God as Creator: Implications for Gospel Creativity (Part 1)

In a recent discussion with one of our church staff, we were speaking of God as Creator and what it means for us and the local church. In many churches, and especially within the Independent Baptist movement (of which I am most familiar), we often hear of many attributes of God–holiness, grace, judgment, mercy, and so on. Of course, in children’s Sunday School we’ve been faithful to teach on the seven days of creation and that God “created the heaven and earth…”, but I have found that, often, very little application of this is made to our lives personally, as those created in His image. If God is creative and we are made in His image, then it seems that gospel-centered creativity should also be encouraged and developed as part of our formation as those who are God’s image bearers.

We are God’s image bearers

Man was created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). As such, we possess unique qualities that differentiate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Though we may share common genetic code with the rest of the animal kingdom, we are distinct and different–creativity being one of the principle differences.Through reason and language, man has the capability of forming original thoughts and acting upon those thoughts. Though, unlike God, we do not create ex nihilo (out of nothing), we do have the capacity to see, think, reason, feel and respond to our surroundings while adding something very unique to it.

Lessons from the Creator: Creation is not God–neither are we our “creation”

God, through His own volition and desire created because He wanted to. We are not able to fully know the mind of God outside of what He has revealed, however, we know that God must have a purpose for His creation, though we may not fully understand every aspect of it. God is very distinct and separate from His creation. His creation reveals some things about Him, but it is very separate from Him.

In a similar way, we are not our creation. It is unhealthy as creative people, to wrap our identity around our “creations”. They may reveal a part of our character and be an expression of who we are, but they are not us and this is a very important distinctive. We must find our identity in our relationship with Christ Himself, because this is the only identity that is complete and fulfilling. As His creation, this is what we were created for. To find our identity in something else, whatever it may be, is unhealthy, unfulfilling and less than what God intended for us.

This fact also frees us to create imperfect creations. This may sound a little counterintuitive, however, as imperfect creators, this is all that we can produce. Creativity for human beings can be (and should be) a constant pursuit of excellence for the sake of the gospel, however, “perfection” will always elude us because we are not perfect creators. This is when we rest in the grace of the gospel to redeem our art because of the finished and perfect work of Christ. Christ frees us to create imperfect creations out of a pure heart and offer them to a perfect Creator as an act of worship for Him. The gospel frees us and gives us the ultimate reason to offer our very best, while at the same time, freeing us from perfectionism. We are free to create and, yes, even make mistakes, because we are not our creation and we find our identity in Christ who has already finished the most perfect work on our behalf on the cross.

How has the gospel influenced your creativity and what would you add to these thoughts?

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ChurchLife Worship Band “Our God”

ChurchLife Worship Band release "Our God"

I am looking forward to the release of the ChurchLife Worship band project “Our God” on April 7th!  It is the culmination of an idea to be able to share some of the music that students will enjoy at the conference and be able to take part of their experience home with them. We also are excited to showcase several original songs written by Trinity students and alumni (including “Isaiah 53”, “Cry out Your Name” and “Only Hope” among others) and share with others the blessing that we have already experienced as God has used many of these songs in a powerful way in several of the different worship venues within our ministry.

We will be hosting a CD Release event on Friday, April 8th in the new E-Theater on our campus at 9pm during the “after hours” activities at the ChurchLife Student Conference. You can RSVP by clicking here. We’ll also be hosting a song review of your own original songs for a scholarship opportunity as well as the opportunity to have your song featured on the next recording. You can pre-order the album for $10 by clicking here.

The album features the ChurchLife Worship Band as well as “Lifesong”, one of our traveling groups from Trinity Baptist College.  All of these will be leading live at the ChurchLife Student Conference. It was an honor to work with these talented students and band members. We had a lot to do in a very short amount of time, but all of these guys worked hard and brought their best at every session (even singing through sickness!). I’m proud of everyone that had a part in making this album a reality including those who gave sacrificially to make this possible. We are indebted to so many who shared in the vision of how God could take a small idea and magnify it into something that will bring glory and honor to Him. We hope that you will enjoy listening to “our God” half as much as we did in making it!

In future posts, I will be chronicling some of the details of the process from our first days in the studio to final completion along with a link to a free download from the project. Stay tuned!

“Our God” Track listing:

1. Our God
2. We Belong to You
3. Forever Reign
4. Cry Out Your Name
5. Glorious Day
6. You are More
7. Isaiah 53
8. Only Hope (click for a free download)
9. How He Loves
10. Open Our Eyes
11. Greatness of Our God

The Importance of Vision for Creatives

visionIf you are a pastor, you know that pastoring creative people can be a challenging task all on its own. Hiring them on your staff can be a journey to a whole new level of joy, frustration, and bewilderment, often all at the same time. This week I had the privilege of sharing in our team’s vision for a couple of days of off-site planning and strategy development. Being a “creative” and a leader of other “creatives”, I would like to share with you a couple of take-a-ways from this time. I am blessed to work with a great pastor who has an incredible vision for the lives of our people and for those in our community. Here are a few of my take-a-ways as it relates to the importance of vision to the creative people that you lead.

First of all, for fear of stating the obvious, vision provides direction to your team. Being able to see clearly what your church is all about, and what your team is trying to accomplish, helps keep the “big picture” in mind. This may seem obvious to most “type A” leaders (they would never think of doing anything without purpose, right?), but the creative people on your team will create, often just because they can. While creative people will often justify this attitude by claiming they serve the same God that created the platypus (and what purpose does it have?), they are freed to be more valuable to the team when they have purpose and direction to aim their creativity. While there is room in the Christian life for creativity for it’s own sake (when done with a pure heart as an act of worship toward God–it seems that God did), we will have more value to everyone in our world when we have direction and purpose for our creativity.

When most of us think of vision, we think of concepts like “out of the box”, “liberating”, and “defying the odds”.  Vision can definitely be associated with all of these things, but one of the areas that is probably most crucial to the success that vision can provide is the idea of boundaries. This may seem counterintuitive, but without them, most ideas remain just that–ideas. Ideas by themselves benefit no one until they are shared and put into action. Boundaries help us clarify what is really important and what resources should get the most priority. The fact that many of us usually cringe when we hear this word, we usually realize that we need them. While it may be fun to day dream about what we might do if money, time, and people were not a limiter on our ideas, the bottom line is–they are. None of us have unlimited time, money, or human resources. Vision helps us shape the boundaries that are necessary to put the best ideas into action.

Focus is crucial to the success of any worthwhile project. For me, this is probably the most difficult obstacle to overcome. My wife keeps insisting that I be treated for adult ADD. While I do admit that my mind can run in a million different directions at the same time, it seems that clear vision can help me focus in ways that no medication could. When we keep the main thing, the main thing, it is much easier to remain focused even when our pursuits seem derailed. When you are sure of your destination it is a lot easier to take the “quit” out of your vocabulary.

Having vision and direction to aim creative pursuits is an incredibly freeing experience. While using words like direction, boundaries, and focus, may sound nothing like the freedom of flying freely through the forest of our dreams,  for most of us, it is much easier to approach the “blank canvas” of our art when we have a clear vision of how we can benefit the team. A clear-cut vision can truly give wings to your creativity. One of the ways it does this is by refueling the sense of purpose that all of us have inside (whether creative or not). Like in aerodynamics, it takes several distinct forces acting in harmony to produce flight. Any of the necessary forces (gravity, lift, drag, etc.), when by themselves, can be dangerous, limiting, or worthless, at best. Clear vision can act like the heading and lift that not only makes flight possible, but worth doing at all. People are much more productive when they know that they matter to the team. Clear vision will give your creative team wings to be able to fly to the future of changed lives–both theirs and everyone they touch and inspire.

Quick Mix Fix

The Problem

You present the greatest message known to man, week in and week out. You’re attracting more and more talent to your church. You think you have a great band and you work tirelessly to prepare, but what happened this last Sunday–the mic squeel, feedback, bass guitar out of control, acoustic guitar distorting–is just proof that Satan does not only inhabit deacons, but sound systems as well (just kidding on the deacon part–I think).

There is no question the devil wants to battle every inch of ground that you take for the Kingdom’s sake, however, let’s not give our enemy more credit than necessary. Often, good sound can not only come from a successful exorcism, but a well-trained sound tech that knows how to use the tools he/she has.

Often, churches will usually purchase about 3 sound systems before they end up with the one that meets their needs. Sometimes this is due to poor purchasing advice (or worse, none at all), and sometimes it’s due to putting technicians in places that musicians belong. If a person cannot discern what good sound is (quality/balanced sound appropriate for the genre), then no matter how many knobs they turn, you will not get pleasing results–and after all, music is supposed to sound good.

Tools

One way to help curb this issue is to audition your sound personnel before you invest any time/money in training them. Make sure they know what good audio sounds like. One resource is the S.A.T. (The Soundman Aptitude Test). You can find this resource at www.soundmantest.com.

Once you’ve qualified your personnel effectively, another resource that can be of immediate improvement to your sound is a training website called Own the Mix. These guys have compiled a significant library of training videos in real-life situations that will help your volunteers to dial in to good sound week after week. You can find them at www.ownthemix.com. There is also a forum and other networking tools to help your team to connect with others that are on the journey to better quality sound. For a very reasonable price, you can give your team the tools to succeed week after week.

It helps to have a quality car and driver to win a race. It’s not a lot different when it comes to church sound. If you put a 6 year-old in a Formula One car and expect them to break any records, you may be a little disappointed. On the flip side, Mario Andretti in a Yugo…well, you get the point.

Blended Worship vs. Balanced Worship (Part 2 – Revelation and Response)

In the last post I presented a few challenges with the idea of “blended” worship and addressed why this can often be a misunderstood approach to corporate worship in the church. In this post I want to present some thoughts concerning “balanced” worship and why this might be a better approach for those seeking gospel unity in the church.

Why the fuss over terminology?

Words matter. Last month during the Church Life Conference here on Trinity’s campus, Charles Billingsley gave a great talk to worship leaders regarding how to transition your church’s worship without starting a worship war. In that session, he spoke of the importance of language and that communication is not so much what you say, but what people hear. Sometimes it’s better to use a term that requires defining, than a term which may be misunderstood. So whether you prefer to use “blended” or “balanced”, below is the first of a few “balance points” that constantly challenge me as I approach corporate worship planning.

Revelation and Response

Throughout the Old and New Testaments we see a very clear pattern that emerges in the worship of God’s people. Mainly, God reveals Himself to His people–the people respond to Him in worship. This appears quite simple, but has often been a neglected balance point for me as I have planned and led corporate worship. During the 90’s the majority of new music was focused on “me”, “my”, and “I”.  In defense of this, I sense that songwriters were writing in this vein primarily because those expressions were lacking in so many of our churches. Worship for many churches had become a very dry, cognitive ascent to a set of beliefs or values, but often did not engage the entire person (mind, will, emotion) in worship. So, in reaction to this, songwriters began to write about their emotion and their feelings toward God. What happens often in modern church culture, however, is that we try so hard to stay “current” and fall victim to whatever is “hot”. The CCLI top 100 song list becomes the basis for our worship planning with little thought to content or direction. Don’t get me wrong–I regularly use most of the songs that are on these charts, and I also recognize that these songs are there for a reason–primarily because they, generally, are good songs and God is using them globally in a great way. However, the needs of your church and my church are very unique and we need to keep this in mind as we “put words in the church’s mouth” as Glen Packiam (“Fairest”, “My Savior Lives”, “Your Name”) describes so well (you can subscribe to his blog here).

Here’s the bottom line: does the music your church sings present a balanced view of God’s revelation to us (His attributes, His character, His gospel) as well as providing opportunities for your church to respond to that truth in authenticity?  If we over-emphasize revelation to the exclusion of our authentic, heart-felt response to God, the result can be a dry, crusty, Christianity without heart and genuine emotion. If we over-emphasize our response to God to the exclusion of knowing Him, His revelation (through His Word), and obedience, then we can end up with a psuedo-emotional, “me-centered” Christianity that knows little about the God we are trying to worship. I recognize that the entire weight of this does not rest entirely on the music we choose (that’s why we have preaching/teaching), however, I can also say that I’ve forgotten many more sermons than I have forgotten songs. What we sing can help reinforce the truth that is presented in our services through all the creative means, whether it be teaching, preaching, Scripture reading, or some form of dramatic interpretation or other form of visual art. It is, however, the songs that carry the melodies that can help us to remember these truths at those times when we need them the most.

“Incredible!”

During the last month I had the opportunity to spend some time with a worship leader of a new, vibrant church plant. We were discussing this very idea of revelation and response, as well as how much of what our churches believe is a result of what we sing. After spending some time thinking and reviewing several of his services over the past few months, he noticed a pattern that he shared with me. He said that after reviewing several of the services where the church seemed to be more in tune and engaged with God, he noticed that it was those services where (in hindsight) he had led the church in this “balance point” of revelation and response. Now, this doesn’t mean that God can be confined to some “formula” and that this idea become another legalistic “rule” to follow in worship. However, what it does say, is that a pattern of several millennia of recorded worship and response not be too quickly dismissed simply because it is not “current”.

What is working for you?

At Trinity, we have recognized this and try to present a balanced selection of music that allows for both of these expressions. Often, “revelation” can be found in many of the older hymn texts and “response” can be found in many of the simple choruses that have been popular (though it is also conversely true as well). There are also many new songs that deal well with God’s revelation to us like “In Christ Alone”, “The Power of the Cross”, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”, and many that are great at combining both of these concepts within the same song like “God of the Ages” (Travis Doucette)*, “How Great is Our God” (Chris Tomlin), “Revelation Song” (Jenny Lee Riddle), and a new song written by one of our staff, Joel Carney — “Isaiah 53” (You can get charts and full orchestration for this song by contacting music@tbc.org). There are also several arrangements of hymns that have added choruses that can help with this as well, like “Fairest” (Glenn Packiam), “I Am Yours” (Michael Neal), “To God be the Glory” (Tommy Walker),  “Be Thou My Vision” (Adam Lancaster)*, and one that I have written recently called “What a Savior You Are” (also available from music@tbc.org).

My challenge to all of us would be to go back and review our own worship services and see if we find similar patterns. I do know that God always honors His Word and that he desires for us to respond to Him in worship and obedience (John 4:23).

What music is working well for you in your church?

What songs would you add to those mentioned above?

What expressions, besides music, are you using to demonstrate this balance point?

In the next post in this series, I’ll look at the “balance point” of context and church culture.

* Arrangements to these songs can be found by contacting lori@redtierecords.com. The remaining songs can be found at www.praisecharts.com.

Blended Worship or Balanced Worship (Part 1)

Not long ago, a Florida mega-church abandoned split services (traditional and contemporary) for a more unified, “blended” service. The church, led by their new pastor, Tullian Tchavidjian (grandson of Billy Graham), decided to bring their church under one umbrella, united around the gospel. Tchavidjian said, “Generational appeal in worship is an unintentional admission that the Gospel is powerless to join together what man has separated”(click here for the article). This move triggered quite a bit of buzz in the church community. This move seems to be counter-cultural to much of the prevailing thought in church-growth today. Time will tell how well this works for them, but I applaud their consistency and vision for why they have made such a move. My forthcoming attempt to choose better terminology is by no means a criticism of this church–I simply give this as a high-profile example of a trend that is happening in the local church. While many of our churches have chosen their battles in the “worship wars”, many are still looking for answers to this complex question.

As in most conflict, much of the problem arises out of a misunderstanding of the language and intentions of those with whom we disagree. So, it is highly important that we define our terms and give everyone the benefit of the doubt in that we all want the same thing–a gospel-centered community of faith. Once we can agree on terms and trust the motives of our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we can begin to find answers as we participate in the free exchange of ideas that are based on biblical principle–not personal attacks and ideology based on personality and preferences.

Let me start with the idea of “blended” worship. First of all, I think I understand what most church leaders are referring to when they use this term, however, unless this is defined, it can still create several issues. First, the term blended worship was first put into the mainstream church lingo by Robert Webber, author, seminary professor, and founder of the Institute for Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida. The problem with this term, as it is commonly understood in non-liturgical, free church worship (which would characterize most independent and Southern Baptist churches), is not the way in which Webber defined it. Webber’s definition involved the blending of the ancient, liturgical practices with more contemporary expressions. He was an advocate of using liturgical church structure and infusing contemporary expressions within that structure. It’s not the intention of this post to debate the merit of Webber’s writings at this time (though, it is a worthy discussion for future posts), nor to debate the use of liturgical elements in worship, however, it illustrates the point that this term is greatly misunderstood. What we find is that those of us who often use the term the most, define it vastly different than the one who coined the term and wrote over 40 books that dealt with the idea.

My experience has been that most pastors and church leaders that I talk with define “blended” as a mixture of hymns and choruses. This is fine, and many churches have blended these two expressions somewhat successfully. However, I also believe that many that are attempting to move to a more “blended” format, carry some unrealistic expectations of what this format will do for them.

First, many attempt “blended” worship to try to “make everyone happy”. If you carry this motive for “blended” worship, you will find yourself sorely disappointed. What you will most likely find is that you will really make no one “happy”, but that everyone will be sufficiently dissatisfied with the music choices. The preferences of virtually no one will be satisfied and you will once again have a “fight” on your hands. The extremes of the personal preferences in most of our churches usually lie with the very young and the very old, and these two groups tend to be the most vocal, also assuring that “blended” worship will still fall tragically short because it still fails to address the preferences of these two groups. If we go to a blended format to make everyone “happy”, we are still relying on music to be the unifying factor, which doesn’t find it’s root in the Scripture.

Second, “blended” worship doesn’t typically address the content issues that we find in our songs. “Hymns” and “Choruses” are both broad terms that are equally as misunderstood and poorly defined as “blended”. What is a hymn? Is it what Paul talked about in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, or is it anything that was written prior to 1950? What is a chorus? Is it the refrain of a hymn or gospel song like “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus” or is it a contemporary song like “In Christ Alone”, which resembles more of a modern hymn than a “chorus”?  If you think that a “chorus” like “Gone, gone, gone, gone, yes my sins are gone…” is going to strike a nerve with the youth culture of this generation, you are probably going to be disappointed. Or if you think a “hymn” like “Mansion over the Hilltop” (which never mentions any attribute or name of God) is going to bring a Christo-centric unselfishness to your church, you may be disappointed there as well.  I have no problem with either of these songs in the right context, but they help to illustrate the misunderstanding that can often occur when we don’t define our terms.

Third, “blended” worship, as it is commonly defined, fails to address context. The context of a church and the culture it is trying to reach is incredibly unique from church to church and from culture to culture. There is no way that being overly simplistic in saying that we do “blended” worship can adequately define or describe the way that you do church. The corporate worship needs of a new church plant are vastly different than a church that has been in existence for several decades. Each presents unique challenges and opportunities for unity and gospel-centered community.

Lastly, “blended” worship does a poor job of addressing the aesthetics of the music that we present. Does this mean that we do hymns that are “updated” and choruses that are “sanitized”, or does it mean that we do 50%  traditional hymns and 50% contemporary choruses? Should “blended” worship look pretty much the same from church to church? What of the music, then? Does blended mean a mixture of drums and organ or electric guitar and timpani? What if you don’t have an organ or an electric guitar–can you still do “blended” worship? What does this sound like? Can we find this sound anywhere else in culture? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? These are a few of the questions that we need to wrestle with as we look at the concept of “blended” worship.

In the following post I will discuss the idea of “balanced” worship and see if this concept can provide a greater understanding of both the biblical and cultural implications of effective, gospel-centered ministry. What challenges do you see in some of our terminology and how are you addressing this in your church?

Worship Management vs. Worship Leadership

As a self-admitted “all-things-Apple” fan boy, I’m a sucker for just about any quote by Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and CEO. In John Maxwell’s new book, Everyone Communicates, Few Connect, he offers an interesting quote from Steve Jobs. Quoting Jobs, he says:

Management is about persuading people to do things that they don’t want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.”

I’ve been thinking about how this applies to those of us who lead worship on a regular basis, whether we are a worship pastor, worship leader, choir member, band member, praise team member, or whatever our role, I think there are some interesting parallels here.

How many of us often feel like we’re “raising the dead” when we approach corporate worship (am I the only one that feels this way sometimes?). Maybe you feel like you’re just keeping the ship afloat…managing schedules, charts, bands, budgets, and divas. Or, how many of us feel more like cheer leaders rather than coaches–jumping up and down and making a lot of noise, but having very little influence on the outcome of the game? Before we enter into one of those “those people” rants, maybe we should look inside first and ask ourselves a few questions. (These have not been easy for me).

Am I “just getting by” in my approach to planning, leading, and more importantly–my relationship with God?  Am I being dominated by the tyranny of the urgent? Do I have some good things that I need to say “no” to in order to make room for the best?

People will follow an inspired leader who knows where they’re going and has been where they (the people) want to be. There is no greater place that we can be than in the presence of God. Whatever your methods, whether you plan meticulously months ahead of time, or “go with the flow”, whatever you do–get in the presence of God and the people will follow. (Jude 21-25)

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