Monday, April 11, 2011

The Surprise of Church Music

It was Wednesday Morning in Colorado. The sun was warm, but with a crisp chill in the air, especially for this Florida-Boy. After a two day drive I was exhausted, really tired. As we entered the morning conference meeting, I lost track of the church elder and two missions pastors who were my new friends and travel companions. A light offering of bagels, donuts and coffee made me hopeful that a Wednesday Workshop with a bunch of pastors would somehow be worth my time, then, in the background, music began.

This is just a church, so what could you expect? A somewhat subdued crowd of mostly men from different parts of the country filled the room that day, how great could the "church music even be". So, with food in hand, looking for a comfortable chair to wait out the music portion of the meeting, I began walking to the back. To my disappointment, while I sat, everyone else stood. Man, I wanted to rest, what are they standing for anyway?

Over the next 8 to 10 minutes I figured it out and moved from low expectation and engagement to complete attentiveness and passionate worship. What had happened?

God's Presence happened, great music happened, great worship happened, great worship leading happened. God, as I soon found out, really did "inhabit the praises of his people" as the scriptures say, even in Colorado. But, why so unexpected and why so profound?

Let's be honest, we develop a love for music and music styles when we are between the ages of 10 and 25 years old. Every radio station and music marketing team knows this. And guess what, when falling in love with certain styles and sounds, it was not church music at the top of our list. Actually, there is usually a huge separation in our minds between the music we enjoy 6 days a week as a normal part of our life and the music we listen to on Sunday. With these facts in mind, most of us already have a preferred music style and we must admit, "it ain't church music". 

So when I answer the question above about why was my experience that day so unexpected and profound, it was not because devoted Christian people came together to learn or sing songs to God. It wasn't even that they were standing up when I wanted to be sitting down. Really, it wasn't even the fact that these people, from all walks of life, all seemed to be engaged with this music and worship at a level I was not expecting, even though all of that was cool. It was in fact that "the music was great, the leading was great and the delivery was amazing". Anyone can play music, thousands of churches today have a stage full of high quality musicians playing and singing popular and modern worship, but I have to admit, this was different.

What was funny was my later conversation with one of the band members and a sound tech. The morning session that went on for at least 45 minutes, throwing all thoughts that a church audience can only pay attention for 22 minutes. Actually, it seemed that well over 80% of this crowd, really engaged the entire 45 minutes of worship; praying, worshiping, dancing, bowing, kneeling, lying, raising hands, clapping, singing and apparently just loving Jesus along the way. Sounds like a Psalm I read once. Anyway, back to my conversation with the band member and tech guy, they talked to me about the quality of the leader, his practice schedule, his personal conviction about quality, standards of worship and standards of living as being most important. We discussed the fact that he was not even a musician, but a Pastor who led musicians. We talked about practicing enough to be able to do recordings in one-take with very little dub overs, which is amazing. The one thing that stood out the most to me was how these two admitted that this kind of music was not personally their favorite style of listening. They talked about varieties of music styles they loved, but came back to the purpose of the church, the mission of Christ and His Church and how the music style and delivery I was witnessing has been built to help facilitate that, rather than follow the personal likings of any one leader or band member. This was confirmed by the fact that the Sr. Pastor and staff really were not musical at all, and that they directed very little of the worship ministry. Rather, that the Sr. Staff made it their job to shared passionately and consistently about the vision God was giving them and how that meant something to the local and global Body of Christ. It was obvious that this worship service was a result of that vision and that calling from Christ to reach the World, not a talented artist or worship leader and his personal opinions about how music and worship should happen.

Back to the beginning: I finally stood with everyone else. I laid down my breakfast. I listened and watched first. I was a Worship and Outreach Pastor at my home church, which is why I was at this Missions Conference with a missions team from Columbia. I was amazed by several things during the next 8 - 10 minutes I had mentioned above. First, the quality was such that they could have been playing a CD. They could have actually pushed "record" and made a CD, they were just that tight. Second, they talked very little, yet people from all different walks of life seemed to go with them in worship. Third, most of these song were not the popular songs on the modern worship list for that time, they were home grown songs, with one or two popular songs mixed in. Fourth, they were not using music or chord charts, there wasn't a music stand in sight. Fifth, there were technical glitches that morning, a surge in the subs was obvious at a few points in worship, but no one seemed to notice. Lastly, the communication between band members, the way the leader directed, the use of different instruments at different times, the lack of full ensemble singing, the dynamics from full praise to intimate, vertical worship; these were all very noticeable to me as a somewhat trained worship leader of 8 yrs. However, as part of these observations, I noticed the most profound part of the whole thing. It seemed that the 800+ other men and women there did not pay attention to these details. Rather, it as I looked from row to row, chair to chair, looking for those who were not engaged, it seemed that each person was having a personal worship encounter with Jesus with extreme and intense focus on Him. As I moved from being an observer to a participant I too began to weep in the presence of God. Not because I'm a sensitive guy, I'm not, just ask my wife and 3 daughters. It was because I encountered a God who made me speechless and a love that broke my heart for holiness and a wonder that blew my mind. All of this within the next 30 minutes of worship.

How, how did this happen for me and so many others. It was the music, it was the band and leader, it was the style, it was the delivery, it was the quality, it was an obvious blessing upon the service, favor from the Lord and whatever X-Factor quality this ministry had working for it, in the end, it was all of it, not just one thing. And somehow, since that day in 1996, that worship has now been heard, sent and used around the world several times over. Hundreds of countries, hundreds of churches and thousands of leaders have been born through this worship. Just a local church, with a local band of brothers. Computer techs, software guys, pastors, salesmen and college students, not professional musicians, together Changing the World for Christ.

Personal Commentary: In our present day and time, Entertainment has become the food for the flesh, we spend billions each year as a country feeding our music and media appetites, most of them developed outside the church at a young age with very little regulation as to content or results of years of partaking of it. Discipleship, as the primary call to action from the mouth of Jesus, has nearly become a lost art and practice. And Quality in the church music scene, especially with the X-Factor qualities that make the worship music I talked about above work best, have all but taken a back seat to tradition and good ideas from well meaning leaders & musicians. Therefore, I as a believer, husband and father, has a problem. How do I get some help making disciples of my kids? How do I enjoy this walk with passion? Where does music come into play? Well, as a reaction, when I see a good thing and when it helps me accomplish God's call on my life and that of my family, I have learned to go with it. Not to go with my personal preference, but to follow the favor of God to accomplish God's will on this earth and to move away from "maybe that is good" to "wow, that is great" in the music world. Partly because, as a father I understand that music helps to develop belief systems, ideas and opinions. We as a people listen to music more hours in our life than just about anything else. Studies support the impact of music on the human mind, body, soul. Therefore, in the RamFam we have used music to help us grow in the Lord and to disciple our own kids. Eli, for instance, runs around the house at four years old, not singing the theme-song to Sponge Bob, as funny as that might be, but to the latest Jon Egan or Toby Mac song. Likewise with the mix of music and drama we have the same approach. For example, each year we see an Easter Production at a local church. Not a boring play with finger puppets and outdated music from a portable radio. But, something very high quality, very interactive and dynamic, with the Truth of the Gospel clearly at the center. It is 60+ minutes long with songs, drama, dancing, lots of people and lots of monologue directed at children. In the midst of it all my four year old son, Eli again, picked out a phrase, the only phrase he can recall and say aloud right on cue. The phrase is, "A Sacrifice Had to Be Made".  It is the phrase said by the narrator just before the part where Jesus is killed on the Cross. Eli says it over and over, with of course, no concept of what it means or why it is significant, but with a seed of Truth planted in his heart to develop and grow. Which as a father who wants to raise a boy to be a man and not a Sponge who has no purpose in life, I'll take this direction any day of the week.