A Few Lessons Learned…

July 27, 2007

I’ve been processing from the last few Christian worship ‘concerts’/events I’ve been to.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of bands live in my lifetime – upwards of 3,500 (I worked as a guitar tech and merch guy at music festivals for 7 years in a row, and used to study in college at a concert venue – and I just like live music): as a result of that, and my age, it’s not really incredible musicianship that impresses me – it’s creativity, great songs, and the ability to move people – to change hearts – to realign people’s passions. I go to these shows not only to be personally moved, but to take ‘mental notes’ – to assess what they’re doing ‘right’, and how I can ‘hone’ my skills as both a performer and a corporate worship leader.

In the fall of last year my wife and I attended a worship conference in Jacksonville with a number of worship leaders connected to the Morningstar movement. We received teaching from all over the board, to the theological (which I didn’t always agree with, but that’s to be expected – I still pulled many helpful nuggets from those) to the ever-so practical (a chance to get a guitar lesson from Leonard Jones or learn songwriting tips from Kelanie Gloeckler can change a musician for life – VERY HELPFUL), and even the personal, as we were able to connect (or in some cases, reconnect) to some wonderful, passionate, and talented song-writers and worship leaders, and old family friends. There I was really challenged in the area of ‘freedom’ and spontaneity in corporate worship, and challenged as a musician and encouraged as a writer, which has really paid off. Yet, there I also recognized the temptation that lies in each and every one of us towards ‘legalism’, and that it can rear its ugly head in even the strangest places. First we experience freedom in worship in some aspect – whether God moves us to merely lift our hands, or to dance, or some other expression of our hearts – and our ‘breakthrough’ affects all those around us, and that the whole congregation ‘catches the bug’ and erupts in similar expressions of freedom in worship. However the legalist in all of us can easily turn those expressions of freedom into a law – we either feel as though we are not ‘truly worshiping’ or think that other’s are not ‘genuine worshipers’ when we don’t see the same outward expressions of worship as we’ve experienced during our initial breakthrough into ‘freedom.’ So, our definition of ‘freedom’ becomes a new law, and we are no longer as free to sit in quiet admiration of God, or to simply close our eyes and sing – both of which, in some contexts, can be very genuine expressions of a true worshiper’s heart. I’m challenging myself, and those around me, to both not be afraid to physically express themselves during worship, and yet to try to not be judgmental of those who don’t express themselves in the same way.

Earlier this year I attended the ‘Indescribable’ Tour, with Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and Louie Giglio. It was absolutely incredible. In spite of the fact that it was officially a ‘concert’, it had none of the feel of a concert – I don’t even recall either Chris or Matt were actually introduced or promoted during the event, except that they had merch tables in the hallway – the two interchanged the worship leader role, and even led other worship leader’s popular songs – whatever worked to affect those present in a way that increased their passion for God, and gave them a greater view of who God is. Now, to be honest, I am not a huge Chris Tomlin fan, but he, for one, has an immense song-writing gift for melody and simplicity – something I struggle with, or rather, lack. That is the power of a Tomlin song – though they may not always be incredibly deep (though he has his moments), a whole room of any age can be singing along before they’ve even HEARD the chorus, which creates a sense of unity in the Body of Christ gathered – the corporate church – that is nothing short of incredible. I was mostly challenged by Chris as a songwriter. But Matt Redman – as I suspected, having loved many of his songs, and being so encouraged by his books – really embodied much of the worship leader that I strive to be. Absolutely humble on stage, much like Shane & Shane, it was hard to pay him much attention – he looked unassuming, and directed attention away from himself in such a way that you almost didn’t even notice him: it was one of the first worship ‘concert’ experiences where I can truly say it felt as though it was truly ‘all about God’, and not just youth entertainment with a ‘worship’ sheen put on top. And though everyone seemed to know Tomlin’s songs better, it was Redman who brought the room to a worshipping ‘frenzy’ – there was just a sense of deep passion and excitement in the room, yet it wasn’t an excitement about the music: it was the combined heart of a large gathering of believers getting lost in a beautiful revelation of God’s character. The lyrics of Redman’s songs come about as close to hymn-like as a ‘Praise & Worship’ song can get, with what seems to me to be a nearly perfect balance of descriptive language of the nature and character of God, directions to the church in how to respond to the revelation of God’s nature and character, and lyrics sung directly too God in response to His revelation. I think that passion, that humility, and that lyrical balance is what I took away from Matt Redman – I seek to love God that deeply, to where passion and humility would be the natural fruit of that relationship – and that Biblical balance of the vertical and horizontal aspects of good worship set are my goal. It honestly made me wonder why I ever despised contemporary worship music so much – the ‘Indescribable’ Tour wasn’t any less ‘low-worship’ than the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. It would seem that all of those I encountered there would agree. I’m thankful that Giglio, Redman, & Tomlin were able to paint such a big picture of God for me – I couldn’t help but worship Him.

This past week nearly our whole church went to see Hillsong United – the ‘youth band’ of the Hillsong Church – in Jacksonville. What an incredible, highly creative team of songwriters and musicians. They’re the band responsible for the classic songs “One Way”, & “Salvation is Here” – their sound is a loud, edgy mix of U2 & Coldplay, with more (& louder) guitars. They really are setting the standard for creativity, but to my dismay (and some have said this is an age thing), I just have the HARDEST TIME singing along to most of their material: meaning that, though it may be great for SOME youth, as corporate songs for the whole church, most Hillsong United material just isn’t feasible, except in maybe certain unique congregations (and yes, I do know one church locally – Family Life – that uses a number of their songs effectively). That said, they do craft some very catchy material here and there: “Take it All” has a very powerful chorus, as does “One Way” and “Everyday” – “Salvation is Here” is just a well-crafted songs, whether intended for corporate worship or not – and “There is nothing Like” is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful contemporary worship songs I’ve heard in the past 10 years. NOTE: I LIKE HILLSONG UNITED! A little background to make my point: at INSIDE OUT, the Youth Group of St. Simons Community Church where I’m BLESSED to lead worship, I let the youth band and those affiliated with the music (sound men, etc.) usually have final say in what songs we introduce – I distribute cd’s with some of the most recently released worship material on them – which almost ALWAYS included something new by Hillsong United – and they choose their top 5 to add to our repetior. Of the many songs by Hillsong United I’ve put on those cds over the past year, they’ve never gotten over 1 vote – the youth usually are more excited about the other material on the cd’s. In spite of this fact, I’ve still have occasionally gone ‘over them’ and introduced at least 4 Hillsong United songs so far. In spite of the fact that I like the idea of our team having some sense of consensus (so they’ll personally ‘own’ the new material, so to say), I enjoy HU enough, and certain songs in particular, to choose to introduce their songs to the Youth Group even though they don’t ‘get the vote’ – even, also, in spite of the fact that it usually takes a LOT of work to learn their stuff (again, they are a GREAT BAND). That’s all to say: I really like Hillsong United. That said, I struggled at their ‘show’. The greatest struggle I had at the Hillsong United concert was this: much of their music that night I found discouraging. I know some will be quick to say, “Well then, you must have issues!”, but I know for a fact that I’m not the only one – I know of others who don’t listen to them for that same reason. In fact, after originally having posted this blog, and encountered a few ‘critics’, I thought it might be a good idea to ask some of the folks who went down with us (who don’t have Myspace, so they have no idea I’ve posted this) their opinion of the show: “a great concert” were their replies. When asked to compare HU to the Tomlin/Redman show, they basically stated “Redman and Tomlin were more worshipful, but Hillsong United was just fun.” Though on their cds they regularly have songs, like the fore-mentioned “There is nothing Like” that focus the worshiper’s attention on God, during the specific concert I attended a great number of their lyrics were ‘me-centered’ to a degree that left me emotionally exhausted rather than excited about God: “Me-Centered” meaning these kind of lyrics “I worship You”, “I love You more than anything”, “I’ll give You my all”, “I’ll never turn from You” – all of these phrases are fine and even Biblical, balanced with a full-orbed revelation of God and His actions and character – I’m convinced that these phrases have a place in worship, in that there are times we need to say such things to almost ‘speak truth into action’ to ourselves – to push us emotionally ahead towards a passionate, whole-hearted response to God. But what about when you don’t enter the ‘worship environment’ already primed to sings those words? What happens when the songs don’t reveal enough about God, or at least REMIND you enough about WHY we should have such an emotional response to God? Not every Christian is ‘hard-wired’ to worship musically – they worship God most naturally in other ways (and I think we can all agree that music is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to ‘worship) – those sorts of people need ‘revelatory’ songs to respond to: besides, ALL of worship is ultimately a RESPONSE to who God is and what He has done. For people that may arrive into that environment not ‘primed’ to worship musically, ‘self-centered’ lyrics begin to wear on a ‘potential’ worshiper – I DON’T necessarily ‘love God more than anything’, and after a while, having the attention drawn back on me, and my emotional response, and my actions – essentially MY EXPERIENCE – if I’m not already ‘there’, and I’m not feeling it, too many songs back-to-back-to-back-to-back with those sorts of lyrics can actually depress a soul, instead of lift it. Again, for all those Hillsong United fans – I still like them, and will buy their new c.d. – this imbalance has not been my experience when listening to their recorded releases. But it WAS a great training ground for me as a worship leader: it’s not necessarily a Biblical fact that it is WRONG to sing those type songs, but there are many people in every congregation who will not enter that sanctuary primed to celebrate God – either due to circumstances of the day, or just their personality type, and if we as worship leaders don’t work hard in being sure to choose a balance of songs – songs that reveal God, songs that encourage one another how to respond, and songs sung to God in response – we risk ‘losing’ a segment of a congregation whom we are called to lead, and leading means being the sort of person that people are not only willing, but ABLE, to follow. I found it hard to follow Hillsong United AS WORSHIP (though it was a GREAT CONCERT, as a concert), though there was a segment of those gathered that seemed really caught up in the worship (and many came away really built-up – in different ways – by the event ), and it served as a reminder of how important it is to meet God’s people where they are – sometimes even leaving the 100 to get the 1 – all of them, and leading them, their thoughts, emotions, spiritual life, and actions, to see and respond to God corporately. Yes, this is a challenge, but is the call of everyone who is called to lead others in worshiping God. Sometimes the act of LEADING means going someplace we may not need to go musically/lyrically to draw as much of the congregation as possible to a place where their hearts are unified in their passion to worship Him.

So, those are my thoughts – I hope you can glean something of value for yourself from there…

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5 Responses to “A Few Lessons Learned…”

  1. Billy Chia said

    Wow, massive post bro..

    “our definition of ‘freedom’ becomes a new law”

    – poignant.

    “Redman and Tomlin were more worshipful, but Hillsong United was just fun.”

    – who says worship can’t be fun?

    “I think we can all agree that music is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to ‘worship'”

    – yes, thank you. I get a little tired of the “Guess what? worship is more than just music! Can you believe it?!” attitude. Of course it is, let’s move on.

    “I found it hard to follow Hillsong United AS WORSHIP (though it was a GREAT CONCERT, as a concert)”

    – I find that I have my own personal preferred methods of worship and when I encounter those I’m like, “Man, that was super worshipful!” When really it had less to do with how worshipful the method was and more to do with my personal preferences.

    That’s why 100 people will experience the same event together and all come away with different ideas about how worshipful it was.

    My anecdotal evidence suggests that when people say something is “worshipful” they are using the subjective metric of their own feelings rather than some objective standard. I’ve yet to see a list like “These 5 elements equal worshipful worship and if they are present then it’s worship and if they aren’t then it’s not.”

  2. saintlewis said

    Billy – thank you for that AWESOME response. Good points.

    p.s. – I wasn’t suggesting that worship couldn’t be fun, but should worship ever be “just fun”?

  3. Billy Chia said

    I’ve found that at times when I’m having fun God is worshiped through that fun… like playing with my daughters, flirting with my wife or jamming out to a rockin’ band.

    People often use the word “worshipful” when they mean “slow tempo, soft, and lower volume” as though high energy music can’t be full of worship. I know I’m belaboring the point, but what standard are we using to measure “worshipfulness?” It is our feelings, our personal preferences or something more objetive?

    At the same time I resonate with that you are saying about how Hillsong United’s set had “me” lyrics “back to back” and how that was a turn off. (In the Psalms statments like “I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin.” are always interspersed and tempered by “He rescued me from my powerful enemy.”)

  4. Mike Sanders said

    Hey,
    My name is Mike Sanders, from Ontario Canada. I’m doing a workshop on worship with my youth group this summer. I am very interested in what you have to say here, its good and very well written. I was wondering if you would mind me using some of your blog here in my workshop? Especially the section on freedom, cause what you have to say I feel the youth will really pick up on and appreciate. Thank you, and I look forward to hearin from ya
    Mike

  5. saintlewis said

    Of course – in fact, I wish I could speak to your youth myself! Too bad Ontario is just a wee-bit far for me to travel, most likely. Blessed by your asking!

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