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Worship Leading for Funerals: Dos and Don'ts

An excerpt from my book, The Worship Pastor, has been posted over at Crosswalk. In that excerpt, a part of my chapter on "The Worship Pastor as Mortician," I discuss some of the dos and don'ts that are part of planning and leading worship services for people who are suffering, especially for funerals and memorial services. I've made my fair share of mistakes, and I've seen many well-intentioned worship leaders inadvertently do some of those same un-pastoral things in those contexts.

One really pertinent piece of pastoral advice: "shut up and play." :)

Please check out the article, and please go get my book!


The Gift of the Early Era of CCM

CCM's Story is My Story

For me, historical reflection on Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is always autobiographical. My life is intertwined with its development, because its songs are the songs of my upbringing. Isn’t it always the case that the songs present during our most formative and developmental years of faith stick in us perhaps more deeply than any others? Perhaps it’s the power of nostalgia, or perhaps it’s something deeper.

CCM is certainly disparaged by a lot of folks right now. It has fallen under scrutiny for its trite expression of Christianity, its suffering-less-ness, its fake or ignorant positivity, its moralistic therapeutic deism. A charitable read of its early history, which would involve listening to the hearts and testimonies of some of its founders, movers, and shakers (not just coldly analyzing historical anecdotes or other thinkers’ analyses), speaks a different message, which I’d like to highlight.

The Blessing of Being "Imprinted"

I was sitting on my couch last week, thinking about Psalm 24’s hefty rhetorical Q & A: “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart.” I was thinking about my dirty hands and my impure heart. I was thinking about Jesus’ hands and heart being the only answer to this Psalm, and then out from under my subconscious popped that early chorus from my childhood: “I Lift My Eyes Up” (1990), by Brian Doerksen. That setting of Psalm 121 became my prayer to Jesus that morning. A simple prayer of need, turning my eyes, yet again, off myself and onto my only Hope.

I started reflecting on the amount of Psalm-chunks I know by heart simply because early CCM (which, back then, wasn't a capitalized acronym...just a lower case descriptor) gave them to me in digestible, meditative portions (think “I Waited for the Lord On High” [Psalm 40], “As the Deer” [Psalm 42],  “To Every Generation” [Psalm 90]). Now before we jump to the usual critical places—“they were partial and didn’t display the spirit of the whole Psalm,” “they were affixed to trite music,” “they were cheesy,” etc.—let’s take a step back and ask what was happening at the time...what the founders were thinking.

A Presbyterian Gets Schooled by a Calvary Dude

Not long ago, I had a conversation with Chuck Fromm, one of the founders of Maranatha! Music and one of the thinkers behind many of the early project (including Psalms Alive, where we got a lot of these songs). He told me…now keep in mind that Chuck is a Calvary Chapel Jesus Movement dude speaking to me, a young Presbyterian…that his inspiration for getting these projects was none other than John Calvin, who employed the best poets and musicians he could find in his day to reimagine Psalm-singing for Genevan worshipers. Chuck pointed me to a few resources I had overlooked (particularly an obscure PhD dissertation which was underappreciated for its contribution to the Calvin/Church music discussion).

Back then, Chuck wanted to cut through what felt like layers, webs, and jungles of church music that felt like it struggled to get to the heart of things and re-engage the simple, Reformational model of singing Psalms, believing that these “new songs” (because they were Psalms) had the power to re-focus, re-energize, reform, re-ignite, yes inSpire worship. You gain some of this perspective if you read Chuck’s booklet, New Song: The Sound of Spiritual Awakening.

Semper React-amanda

Every generation of church music is reacting and attempting to correct. And now, many of us are reacting to CCM—its commercialization, its triumphalism, its absence of grief and suffering. But, what I’m noticing, the more I listen to the hearts and stories of the people who cherish what I am quick to vilify, the more I find the history more nuanced than I had dared believe. God only knows what’s on the other side of all this liturgy-love for guys like me…once we get old and liturgy is no longer in vogue, feels dead and needs a fresh overhaul. Hard to imagine, right? I’m sure it was hard for the early CCM songwriters, artists, and worship leaders to foresee a time when the music and songs they wrote and produced would be so criticized.

Certainly, CCM has broadened, evolved, morphed, and pressed well beyond the original vision of the early founders. And certainly there are many things to challenge and critique. I guess my hope with this little post is that, for all the complaining we do about the "state of evangelical worship" (When will the unhelpful critical posts cease?), we don't miss the hearts and, yes, the wisdom of what good we can find there. Many of the CCM founders are now in their retirement years, and they really do have a lot of long-term wisdom to share with the rest of us. The older you get, the more you're able to view chunks of history broadly and cyclically. The new, young "reactors" always need the seasoned, old "sages" to point out their blind spots. 

But this means that we, while committed to our convictions, need to keep our fingers out of our ears and at least keep one palm open before the rest of the world. There is always more to receive.  


Leading Worship Through a Major Church Crisis

It's been a while since my last post. Most of you all know what has happened at Coral Ridge, and I've personally received a lot of love, prayers, and support from so many of you. Thank you! This blog, for me, has always been a place to think out loud by wrestling thoughts to the ground, processing in real time the ins and outs of one local worship leader who is asking questions about worship and pastoring in his little corner of the globe. I've been encouraged to see that some of my thoughts have been helpful to others in their contexts. So today I turn to what will be a cathartic post. It will help me to organize the jumble of thoughts and emotions that go into trying to keep your head above water in a pastoral crisis.

I've been serving churches as a worship pastor long enough to have gone through several crises. Though none have been this large and this public, on the ground there are certain common themes that have emerged for me over and over again that I now perceive as "givens." I want to talk about these in hopes that my very immediate reflections might be of help to others. I am on the front end of this new season in our church's life, but I'm already witnessing things that, though painful and difficult, are quite predictable simply because every church is full of train-wrecked sinners like me who tend to exhibit the same types of behaviors in moments like these. So, here goes...

1. The Vacuum

Whenever there is a shakeup at "the top," it leaves a leadership hole. That vacuum tries to get filled in a bunch of ways. On the leadership side, it means that we church leaders need to rally as a team, pray and seek the Lord together, and lead strongly and visibly. In a sense, for the time being, it is our job to fill that vacuum. It means more time, more emotional energy, more prayer, more burden. This is a given.

One of the negative sides of the vacuum is that there are unhealthy ways that congregations can seek to fill it in short order. Many times, when a leader is gone, it becomes an opportunity for some to declare the things they've been holding back. These things include ministry emphases, visionary choices, but also (maybe especially) things relating to worship. This has certainly been the case for me, and based on my past experience, it won't really let up for quite some time. In fact, we're still sort of in "shock" phase, which means that as the newness wears off, people will be able to process more...which means that the best is yet to come. :)

But knowing that the vacuum always happens and will continue to cause weird things to occur is half the battle. And all this leads to the second point.

2. The church needs stability and familiarity in its worship.

In moments like these, people's concealed desires for what worship "should have been like all along" become revealed. In some cases, these desires are the worship leaders', too. (Not in my case. My senior pastor and I thankfully saw quite eye to eye on most of it.) It can be very tempting to start implementing all those desired tweaks and changes, but this is exactly the wrong time to do this. What churches need in moments of crisis is stability and familiarity in their worship. Whatever the liturgy has been, stick to it. Give them more songs that everyone knows and loves. People don't need to be raising eyebrows or tweaking their heads. They need to be crying out to God.  

3. The church needs stability and familiarity in its leadership...but not mini-Messiahs.

Every church is different, but in my context, I was one of the two faces of leadership that people were used to seeing more or less every Sunday. One of those faces is gone. Mine is the only familiar face left. It's really important that I'm there. It's really important that I'm present and undistracted. It's really important that I exhibit a non-anxious presence and display a confidence in the one and only Head of God's Church--Jesus Christ.

At the same time, I have to wrestle with very honest "Messiah complex" feelings. I am not the church's Savior. I had a moment where I started to think I was, though, when I almost cancelled my vacation plans coming up in a few weeks, feeling the burden of the fact that "the church needs me." In one sense, the church does need me. But I know my heart, and my wife knows my heart. When I started to hint at the transgression of our vacation plans, I knew that would be disaster for me (and my need for rest) and disaster for a family who needs their husband and dad. When that got some clarity, it became as simple for me as remembering that Jesus loves His church more than I do and that I'm not Coral Ridge's Messiah. Praise God for that, for my sake and the church's.

4. (1) and (2) mean that I need to find safe places off the beaten path to process my own personal pain and confusion.

Yes, I need to be a strong, stable, non-anxious leader in this time. But I still have anxiety. I still am weak. I still question my calling. Like my congregation, I'm going through my own version of the stages of grief. I need safe places to explode, to cry, to vent, to strategize, to collapse. On the one hand, it would be very "authentic" of me to do that in front of the church. But the church doesn't need that, and I actually think it would be detrimental to her health. 

But if I bottle it all up, I have no doubt that I will find myself in my own crisis in a few short weeks or months. And then I'm no good to anyone. So, I've chosen a few friends, a few safe havens. And they have been a wellspring of life for me. They have been Jesus.

5. No emotions are off limits, and we should expect (and in worship make room for) every kind. 

When churches go through crises, congregations experience the full spectrum of emotions. It brings up PTSD-like symptoms for some. Others get depressed, angry, or cynical and jaded. Some people surprise you by leaning into the church like they never did before. Others surprise you by becoming quite oppositional. Some get upset over very peculiar and specific things that happen. Others seem upset over everything. Some retreat and go into radio silence. Others are emailing, texting, calling every day.

Knowing that all emotions will come, and knowing that they are all perfectly valid ways of handling situations like these, we need to be ready for them by giving voice to them in worship. In my experience, a great place to handle this is in the church's moment of confession. I've been given to praying more extemporaneously to help give voice to some of these emotions. My prayers, privately and publicly, have sounded like this:

God, this is a very confusing time for us. We confess that we've been angry...with others and with You. We confess that we feel hurt. We confess that these moments cause us to doubt Your goodness, Your promises, Your faithfulness. We struggle at times to see the good in these moments.

We confess that some of us feel numb and cold. Some of us are finding it hard to honestly and earnestly worship You. For others of us, it's all we can cling to. We confess that we aren't the kind of people that can handle this well apart from Your grace. We're weak. Be strong for us.

As odd as it may sound, the last three weeks of worship at Coral Ridge have been sweet times of community. We're more broken open, leaning a bit more on God and a bit less on ourselves. Desperation is a remarkable catalyst for authentic, vibrant worship. And our emotions have been all over the map. I'm grateful that God has created enough of a safe culture of worship at Coral Ridge that at least some can feel free to be honest before the Lord in community. God has been faithful and good to us.

6. Care very little about what is being said "out there." Care very much about what is being felt "in here."

In all honesty, I'm paying very little attention to what's happening in the sphere of blogs and social media. So much of it is partially informed and feels distant, cold, and dispassionately clinical. It can be very distracting, though, and it can raise fears and concerns that simply don't need to be there. Through past experience, I've learned to pay attention to the flock in front of me. What are their hurts, their fears, their concerns? I don't need to answer the critics. They're not the ones God has called me to keep watch over. I need to be close to our flock, spend lots of time with them, and really listen. So I've been sending lots of emails, making lots of phone calls, and drinking way to much coffee with folks. My office has been a revolving door.

As a workaholic and a task-oriented person, I'm tempted to think that all this people time is very un-productive. (I'm not getting anything done!) I've learned, though, that such thoughts spring up more from the enemy and my own idolatrous heart than they do from any good place. My call now is to be very, very present for people that need it. I feel a bit relationally stretched thin, and I feel like some important goals are getting sidelined. But there's just a strong sense that I'm doing the right thing. So I just have to let the chips fall where they may.

7. The church needs the hope of Jesus.

Worship needs biblical lamentation, which is another way of saying that the church needs to be able to cry out "How long?" WITH HOPE. In times like this, I've found that emphasizing the following themes are important and powerful:

  • God's faithfulness generally
  • God's faithfulness specifically--His mighty deeds of the past
  • Confession & Lamentation
  • Death & Resurrection (both literally and symbolically)
  • Jesus' undying love for His Church
  • The Eschaton--the End when God will make all things new
  • The nearness of the Holy Spirit

All these things, when emphasized, become a soothing balm for the anxieties, fears, pain, anger, and sorrow of a congregation going through crisis. Thankfully, there are so many Psalms, songs, and prayers that speak right to these things, because, well, suffering seems to be one of the few givens for every human being. 

You feel it in the air of Coral Ridge right now, and I think any Gospel-oriented community would feel the same: hope abounds. This doesn't mean that everyone is feeling hopeful, but there is a kind of communal sense of hopefulness and trust when we gather. We're still smiling and laughing. And some of us are getting very energized for where God will take us as a local church in this city. 

Still, right now, we're a jumble. If you've seen Inside Out, it feels like we're in that deconstruction-reconstruction phase that characterizes most of the movie's storyline. It's an unsettling place to be, and it's a blessed place to be. I'll write more when I have something to say...and only then!


Singing Theology So That We'll Eventually Believe It

The band and I recently rocked the faces off a few hundred kids several weeks ago as we led music for our church’s Vacation Bible School (VBS). It’s a fun time where we musicians are able to get a little flamboyant and wacky, where our inner rock star (rightly suppressed on Sunday mornings) can come out.  We had a blast, and the kids really loved it.  Since VBS, my family has been bumping that music in our car as we tootle around town in Denver.  I recently looked in the rear view mirror on one such drive to find all my kids singing along to great lyrics—scriptural quotations, actually.  Couple this with my preparations for my lecturing in Hawaii on Worship and Spiritual Formation (which happened a few weeks ago), and suddenly I realized that I was witnessing the ancient truth of lex orandi, lex credendi in action.

The phrase can be translated, "the law of prayer is the law of belief."  In other words, our worship both shapes and reveals what we believe about God and His world.  In yet other words, doxology is theology.  I've heard it often said, "Show me a man's checkbook, and I'll tell you where his heart is."  Similarly we might say, "Show me how you worship, and I'll tell you your theology."

It may not be intuitive to us as pastors, worship planners, and worshipers, but what we sing does more than articulate our theology.  Our song shapes our theology.  Here's a sad example.  Think of the church whose songs are only happy all the time.  This church celebrates, and celebrates, and celebrates.  God is the consummate joy-giver.  No sins are corporately confessed, and no lamentations are sung.  It is only shiny, happy Jesus music.  The flock, while being a joyful people, is persistently being shaped to view God in one way--as One who solves all their problems and only gives Christians good, happy, prosperous lives.  Lex orandi, lex credendi.  But then that day comes when Joe Churchgoer has a crisis--loss of job, cancer, death of a family member.  Joe stops coming to church, becomes reclusive, starts doubting his faith, and eventually starts doubting whether God even exists.  Why has this happened?  Ultimately, it is because Joe's church's songs have so shaped his views of God that he has no categories for suffering.  And when that happens, he starts to doubt that his other theological categories (God's goodness, God's power, God's justice) are even true.

Having your theology shaped by song is a slow, steady process.  Think of it like eating.  If your body is out of shape, you don't see any "re-formation" after your first healthy meal.  It is only the faithful, perpetual consumption of healthy food that yields your body's new shape.  So it is with sung theology.  We're often eating of it long before we really believe it and are shaped by it.  Chew, swallow.  Chew, swallow.

Going back to my kids, right now we're in the middle of slowly memorizing portions of the Westminster Shorter Catechism put to music by Cardiphonia.  (I'm actually bribing them at $0.50 per song.)  Now it would be foolish to expect that my seven-year-old son, who chants back that "God's works of providence are His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all their creatures and all their actions," actually knows (much less believes) what he's singing.  But, because I'm a believer in lex orandi, lex credendi, I'm very comfortable bribing him to shove big forkfulls of theological leafy dark greens down his throat because I really do believe that it will one day show up in the figure of his soul.

So it is with us, children of God.  We sing in order that we may one day believe.  I can sing Newton's great line "He has hushed the law's loud thunder / He has quenched Mount Sinai's flame," but I know that there's a part of me that doesn't really believe the fullness of what that means.  Nevertheless, I sing it.  I shove that fork in my mouth, so that one day I might look at myself in the mirror and say, "Goodness, that looks more like Jesus than I remember from a year ago."

Some final orandi-credendi takeaways:

  • Worship leaders: 
    • If you're not at a place where you are conversant in the major tenets of Christian theology, you need to work on it.  Ask your pastor or a trusted mentor for some starting places for study.
    • If you want to get more serious about seeing what your church's diet is like, compile the song lyrics from the last three years of worship, sit down with a team, and chart out what your people have been eating.
    • If you don't care about either of the above, please find another job.  
  • Pastors:
    • Be invested in your worship planning.  Too much spiritual formation takes place to neglect that.
    • If you're hiring a worship leader, don't just look for some young, pretty face who has a "commanding presence" and good musical skill.  Look for someone who thinks theologically and leads pastorally (or who has a teachable spirit to be trained to do so).  Again, too much is at stake to blow this.
  • Worshipers:
    • What have you been singing?  Who is the God of your song?
    • Where do you still want to grow in your faith?  Perhaps alongside that great Bible study, book, or small group curriculum, you can find some songs to sing.  Ask your pastor/worship leader for some suggestions here.



The State of Worship Music Today

Mike Cosper, Pastor of Worship at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY, is interviewed briefly by Bob Kauflin on the state of worship music today.  Note what this pastor-theologian-musician is and is not focused on.

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Worship’s Unique Ability to Give People Spiritual Wisdom and Insight...Especially with Suffering

Psalm 73 makes a shocking claim that often gets overlooked.  It is a raw psalm that is perhaps more honest than many Christians would dare to be before God.  Its first half is nearly bitter:

I envied the arrogant
     when I saw the prosperity of the wicked
They have no struggles;

…Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
     in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.  (vv 3-4a, 13, NIV)

The psalmist expresses being on the brink of despair.  Haven’t we all been there?  Whether we’ve merely scratched our heads or actually shaken our fists toward the heavenlies, we have all sensed from time to time that the wicked seem to have it just fine and the righteous seem to be loaded with trials.  It is one of the most apparent Divine injustices.  But here comes the surprising pivot-point:

When I tried to understand all this,
     it was oppressive to me
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
     then I understood their final destiny.  (vv 16-17, NIV)

How was this theological and existential struggle alleviated?  Not by a Bible study.  Not by a counseling session with a pastor.  Not by taking a seminary class.  The psalmist communicates that a very special spiritual wisdom and insight was imparted in “the sanctuary of God,” in the context of worship.

Extrapolating outward, is it not easy to see the rich benefit of corporate worship?  Of the many blessed by-products of worship, this is surely one of them--that, in worship, we are often given (many times supernaturally and mysteriously) wisdom from God that aids in gaining perspective on some of life’s deepest struggles and problems.

This is a vivid reality for me.  Five and a half years ago, I was finishing up my seminary degree and leading worship in a small church plant in north Denver.  My wife, Abby, was diagnosed with cancer.  During that period of time, I can recall feeling that worship was very much a discipline foisted on me by God…something I had to do simply because it was my job.  Believe me, I wanted to retreat.  But worship became a most blessed discipline.  Worship perpetually put before my head and heart the greatness of God, the eternal perspective, the Kingdom mentality, and the love of Christ.  Worship provided the frame of wisdom and insight that bordered the portrait of my suffering.  It didn’t take away the sting of suffering, but those of you who have been there know the difference between suffering well and suffering poorly.  I believe I suffered well.  In the words of Sheldon Vanauken, I believe that worship helped me to experience suffering as a “severe mercy.”

I believe that this is one of the reasons the book Habakkuk ends the way it does—with a worship song.  I believe Habakkuk understood that when we come to the end of our wrestlings about the vexing incongruities of life, when we hit that wall, worship is one of the ways God graciously provides for us to break through to the wisdom on the other side.

Perhaps Psalm 73 would have us then rephrase James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should gather with God's people…and worship.”


What Does "Unbudding Fig" Mean?

Alright.  I've had enough people ask me about what the copyright name under all my music means, so I devoted a permanent page to unraveling the mystery behind the "Unbudding Fig."  Check it out if you're curious.

And, yes, I'm aware that "unbudding" isn't a real word and probably needs a hyphen. ;)

P.S. I don't have a logo but would love one.  If any of you savvy, cutting edge designers out there would be interested in some pro bono work for a poor, lonely pastor-musician, send an email my way.  (Truth be told, by world standards, I'm not at ALL poor.  Nor am I lonely...I have a wonderful wife, some great kids, and I've been brought into fellowship with the Divine Community of Three.  Still, if you find your tear ducts welling up, then the whole "poor, lonely" bit was worth it.)


Suffering: The Elephant in the Sanctuary

What does slap-happy, pump-you-up worship do?  (1) It makes you feel great for a moment.  (2) It marginalizes those who are suffering. 

If all we’re interested in as worship leaders is planning a worship service that has the spiritual effect of being a “holy pep talk,” we’ve done a great disservice to the body of Christ.  But, oh, is it tempting.  There have been several times in my past where I’ve sold out to what I knew would give me positive feedback.  I had planned a set of fast, happy, and at least partially superficial songs.  It sure makes you feel great as a worship leader when everyone is engaged and comes away energized and excited. 

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