Weekly Worship Thought – Breaking Down for Lent

breakingLent begins this year on March 1 with Ash Wednesday. I have begun to think about all the possibilities of our music and space for worship during the upcoming season. Lent is a time to reflect, to pause, to weigh the costs of discipleship, and to prayerfully prepare for marking time with Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In particular I am thinking about the music for worship in our gathered assemblies. What can be done musically to carry across the layers of meaning we find during the Lenten season? One idea I am exploring is breaking things down. In a musical sense, this means simplifying things. The simplicity of our instruments and ensembles can bring out the themes of Lent.

An article at WorshipLeader.com makes some suggestions for improving congregational singing that I think are helpful: I did not have my band play on every verse and chorus. Musical accompaniment has one major purpose: supporting congregational singing! The most important sound on Sunday morning is that of your congregation. Have the band stop playing occasionally and let the people hear each other. I promise they will sing louder and more heartily in response!” Breaking things down instrumentally and providing simplicity can help the assembly sing – a worthy goal regardless of the liturgical season!

Scott Weidler shared a tip for Lent in a recent ALCM email regarding unaccompanied singing: “Lenten simplifying may well mean singing some music without instrumental accompaniment. If this is new (and, perhaps, terrifying) to your congregation, Lent may be an appropriate time to introduce it. The human voice is the primary instrument given to us by God. Let’s find ways to amplify its centrality. Many settings of psalms, Lenten verses sung as the Gospel Acclamation, Sanctus, Lamb of God, and other music may appropriately be sung without accompaniment. If eliminating accompaniments completely is unrealistic, try to imagine how to minimize the instrumental leadership in order to maximize primacy of the human voice.”

Breaking things down can be done in many ways. It could be using acoustic instruments instead of electric instruments, hand percussion instead of full drum kit, or just using piano or unaccompanied singing. Try one of these ideas in your context.

Weekly Worship Thought – Punishment

I have written about the song “Immanuel” by Stuart Townend before. I love using it during Advent because I think it provides a great narrative arc that compliments the story of the season.

Previously I’ve talked about altering the fourth stanza of text to deal with the “fear of hell.” In Jesus, there is no fear. The idea that God is looking to eternally punish anyone is suspect. “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (1 John 4:18)

As we sang the song recently, a new lyric jumped out to me. In the third stanza it says, “he was punished for a world’s transgressions.” As I have personally drifted away from a punitive, substitutionary atonement theory, lyrics like these stick out all the more. Violence begets violence. The idea that God violently punished the Son to make things even might be the source of many of our world’s problems.

I found this quote from Rene Girard helpful, I hope you do as well.

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Weekly Worship Thought – Sing a New Church

We sang a text for the first time in worship on Sunday. “Sing a New Church” is written by Delores Dufner, OSB and sung to the tune NETTLETON (Come Thou Fount). I found the comments section on the previously linked page interesting, as well as this post, “Bad Poetry, Bad Theology.” It seems that some Roman Catholics have a problem with the lyrics in this song.

From what I can gather, the problematic text is the refrain,

“Let us bring the gifts that differ,
and in splendid, varied ways,
sing a new Church into being,
one in faith and love and praise.”

I can appreciate the theological hesitation. And I think it is always beneficial and good to discern the texts we sing in worship. It is not a trivial thing to pastorally care for the sung theology of a local church. It seems that the primary hang up is the idea that the church can sing itself into being.

From a Lutheran perspective, I can understand the objection. The Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith” (Small Catechism). There is no church, and no church can be sung into existence, unless it is the Holy Spirit singing.

l66co3n4gxu-andy-leePerhaps “new” is the most problematic word. I understand the argument that there is only one church. Perhaps “sing a renewed church into being,” better captures the idea in a less heretical way. A new church is a renewed church, which is another way of saying reformation. And certainly the work of continual reformation in the church is performed by the power of the Holy Spirit. But that is not to say that we, God’s people, don’t have a part in the reformation of the church.

It is the prayerful labors of God’s people, centered in word, meal, and baptism, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that make God’s church renewed. I don’t think the church can enter renewal and reformation through passively willing it. I definitely think that singing has something to do with how the church becomes renewed and reformed.

What do you think? Are the lyrics orthodox or heresy?

Q&R: Which contemporary songs should we introduce to our church?

477039_381357365243443_143418169037365_1103810_100449478_oQuestion: 

We are in desperate need of introducing some contemporary music into our worship services. I do know contemporary music but have no clue about what works best in a room full of folks, many of whom do not know contemporary Christian music. We do a few songs:  As the Deer, Seek Ye First, Sanctuary, and a few others here and there.  My organist insists they can do the contemporary music, but the few times we have done it it has fallen flat. I can’t tell you why. So, here is my question: if we were to introduce maybe 10 new contemporary songs to our congregation to be used in worship, which 10 would you suggest?  Of course theology matters, but so does singability and teachability.
Response:
To start, I would definitely recommend you sign up your musician and any singers that are interested for the Tune Up worship band gathering: http://TuneUpGathering.org – they will learn some new songs, and rub shoulders with other church musicians who are doing this same thing.
I’ll say that successfully pulling off contemporary music is a challenge. Especially for a church organist. There are lots of reasons why: the rhythmic language of contemp. music is different than traditional hymnody. Also many contemp. songs are written and presented by guitar driven bands, and without that instrument (as well as drums) they can fall flat. 
But there are some “bridge” songs that can get you started in the right direction. Songs that work well with piano and are easy to learn for an assembly that is unfamiliar with the style. The ones you listed (especially As the Deer) are good. If you’re using Evangelical Lutheran Worship in the pews, take advantage of some of the music in there: 
857 Lord, I Lift Your Name on High
821 Shout to the Lord
483 Here Is Bread
And even some of the multicultural music works well and is “new” in a sense, if you’re not already using them:
817 You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore
491 Come, Let Us Eat
525 You Are Holy
Here are some other songs outside of ELW, found through a website: CCLI.com:
10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord) – Matt Redman
How Great Is Our God – Chris Tomlin
Blessed Be Your Name – Matt Redman
Here I Am to Worship – Tim Hughes
Your Grace Is Enough – Matt Maher
Holy Is the Lord – Chris Tomlin
Jesus Messiah – Chris Tomlin
Hopefully that is something to get you started. Theologically, most contemp. songs are fine. A few are not. The biggest problem I run into is they can be less than gender inclusive (God = He) and put way too much emphasis on substitutionary atonement theory (as opposed to a Christus Victor theme). Some contemp. songs are engaging Biblical themes and images unexplored in traditional hymnody. However, a consistent diet of contemp. songs will not be as full, or rich a theological expression as hymnody would be. For example, if you’re looking for contemp. songs that mention the Trinity (a core doctrine of Christianity), you’ll have to look hard (but they are there). 

Fresh Waiting – Resources for Advent

Advent is that season of expectation and preparation that leads us into the incarnational reality of God tabernacle-ing among us. Or as Eugene Peterson put it, God “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message).

Advent is also the kick-off of the new liturgical year. Even though not every church follows the Christian calendar religiously, there is something about Advent in which even contemporary churches can find hope. The intentional pause and reflection is highly sought after in our breakneck society. Advent plays well in churches trying to craft fresh expressions of the faith. But how do you make waiting fresh?

Here are some of my favorite creative resources for the season of Advent. Explore the links to learn more:

  • Songs
    • Sing to the King, words and music by Billy Foote and based on an older hymn by Charles Silvester Horne. This song captures the eschatological themes of Advent well. I actually include an additional original stanza that is left out of Foote’s version: “Souls will be saved from the burden of sin, doubt will not darken his witness within. Hell has no terrors, and death has no sting; love is victorious when Jesus is King.”
    • Immanuel, or as I like to call it, “From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable” (taken from the first stanza). Words and music by Stuart Townend, who has had some controversy lately stemming from the new Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) hymnal. The four stanzas of this song give you a great narrative sweep of Christ’s birth, life, death, and return. I exclusively bring this song out every Advent. However, I do feel that the theology in this song needs a little tweaking to fit in our context. In the final stanza I change “hope of heaven or the fear of hell,” to “heav’n joins earth where God will dwell.”
  • Videos
  • Message Series/Small Group Resourcesadvent conspiracy
    • Advent Conspiracy is a campaign designed to help us all slow  own and experience aChristmas worth remembering. There are lots of resources: messages, videos, a book, and small group curriculum.
    • Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “God is in the Manger” is a devotional book with daily readings for the season of Advent. Last year we developed it into a four week message series with accompanying small group discussion questions.
  • Environment
    • Advent Wreath You can be pretty creative with how you advent wreathrepresent the Advent wreath. Consider how lighting can be used to create the effect of candles. This wreath was constructed out of corrugated plastic (the same stuff they make yard signs out of).
    • Advent banners can be cool. Don’t sell them short. They can add color and depth of meaning through the use of symbol and metaphor. Just search for “Advent banners” advent banneron Pinterest and put your creative people to work.

Song Story – "Be A Blessing"

On Saturday, August 25 the Faith Alive! Band went on a one-day retreat. The Band spent the whole day at the Cenacle Retreat House in Houston. We spent time studying God’s word and listening to each other. We enjoyed a silent lunch (most of us enjoyed it) and explored the trails and hammocks at the Cenacle. We had conversations about what the goal of leading worship is. Those in attendance at the retreat were Alan Balius, Cathy Doughty, Tim Griffith, Kathy Patrick, and Jim Richman.

Songwriting was another activity I proposed for the Band to do while on retreat. Before beginning our attempt at songwriting, I told the Band to not get hung up on the outcome. Many songwriters work for years on perfecting a song. Sometimes the lyrics come easily, but not the melody, and vice versa. I also set some parameters on the type of song we would attempt to write. I wanted to write a sending song. The sending song is an important part of worship. It is the last thing we sing – a song that catapults us into the world carrying the message of God’s grace and mercy. I am always on the lookout for great sending songs for The Gathering service.

I also wanted our song to capture the vibe and spirit of Faith Lutheran Church. The motto, or mantra, that we use a lot is, “Be a Blessing.” That phrase sums up our commission as the people of God to love and serve our neighbors and the entire world.

We started by discussing some of the biblical images of being sent. Then we started to develop lyrical phrases. Next we paired the lyrical phrases together. Then we identified the paired phrases as sections of a song, such as verses, a bridge, and a chorus. Finally we developed a chord progression and a melody to fit the lyrics. An hour and a half later, this is the song we wrote! We have used it in worship several times and we have received several compliments on the song. Great job Faith Alive! Band. You can hear a demo of the song below:

Be A Blessing

Be a blessing, you have called us. Be a blessing, you have shown us.
Be a blessing, you have told us. Be a blessing, you have sent us. 

Send us to places where doubts prevail.
Help us remember your love won’t fail. 

Be a blessing, you have called us. Be a blessing, you have shown us.
Be a blessing, you have told us. Be a blessing, you have sent us.

 Send us with nothing; your grace is enough.
Help us proclaim your truth in love.

 Be a blessing, you have called us. Be a blessing, you have shown us.
Be a blessing, you have told us. Be a blessing, you have sent us.

 To heal, to help, to hold a hand.
To show your heart, to take a stand.

 Be a blessing, you have called us. Be a blessing, you have shown us.
Be a blessing, you have told us. Be a blessing, you have sent us.

 Be a blessing (we’ve been blessed), you have called us (we’ve been blessed).
Be a blessing (we’ve been blessed), you have sent us (we’ve been blessed).

There Is a Balm in Gilead

ThereIsBalmGileaArr (2)

One of my favorite hymns is “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” There is a depth to this hymn that expresses a longing for healing and wholeness. It acknowledges that there is a wellness in Jesus Christ that goes beyond physical healing and reaches into our very souls and even the entirety of creation.

“Balm of Gilead” was an aromatic medicinal ointment. Jeremiah 8:22 asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The refrain of this African American spiritual answers the question: “There is a balm in Gilead.” At first blush that seems like a strange answer, because the stanzas seem unconnected to it, until you realize that they tell you where the balm is located.

It is not in Gilead or in any place in this world where horrible things like oppression and lynchings happen. No, it is the Holy Spirit who “revives my soul,” and it is Jesus who “is your friend” and “died for
all.”

This means that if you know where hope is found—namely, in God—the balm is paradoxically precisely in Gilead and in every other
place in this world. Or, as James Cone said when he cited this spiritual, “Hope, in the black spirituals, is not a denial of history, [but] the belief that things can be radically otherwise than they are: that reality is not fixed, but is moving in the direction of human liberation.”

Like many black spirituals, the origin of the text and tune for “There Is a Balm in Gilead” is difficult to track down. Many of these songs
were anonymously handed down through an oral tradition. The song was probably formed in the early part of the nineteenth
century. The first appearance of the refrain was found in Washington Glass’s 1854 hymn “The Sinner’s Cure.” The complete spiritual appeared in Folk Songs of the American Negro in 1907.

(excerpts from Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2010, p. 454-455.)

"Let Us Break Bread Together" sung by Desi Lancaster

Here is a track I recently recorded with my friend, and one of my favorite singers, Desi Lancaster (@Dexxie35). It is my arrangement of the spiritual, “Let Us Break Bread Together.”

Let Us Break Bread mix

Recorded in my office at Faith Lutheran Church, Bellaire, TX (using my PreSonus Audiobox USB and GarageBand).

  • Lead Vocals – Desi Lancaster
  • Organ, Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar, Percussion, Background Vocals – Clayton Faulkner
  • Mixed by Stephen Bolech at Studio K in Waco, TX (@sbolech)

Is it a hymn, a song, or a chorus?

 

One of the things I like to do is respond to questions about worship or liturgy. I don’t claim to know everything, but I can share my two cents. During a recent conversation this question came up: what do we call the songs we sing in our services? Are they hymns, or songs, or choruses, or what?

 

It’s a tricky question. If you want to get technical, there are dozens of categories within the broader sacred music genre. There are chorales, gospel hymns, scripture songs, contemporary worship songs, spirituals, and doxologies, just to name a few. Even our own Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) hymnal can be perplexing. Pages 92-93 in ELW map out the pattern for worship in our context, but say that a “Gathering Song” can be either a “Hymn” or a “Psalm.” The ELW pattern also calls music during communion a “Communion Song” and music during the sending a “Sending Song.” However, the section of the hymnal that contains the music is titled “Hymns” (beginning at #239). And to add to the confusion, the “Hymns” section in ELW contains several songs that are staples in many contemporary worship services (like #857 “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” and #821 “Shout to the Lord”)!?!

 

Maybe the best solution is to take it back to basics and what the Bible says about music in worship. We know in two separate occasions the Apostle Paul mentions songs in his letters. In Ephesians 5:18-20 and in Colossians 3:16 Paul says that we are to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” So we know for sure that there were at least three categories of songs that the earliest Christians used in their communal worship. Psalms are biblical songs from the Old Testament book by the same name, but likely included other songs (like the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 and Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2). Hymns are songs addressed to God and to Jesus as the Son of God. Possible examples of the first hymns of the Christian era are included in the New Testament (like Philippians 2:6-11 and Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55). Spiritual Songs were most likely short, extemporaneous songs that arose within individual Christian communities. These songs were probably songs of testimony, fellowship, witness, and were very reflective of the community from which they came. The songs are called “Spiritual” because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

 

One thing is certain – God’s people are encouraged in Scripture to sing a variety of songs in worship. No matter what we call them, the church has been given the gift of music for the purposes of singing God’s praises.

Got a question? Leave me a comment…