Yesterday, I led worship at a small Vineyard church in Vancouver, about a 30-minute drive from my home in Surrey. Before leaving for church, and while driving, I asked God to help me joyfully serve him and his people for one more Sunday morning.
Pulling up to the humble community center, it was raining and cold. While looking for a parking place I thought, "here we go again…time to put on my boots and start work.” No polished backing band, no sound technicians, and no stage monitors…just a bunch of humble people trying to love God and love one another.
And I’m there to do my part with music and prayer, maintaining an attitude of gratitude while I serve. This is what I signed up for over 40 years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I use my gifts to serve because the humble King chose to serve me first. I don’t intend to quit anytime soon.
As I entered the lobby with my daughter, Jessica, I saw a well-dressed middle-aged man sharing with an older woman, sitting on the bench. They were both Chinese. Later, I was told by Dawn, the pastor of this church, that she led this granny to Jesus that morning before the church service. I’m happy to serve in small churches where people are coming to Christ.
The room was packed with a multi-ethnic group: First Nations, Asian, Indian and white, from newborns to elderly. These folks were mostly low-income folks. Re-united for their weekly gathering, they joyfully greeted one another. I thought to myself, “this is the kind of place Jesus likes to hang out.”
I was the guest worship leader, and as I have done hundreds of times, I helped set up a low-quality PA system. While I set up the PA, others were setting up large tables for a meal. This group of around 50 sat down for a communal breakfast. Jessica and I enjoyed conversing with a young lady who worked for a non-profit group that helps urban church planters. We also chatted with a First Nations couple with a brand new baby. Little kids were running around, giggling and bumping into everyone.
Sharing in worship with this precious church reminded me about the essentials of worship leading. It’s about things like humility: a willingness to serve in all kinds of situations. It’s about serving alongside of people that may be difficult to love. It’s about not being easily offended by what someone says. It’s about doing music that supports congregational worship (for most of us, it’s not a big show).
It’s about making a place for everyone to participate, young and old, mature and immature, from all ethnic groups. In these gatherings, Christ becomes incarnate. It’s about Jesus meeting with us, wherever 2 or 3 are gathered. More than half the churches in the United States and Canada have less than 75 people. So, if you’re bemoaning the smallness of your church, realize that your church is quite normal!
May we all continue to do good, not growing weary of serving the body of Christ in all it’s different expressions. May we be content to simply serve where God has placed us, always being thankful.
Last night around 7:00 pm, my daughter-in-law felt the beginning of labor pains. My wife, who is a licensed midwife here in British Columbia, quietly sprang into action, making preparations for the birth. For the past several months, the plan was for Shannon to give birth in our bedroom, for more space.
It was very exciting as Shannon’s birth pangs increased in intensity and many family members gathered to wait and offer support. My 2-year old granddaughter, Azélia, sat with my two daughters, along with several other women, mostly Parks.
Around midnight, I went to sleep in my downstairs office for a few hours, intermittently being woken to the sound of groaning from upstairs. At 2:30 am, I heard the sounds of pain turn to bursts of laughter. I thought, “This is a good sign!” So I went upstairs and heard the good news that Zebedee Park was now among us!
What a miracle to see little Zebedee: a perfectly formed baby boy, wide-eyed and calmly looking around the room. Holding him to my chest, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for God’s gift to our family. There were complications with Shannon’s first birth, so this fast and healthy delivery was especially sweet.
I have a grandson! It doesn’t matter how many times I’m around a newborn—I’m in awe every time. Having a granddaughter was amazing, now our joy is doubled. Looking around the room at my daughters and daughters-in-law, I thought about the grandbabies in our future…with eight of our own children, I wonder what the final tally will eventually be?!
God keeps giving us blessings we don’t deserve and haven’t earned: that’s his grace. At times like this, I think about what is most important in life: loving the people that are close to me. The busy-ness of life is briefly suspended as we gather to cherish the precious moment of a new birth.
The Joy of Playing Music Blog entry #3, January 25, 2016
Wouldn’t it be great if the daily life of a worship leader included several hours per day of playing music? I wish it were true! Life is full of so many tasks and chores, from the musical side—organizing set lists and charts, to the family side—doing the dishes, driving kids to school and sports events, to maintaining a home and a car, etc. There are lots of barriers to carving out time to play, but it’s worth finding that little window of time even if we don’t feel like doing it.
I’ve been playing guitar for close well over four decades and piano for almost as long. I love playing music. It inspires me to make beautiful sounds, to get lost in the tactile experience of using my hands and voice to play and sing. It’s like a mini-vacation from the administrivia of daily life. On cold, rainy Vancouver days, playing music makes room for a shaft of heavenly light.
The other night, I was lying in bed, thinking, “How am I going to make it through this dreary winter weather?” Right there I made a decision that the next morning I would get my butt out into the “shed,” a small practice room in my backyard. It didn’t take long to get lost in the glory of God’s gift of music. I played for over two hours and it seemed like only 30 minutes. Yet, how many times have I ignored those windows of opportunity when they’ve appeared? I guess I’m a slow learner.
God made us to be sensory beings. God-breathed art ignites our love for him. We feel the power and mystery of music in the deepest place of our souls. “Let all that is within me praise the Lord!”
Aside from the obvious spiritual benefits of playing music as worship, here are four benefits of playing music for any human being. (From an article called 18 Benefits of Playing an Instrument, by Michael Matthews, at Effectivemusicteaching.com).
Playing a musical instrument:
- Fosters your self-expression and relieves stress. Playing whatever you want on your instrument is a great form of therapy.
- Creates a sense of achievement. Making beautiful music that you and others enjoy brings a great sense of satisfaction.
- Enhances your respiratory system.
- Promotes happiness in your life and those around you.
Should worship leaders sing parts that aren’t the written words and melody? Blog entry #2 January 18, 2016
That’s a good question. I remember when I was very critical of worship leaders who sang words, phrases and melodies that weren’t part of the written melody. Or, they sang their own artistic version of the written words and melody. It distracted me from worshiping. It seemed like the worship leader was “showing off.” I thought the leader’s job was to make worship easier, not harder. So, is there a place for extemporaneous singing?
Ed Stetzer, in his letter to his worship leader, requests that the melody of the song always be prominent to make it easy for the people to follow. He makes very good points in his article. Importantly, Stetzer is careful to state that the guidelines he is suggesting are for their specific local church. That’s a crucial distinction because every church has their own specific “worship culture.”
On one hand, many churches always stick to the melody, and have been “trained” through years of practice to follow only the melody. Most people in these churches would have a reaction similar to my early response to ad lib singing—“what’s that guy doing?”
Many other churches have a very different “normal” in worship singing. Through years of practice, the worship leaders, back up singers and congregation have all learned to sing melody, harmonies, and words that aren’t on the lyric screen. For them, the definition of freedom in worship is, “sing whatever you want.”
So, context is everything. I visit all kinds of different churches in my worship leading travels. Part of my job is to figure out, “what is the musical culture of this church?” before I lead. My job is to facilitate worship, so I don’t want to stretch people farther than they can go with new expressions of worship, or bore them with an overly pedestrian approach. The worldwide church is a big, beautiful, many-splendored thing. I try respect all parts of Jesus’ bride.
My Evolving Views and Practices
Through the years, my personal views and practices have changed. I learned that singing parts outside of the melody can really enhance the worship experience for everyone if it’s done at the right time, in the right amount and with the right group of people.
For me, and for most churches in which I lead worship, spontaneous singing is accepted and appreciated. Adding words, changing the timing and melody of a few words here and there, singing a higher harmony as a way of exerting more energy—all of these artistic flourishes in worship can heighten the spiritual side of worship, not just the musical side. As this practice becomes gradually normalized in a local congregation, the people respond with enthusiasm when the worship leader vocally takes it up a notch or two.
We live in a popular musical culture in which extemporaneous singing is the norm. Congregational singing is different from what your favorite diva sings. But there is a lot of overlap between the two.
Aren’t we called to worship with all our heart, soul and strength? And that includes emotion. Worship music without emotion is boring. (That statement opens a can of worms, but what the heck, it has to be said). Do a survey of biblical worship and you’ll see it is often very emotional!
Musical dynamics create energy and drama in the worship experience. For a full-orbed worship experience, we need big dynamic shifts. One way the worship leader can lead the band and the congregation is to move into a higher gear of expressiveness through spontaneous insertions of words and melodies.
The timing of ad lib singing is important. I never plan how and when and if I’m going to add my own vocal lines. I do it when I am moved to do it. That way, it’s authentic and it comes across to the people as authentic. We must have authenticity in worship.
In gathered worship times, God interacts with his church as a body. So, when I open myself to the Holy Spirit and am inspired to break out of a static melodic box, the congregation is not excluded. If I were to do this all the time, it would exclude them. People need a lot of predictability mixed with the spontaneous to really worship freely.
If we want to grow in the full expression of biblical worship, I encourage an openness to extemporaneous singing while respecting the tradition of the churches in which we are serving.
Touch Heaven Everyday Blog entry #1 January 11, 2016
I can remember sitting in my room of the fraternity at UCLA as a college freshman. I was a new Christian. I was reading the Bible and it was like someone was sitting there talking to me. Up until then, my ‘story’ consisted of loving sports, playing guitar and being a good student so I could eventually get a good job. Then I became part of God’s story. The adventure was just beginning and it was exciting.
I grew up playing the guitar as recreation. Then it became truly re-creational. The creative Holy Spirit was renewing me through the creative act of making music. It was like going from black and white to full-color with surround-sound. A fourth dimension opened up. As I kid, I only wanted to play guitar. I wasn’t interested in singing. Then music became a vehicle for expressing adoration and being with a Person. I finally had a reason to sing. I was singing to a person. Through the gift of music, the Holy Spirit opened the eyes of my heart to see Jesus (John 15:26). The worship-life is all about knowing a Person.
My wife Linda describes her conversion: “Meeting Jesus was like coming to life; I was dead then I was alive; I was totally blind and not aware of being blind and suddenly I could see. Like a baby being born, moving from one world into another. I love singing about this transformation.”
In a sense, every time we worship God, we are re-living our conversion experience. We don’t always have a great epiphany, but when we reach for God’s kingdom that is near us, we touch heaven. For this reason, I try to worship through music at least a little bit everyday. I often don’t feel like doing it, but when I worship, I am always refreshed, even if only gently. I need to touch heaven everyday.
“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.” Psalm 95:6,7
Click to see & hear Breath of Heaven