Tag Archives: worship

3 Things I’ve Learned on the Worship Conference Circuit (Brannon Hancock)

My first year as a full time faculty member at Wesley Seminary has been exciting, in no small part because we are still constantly tweaking, refining, innovating and collaborating to be the best seminary that we can be for our students. I’ve also learned that, in an innovative environment like Wesley Seminary, one must be careful what one says in committee meetings, because a random idea just might become reality (and create a bunch of additional work!).

In late 2014, our (outgoing – *sniffle*) Dean Ken Schenck, our Director of Admissions Aaron Wilkinson, and I had a “meeting after the meeting” where we discussed our current Master of Arts in Ministry specializations. At that time, we offered Leadership (Bob Whitesel’s area); Children, Youth and Family Ministry (Colleen Derr’s area), and Church Planting and Multiplication, Church Revitalization, and were in the process of rolling out one in Pastoral Care.

Worship MA
So, the newbie professor (me), says, “Okay, so what would it take to have a specialization in worship?” “Four worship classes,” says Ken. Aaron’s eyes lit up as he asked, “What would the four classes be?” So we hit the whiteboard for a few minutes, Aaron left to do some market research, and long-story-short, by March I was writing course proposals, Aaron was putting together a marketing plan, and by May, it was all getting the green light from the appropriate committees. (Click here for more info about the Worship Arts specialization.)

Part of the marketing plan involves sending “yours-truly” to five major worship conferences this summer and early fall: three National Worship Leader Conferences (in Kansas, California and Texas) and two Experience conferences (in Texas and Orlando – apparently there are a lot of Christians, and a lot of mega-churches, in Texas!). I’m teaching some workshops and hanging out at our booth to tell people about the new program, which is already gaining applicants, and (all being well) will launch in January 2016 with our first cohort! (Operators are standing by.)

I’ve been leading worship in local churches for more than 20 years (yes, unfortunately I am old enough for that to be true), and was a full-time worship pastor for almost 7 years before coming to Wesley Seminary. I am blessed to know a lot of worship leaders. Many of them went into their ministry roles thinking they were taking a “music job” (church musicians have a bad habit of referring to it as a “gig”), only to realize the job of a worship pastor is about 30% music and about 70% pastor.

So we’ve designed this program primarily with the active worship leader in mind, who is musically equipped and already doing the job, but wishes to enhance her ministry with additional theological, biblical and pastoral training. Hence, the degree is an MA in Ministry, with a specialization in Worship Arts: 36-hour degree (1/3 of that is worship-related) that can be completed online in 2 years, without stepping away from an existing ministry role.

As I’ve been out talking to people at the first two of these five conferences, this new program seems (as I imagined it would) to address a very real need, both for individual worship leaders and for the Church. Worship is changing, because the Church is changing… because the culture is changing. Here are a few things I’m noticing as I look at the Church today, and how it is encapsulated at these worship conferences I’ve been attending lately:

1. We’re ready for a break from “the big show.”

Highlights at both conferences I’ve attended have been stripped down acoustic sets, in some cases by artists who are known as big, loud rock bands. At the NWLC in Kansas City, headlining band Jesus Culture did a set with just two acoustic guitars and their voices. They returned after a plenary talk by Hillsong’s Darlene Zschech and ended by leading the 1200 or so of us in singing “Shout to the Lord” – a major “throwback” as modern worship goes!

At the Dallas Experience Conference, the most talked-about session was an “in-the-round” night of acoustic worship, led by members of the conference steering committee, most of whom are relatively unknown local church worship leaders. (Well, they did have CCM legend Al Denson playing piano!) No fancy lighting, no hazers, no projectors – in fact, we were given no lyrics at all! We just sang familiar worship songs, old and new, for a solid 90 minutes.

Say it with me, friends: “Less is more.” Don’t mistake impressive for excellent. Excellence doesn’t require virtuosic talent or expensive technology. (And for a $60 concert ticket, I can usually get way better than anything a church can pull off.) There may be a place in some contexts for the big production, but: A) that isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the standard for every church; and B) even if it is the norm in a given context, there’s value in occasionally stepping away from it, and stripping it down to the basics every once in awhile. God is glorified in our weakness, so it’s okay to allow our flawed humanity to come through in our worship services.

2. We’re ready for more substance, theology, and (gasp!) tradition.

As evidence, here are some of the workshop titles on offer at the conferences I’ve attended: “Liturgy in Modern Worship”… “Making the Past Present”… “Reimagining the Psalms for Gathered Worship”… “Worship as Spiritual Formation” (that last one is mine). Yes, there are also sessions on sound design and environmental projection and how to help your guitar players get along with your keyboard players… but, to my pleasant surprise, workshops delving into scripture, theology, liturgy and discipleship were also presented to packed rooms, some standing-room-only.

Of course, this is not unrelated to the previous point. Our culture is inundated with advertising, which forms us into consumers. I think we’re (younger people, especially) just tired of constantly being sold the next latest, greatest thing. The church can either try (and usually fail) to compete in that game… or we can provide an alternative to it, and relief from it. In a culture of disembodied, technologically-mediated experiences, Christian worship provides authentic, embodied presence. In a culture of change and impermanence, the Church provides something anchored, something that lasts: not traditional-ism, which is the dead faith of the living, but tradition, which is the living faith of those who have gone on before us. We need worship that forms us not as consumers but as Christians.

3. We’re all in the same boat.

The nice thing about attending ministry conferences is that, as you begin to talk to others, you realize you’re not alone. Everybody’s dealing with the same struggles, from how to control our stage volume to how to reach our communities. It’s even nice to be in the big plenary sessions with the big-name artists and realize that they make mistakes, and their guitarists play the occasional wrong note, and their lyric projectionist is sometimes slow with the slide changes, too!

It’s possible, of course, to see all the technology, and hear the headlining artists, and get all pumped full of big ideas, and then realize you (as I!) have to go back to your small church and lead with just a guitar (and no fancy moving lights!)… and get discouraged. But I leave excited that Kingdom work is going on everywhere, in all kinds of places, in all kinds of styles, to reach all kinds of people. There is no perfect church, and no one church is capable of reaching everyone. In our diversity, and amidst our common struggles with people, budgets, technology, apathy, egos, and faulty mic cables, God is making the Kingdom present among us in the here and now. That is good news (gospel), indeed.

Are You Singing Your Faith? (Safiyah Fosua)

(Ephesians 5:18b-20 NRSV) … be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Most of us remember that worshipers in earlier centuries learned Christian doctrine, virtues and values from the songs they sang.  If you thumb through an old hymnal, you will find songs about perseverance, holiness, the deity of Christ, the sovereignty of God, devotion to God, kindness to our neighbors and a host of other teachings.  Having songs that taught the faith and would be carried outside of the worship space was important for several reasons.  To begin, many of the worshipers of previous centuries were non-readers.  Packaging the faith in a tune was just one of several ways that teaching took place.  Another benefit was evangelism. Practically every Christian awakening or revival period has been known by its music.  However, we often forget that memorized songs are also a means of discipleship.  Music hidden in the heart often rises up at odd moments to instruct, comfort or warn.

Do your worshipers remember the songs that you sang in church after worship is over and they have returned to their homes? 

A second question to consider: is your music in a form that can be carried away from church?  By this, I mean, are you using memorable, singable songs?  People in the music industry tell us that songs are often either lyric driven or music driven.  Lyric-driven songs are often carefully worded poems or reflections set to music. The words and their meaning catch our attention, give us pause, cause us to think. Music-driven songs are very different.  As the description hints, we remember the beat, or tune of the song while the words may get lost in the background.  The music industry suggests that a “good” song is one that has both meaningful lyrics and a memorable tune.  As we think of Christian music that survives more than one generation, we often find the same to be true.  These are songs with a good theological message and memorable singable tunes that beg to be memorized and repeated.

Several weeks ago, I asked members of our faculty for a list of the top ten Christian songs that they felt should be memorized.  I would like to extend this survey to you. Which ten songs would you hope that every Christian in your congregation knew from memory?  Songs on your list can come from any century.

If you would like to participate, the link is http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/NDTC5KBThis link will be open until September 1, 2013.  Please feel free to share this link with your networks.  I plan to write a short article about the findings after data has been collected and analyzed.  I am sure that the survey results will be interesting!

I hope that you will take a few moments to participate!

Worship that Spills into the Streets (Safiyah Fosua)

You are salt,

You are light,

You are needed in this world.

Our salt-free-by-dietary-choice culture risks missing the poignancy of Jesus’ assertion; we are something that the world craves.  My grandmother has been gone to glory for more than twenty years now, but the memory of her sneaking a little salt into her diet here and there still brings a smile.  She had spent 55+ years of cooking 2 eggs and 2 strips of bacon for breakfast every morning for herself and my grandfather while he lived. The savory, salty taste of a crispy strip of bacon was wrapped up in her memories of life at its best and giving up bacon was a battle she occasionally chose to lose when we were out of the house and she was left to her own devices.   On second thought, I suspect that the memory of salt is indelibly fixed in the Western collective consciousness, because so many of us have to be warned to leave it alone!

Light, on the other hand, is not open to dispute.  Try living without electricity for a day, a week or even a month!  We think we can’t do it.  At those rare times when storms come and so many are without electricity, newscasters speak of it as deprivation.  In developing countries, where electricity is unstable, its presence or absence is a topic of frequent conversation.  In places where electricity is altogether absent, the people living there have worked out alternate sources of illumination.  We live as those afraid of the dark and often view light as a necessity.

I feel rather important now, when I hear Jesus saying that we are salt and we are light!  Yet this charge to be the light, a city set upon a hill, and be the salt that everyone craves and needs is one more area in which we, God’s people have failed so miserably.

Too often, we seasoned, veteran ‘church folk’ have been conditioned to think of the congregation not as salt or light, but as a faithful group of believers huddled together protecting one another from the darkness. Our language about the faith reveals an image of the church looking more like a fortress that stands in opposition to the world and its unredeemed culture, than like a force that influences it.  Worship, then, functions as an oasis in the desert of despair that refreshes our parched souls or a filling station that gives us just enough gas to speed through that desert to the next filling-station time when we meet again.

But Jesus said, you are salt, and you are light – which seems to imply contact with this world in ways that make it better for our having been there.  The world needs our godly influence to change the taste of things and to bring light to people who are afraid of the dark.  So, how do we get members of our congregations to think about their part in God’s mission to bland, dimly-lit places?

To begin, worship with your eyes open.  Remember that the local congregation is the public face of the Christian faith and that our worship takes place in public, not in private.  We worship with the doors unlocked, always hoping that the stranger will join us and overhear our conversations with God.  We worship with our hearts open to receive new people from new places that have been unreached.  We pray for people that may have no other persons to mention them in prayer.  We preach, ever mindful of our mission to represent God’s cause and spread Good News to the ends of the earth.

Then, we send worshippers with a charge of our own suggested by the text of the day and the tone of our worship.  We cannot afford to just fill them up, like they were at a filling station, and dismiss them; our mission dictates that we must send them.  We send them to love God and their neighbor with all their actions and their attitudes.  We send them to make a difference in some small way.  We send them and remind them to smile when everyone else is frowning or grumbling or complaining about politics.  We send them as the 70 (or the 72) were sent – to announce the Kingdom of God, to drive out evil spirits, and to bring healing (Matthew 10:1, Luke 10:1).

Don’t just dismiss the people at the end of worship; send them!

Worship Planning Days done

We finished a day and a half of curriculum planning this afternoon for the Christian Worship course to be offered next Fall. Helping were Constance Cherry, John Drury, Bud Bence, Keith Drury, Russ Gunsalus, and myself. I don’t think Bud would mind me mentioning what he said as we wearily left the conference room today–something like, “Wow, anyone who says this is seminary lite doesn’t know what has gone into these courses.”

Just to give a foretaste, you will read the majority of three of the texts in the series, The Complete Library of Christian Worship, including the volumes on Sacred Actions of Christian Worship, Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship, and The Services of the Christian Year, in addition to Dr. Cherry’s own forthcoming The Worship Architect and Drury’s Wonder of Worship. You will create portfolios of detailed self-instruction for everything from performing baptisms, the Lord’s Supper, weddings, funerals, services of Advent and Lent, with alternative biblical assignments for those from traditions that do not practice traditional baptism and communion.

The course will also include the standard features of all praxis courses in the seminary:

1) a Bible, theology, or church history related assignment each week;

2) an Integration Paper threaded from Weeks 3-14 in which you use your exegetical skills and your ability to draw from theologians and church history to address a pastoral issue;

3) action research, strategy, or application every week in relation to the topic of the week;

4) an application strategy piece in the final week, in which you take the various action research, strategy, and application work you have done and formulate a three year realistic plan for their ministry context in some area or areas you have covered, to be revisited in the capstone course.

Thanks to God for helping us these two days of planning!