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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“Bummer” Worship Songs, Casinos + the Church Calendar

In case you didn’t know, casinos don’t have windows. Typically, it’s really difficult to see outside in any way from the casino floor, and it’s fairly well-known that this is because they want you to exist entirely inside the reality of the casino while you’re there. Everything, including the patterns on the carpet, is tailored to pull you into a place where anything is possible: where you could win $1,000,000 on nickel slots; that cute blonde really does like you (and really isn’t a prostitute); where you really are a high-rolling consultant from NYC (and not a debt-strapped state employee from Wisconsin). They spend a lot of money to create this illusion, and they are pretty good at it: while you are there, you can believe anything, and it feels real.

But guess what: eventually you have to leave the casino.

And it’s 2pm.

And rather than being up $20,000, you’re down $450 and you have to make rent.

Reality sets in sooner or later…

I’ve been accused of leading “downer” worship sets. In fact, I was once officially reprimanded at a church for not putting enough “uplifting and joyful” songs into our weekly sets. What’s more, at my church we are in a season that has found us playing a lot of songs that dwell on pain and suffering (and yet choosing to still sing, no matter how tentatively). I’ve even made a concerted effort recently to pull us away from these songs, but it just seems like we are in a season of pain and struggle, and as musicians and pastors we simply need to speak to that. Lately, I think of it as “Gap Worship”, songs that stand in the gap between exhilarating hope and devastating despair, between joy and pain.

Reality sets in sooner or later…

I was having coffee with a good friend last week who is watching a loved one struggle severely with an undiagnosed devastating physical illness. Doctors cannot seem to figure out what’s going on, and the situation seems to be deteriorating. They were telling me about the latest news, and they said, “I just can’t seem to connect with church right now…”

I replied, “I imagine you walk into most churches and you think, ‘because of what I’m going through right now, there is nothing here that connects with my life.’” 

He began to tear up and simply muttered, “Yeah.”

So many times our churches can begin to resemble casinos, both physically and emotionally. We truly want to pull people into a reality that says “Hey everyone remember: Love wins! Just give your life to Jesus and save your soul! Get on board with God’s mission!” To that end, we do a lot to pull people into the reality we are trying to create.

(In fact, most of our modern churches go to great lengths to blot out natural, ambient light—windows—so that we can better employ our systems to tell the story we want to tell that week.)

And yet, we know that reality is going to set in…

People are going to walk back out and experience the devastating reality of their lives: debt, illness, loss, loneliness, anger, isolation.

I am absolutely not advocating abandoning hope.

I am advocating timeless, non-contextual worship experiences that don’t connect with reality. 

Let’s face it: even Jesus knew it wasn’t Easter all the time. 

One of the great (and under-utilized) tools for planning worship that doesn’t look like and feel a casino is the church calendar. Used creatively, the liturgical calendar (broadly, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and “Common Time”) can help us address the pain and doubt (as well as joy, hope, and anticipation) of the individuals we live and do ministry with.

Advent is a season of preparation and anticipation. It is a great time to talk about the meaning of Jesus’ coming, and the “gap” between the our world, and the vision of the world that He comes to inaugurate.

Christmas is joy and celebration, celebrating “God-with-us.” In the midst of the depth of winter (death), life springs up. Even in the absence of hope, God is working.

Lent walks us through our mortality and our frailty as we think about Jesus’ journey towards the cross. It’s a time to mourn and to sacrifice and abstain from comfort in order to shake loose sin’s hold on areas of our lives.

Easter bursts forth with celebration and new life. It screams at the world, “Whatever you think you know about life, there is a deeper reality than you think.” At the moment of great sadness and even evil, the victory is truly won.

Pentecost addresses the life that the Holy Spirit brings, and also the creation of the church. It can be a time of community and connection.

I’m certainly not an expert in the church calendar; my church only observes a couple of these seasons. However, I’m fairly convinced that these seasons holistically address the human experience, and avoid “Casino” worship.

For the time being, I’ll keep my downer worship songs. I can see outside, and it’s not always 75° and sunny.

Reality is going to set in when they leave your sanctuary, and we don’t worship a God who asks us to stick our head in the sand. We don’t deny death; we defiantly claim that life—actually resurrection life—comes out of death.

*e

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Introducing the “Deep Well”

“The Deep Well” is born out of a few threads that emerged during a Sabbatical in 2013.

The first came out of Isaiah 55, where God is reminding his people that they have spent resources—a lot of resources—on “food that is not really food” and “drink that is not really drink.” Folks have wasted their time chasing after things that don’t really satisfy. In contrast, God says, “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, but food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk… Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts” (vv1, 2a).

The idea that came to me was to just set up some space where God’s people could “feast” on Him. Not really much of an agenda—just provide an arc and a space where people could throw themselves into God and He could satisfy their deep thirsts and hunger.

The second came out of the idea of our “belovedness” in God’s eyes. This theme, echoed in a few writers for me, is necessary (to my mind) because sometimes the very reason we run after so many other things that do not satisfy us is because we are terrified what God may actually think about us—that He actually may not like us.

It occurred to me that reminding folks that they are beloved in God’s eyes would be a good thing to do.

These two ideas—to let people feast on God, and to remind them that they are the beloved—form the backbone of this thing I’m calling “Deep Well”. There are other thoughts and inspiration mixed in as well, but these form the spiritual core of what I’m doing.

It’s pretty simple; I’m thinking that most good ideas are. I’m thinking I’d like to see just how many folks out there are hungry, and thirsty and how many need to be reminded that God’s forgiveness (and love) precedes their repentance. Right where they’re at.

For now, if you want to know about this thing called “Deep Well” you can come here and follow me, or stay posted on Twitter.

The first “Deep Well” event will be happening on June 7 at Element3 Church in Tallahassee. Doors will be at 7:00, and the music will start at 7:30. I’d love for you to come and invite as many friends as you care to.

Let’s see what happens.

Worship Leading Throughout the Room

For awhile I’ve been telling the folks on the worship team at my church to remember that they are always leading worship.

In fact, I prefer the negative form:

You are never not leading worship. 

You see, once you embrace your role as a leader, you no longer always get to choose when and how people respond to you.

In fact, I think it’s just best to assume that—on Sundays especially—people are always observing you, and therefore you always have the chance to “lead worship”, whether you’re on stage or not. You are always leading, so here’s a few ways to lead worship from “around the room”:

  • In the Parking Lot or Lobby: How do you conduct yourself before people know your gifts? Do you make an effort to get to know people? If “Leadership” is a part of “Worship Leading”, than we have to keep in mind that leadership is inherently relational. Saying “hi” to people far away from the stage increases people’s relational connection to you, which leads to trust, which increases your ability to help facilitate their experience with God.
  • In the Back of the Room: Or the side. Or in the front pew. How do you worship when you are not on stage? Is your experience of God as dynamic and vital off the stage as it is on the stage? Because people may be watching you. It’s about authenticity; it’s about saying, “This time—this response to God—is really this important whether I’m on stage or not.”

    (p.s. This means that you’re actually in the room, and not hiding in the green room or sleeping in…)

  • Backstage: What attitudes are you fostering among your band members? Are you bringing to life the same things within your team that you sing about in front of your community? What do rehearsals feel like? Are they relational, gospel-centered?
  • In the Tech Booth: When I visit churches, I carefully watch the tech teams: the audio, lighting, and graphics people. These individuals are usually the best barometer of the spiritual and emotional health of your worship team. How are you leading them? Are you treating them with respect, and seeking to understand their needs and perspective?

Like it or not, once you embrace leadership, you step into a spotlight that seldom dims. People are watching you, and you will influence—lead them—their response to God in every interaction that you have with people.

You are never not leading worship. This is a great opportunity; steward it well.

*e

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Six Ways to Deepen Your Corporate Worship Experience

Sorry it’s been a while. I’ve been busy getting reacclimatized to ministry after a 3-month Sabbatical.

In the upcoming weeks I want to start unpacking my vision of how to create a Gospel-shaped life.

This week’s installment is about how we might deepen our corporate worship experience.

  • I’m assuming here that you share my belief that worship is a spot where heaven meets earth.
  • I’m assuming here that you believe that God indeed inhabits the praises of his people, and that He wants to meet with us, to speak to us, to “do stuff” in us during worship.
  • I’m assuming that you think that worship (not just the musical kind) is probably the most important thing you can do on earth.
  • I’m assuming that you think God is more important than you are, that is, that He belongs on the throne of your life, not you.

So is it possible to learn to worship better?

Should “learn” or “better” even be part of the conversation?

I think they should. I think to the degree that we want worship to be rich and meaningful; to the degree that we want to meet with God and to hear Him speak and feel Him in our presence, we should own up to our end of the bargain. 

We should do our best; we should come to worship with best, not so that we can work our way into God’s presence, but so that we can make the most room for Him—and His Spirit—that we can.

Too often we show up to worship in order to receive only. Doesn’t this turn things around? Doesn’t this make worship about us? About God giving to us? Worship begins when we recognize who God truly is and who we truly are; once that relationship is clear, God tends to then speak and do His business with us in the best possible sense.

So how do we get better at worship? I’d like to suggest six very practical suggestions to helping all of us come to God better prepared to meet with Him.

  1. Get a good night’s sleep. Most of us roll out of bed at the last possible minute on Sunday, scurry to church, get adequately caffeinated (if that’s an option at your church), and then wander in, greeting people as we go, eventually settling down just in time to start singing the third verse of the second song. And then we wonder why the band seemed a little “off” that week, or why worship was a little “dry”. If God is truly worth it, and if the Sabbath is truly the joy that we say it is, maybe Sunday worship should begin on Saturday night. 
  2. Engage in the “worship before the worship.” Before you come to church, read Scripture and pray. Thank God for another day of life, and tell Him you are excited to worship Him today. As you get in your car to come to your gathering place, take time to center down into God’s love. Pray for yourself and for the worship team of your church. Pray for your pastor. Prepare your heart individually in order to engage corporately. 
  3. As you sing, engage deeply with the lyrics. Connect the words to your own life. It’s only thing to sing, “He loves us, oh how He love us” passively and absent-mindedly. It’s another thing entirely to connect those words with your own story.
  4. Be willing to worship “from the outside in”. We talk a lot about “inside-out” worship, and having the inward state of our hearts match the words we are singing. But this ignores a basic truth of how the body occasionally works. The truth of our existence is that our physical postures and expressions can affect our emotional states. This means that sometimes if you want to experience worship more deeply, you should be willing to engage your body. I know there’s lots of different worshiping traditions, some more expressive than others. I also understand that Paul calls us to not be distractions in our corporate gatherings. But within those parameters, I believe we should experiment with physical expressions of worship—raising our hands, clapping (I won’t even mention movement… yet), kneeling, etc.—that can unleash deeper realities for us.
  5. Look Around. We don’t merely worship as private individuals; we worship as a body. Occasionally, take your eyes off of the screens (no really, please take your eyes off the screens) and look around the room. Who is mourning? Say a prayer for them. Who is rejoicing? Celebrate with them. Allow yourself to be shaped by the way your brothers and sisters are worshiping with you.
  6. Offer a sacrifice. Worship isn’t about you. It’s not about the band. It’s about God. It’s easy—so easy—to show up on Sunday morning with an attitude of “Give something to me, God.” Indeed, sometimes life beats us down and it’s all we can do to limp into our gatherings on Sunday.But our job during worship is to offer a sacrifice to God. It’s His job to heal us, to comfort us, to give us faith, to remind us that we’re loved and valued as His children. So consciously make a switch in your mind to give rather than receive. Or at the very least, commit to giving first and receiving second. 

I hope that these six suggestions might equip you to bring a deeper offering to God on Sundays. Ironically, I also think they’re the key to receiving more from God during worship as well.

But it’s still not about that.

peace

Connecting the Core

For those of you who may be leading musical worship in some context…

A while back, I wrote about “Knowing Your Core”: knowing how you would essentially describe the Gospel. (If you haven’t taken the time to write down your core, I’d encourage you to take a few minutes and do this).

It’s not enough to know your core; the real challenge is to make sure that our ministry reflects these beliefs.

For some of us, that means making sure that the songs we sing on Sunday match what we believe is the core. In other words, though we may claim that our Gospel “core” looks like this (this is my core, by the way)

  1. mission/vocation
  2. community
  3. restoration
  4. the Holy Spirit
  5. God-With-Us

However, if we’re not mindful, the lyrics of the songs we choose to sing on Sunday may look like this:

  1. God is really great
  2. We are sinners
  3. Jesus died on the cross
  4. We are still sinners
  5. Good thing Jesus died on the cross

This disconnect isn’t healthy, either for you or for your congregation.

For those of us who are leading music, take a look at the lyrics that you’re singing week-to-week. Are those lyrics consistent with your core? With your church’s core? (Again, first you need to know what your core is.)

For those of us in another form of ministry, we can still examine how our values, actions, and words are connecting with that core.

There is no reason that ministry cannot be an expression of our deepest and “truest” selves, but we do have to do the challenging, reflective work of knowing what that deep and true self looks like.

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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?