Monday, November 11, 2013

Worship as an exercise in Trust

Often when I'm giving instruction to new worship leaders I talk about trust as a central aspect of worship leading. Trust is a key to creating an atmosphere where others can also worship.

The reason trust is so important is that worship is an incredibly intimate expression of our faith. When we are able to freely worship we are better able to encounter and be encountered by God. Not that God isn't always present, but there is something profound that can happen in a safe worship atmosphere. Not the least of which is a softening of our hearts towards all God has for us.

How do we foster an atmosphere of trust for our worshiping community? 

One aspect that is often overlooked is that of familiarity. A worship leader has an opportunity to craft something amazing from elements that resonate deeply in a community. In some of our settings an ancient future vibe is powerful, simply because it resonates deeply with those who have Catholic and Anglican roots. Those same elements can be alarming to those who have no such background. That doesn't mean a worship leader can't use those elements, but they need to surround new things with those things that are familiar. This gives the worshiper a point of entry into the experience. It lets them feel included and even valued.

One way we've made ancient elements accessible to those without a traditional background is to surround them in familiar music. In fact I encourage a worship leader to develop a list of solid standards and standbys. When God is leading us to linger in worship it is those standards that let the congregation continue with very little effort on the part of those leading. And those moments are often some of the best.

Another way of understanding trust is in the song choices themselves. Some of our worship leaders love new songs. And you might think, who doesn't. But the problem with too many new songs is that it leaves some feeling lost in the service. Worship in corporate settings is meant to include, welcome and invite our participation. Not put up barriers to that participation. So limiting the number of new songs, and ensuring that they get good rotation when the congregation is learning them makes sense.

The other aspect of worship songs and trust that I've felt more as I've matured in my theological understanding is what actually are the words we are singing. I am probably not alone in raising the odd eyebrow at some of the lyrics we sing. I've even taken to not singing songs I can't completely mean, or even adjusting them slightly so that they are more sound. A good worship leader should minimize this. I remember when I was a young worship leader in a Pentecostal church in Mississauga. A very popular song at that time went, "Jesus, we entrone you..." I introduced that to our group and many already knew it so it went well. But the pastor actually asked me to remove it from the rotation. At the time I was frustrated. But he explained the theological problem - we don't enthrone God, we acknowledge God as King. It's a funny thing, but what we sing is actually important. The words shape our beliefs, and they should reflect our beliefs accurately as well.

So I'm interested in what ways you have shaped worship leading in your contexts so that it is more accessible and richer for your communities. Please share some stories with us.

May your love and devotion for God ever grow, and your worship be sweet.

Frank Emanuel - Freedom Vineyard, Ottawa

Monday, November 4, 2013

Christmas anxiety

Image from
Christmas is coming.  It always fills me with a bit of anxiety, I have to admit. So much work, so much hype, so many expectations, so much shopping, so much pressure to make it fabulous.  Every year I wonder if I am up for the whirlwind that Christmas has become. Mostly, I fear that I am losing something important in the crazy mix of sacred rituals, out-of-control consumerism, and cultural trappings that make up Christmas in North America.

Now before you go on and call me the Grinch (I do have those tendencies at times, it's true), let's get back to a few basics. First, Jesus is the greatest gift of love and life that has ever appeared on this earth and no tradition, event, gift, or dramatic pageant will ever adequately celebrate the incredible appearance of the Creator of the world as a humble baby on this earth.  Second, the way in which Jesus came to live among us was also underwhelming, disgraceful, unexpected, dirty, weak, and even offensive. It is impossible to truly capture the scandal of it in any Christmas tradition. Third, remembering and celebrating the birth of Jesus are important and necessary, but it is equally necessary to align what we celebrate with how we celebrate. If we neglect to keep the two elements in sync, we will end up with a celebration that has little resemblance to the original event or its intent.

Let me suggest that there is a close connection between celebrating Christmas and partaking in communion. The care with which we ingest the body and blood of Christ can be a helpful model for how we as followers of Jesus celebrate his birth. A brief look at 1 Corinthians 11 shows that there are some significant parallels between the two remembrances. Paul wrote to the Corinthians to address some problems they were having, including some unfortunate behaviours and attitudes on display when they gathered to celebrate communion. It isn't much of a stretch to apply these warnings to our contemporary Christmas celebrations. Are our celebrations bringing out the worst instead of the best in people?  Are there divisions happening, is there competition between people, are criticisms being tossed around? Are people prone to overeating and drunkenness, thereby neglecting the poor and hungry and leaving others out of the celebration? Has the celebration become exclusive and indulgent instead of inclusive and generous?

Paul then reminded people what the celebration was all about. Our celebration is to remember Jesus. By our words and actions our celebration enacts the gift of God. Our celebration is meant to draw us back to Jesus, to remind us that Jesus was among us then and is among us now.  We must not let our celebrations become familiar and mundane.  Let us examine our motives and test our hearts every time we celebrate. Let us approach the celebration with holy awe. If we neglect to do this, it could put us in an unfortunate situation.  Let us be reverent and courteous with one another. Let us not turn our celebration into a family squabble or an eating and drinking binge. This celebration is a spiritual time. So let us feast on the love of God and invite others to join us at the table.

This is the Christ-mass.

Matte from Montreal