What You Give is Who You Are

I spent this weekend with some friends in Texas; they’ve been inviting me to come play music at their church for about 10 years now, so every 18 months or so I make the quick trip (Sat-Sun) to the Lone Star state and worship together.

One of the reasons I enjoy visiting them (aside from the relationship) is the fact that their lead pastor is a fairly unabashed fan of electric guitar, and the blues in particular. In fact, there have been times that he has flat told me to “play more.” He likes it when I let go, and I think from his perspective it blesses the church, so he encourages it.

On Saturday night a group of us went out to dinner, and I spent some time chatting with some gifted worship leaders who were also serving. Over the course of the conversation we got into a conversation that I (unfortunately) have had over and over again with “church musicians”: it’s the conversation about “freedom” and “expression” in the church.

When is too much?

When are we being distracting?

Should we close open our eyes?

Should we close our eyes?

I have been playing music in churches now for 18 years. When I was being interviewed for my first job, one of my interviewers asked me pointedly, “Do you own an acoustic guitar?” (I did not; I am primarily an electric guitar player.)

His point was that church culture pointed to the idea of a worship leader who plays acoustic guitar and sings.

So I bought an acoustic guitar, and though I led primarily from electric in the first few years, I told myself that when I “grew up” I would play acoustic for worship, since that’s what all the “real worship leaders” did. Eventually I tried it, and kept it up off and on for a few years, butI put the acoustic down (on Sundays, anyway) about 5 years ago, when I came to the conclusion that i am an electric guitar player.

I feel most natural, and most “at home” this way. For the most part, this “at home-ness” translates to people. As far as I can tell, when I’m playing electric–even if I’m playing “authoritatively” or even an intense solo–what people experience is me being quite natural.

This was not the case with acoustic guitar. I felt uncomfortable. Limited. Odd.

In my experience, the issue with worship leaders is not so much what instrument (if any) they play or HOW they play it (as long as it’s somewhat proficiently): rather, the issue is

“Where are you the most at home?”

I don’t frame this as a selfish question. In a way, a worship gathering is like a 3-way dialogue between the worship leader(s), the congregation and God.

If the worship leader isn’t at home in his/her own skin, how can they have a natural, engaged dialogue with the congregation? Or even God?

This isn’t an advocacy for the “worship guitar solo”. It’s not a call to put all worship leaders behind acoustic guitars or pianos.

It’s a call–or more preferably an invitation–for worship leaders to go on a journey of musical (and spiritual self-discovery and to know very deeply who they are, and where they are at home. It’s actually more important than you think, because ultimately you can only bring who you are–acoustic, electric, vocalist, etc–to the community. You cannot bring someone else to this event, this conversation.

People don’t need to hear from who you think they need to hear from. They need to hear from you; the deepest, truest part of you. You owe to them, and to yourself to learn and know who that is, so you can bring that gift.

Relatedly, it’s also a call for lead pastors and churches to be a part of this journey as well, and recognize both when a musician is “not at home and when they are. Rather than just assume, “Worship leaders in our church lead from acoustic (or whatever)”, watch for when things just seem to “click”, and the dialogue between the leader, the congregation, and God comes alive.

(And then listen for the guitar solo…)

BTW, I’m not sure this counts as someone who feels “at home” (2:10):

 

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Twitter: @ericcase

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I STILL Can’t Fix You, But…

A few years back I wrote a post about Coldplay. Well, Coldplay and spiritual growth.

I was thinking about it this morning. I’ve been in a class this week about being a “spiritual director”, an individual who helps someone become (and remain) open to growing.

One of the helpful metaphors that has come up in the class is the spiritual director as a sort of “midwife”—we are there to “assist” in the birth, but it’s really not our baby nor our labor. We may know a thing or two, but we are not a professional, not separate from the situation. We are in the birth process with you, helping as we can, naming things as we can.

But ultimately the birth process is yours, not ours.

In other words, I still can’t fix you, but

  • I’ll be with you during the process
  • I’ll try to help identify what you’re going through
  • I’ll comfort you when I can and encourage you when you need it

And I’ll celebrate with you when “new birth” arrives.

 

Dream … Small

Are big dreams the only dreams

Last week I spent two days along with some other leaders from my church at Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit (full disclosure: my wife actually works for the GLS). As usual the conference was full of top-notch speakers and cutting edge leadership and vision discussions, and it was awesome to take a bunch of folks from my church and have them hear such great speakers.

However, with where I’m at in my life personally, the GLS brought up some interesting tensions. Most of the speakers (Christian and otherwise) talked over and over again about having huge dreams, and how important these big dreams are to the world.

The particular challenge that I have in my life—and one that I have to continually come to terms with—is how damaging “big dreams” actually are to my life. You see, if you were susceptible at all (like I am) to the ravages of pride and self-centeredness, then big dreams are actually the worst possible things that you can entertain. When I allow big dreams to enter my life without some kind of balance, interior wreckage and disaster and seems.

In other words, big dreams can be an absolute disaster in my life.

And yet, this is where so much of Christian culture seems to be nowadays. I think one speaker even said something like if we leave something undone in the world, then God will never get it done. To my thinking this is outrageous.

Whenever I hear really really good people talking about grandiose visions and making some kind of huge impact in the world, I think about Richard Rohr’s comments about how the United States professes to be such a thriving Christian culture and yet we are at least as addicted and obsessive as everyone else in the world; maybe moreso.

Anybody in recovery would tell you that pride and self-centeredness are foundational “sins” that fuel our addictive and compulsive behaviors. 

Can the church actually be contributing to this addiction and compulsion?

Don’t get me wrong, I took lots and lots of notes last Thursday and Friday. I love learning new things. My voracious curiosity is a huge part of who I am. But I can only take these new ideas seriously to a certain degree in my life before they start getting unhealthy.

To be blunt, I actually think that what the church needs is people who dream small dreams. People who want the kingdom inside their hearts to be ruled by God, rather then doing some amazing outward work of ministry.

I think truly transformed and enlightened individuals who have dreamed the small dream of simply, “Change me, Lord,” can make a drastic difference in our schools church, churches, and neighborhoods.

How do you organize a conference around that?

At the same time, however, I want to say  that there were some really powerful glimpses of hope. For instance, a good friend of mine did an impromptu interview on camera, and in subtle but firm contrast to all of the talk of big dreams and grandiose visions, he related about how his call to ministry was one small, open window after another. He said something like, “for me to think that one day I would be leading worship at the Global Leadership Summit when I started out in ministry would’ve been absolutely outside of my framework. But it seems like God just open tiny little edoors one after the other and I just was faithful to what he brought to me.”

(I am paraphrasing)

In addition, Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, made a passing comment that was struck me. He mentioned that working for him was “not about the career, it was about the work.” In other words, what he seemed to be saying is that sometimes you need to forget the big dreams and do the things, day-to-day, that you love to do. I wonder if some pastors (if you’re anything like me) need to remember “the work” they were called to do (put loosely: preaching and healing) and why they do what they do and press “pause” on the big dreams and visions for a little while

Put the career on hold, and focus on the work.

After all, I think God has the big things covered.

Two Strange Gifts That Working at a Mega Church Gave Me

For one strange reason or another, my first full-time ministry job (or part-time ministry job, for that matter) was at Willow Creek Community Church, at the time one of the largest churches in North America. At the time Willow was (and still is, in many ways) the flagship of the Evangelical, mega-church world. The statistics are probably old, but I do remember doing 12 Easter services over two days; we had a “conference season” during which we hosted a Small Groups Conference, Student Ministries Conference, Arts Conference, the Church Leadership Conference and, eventually, the Global Leadership Conference.

It was crazy, and tremendously exciting.

Looking back now, I’m struck with how that time at Willow (I worked for their “Axis” ministry, one of the first GenX/post-modern/post-college gatherings in North America) shaped me. I definitely internalized “The Willow Way” in regards to excellence and leadership, but I also received a couple of very different gifts that have significantly impacted my approach to ministry since.

Platform

Before I had 2 years of leading a worship ministry under my belt, I was teaching at Willow’s Arts Conference; before I really knew what post-modern worship was (do I know now?), I was conducting seminars and trying to help other pastors “figure it out.” Though practically all of us at Axis were wet behind the ears and learning to do ministry on the run, hundreds and hundreds of leaders from around the world sought us as experts. Though we were very vocal with our ignorance, and very up front with the idea that we were also just trying to figure things out, we also didn’t shy away from the attention.

In addition, I personally fielded invitations to come and lead worship at a variety of different camps, conferences and other churches. Again, I was honest enough to be somewhat humbled at the invitations given my inexperience, but I still accepted what I could and was privileged to lead in these different environments.

In short, Willow’s reputation within the evangelical world (again, well-deserved in almost all respects) was such that we were perceived as insightful experts on ministry. People listened to what we had to say; they paid attention the questions we were asking (because a good post-modern only asks the questions; never answers them).

In short, we were given a platform, and a pretty big one at that.

For the years that I taught and led around the Willow circle, it was amazing. But over time, I realized that it’s very easy to mistake having a platform for being a pastor. Platform and ministry can get so dangerously intertwined that when one diminishes, you start to question your effectiveness in the other. If you’re not careful, you start to believe that doing ministry equals having a platform, or somehow entitles you to be an expert. What’s more, in my case at least those invitations and opportunities began to feed an unhealthy ego, and I began to believe that I was entitled to have a voice. Rather than seeking an opportunity to serve my local community, I was raging with the thought that I was “too special” to be contained in only one church: I deserved to be traveling, to be playing at conferences and festivals.

This was about as far from Jesus as you can get.

Eventually, the platform went away. As “Willow Creek” moved lower and lower on my resume, the invitations came less and less frequently, and it was actually pretty depressing, until I came to realize what most people know already:

That practically every pastor in the world simply does his or her work, week in and week out, with no expectation of a platform:

  • no speaking engagements
  • no article writing
  • no leading seminars
  • no perception of being “an expert”

… and this is okay. 

I’m pretty embarrassed to admit this, but it’s the truth. Being a pastor does not mean you are an “expert” in ministry. It means that you’re a shepherd, trying to help people navigate their life in an effective, gospel-shaped and meaningful way.

Downward Mobility

The first strange gift from being on staff at Willow—or rather its loss—would have been difficult to navigate had it not been for the second gift.

In the process of becoming a member at Willow, Shana and I received a workbook to fill out that contained many of the values and principles that Willow sought to embody.

In its pages had a statement that we were charged with embracing and embodying as Willow Creek members:

“I will embrace the idea downward mobility as a way of life.” 

(Or something very similar to that.)

Wrap your heads around that for just a moment.

This mega church in the affluent Northwest suburbs of Chicago was asserting that the normal way of life for a follower of Christ was to embrace, not affluence and “prosperity”, but generosity and even poverty.

I have never, ever seen this statement in any other church membership material. Ever. 

For all of its reputation of “easy spirituality” and “cheap grace,” Willow was advocating a much more radical discipleship, and that statement has haunted me ever since I read it. It’s a simple assumption that every new ministry opportunity should be bigger, or more prestigious, than the last, but that short little sentence and concept reminds me that this was not the model of Jesus’ ministry. 

His ministry ended up with him being deserted by all of his followers and dying alone.

True downward mobility.

(Note that I am not saying all “up-and-to-the-right” ministry paths are bad; I’m just saying that you can’t evaluate success or failure this way.)

Obviously, this second gift made putting the first gift into context a bit easier. It was still difficult, but over time it made more and more sense. These days, I feel like I’m still doing “recovery work” from the first gift, and doing the difficult and challenging work of staying engaged with a community over the long haul. I’ve been blessed to do a couple of things here and there outside my church, but I can no longer pretend to be an expert on anything, and that’s really okay. Frankly, my spirit is much healthier when there are none.

Lastly, let me say that there were other gifts that I got from Willow as well: a baptism, a mentor, a vision for ministry, amazing friends and colleagues, the opportunity to be a part of a truly great team, to work under an amazing leader (and to see other amazing leaders work as well), and many, many others.

Is Easter REALLY Our “Super Bowl”?

Is Easter Sunday REALLY the Super-Bowl?

Growing up in my faith tradition, it was common to hear Easter Sunday referred to as “The Super Bowl”. Since it is (was?) traditionally one of the most heavily attended Sundays of the year, there is always a tremendous amount of time and energy put into making an amazing Sunday experience—both for guests and for God.

We put together the best musicians we can find, we purchase thousands of dollars in Easter lillies, we polish the pews and the doors and we make extra room for people who will “check out faith” for perhaps the only time that year.

In short, we put our best foot forward.

Part of this effort is in recognition of the celebration of the resurrection: Easter really IS a special day in our faith, and we do our best to make our worship reflect the glory and joy of Jesus’ resurrection.

However, is calling it “The Super Bowl” really the best metaphor? I’m not sure.

(For starters, soccer is a much better metaphor for the spiritual life.)

The reason I’m rather uncomfortable with the Super Bowl image is that, well, it just puts too much of me in it. The Super Bowl depends on the players playing in it.

Christ’s resurrection does not.

Our best efforts on Easter are not so much to “make it happen” but to respond to something that has already happened.

Our Super Bowl really happened already. We are just basking in the victory now.

Furthermore, the Super Bowl metaphor (and yeah, I know: all metaphors break down eventually, but this is my rant, not yours) doesn’t really play out theologically: We play the Super Bowl; you (Who: guests? The Church?) watch us. 

I wonder if a different image might be a Feast: We are inviting people to “our house” where a great celebration is going to happen. We didn’t even cook the meal, but it’s going to be a night of rich food and deep celebration. We want you to come, but the success of the feast doesn’t really depend on our greatness, or the 6 (8? 10? 15?) hours of rehearsal…

It depends on the presence of the One whom we are celebrating.

We are participants, with you—the guests, the Church… everyone. 

We have come to the feast just like you. We are not separate.

So what if instead of “Playing the Super Bowl” this year, we “Went to the Feast” (and invited others to come as well)?

 

Eugene Peterson on Spiritual Direction

For a season now, I’ve been pursuing a spiritual direction, and trying to be a better “director” of people’s souls myself.

I was recently going through Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integritywhich has shaped me as a pastor as much as any other book I’ve ever read—with a friend, and re-read what he has to say about giving spiritual direction.

(Incidentally, I think that “spiritual direction”—or mentoring, or whatever you’d call personal, spiritual influence—is one of the most desperately needed activities in our culture. I think much of 21st century North American culture has no need for a bigger, better, faster worship gathering. We need a more sober, consistent spiritual direction and discipleship for God’s people).

So here’s what Peterson says:

  1. Cultivate an attitude of awe with and for every person you meet with. Every meeting is a privilege, and an opportunity to see God work.
  2. Cultivate an attitude of ignorance. We can make assumptions about peoples’ motives and feelings. Most of the time they are wrong. We do better to assume nothing and ask questions. (This is something I’m trying desperately to grow in.)
  3. Cultivate a predisposition to prayer. Prayer is the furnace, and oftentimes what people really want from us is to learn to run the furnace for themselves. They don’t want our advice; they want to learn how encounter God for themselves.

The Time Jesus and Paul Re-Arranged My Office

traditional-executive-office-furniture-936x728So I’d never had an office before.

I entered the ministry full-time when I was 30. Up until that time I’d worked in some combination of libraries, retail, and the requisite cube farm.

But when I went to work (at a little community church in suburban Chicago), I actually got an office (shared with a good friend, but still: IT HAD A DOOR!).

So my first day there, I worked on arranging things in a way that felt right to me: desk facing the door in the back third of the room, my back to the wall opposite the door, etc.

It looked/felt right, and I was happy.

Just as I got it all set, my boss stopped by and asked how I was settling in. I proudly said I was doing great and feeling good.

Then he said this: “You know, actually you’re going to need to move your desk. See, here at the church we make it a policy to never have our desks in the center of the room; arranging an office this way is a statement of power (it makes your visitors feel subordinate), and we’re not supposed to lead from positions of authority or power, but from positions of servanthood.”

WHAT?

I had mixed emotions, but regardless I pushed my desk against the wall (very NOT feng-shui, in case you’re wondering), and rearranged everything to make it work somehow.

And ever since that’s the way I’ve arranged my church offices (if I have one). In my home office my desk sits in the middle of the room, but if I have visitors I don’t sit at it when I have meetings; we have another area that we can sit down in.

I think we should blame Paul and Jesus.

In multiple gospels, Jesus declares that he didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and that is our model of leadership and influence. In the end, Jesus chose to release his authority and allow himself to be beaten and crucified. Paul, for all of the bad rap that he gets as a chauvinist (which I actually think is a result of bad readings of scripture), continues these thoughts when he repeatedly refers to himself as a servant of his communities. Both of them are not afraid to “tell it like it is,” but it seems to me that the “servant language” trumps the “power language” in the New Testament.

All of this servanthood talk makes me examine (and re-examine) the role power and authority takes in my life.

Servanthood seems to work like a really powerful spice, or yeast: it only takes a little to completely change the flavor of your relationships. You can talk “authority” and “power” an awful lot, but when you kneel down to wash someone’s feet, or choose to listen with your mouth shut instead of telling someone what to do, or when you choose to “make room” for another perspective instead of assuming that everyone needs to think like you do…

… when you make sure your office doesn’t tell the story of how important you are…

… all of these things “flavor” our leadership with an attitude of servanthood that carries the aroma of Jesus and Paul and a compassionate God who in the end emptied Himself of his authority in order to serve the whole world by dying.

Over the years, I’ve become convinced that my boss was absolutely right—that office furniture can tell stories of power and authority. In fact, anything in our lives can. We can talk about servanthood and meekness and gentleness, but if the non-verbal things in our lives contradict our words, people will know.

The challenging question is this: does the non-verbal communication of your life match your words? Do you talk about servanthood but then live out power?

It all speaks. We just need to work to make it all line up.