturgy, by Roman Catholic liturgiologist, J. A. Jungmann. Toward the end of the book, Jungmann begins to jam on some under-thought-about themes of worship leading an pastoral ministry. Here's a great little section. If the word "liturgy" is tripping you up, just think, "worship."

The liturgy [i.e. worship] is the life of the Church...In all ages the priesthood [i.e. the pastorate] has seen its most sublime function to be the carrying out of public worship at the head of their assembled people. But in the times when the form of the liturgy was in a state of flux [i.e. when worship was changing] they had another special task as well. It had to create these forms and regulate them. What attitudes of mind lay behind the creation of these forms? Where do we find the key to the mystery of these varied and often enigmatic forms of words, to this alteration of reading, hymns, and prayers, to this wealth of movement and ceremony? Why, in general, this multiplicity of forms? The answer lies in the care of [the Church], for the Church...led by its pastors and even during its sojourn on this earth, are to offer worthy service to God and so to become sanctified. This care was decisive in the shaping of public worship. It accounts for everything.*

Jungmann goes on to explain himself, but let's focus on his main point and attempt to translate it to our context. Jungmann is asking the question, "What is to account for all the changes that worship has undergone over the years?" Jungmann's answer is, overwhelmingly a pastoral motivation. In other words, if we start to investigate the origins of why old liturgies were tweaked, modified, updated, reorganized, added to, subtracted from, etc., we find at their core a group of pastors committed to the belief that worship shapes the flock of God. Perhaps it is the case that if we want to study pastoral ministry at its finest (beyond the Richard Baxters and the Gregory the Greats who left us with golden reflections on the life and work of the pastor) we should look at the history of how worship was edited over the years. What a thought!

Compare & Contrast...Shifting Motivations?

Now, compare this with all the reasons we tend to give for wanting to change our worship practices. Just think about it. Chances are, you and I are all culpable in the shift of motivations: Whereas once worship was changed for pastoral reasons, now it is largely changed for pragmatic reasons. We do things differently because those new practices "work" better than the old ones. And the evangelical return back to more overtly liturgical forms of worship betrays that we are becoming aware of not just something deficient about all those changes, but actually mal-formative. Something in all the changes of our worship practices has begun to take its toll on us as a worshiping community. 

Hear me out. I am not decrying all the changes we've made. Nor am I decrying the fact that we've made changes. Changes aren't the problem. Again, it's the "Why." Why are we making these changes? One could say that, perhaps in the best of light, evangelicalism's worship changes come from a missionary impulse--a desire to "reach the lost at any cost." Our desire, as evangelists, is that the Gospel become clear and unobscured by unnecessary pageantry, formality, unfamiliarity, etc. This is a fair point. And certainly, mission and evangelism are parts of a pastoral instinct.

However, if we're going to go there (again, that's the best of lights), we still need to see that pastoral motivations and evangelistic ones might be overlapping spheres, but they aren't identical. Maybe, too, at some points they clash. The goal of this post isn't to go too far in critique. Rather, hopefully it serves as a bit of a wake up call to a whole realm of thought that has characterized church worship decisions for millenia. Church leadership made decisions about changing worship largely in order to care better for their local flocks

As we make decisions about changing worship, we need to spend some time asking not only, "Who do we want to reach out there?", but, "Who has God already brought us right here?" O Worship Pastor, who is before The people before us now are most obviously those that God has called us to care for because they're, well, there. A great set of questions to ask, when making a change to worship is: 

  • How does this change help us to better care for the people of our church? 
  • Will this change help people to see God more clearly? engage Him for faithfully? hear Him more fully? know Him more deeply? 
  • Will this change further our hopes that they are formed in the Gospel and shaped more deeply as disciples of Christ?

And, yes, all these thoughts are fresh on my brain and haunting me because I'm writing about them in my little contribution to the worship conversation. My book, The Worship Pastor, is due out in 2016, Lord-willing and the creek don't rise, as my mom would say. Read about it here.

*J. A. Jungmann, Pastoral Liturgy (New York: Herder & Herder, 1962), 369.

How Worship is the Most Important Form of Pastoral Care

I've been working on my book, The Worship Pastor (read about it here), and I came across this fabulous quote. Keep in mind that this is a Roman Catholic writer making these observations:

For centuries, the liturgy, actively celebrated, has been the most important form of pastoral care. This was especially true of those centuries in which the liturgy was being created. Unfavourable conditions brought it about that in the late Middle Ages, in spite of the liturgy being celebrated and developed in numerous churches with great fervour and magnificence by collegiate clergy and monastic communities, a veil became drawn between the liturgy and the people, a veil through which the faithful could only dimly see what was happening at the altar. Even in all this we can still see how pastoral concern led to the development and adaptation of the liturgy.*

I can't amen this enough. I've seen, time and again, that thoughtful, passionate, and intentional worship leadership yields pastoral care for the people of God. People can tell when you're caring for them. People can feel that you love them. And people can sense when a worship service creates a context of care.

We often think of pastoral care as an individualized enterprise outside worship: counseling sessions, hospital calls, in-home visits, praying for individuals’ needs, and presiding over funerals. These are all vital, indispensible care practices of any pastor. But the Church’s history offers a different paradigm for the center, the starting place, of all pastoral care. It tells a story of pastors who see the core of their ministry to sick, hurting, wounded sheep happening in the context of leading worship. Worship is the ground zero of pastoral care. It is the place where all pastoral care rightly begins, and without it, all other forms of pastoral care lose their meaning and power.

The people who darken our doors each Sunday come bruised and battered. They are exhausted by life's demands and their failure to meet them. They are beaten up by their sin and the effects of others' sin on them. They come in desperately needing a word of relief. Our worship services need to be so much more than motivational talks and pump-you-up sessions. We need so much more than good advice and a few inspiring songs. Maybe even more to the point, our worship services need to feel less like therapy and more like a heart transplant (Ezek 36:26). Only telling the story of sin and grace can do that. 

If this is true, then one of the best ways, week in and week out, that we can care for the people of God is to give them a worship service that walks them through the story of the Gospel, giving moments to highlight the glory of God (Call & Praise), the gravity of sin (Confession), and the grandeur of grace (Absolution & Assurance). In short, the Gospel is balm for the weak and weary, and worship is where God chooses to most liberally pour out that Word in song, sermon, and sacrament.

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). 

*J. A. Jungmann, Pastoral Liturgy (New York: Herder & Herder, 1962), 380.

How Singing Together Rehearses Mutual Submission

As I'm writing my book, I'm enjoying the disciplined privilege of dialoguing with old friends and mentors who sit on my shelves, reminding me of their ministry to my life. I was cracking open one relatively recent "old friend," Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Music and Theology, edited by Jeremy Begbie and Steven Guthrie. I opened up Steven Guthrie's amazing chapter, "The Wisdom of Song," to discover fierce underlining. Many of the ideas I had interacted with in those pages were forgotten, and rediscovering them was like finding an old tool that I thoguht I'd lost. I'd like to share an insight from that chapter which should inspire worship leaders struggling to figure out just how their work actually pastors people. It will encourage you.

Ephesians 5:18-21 is one of those hallmark passages that we often forget when we talk about worship and being "Spirit-filled." Often times, we can get pretty narrow in what we think "Spirit-filled" worship looks like. (I address some of that in detail here.) Ephesians 5 helps us broaden that out. In teaching Greek, some professors will point out that this passage is one of those places where English translations have done a poor job in connecting the ideas of the Greek. In the original language, we have an imperative (a command), followed by a string of participles ("-ing" words) which help flesh out what that command looks like. In Greek, the command is "be filled with the Spirit," and the "how" gets described in the participles, "speaking...singing and making thanks...submitting." We can observe several things here.

First, as we probably have all experienced, speaking/singing/making music are all ways we embody being filled with the Spirit. Second (probably more surprising), submitting to one another is another one of those ways. And third, look at how closely singing and submitting are linked in this passage. Now let's sprinkle a little musical reflection on top of this and hear what Steve Guthrie has to say:

What kind of mutual submission happens in song? For one thing, singing words together involves synchronicity--staying in time with one another. The singers submit themselves to a common tempo, a common musical structure and rhythm. In addition to this, those who sing surrender to the constraints of a particular melody and harmony, a common key and tonal hierarchy. As they submit in this way they discover limits that are not oppressive; limits that do not frustrate but facilitate the participants' intention to sing. If this mutual submission entails the loss of one sort of freedom (the freedom to sing whatever notes one wants, in whatever way one chooses), it also enables freedom of another sort--the freedom to sing this tune; the freedom to be part of a chorus. ...

Even in the midst of our bickering, we all would have affirmed the wisdom of Paul's command: "submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ." With each week's opening hymns, however, we're forced to rehearse this mutual submission, and as we did, we learned how such submission is enacted in song.*

Did that blow your mind like it did mine? In singing, we "rehearse" our Spirit-filled mutual submission. That means that we, as worship leaders, are pastoring this Spirit-filled virtue into our flock when we lead them in song. Perhaps even without us knowing it, we are contributing to the positive shaping of the Body of Christ into the image of Christ by the power of the Spirit. Worship leaders, you are pastors.

*Steven R. Guthrie, "The Wisdom of Song," in Resonant Witness; Conversations Between Music and Theology, ed. Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 400-401, 407.

So...I'm writing a book


(Read UPDATE #1)
(Read UPDATE #2)

I'm very excited to announce to my readers that I've got a book coming down the pipeline. I'm joining forces with a great team of folks over at Zondervan to deliver a project that has been on my heart for quite a while.

The Back Story

For the last five years, I've been thinking long and hard about my own journey as a worship leader, and I've been thinking a lot of those thoughts out loud on this blog. I've been throwing ideas onto the wall, and in many ways, you all--my readers--have been a major help in figuring out what is truly sticking.

My own vocational journey started out as a confused, schizophrenic biography. Since my teenage years, I had sensed a strong call to pastoral ministry, and I had always thought that this call would take the shape of everything else I'd seen: preaching, teaching, visitation, leadership, weddings, funerals, etc. But, God kept on providentially shoving me down the "worship leader" road, and I kept asking Him, "So, when am I going to be able to become a pastor?" Several years ago the realization came, "I AM one, right where I am, doing just what I'm doing."

And then I started having conversations with other worship leaders who were sniffing out the same ideas in their own callings. But there was very little out there (either educationally or resource-wise) that helped us flesh out what it means for worship leaders to take seriously a pastoral call in their vocation. So we reflected together and informally learned from one another. A few years ago, I started putting those reflections down on paper and keeping a kind of "hopper" for these ideas to get dumped into. The hopper grew and grew, and I not long ago sat down to organize those tossed-in thoughts. I realized I had a pretty comprehensive outline. And, more importantly, I began to realize that God was giving me something to say that just might be helpful for some other brothers and sisters.

What the Book is About

And now I'm here. Somewhere in mid-to-late 2016, we should, Lord-willing, see a book called, The Worship Pastor hit the scene. The hope for The Worship Pastor is that it helps worship leaders flesh out just how their jobs are already a pastoral ministry and equip them to do it better. It's something that I hope both colleges/seminaries can use as an introductory resource and worship leaders can easily pick up and find a use for (that's going to be a tension I will be working hard to straddle...substantive enough for institutions, accessible enough for people without much formal training). 

Each chapter will be a vignette, a kind of metaphor for the worship leader's pastoral life. I'll tackle subjects such as the Worship Pastor as...

  • Emotional Shepherd
  • Prophetic Guardian
  • Theological Dietician
  • Caregiver
  • Mortician (yup, that's right...if my book had a soundtrack, this would be where the Scandanavian Death Metal gets played...face-melt)

I'll share a lot of stories about the good, the bad, and the ugly in my own road of worship leading, and hopefully the book will provide a lot of hope for worship leaders on all points of the journey. My desire is that The Worship Pastor might set a lot of young worship leaders on the right path. At the same time, I hope that the book might provide a renewed vision for worship leaders who have been in the trenches for quite a while and need some fresh inspiration.

Why Am I Telling You This?

So...given that the book is quite a long ways away from being in print, why in the world am I telling you about it now? First, I'm just excited. Second, I invite you to pray with and for me. You all have been such a big encouragement to me, and you're actually probably the main reason I'm writing this thing. Third, I'm going to be pouring a lot of my energies into writing, which means less time for blogging, and I wanted you to know why. The posts will continue to come, but they probably won't be as frequent.

I'm already learning how different a book project is from blogging. Each writing medium has its own advantages and disadvantages when it comes to the exchange of ideas. Writing a book with a team of editors requires a lot more discipline and provides a lot more accountability. For those reasons, I think this will be some of my best writing and integrative thinking to date. I can't wait to see what's on the other side of all this. All in all, God has really paved the way, so I'm stepping into this new facet of my call. 

I Want Your Thoughts...RIGHT NOW

The fourth reason I'm telling you this is that your feedback has been invaluable to me over the years. It's sharpened my thinking, and many times it's redirected my heart to new and better places. So...I want your feedback.  As I write on the topic of pastoring through worship leading,

  • What topics do you hope are addressed?
  • What have YOU learned that you wish someone had told you earlier?
  • Where, in your estimation, are the pastoral blind spots for worship leaders?
  • What are things I have said in the past which have been helpful or real "aha" moments for you?
  • What are things I have said in the past which need sharpening, correction, or clarification?

And...finally...some of these topics are sensitive or too long for blog comments. So...shoot me an email, too, at I welcome your help in making this book as helpful as possible for Jesus' Church.


The Worship Leader's Central Musical Task: Build Up the Body

My time at the Doxology and Theology Conference two weeks ago was rich and filling. My team and I were inspired by the messages, leaders, conversations, and camaraderie. In many ways, I felt my vocation come full circle, especially around one man, Harold Best, whose influence on me can't be overstated. His was the first book on worship and music I'd ever read. This morning, I cracked open Music Through the Eyes of Faith (my version is the sweet "vintage" edition with the dated fonts and 80s haircuts on the cover), and I scanned through the markings of the 19- or 20-year-old me and came across this, underlined:

When a Christian musician goes about making music, the concept of the community/body should drive every note and every moment in which every note is heard. And the only object for every Christian musician is to build the body up into the stature and fulllness of its head, Jesus Christ.*

Could it be that this vision rings just as true today as it did when it was published over two decades ago? Maybe even more true? This statement is clarifying and crystalizing. It cuts through the sea of "tips of the trade" found in books, posts, seminars, and workshops. 

Pastoring Through Music

This little statement says many things (even beyond the Christian musician's task in the worship service), but what should not be missed is that the worship leader's job, when it comes to music, is first and foremost a pastoral one. The objective, for music in worship, is ultimately not great art or flawless production (as important as those things are to strive for), but formed disciples. If this is true, then a bunch of dominoes fall from this first push, and we then must have an ordered set of priorities. Though I won't answer the questions here, what follows are the types of questions one begins to ask when one thinks of music-making and music-leading as a pastoral enterprise:

  • How shall our music serve the emotional maturity of our congregations?
  • What is the relationship of congregational music to its texts?
  • Is there a place for instrumental, presentational, or "performance" music in a worship service, and if so, what is its function?
  • If "building up" is part of a spectrum of both challenging people and comforting them, how can music serve that vision?
  • How much should the music feel familiar and cultural versus different and other-worldly in any given context, and how might that balance/tension be a part of disciple-making?
  • How does music assist the end game of pointing to and exalting the body's Head, Jesus Christ?

How the Pastoral Objective Covers a Multitude of Sins

Yesterday at Coral Ridge, I was blessed yet again to sit under the preaching of my favorite elder statesman of all things grace-filled and Jesus-saturated, Steve Brown. He reminded me of this simple yet profound statement of the apostle Peter (1 Peter 4:8):

 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.

Now, our temptation with verses like these is to jump through several theological hoops when we read the words, "covers a multitude of sins." We want to go to Jesus, the cross, and atonement. And we should. It's there. But before we arrive at Calvary, Peter would have us stay a while in the nebulous, messy reality of Christian community. By "covers a multitude of sins," Peter means more than that our sins are forgiven and "covered" (a Greek word with Hebrew atonement-overtones, for sure). He means that when we put loving others at the top of the playbook, we avoid several lesser skirmishes that often plague a church's body-life, and we start to get at, I think, what Best is implying about the objective of our music-making.

In short, if in my music-making as a worship leader, I am aiming at loving God's people, I will avoid a whole host of pitfalls, dangers, snares, and landmines that often plague the worship leader's life and labor. When love becomes the overwhelming aroma in a church, it really has the power to cover up the lesser smells, which aren't gone, but overpowered. 

Congregants can tell the difference between a worship leader who leads out of self-love versus one who leads out of church-love. And when they do, they're just flat-out more tolerant, forgiving, and forgetful of all the big and small mistakes you and I make. 

So, music-leaders, consider what you do as a dietician considers meal planning for their clients. Plan and lead so as to build a healthy, strong, functioning, high-capacity spiritual body, and love the mess out of them!

*Harold Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 36.

What if Volume in Worship Became Less About Preference and More About Discipleship?

Refreshing Old Dialogues

I'm always grateful for articles, thoughts, posts, and insights that reopen dialogues that feel simultaneously over-worn and under-productive. The volume-level-in-worship dialogue feels like one of those to me. It all too often gets downgraded into an issue of pure preference, sounding like this:

The old people can't stand how loud it is and just want it turned down.
The young people can't stand how soft it is and just want it turned up.

I have also heard the ecclesiastically-oriented axiom, "If people can't hear themselves sing, it's too loud." People who say this (and I'm one of them) prize the reality that congregational worship is congregational and that worship music is not a performance of a select few but a corporate act. In other words, ecclesiology and doxology (one's theology of the church and worship) drive the volume question. And they should. 

But I think that Dan Wilt's helpful post, "Is it Too Loud? Worship Accompaniment vs. Worship Immersion Culture," exposes that the issue of volume level is more complex than our axiomatic answers sometimes allow. I've had countless conversations over the years with (young and old) brothers and sisters who have hinted at the dynamics that Dan is bringing to our attention.

Worship Accompaniment vs. Worship Immersion

Wilt talks about two different views on how worship music functions to facilitate the singing of God's people. The first is "Worship Accompaniment"--congregants are looking to be supported and accompanied by the musicians. This is where many thoughtful worship leaders I know land, and I'd generally say that this is my perspective on the function of music for the people of God in corporate singing. The second view is "Worship Immersion"--congregants are looking to be surrounded and enveloped by the music. Wilt's description of "worship immersion" is interesting, hitting at an aspect of the theology of worship that is often lost on us or the people: 

Worship Immersion Culture is not primarily drawn to sing about God, nor even do they always feel a need to sing to God. Rather, they are a generation that wants to sing with God. They want to participate in God’s life.

This idea of participating in God's singing is an important one--that in our singing, we are enveloped into Christ's own song (Heb 2:12) and experiencing at least part of what it means to be "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4), caught up in the rapture of the Trinity's own enjoyment of Their glory.

All Accompaniment / Might There Be Room for Both?

I have some open-ended thoughts about all of this. First, though Wilt is putting his finger on something untouched (or less-touched), perhaps his titles are confusing. The way I perceive it, his constructions of "Worship Accompaniment" and "Worship Immersion" are actually two different philosophies of accompaniment. And those philosophies do have a lot to do with the function of volume (and mix, as well). The question is, Should our accompaniment support singing by providing a foundation underneath it or by creating an environment around it?  

Second, I have been in many worship services where one or the other philosophy is employed, and, frankly, when they've been done well I've seen the impact and merits of both. They both provide a formative experience in the act of congregational singing. "Worship Accompaniment" does shape the people of God to view their experience as corporate and communal rather than singular and individualistic. It helps people understand and feel that they are part of the body of Christ and that worship is joining in the singing of the "communion of saints." I often find, though, that in pure "accompaniment" worship cultures it tends to be the case (I know there are lots of counterexamples) that people have an under-developed sense of God's real and special presence among them as they worship. Worship in these environments has felt more like a wonderful, communal experience about God, rather than an immersive experience in God.* 

Conversely, "immersion" experiences, at their best, do give worshipers a sense of being enveloped in the Trinity's own eternal, ongoing delight, and they do provide contexts for us to understand what God's overwhelming, surrounding presence might feel like (because the music mirrors that reality and engages our senses in that way). But, we can see how in these environments there can be a slippery slope, devolving toward an everyone-having-their-own-private-devotional-experience-with-God-in-one-room kind of vibe. 

Maybe it is that, for the thoughtful, intentional worship leader, there's room for both. Maybe it is that volume can over time become less of a polarizing, preferential issue and more of an opportunity to shape in people's minds and hearts a full-orbed vision of what worship is and does. What if volume could be part of our artist's toolbox or color palette to help form senses and sensibilities in worship?

If we start asking these kinds of questions, all of a sudden our musicians and our sound crew move from being specialists to ministers. They become agents in the disciple-making process. Maybe, then, we should worry less about finding some one-size-fits-all volume level and instead think about how volume (within a single service or over a series of weeks) serves the narrative of the gospel.

Volume in the Gospel Narrative

Let me give just one closing example to flesh out what I mean. Perhaps it is at the beginning of a service where you want the people of God to "get" that we are entering into an already moving stream of praise happening in the heavenlies. So, while the music may be energetic, there's headroom for congregational voices so that everyone is subconsciously tuned in to the communal nature of worship. But, perhaps later, you may be singing of the gospel and God's great love for us...and you really hope that it hits home, not only to everyone coprorately but to each individually. So you crank up the volume and intensity as you sing of God's love, creating an environment where the people of God feel like they're receiving a big, sonic hug, which says, "O love that will not let me go!" The highs begin to shimmer, the mids blossom, and the lows deepen, moving the accompaniment from something heard to somethign felt, from something "out there" to something "underneath me, all around me." In that moment, it's probably less important that people hear each other and more important that they know, "God loves you...yes, even YOU!"  Music, art, volume...they can all help facilitate those moments in ways that are well-rounded and fully human, engaging our whole selves. (By the way, this doesn't have to just be a "modern worship" consideration. I've known great organists who intuitively get this reality in traditional contexts. They know when to, quite literally, pull out all of the stops and overwhelm a congregation with a wall of sound, and when to be minimalistic under the congregational voice.)

Volume concerns then get moved into the realm of the pastoral rather than the purely preferential, and the conversation gets elevated. Thank you, Dan Wilt, for elevating that conversation. 

*I'll briefly mention here that I'm aware of the sacramental nature of the language I am employing with "real presence." I'm also aware that many sacramentally-minded churches tend to fall in the accompaniment category (though this tide is turning), and they would be more uncomfortable with the sacramental overtones of my language blurring into the singing portion of the service. I'm of the persuasion that while the sacraments are indeed special and even climatic parts of the worship service where God choses to offer a unique presence to His people, He still is present in our singing as well.