Sunday Spine

I’ve been reading Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit, and it’s really great: practical productive ideas on creating from a long-time practicer. She talks about the need for every creative work to have a “spine”, something which knits the whole work together. It answers the question, “What am I trying to say?” with ruthless clarity and conciseness.

What’s interesting to me is that the spine is not necessarily the same thing as what the audience/public/congregation sees or hears or experiences. That’s the story; the spine belongs to the creator or team of creators that orchestrate it.

For those of us who work on Sunday, I think we have the opportunity to think about spines as well. We already know our story (and it’s a good one); but we don’t always think about our particular spines. In my context, a spine may be anything that holds a set of songs together besides the obvious (a journey towards God). For better or for worse, this past Sunday my “spine” was a musical one: it was the concept of a power trio. Could I (a) have no acoustic guitar; (b) play slide in open tuning; (c) re-arrange some familiar songs to have a heavier, bluesier feel to them; and (d) do all of this without it becoming distracting or prideful?

In regards to the spine, “What am I trying to say?”

I am trying to say that worship music can be bluesy and soulful and still congregational. 

That was my thinking, but a spine can be just about anything: it may be a stylistic approach to the songs; it may be a progression of musical keys; it may be a subtle facet of spirituality—meditation or contemplation, say—that’s not overtly being discussed but that I’ve been working with.

Now, here’s the deal: First, in Sunday worship “business”, spines are not necessary. We’ve been handed a story to tell, and it’s up to us to tell it clearly and compellingly. In a sense, we don’t need spines.

(I hope I don’t need to tell you that spines should never detract or distract from the story. People shouldn’t notice that all your songs were in the key of A; they should notice this God that we believe in.)

But spines enrich our stories. They give us the opportunity to make our Sunday stories multi-layered and rich.

They also infuse our creative lives with fresh wind.

(I daresay they make it fun.)

What some of us need is a dose of creative energy, a breathe of fresh air to engage our thinking and give us the strength and focus to run another leg of the ministry race that we’re in. Ultimately, I think that spines are a useful tool to keep us engage over a period of time with the work we do.

(By the way, I also use the concept of a “spine” when I’m developing a sermon; it governs what stays in and what goes out. In this sense, sermon prep for me is like poetry. It’s about editing down to the essentials and trusting that what is left over after the process is sufficient and essential.)

What spine can you insert into your work this week? What would give you energy?

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… In Which Eric Embraces Chris Tomlin

Literally!

Literally!

Since I began my sabbatical a few weeks ago, my family and I have been attending a neighborhood church. The experience has been refreshing, most of all because I am getting to experience worship again as, well, a worshiper.

As we prepared to worship, I was trying to grasp onto the culture there: How many songs would there be? Would people raise their hands? 

Most of all, I was wondering, Would I know the songs? 

Refreshingly, they played a couple that I was familiar with. E3 has been doing  “Our God” for around a year, and I’ve sung “Revelation Song” here and there.

As a worshiper, I loved this familiarity: I knew the melodies; I knew the lyrics; I knew the message.

As a church leader, it provoked my thinking in some interesting ways.

As a songwriter and a pastor, I’ve been adamant about original worship music. I have believed—and still do—that the local church should be as diverse, unique, and fresh as our God. The local church should have an infinite amount of expression and variation to it.

Seemingly opposed to this has been the national flattening and “Walmartization” of the Christian music. Just like the broader culture, a few select companies are dominating the national landscape, and consequently drowning out vital local expressions of music and art. Rather than attempting to unleash the creativity that surely lurks somewhere inside their own body, churches seem more content to turn to Chris Tomlin and David Crowder, Hillsong and Lifeway to provide them with the “freedom songs” that we all sing on Sunday. I resonate with Thomas Merton when he writes, “There can be an intense egoism in following everybody else. People are in a hurry to magnify themselves by imitating what is popular—and too lazy to think of anything better.”

However, I’m wondering if there’s not another dynamic to consider…

In my opinion, liturgical worship has many different benefits including the idea that wherever a believer goes in the world, the liturgy is the same. She can engage immediately in worship, no matter whether she is at her home community or halfway round the world.

In the interest of creativity, is it possible for a local church to become too insular, so that its musical worship is only intelligible and accessible to its immediate community?

Should a church maintain an eye towards global expression—the “Big C” Church—when it prepares on Sunday?

And, given that the most evangelical, non-denominational churches don’t employ the liturgy, should we embrace that the “Big Three” (Tomlin, Crowder, Hillsong) are, in fact, as close as we can get to a common worship language? 

I don’t advocate picking songs based on the iTunes worship charts (I actually freelanced at a church that did that—quite distasteful), but as a worshiper who had come from another community, I can tell you that I appreciated the fact that I “understood the language” of this church (they also used the Lord’s Prayer and a couple familiar liturgical elements).

I also don’t think the local church should shy away from fresh songs and creative diversity; however, I think we should maintain a certain eye towards both the transient nature of our culture and the global expression of our faith.

Anyone have any thoughts?

Four Ways Gigging Made Me a Better Worship Leader / Church Musician

One of my favorite quotes is in the movie Rocknrolla: 

There ain’t no school like the old school and I’m the #@$%@#$% headmaster.

When I started playing guitar, playing in church was not an option. Our church was a piano/organ place, and we only did acoustic guitar on a very, very rare occasion.

In fact, as crazy as this may seem, I never heard real electric guitar—not the heavily compressed, chorused, thin sound—in church until I was probably 30 years old.

So, musically, all my formative years weren’t spent in a youth band; they were spent in clubs.

This is what I think I learned:

  1. Be excellent, quickly.My first gigs were in a cover band. Two hundred dollars for a night (for the whole band). Two 60-90 minute sets. You were paid to be the entertainment. If you couldn’t grab the crowd’s attention, than you (a) were going to have a boring night and (b) weren’t going to be invited back. You had to get their attention, and then hold it. Probably the most extreme situations were when we’d play for a group of bikers; the pressure to entertain and “be cool” was definitely heightened. You had to be on your game.By contrast, church is mostly a captive audience. They’ll tolerate mistakes and give you second chances. However, just because the congregation lets you get away with a bad note doesn’t mean you should let yourself get away with it.
  2. Have your gear together. Even in the era of Guitar Center, you still couldn’t find a place to buy a cable at ten o’clock at night (maybe you still can’t). I remember driving 3 hours to a gig where the drummer forgot his hi hat stand. Outcome: gig with no hi hat. You had to double-check your stuff, and be prepared. Churches today come stocked with complete drum kits, miles of cabling, and usually a tuner (or 4) lying around. It’s nice to have a backup plan, but it’s also unprofessional to show up without a guitar strap. It assumes that someone will take care of you.
  3. Expect the worst. I remember playing a gig in this big wooden room that was essentially tuned to Ab. Every time we hit that note (which we did a lot, because we tuned 1/2 step down), the whole place would erupt with Ab feedback. It made for an interesting set. I also never knew that multiple monitor mixes were even possible until I was probably 25; my first 10 years of playing were spent learning to hear my voice—and the other instrumentalists—in one mix (that was usually too quiet).These days—if I can sound a bit crusty—a church is considered a bit lacking if the Aviom mix isn’t in stereo. Listening—and thus true interactive musicianship—isn’t based on the quality of your monitor mix; it’s based on the discipline of working to hear everyone on the stage, and to be aware of what they’re playing and how it impacts what you’re playing.
  4. God is everywhere. Though I wasn’t always firmly rooted spiritually, I learned that beautiful music can be made in the dirtiest places. On my final (probably) jaunt around the country, I was playing a gig in Lawrence, Kansas. The band I was in “gave in” to the crowd and played a (somewhat ironic) version of “Freebird.” As I played that ridiculous slide part, I practically heard God speak to me, “Do not think for one minute that I’m not hear in this bar. Do not think that you cannot send these notes to Me as worship—as thanks—right here in this moment and in this place. I am here.” 

    Though the church as a body is sacred and essential, God is also everywhere. When you only play music on Sunday morning, or only for your youth group, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that God is only in the church, or that He is only “listening” to corporate worship music (that is often too safe). Playing music in so many environments helped me understand that God is out there, always moving, sometimes even moreso than what we see on Sunday.

Anyway, that’s it. I’m old school, but I think we do well to make sure our church musicians are seasoned and prepared, and have as wide a view as possible of God’s activity in the world.

Worship “Satisfaction”

I read this post last week…

At first—because I’m slightly neurotic—I was really convicted by it, if for no other reason than I, um, often play guitar solos during worship songs.

Forgive me.

But the more I read it, I actually got a little tweaked (full disclosure: if it’s not obvious already, I’m a worship pastor, so as my southern friends would say, I have at least a few “dogs in this hunt”).

As usual, I think of reality more in terms of a tension to be lived in, between the truth of what Bill says and another perspective.

Here are some thoughts from another perspective. Warning: possible frumpiness to follow.

  • I love me some hymns. Love ‘em. Believe in them. But the church I serve in is not a hymn-heavy church. We do 3 or 4 a month. There are hymn-heavy churches in town, however, and there are also churches who worship through liturgy, through silence, through choirs.The point is practically all of our churches exist in the flow of a tradition, and this is a good thing. My non-denominational, evangelical church is not going to become high church Anglican. We will not become full gospel AME. While we do our best to learn from other traditions and to give people a wide(r) glimpse of the church, I think that when we constantly question our own tradition we cultivate a sort of eccesiological multiple personality disorder.

    I think there’s a certain amount of wisdom to looking at your church tradition and culture and acknowledging the truth of where it’s been and what it is. Now culture isn’t frozen; we are meant to grow and change, but God created culture. It is a gift, at least a partial recognition that humanity is so diverse. There’s no point in freezing or elevating one form of worship culture and saying, this is what we need to do. 

  • Sometimes, worship participation is simply a matter of discipleship, of the heart.There I said it.

    Now, I realize that I may need to cut my guitar solos short. I accept that chastisement. But I think responsibility needs to be spread evenly. If an individual isn’t willing to sing, “Holy is the Lord,” then I really can’t make them. Ultimately, I am not the worship leader, the Holy Spirit is, and if a person is unwilling to follow the Spirit to God, then so be it. It’s a reality of my call, but I accept it.

    A word about “seekers” (whoever they are): I once heard Erwin McManus say, “if your church doesn’t have problems of heresy and immorality, than you’re probably not missional enough.”

    If we are engaging the world, there will be a certain percentage of people who simply “aren’t there yet.” As I just mentioned, I acknowledge that’s a reality of my job. There will be people in our gathering space who actually don’t have a clue who Jesus is, much less what worship is, and I need to respect their journey.

    But for those of us who are “in the know,” I think there comes a time when we have to simply say, “I’m here to meet with God; I will open my mouth and worship—not only to remind myself of who He is and what He has done, but so that I can be an example to other folks who are at a different part of their journey.” My church is primarily young people: young(ish) families and some post-college and college kids. But we have some older folks as well. One day, an older gentleman (in his 70s) said to me, “You know, I really don’t like the music at all. But God is at work here, so I’m just happy to be here and be a part of something.”

  • Which leads me to my last point…It’s not about you.

    I once led worship in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church; our Sunday set lists included modern gospel, songs in spanish, rock stuff (and an occasional hymn lol). Our pastor once said, “Hey guess what you guys: no one here is going to be completely satisfied with worship. THAT’S NOT THE POINT. We don’t come here to just get. We come here to give.” Because that church was clearly diverse, it was easy to grasp the idea that we all need to give up something to worship cross-culturally, but I think the principal holds true for us in mono-cultural worship settings as well:

    worship is first for God, then for us. Worship often overflows into love back from Him to us, but that’s not the point.

    We worship first because of who He is and what He has done for us, not because of what we may get out of it right now.

When I have the rare opportunity to sit under someone else’s leadership, I have the same feelings:

  • “Man, I don’t like this song…”
  • “She’s repeating that chorus too many times…”
  • “The mix is HORRIBLE…”
  • “He’s going to kick that water bottle over…”

In other words, I’m not immune. But I remind myself in those times that this moment is what I’ve been given, and it’s up to me to direct my heart, soul, mind, and strength towards my Creator and Savior.

It’s my choice.

In closing, I’d say this: you don’t sing at my church because you don’t want to sing at my church. It’s really that simple. In a sense that’s okay. And also, I hear the corrections—I don’t want to be a rock star worship leader—and I realize that we need to create an environment that facilitates people meeting with God and tells the story of our faith.

But it’s never gonna be perfect.

Take it away, Mick…

Worship Leader as Designer

Sorry I missed posting on Tuesday. I was catching up after a weekend away…

My wife and I bought our first house 2 years ago. In the months leading up to closing, we were virtually addicted to HGTV’s plethora of design shows (Splash of Color and Divine Design in particular). There was always a moment where the designer dramatically pulls out a painting, sculpture, or carpet swatch and declares, “This is what I’m basing the design of this room on.” Everything else would flow out of, and around, that inspirational piece.

A few months ago, I was talking to some worship leaders from my church, and I suddenly realized that—while I generally follow a linear flow of worship—I occasionally craft worship orders from a “design/inspirational” point of view. What I mean is that there is some central theme, or song, or concept, that serves as the centerpiece (obviously, God, Jesus, and the Cross are our spiritual centerpieces; I’m speaking here from a creative/inspirational perspective). Everything then flows out of—and around—that centerpiece.

The song, or thought, or concept serves to anchor the worship order (creatively), and gives purpose to it. It may be the first song, last song, or the middle. It may be a transition; or a scripture thought.

Again, while I think we should definitely tether ourselves to a worship flow that takes people on a journey from the “street to the altar” (and then out again), I think occasionally engaging in this “design-inspired” worship planning can introduce some holistic creativity to our efforts.

Up next… Thoughts on The National Anthem and Evangelism

“I Got 21 Problems…”

Each week, as I climb the three stairs to our stage, I have potentially a whole host of problems going through my head; here are just twenty-one:

  1. Who is on the team this week?
  2. What’s the pastor speaking on?
  3. Who’s running sound?
  4. Who is running lights?
  5. What will the graphics look like?
  6. Did I remember to put the “Chorus” graphic in twice?
  7. What arrangement of (that song) did we decide on?
  8. Should that be an “Fmaj7″ or just an “F”?
  9. Will the sound guy know when the guitar solo is?
  10. Will the coffee be brewed?
  11. Will the announcement person pray?
  12. Will there be any spelling errors or typos in slides?
  13. Did I meet that person last week?
  14. Who’s counting off the first song?
  15. Who’s counting off the second song?
  16. Where’s my bible?
  17. Does that child’s parents know that they’re in here?
  18. Where’s that buzz coming from?
  19. Did I eat breakfast?
  20. Is that “clever transition” going to work?
  21. AM I MAKING A DIFFERENCE????

Obviously, I can not answer most of these questions; however, I believe one of the essential elements for doing ministry is peace of mind. By the time I walk to the center of the stage, I need to be centered spiritually, intellectually and emotionally, and every question I have to deal with has the potential to pull me off my game. Luckily, I have to make choices with most of them. I can:

  1. Control them by answering them between Monday and Friday
  2. Control them by answering them Sunday with a conversation or a phone call
  3. Trust that they are answered, and just wait and see
  4. Know that they are not answered, but just release them (and make a note to address them later)

The trick to doing nearly anything is knowing when to press/control and when to release. There are simply certain things that I will trade in order to preserve my peace of mind. It may mean that I have to deal with a “curve ball” or two, but I also know where my “shoulders are big“, so I know which areas/categories are easier for me to release.

What about you? Do you know what questions confront you when you are “shipping”? Do you know what to release, control, or trust?

Creativity in Worship (v2010) + Collaborative Leadership

Twice — I think in 2000 and 2001 — I was privileged to teach a seminar at the Willow Creek Arts Conference called something like “Towards Spontaneity in Worship.” The seminar was designed to help worship leaders safely navigate being able to have some “unplanned creativity” in worship: extended outros, “Holy Spirit” moments where the worship leader can just open up some space to respond to something that God made may be doing.

In my estimation, the seminars weren’t all that good; I’m not that great at unpacking things that I do intuitively (just ask me to try and give you a guitar lesson!). But last night I was thinking about it, after a couple of “unplanned musical moments” in our worship set yesterday, and realized that I had something to add to the topic. So here you go:

In order to experience some kind of spontaneity in worship (or in any creative enterprise), a leader must be willing to acknowledge that what others might be offering — in terms of notes, ideas, or melodies — may be better than what that leader had in mind.

If you can’t start here, I’m not sure that it’s possible to experience much in the way of spontaneity. Why? Because you’ll control it. And as long as it’s only you controlling it, you won’t encounter much of anything that you haven’t already thought of or discovered. To use a metaphor, I think that most leaders look at a task (or a song) much like a musical equation that they have come up with: A + B = C. A collaborative leader is willing to introduce an unknown or two: A + B + __ = __. The end result might be “C”, but it also might be C*.

Adopt the mindset that everyone on your team — everyone in the room or at the table — has something potentially amazing to give to the experience, and the possibilities become endless! Release control that the song is supposed to end the way you wanted it to; that the chorus is supposed to be quiet rather than loud; that a ministry should have one strategy versus another.

You are still “the leader”; you still have the right to say, “No thanks.” But in the meantime, entertaining the idea that there is something better residing in the hearts and minds of your musicians and/or team makes introduces the concept that something new, unplanned and unexpected can be created out of your collective efforts.

… And that’s fun!

What can you release control of?

A “Non-Update”

Haven’t posted here in a while; I’ve been processing through so many things.

By nature, I like revolution over evolution. My idea of change is an abrupt rupture. “Break it or leave it.”

I also function in three-year seasons. Any intelligent person could see it in my resume. I get restless, and I want to try something new. It’s a function of a few things, I think:

  1. My restless nature
  2. My hunger for new things
  3. My pleasure in bringing sustainable order to chaos
  4. My resistance to deep community

So I’ve been here for 3 years, and the urge is simmering, boiling and rising. I look around me, and see both evolutionary and revolutionary change. The consequences for this now are so much larger, as I have kids who are rooted and grounded, with friends of their own, but I am also a child of Abraham, following a God who calls us to leave our homes and follow him.

As far as I can see, I have one of three paths in front of me (always leave room for more, though, YHWH likes to surprise):

  • Stay and grow through this job, go deeper into community, and enjoy watching my children grow up;
  • Cut the cord and step into a more challenging leadership role (that I am simultaneously confident in and terrified of); OR
  • Cut the cord, trade in my ministry toys, and go play somewhere else.

I have been in vocational ministry for 10 years. Essentially, I have been doing the same job, though largely through passion and choice. Still, the same job?

Isn’t it time to grow? Time to stretch muscle and sinew? I’m wrestle with the fact that maybe my malaise in life has been a result of not aspiring high enough, not risking enough, rather than too much. After all, I’m not aspiring to anything that people haven’t told me before that I was capable of.

One thing is for sure; something is coming; always is…