Pine Trees And Easter

One of my favorite Easter memories is also related to my story of how I came to faith in Christ. You see, my journey to salvation was just that—a journey. I grew up in an evangelical, bible-believing church. I knew all the answers at Sunday School, but I knew early on there was more to knowing God than simply knowing about Him. I started really questioning my faith in the 4th grade, but I was a skeptic and needed convincing—I needed something tangible and physical. Here’s part of my story:

Every Easter after church, my extended family would gather at my grandparent’s house for Easter lunch. I’m sure many of you have similar traditions. This particular year when I was in the 6th grade, my grandfather walked his eight grandchildren out to the backyard and told us to look at the tops of the pine trees in the yard and how the new growth at the top forms a cross at Easter signifying new life in Christ. He reminded us that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and these crosses on the tops of the trees are there to remind us of His love that went to the cross for us. I needed empirical evidence God existed and this was did it for me.

At that moment the Holy Spirit penetrated not only my mind, but my soul as well. I knew there was nothing I could do to earn or merit the grace of Jesus because I truly understood that I was a sinner and had disobeyed God, but finally I was ready to let go of my sin and trust Christ. It was shortly after that Easter that I publicly professed my faith in Jesus. To this day, I think back to that Easter and the impact it had on my faith formation. I’m so eternally grateful for parents and grandparents who cared enough to share the greatest story ever told to future generations.

Once I became a believer, scriptures I’d read before became real to me in a new way such as:

Hebrews 12:2–fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Ephesians 3:16-19 speaks this – Paul writes asking that God would strengthen us by the power of his spirit so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.

AND John 3:16- for God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son that whoever would believe in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.

2 Corinthians 5:17–Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:The old has gone, the new is here!

And Romans 5:8- That God demonstrates his own love for us in this- that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.

Do you know Jesus? Have you experienced His grace? His love is evident in creation-all creation reflects the glory of God!

One of my favorite newer hymns, How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”  Stuart Townend echos this truth- of the vast and great love of Jesus Christ:

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

Striving for diversity in congregational song in the intergenerational church

Colossians 3:15-17- And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Music surrounds my life! My boys find it strange that my favorite music to listen to in the car is so varied they never know what I’ll be listening to. I will admit, though, I often have something from Latin America playing; it’s always a fiesta in my car! Joking aside, as a musician, I find that all over the world music speaks to people in different ways. Paul knew the power of music as well as he admonished the Colossians to use all types of music to remember the gospel truth.

Having been called by God to serve in vocational ministry, I’ve devoted most of my life to promoting, teaching, and glorifying God through music. I feel blessed that I enjoy leading and worshiping in most music contexts that glorify Christ and articulate the message of the gospel clearly. I’m an anomaly, however. Most people I encounter do not like all kinds of church music. In fact some are more adamant that certain types of music are genuinely more worshipful and edifying to the body. Further, there are those that believe that the presentation of “their” idea of worship music is somehow more authentic and “holy.” Then there are folks who, given the choice in their churches, would rather simply just turn the worship team “off.” It is vital that worship leaders be sensitive to this me versus them mentality and strive to integrate a musical atmosphere that is sensitive to the various generations and cultures in our churches.

if you asked most American churches to describe their worship experiences, most would say their congregational song includes some variation of hymns and/or modern worship music. From a musical standpoint, other than the newness of the songs composition, there is little really very little diversity from a stylistic standpoint. It’s interesting how diverse we really think our music is that many churches create services specifically to homogenize the musical style, rather than provide opportunities for diversity! When I taught high school choir many years ago, diversity of the literature was encouraged strongly to promote unity in spite of the diversity. However, our churches who should be beacons of light for the gospel, struggle to even find unity in their congregational songs!

Our lack of unity is no stranger to contemporary culture. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, knew that unity was important for the early church because sin would always creep in and cause division. Not only should worship be vertical (in praise to God directly), Paul asserts that unity could be achieved by singing the WORD of God to each other (horizontally) in a variety of types of songs. Paul knew that the early church didn’t have the printed Word of God that we enjoy today. These early Christians would need to remember the Word somehow…and singing scripture was an incredible way for the word to “dwell richly” in the hearts and minds of those early Christians. The songs we sing today should do the same thing. We must sing substance and the music should complement the text of Truth. Further, the various types of music available today should be reflected in our worship services. I encourage the writers of today’s congregational song to branch out into styles more reflective of the diversity of our communities.

Here are some suggestions to select worship music that reflects ethnic and generational diversity, while being rich in text.

  1. Text is most important factor in selecting worship music. Period.  Worship music should include vertical and horizontal expressions of worship where the people of God sing to God as well as one another the truth of the gospel. For more information, see this previous blog post Building Community in the Intergenerational Church through Music- Selecting We-Centric Songs
  2. Use black gospel as well as southern gospel music, especially if you have African-Americans in your congregation. We Georgians are well adept at singing southern gospel; our people are familiar with it. However, if we are to reflect our communities, we need to sing black gospel also. There are numerous wonderful songs out there to sing. However, I’ve found the best places to find these songs is by looking into literature written for schools and/or community choruses.
  3. Investigate music from Latin America. I love syncopation, especially the habanero and other cross-rhythmic beats. We have a severe lack of latin flavor in many of our churches. Just be sensitive if the presence of congas and a cowbell make some folks in your church squirm! Again, school literature often has more variety in terms of literature.
  4. Integrate music from Asian cultures. In our county, the Asian population is exploding. Traditional Asian music utilizes a limiting pentatonic scale, but there are some interesting things out that can be used if you investigate.
  5. At the very least, utilize worship leaders (players and singers) who are not ethnically the same as the majority of your congregation. Example, I have a wonderful Korean young woman in my choir who studied opera in South Korea. She is an excellent singer, but didn’t know many songs in English she could use in worship. I suggested she look at some oratorios she might be familiar with. She wound up singing “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd,” one December and it was a glorious offering of worship.

The key is strong text, varying music types, and utilizing folks from various generations AND cultures. Doing so can really make the difference in the worship experiences for ages to come. I believe this is exactly what Paul was referring to when he was encouraging the Colossians to be unified…bring your various experiences and abilities and be unified in PURPOSE and the Lord will be glorified.

Merging Worship Styles

Over the last several months, I’ve heard of several churches that have had multiples styles of worship prior to Covid making changes to one, more balanced, intergenerational style. Most of the worship pastors I’ve heard from are excited that their churches are embracing a more inclusive worship experience. For those of you in a similar boat, here are some great guidelines (not exhaustive, of course) for you to use when considering a shift from multiple styles back to one, more balanced, style. To be clear, this is not a call against churches with multiple styles, but rather some practical ways those churches seeking to bring greater unity to their churches by merging into one style may do so.

  1. Prayer! Pray for unity in specific ways (1 Cor. 1:10; Phil 2:1-8; Col 3:14; 2 Cor 13:11; Rom 15:6; et al). Remember: the goal is not to make everyone in the church unhappy by telling them their preferred style of music (and let’s be honest, music and time frame are what people care about) will no longer be the same. Pray for soft and receptive hearts, for unity, and for God’s glory.
  2. Must be approved by the Senior/Lead Pastor. While many of the worship pastors didn’t say this directly to me, I got a very strong sense that the move to multiple styles of worship was championed by senior leadership who felt the need to reach more people/please more people in their church. While this is not a hard and fast rule, many worship pastors would not advocate for having to plan and lead (or even oversee other leaders) for multiple worship styles. Therefore, you can bet that the senior/lead pastor must be on board with this change. If you can, remind your pastor of the biblical precedents of intergenerational worship and how unity is the goal.
  3. Must have buy in from key leaders. I don’t think I can stress this enough. Have meetings, have conversations, have prayer with all those major leaders/players in the process of coming together. Share your heart and philosophical reasonings for why intergenerational worship is biblically sound. Be prepared to answer tough questions and anxious people. Think through every aspect of how the changes will affect as many groups inside the church so you’re prepared when confronted with questions.
  4. Consider your church context. Every church is unique. When hearing from each church planning to merge together, each and every one had a specific set of limitations and concerns. Carefully consider how this move might affect your Bible Study/Life Groups/Sunday School, your choir and orchestra, your band, AVL teams, etc. Ask yourself: what challenges present themselves that we need to solve before and during our merging process. The most common questions will likely be, “what will the new service look like? and who will be involved?”
  5. Work hard to bring together a “new” common musical language. One of the biggest tasks you’ll have to navigate is merging the hymnody of your multiple styles of worship. Perhaps there are songs that overlap from each of the separate services—begin with those. Look for ways to integrate familiar songs for “all” groups represented. You may have to unify the charts used and the instrumentation depending on your new intergenerational style, but choose wisely and carefully…especially if drums were not present in one of the services.
  6. Figure out a way to utilize all the musicians from all services. This is also a challenge because when combining forces, you’re going to realize there might be some redundancy in your players. Find creative ways to use them all in an equitable rotation. Just remember…we’re in this together; no one is totally excluded. There are some challenges to face depending on your context. I heard from one colleague that has merged styles and their choices related to merging styles has the choir not singing every week for now. He said it’s hurt rehearsal attendance because there’s not the weekly service to sing in. However, this same choir is now having to sing for multiple services on the weeks they are scheduled! The scenarios are endless. Just realize there will be compromises ahead! Handle them with grace.
  7. Make changes slowly. Unless you have an incredible reason to make a dramatic shift quickly, make slow changes—working in one new song that might be new to everyone–or one new instrument that might change the timbre of the sound. Perhaps the dress of the worship leadership themselves might need to be done slowly. If one service was formal and the other very informal, find a compromise on the dress to help foster unification.

As a church that is pretty textbook intergenerational and our services are identical with one prevailing style, which has both traditional and contemporary elements, I can say our move in 2014 to two completely mirrored services had its own challenges. While we didn’t have a musical style issue to overcome, we did have several practical issues to deal with. Here was our scenario:

*We had an 8:30 and 11:00 service with SS in between (choir and orchestra only at 11-PT and band at 8:30- same music, but without choir feature; we moved to SS at 8:20, 9:45, and 11 and our worship times went to 9:45 and 11.
*Our shift to back to back services allowed us to use the choir and orchestra for both services (although choir was only in loft for first 10-15 minutes of service–major drawback). The plus was each service got the identical worship experience. To date I have less than a 15-20% change in choir size between the services, because the choir sings and then can go to SS, stay for whole service, or leave. The change did require many more volunteers than we had before, but the dividends have been worth it. I built up the excitement of being involved in the worship services while not having to miss SS.
*Biggest drawback has been parking. Between 10:30 and 11 is the time frame we have the most people on campus at any given time. The 11 worship attenders are starting to arrive, 9:45 attenders are still here, and our largest SS time (9:45) is still in session. We regularly max out parking, so many have to park off-campus.

If you and your staff are considering a shift and have questions, either I, or some other trusted friends who’ve been through shift like mine or a musical style shift, would be happy to talk with you about it!

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