Character through Community

How is character produced in a person? Generally we would think that tough times produce endurance and character. But the same hardships that produce a stronger person can also produce a cynical, weak, or bitter person. So what’s the difference? How can we be sure that a difficult situation will produce good fruit?

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This concept is slowly being revealed to me through my weekly small group of friends from church, teachings at LIQUID, and also a leadership class. These things are causing me to look back over my life at certain situations and notice a trend of character-building and the fact that character is not built in isolation, but rather it is built in a community of healthy relationships.

Bad situations come in many forms: a traumatic event, a continually difficult relationship or environment, or a bad habit we can’t kick. Each of things require processing to build character in us. But since most situations are also emotionally difficult, it can be challenging to process in a way that is not distorted or warped in some way. The lens that we look at these situations through is biased toward our own perspective.

As we allow others into our world, they can see things more objectively. They may or may not be able to understand every specific emotion, thought, or struggle that your situation causes. But what they can offer you is an outside perspective on things. If you make it known to them that you truly want healing and character, asking for the honest truth, they can certainly help you in a much more constructive way.

It’s been said that who you are is the sum of the five people that are closest to you. The type of friends we choose becomes extremely important when going through a difficult situation. The people that you look to for support are going to download a little bit of themselves into you. How they choose to help you will affect how you heal. For instance, in many difficult situations there is a choice between forgiveness or revenge. If you’re in isolation, or you have the wrong friends, it can be difficult to choose the higher road, because the low road often feels better in the short term.

Having good community will helps build good character. Friends can help you navigate clearly through hazy and difficult situations that might otherwise seem completely hopeless.

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Building a Culture of Worship

I’ve had plenty of conversations with other people who long to start, or be a part of, passionate worship cultures. They want a real experience alongside brothers and sisters that is both pleasing to God and renewing of their personal spirits.

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So how do we build a culture of worship?

I am working to grow a culture in the small platform on which I’ve been given leadership. While I cannot take all the credit for building this (there is the moving of the Holy Spirit and plenty of work from those who have gone before me), I would like to share the things I am chasing to foster a culture of worship…

Pray for it. What we are ultimately looking for is revival. And that’s the signature work of the Holy Spirit, and no one person or group of people can transform lives the way that He can.

Come along side what is already happening. What is God already doing in the hearts of others that will make up the culture? What is he doing in other leaders of this community? Join what he’s already doing and see where you can help to push it forward. Forming a sub-culture or a side-culture will probably create division, which is not representative of the kingdom of God.

Talk to others who have built / are building the same thing. It might take on a different shape given the unique gifting and platform of leadership God’s given them. But we can learn from each other as we seek to build for the same kingdom.

Create safe environment. Push out cynicism and criticism. Seek purity of heart. Everyone should be free to be themselves without fear of judgment. We can still shepherd each other and point each other in the right direction, but it should be out of love and not with a critical spirit.

Build relationships. This is one I can neglect sometimes as an introvert / task-oriented person. But the better your relationships are with others in the same community, the better these other things will fall into place.

Empower others. Give a platform to others according to their abilities and talents. If it’s only a selected few, it could be a great recipe for burnout. Besides, that’s more like a regime than a culture. But if you can give others a platform in that culture (this is easiest if you create a safe environment) everyone will be lending their own.

Involve everyone. Sometimes it bothers me referring to a mass of people as “them” or “the people”. It should always be “we”. Yes, I am guilty of this. But if it could always be about “us” as children of God, then leaders become servants and the culture as a whole can thrive under the true guidance of the Holy Spirit and our Heavenly Father.

Lifting Hands During Worship

I would like to take some time and offer some thoughts about people expressing themselves during worship. Some people are naturally expressive, and for others it feels forced or contrived. If you are in that second category and would like to feel a sense of freedom during worship, here are some things to consider.

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First, it’s helpful to recognize that your feelings are culture specific. So, either you have a conservative background in your faith or your church has a conservative culture where physical self-expression is outside the norm. Either of these things are completely normal and don’t signify that your heart is any more or less spiritual (as the thinking sometimes goes).

Here are likely some of the feelings that arise for you:

  • It feels fake
  • I will look stupid
  • People might think that I’m trying to be all super-spiritual

Lifting your hands leads your heart. If you don’t normally lift your hands or express yourself during worship, it will most likely feel fake the first time you do it. But don’t let that prevent you from doing it. Consider the fact that sometimes we sing words that we don’t actually put into action [ i.e. surrendering everything to Jesus ]. While ideally we should always seek complete integrity in what we sing, in reality it is, at the minimum, a way to lead our hearts (or rather, allow our hearts TO BE led) to where they should be.

A non-spiritual parallel is riding a bike: it doesn’t necessarily feel natural the first time you do it, but once you get it, it’s hard to remember how it felt before you could ride. But if you don’t push through the awkwardness, you’ll never ride the bike. Similarly, expressing yourself physically in worship may feel unnatural at first, but will feel more authentic with time.

To express yourself is to be vulnerable. Sure, you open yourself up to judgement and criticism from others. You can be the target of a cynical eye who seems to think “you’re just doing that to position yourself as a highly spiritual person.” But that is a problem with their heart, not yours. Don’t be so afraid of those voices that you allow them to silence your worshipful heart. Your personal worship of God, so long as it’s not completely obstructing someone else, should have no consideration for this type of negativity.

You also might encourage someone else. If you close your eyes and lift your hands, you are one less person that can be “judging” someone else for doing the same. If someone looks at you, and then decides to lift their own hands, they can feel safe that you’re not going to be eyeing them up. They can see that you’re so caught up [ hopefully in the beauty of Jesus ] that they have the freedom to do the same.

Do a heart check. Of course, you’re probably already trying to do this, which is why you’re having trouble expressing yourself. But don’t let that hinder you from a free expression either. And one of the best ways to be sure you have integrity about it is to…

Do it on your own first. If you are going to lift your hands during corporate worship, God should also find you doing that on your own. Don’t be doing one thing in public but be doing something different on your own. That is when it becomes showy and not authentic.

I can remember when I first started lifting my hands in worship, it felt awkward. You know how sometimes the music goes up or comes down and you see other hands go up? Well whatever that is, mine did the opposite and I felt ridiculous. But the reason we feel that way is because we take our eyes off of who we are worshiping. When your eyes and mind are focused completely on Him, what your hands or body are doing ultimately becomes a natural response to the worship that he deserves.

You’re Either Giving Glory or You’re Stealing Glory

Back around Easter of this year I posted a short thought on us striving to be “like glass”. It’s so crucial for us as servants in the church to be transparent so that Christ can shine through us. Anything less is hindering the glory that he deserves.

It takes a humble heart, a genuine relationship with the Father, and the grace of Christ for this to be able to happen.

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Humility is something that can be portrayed in a countenance that’s independent of what’s really going on in your heart. There are certain people that can seem very humble but are totally different person to know and be around. I know that there have been times in my life where this was the case. I can remember being complemented on a humble countenance at a particular time when I was feeling so much the opposite in my heart, and it made me feel awful that my outward appearance was so different from what was going on inside.

True humility, as they say, is not thinking less of yourself, but it is thinking of yourself less. There is great freedom in letting go of the self-image-management that our social-media-saturated culture is promoting. The amount that we can control our personal appearance to the outside world is staggering!

Consider the decision Christ made, as God almighty in the flesh, to allow himself to be beaten and tortured and crucified. He totally had the power to reveal His deity, even without sacrificing the mission He was sent to do. But He refused to skim any glory off of the situation and, by doing so, glorified the Father.

We too have small decisions that can lead us toward giving glory to the Father, or taking a little bit for ourselves. And while it may seem harmless, we need to remember that God is truly deserving of ALL the glory as we sing in so many of our worship songs. And therefore, there is no such thing as getting a little bit of glory for ourselves on the side…we are stealing it from Him. And unless we view it that way, our hearts will slowly grow cold and distant.

I know this might seem extreme. But I have found that when you surrender to God, he “ruins” you. While some people might be able to casually sneak a little glory for themselves here and there, He doesn’t let you off the hook so easily. Because you’re his child and he loves you, and He wants you to know His heart and that He is jealous for ALL the glory that He deserves.

* This title is a quote I heard this past week through the leadership class I’m taking. I do not know where the quote originally came from, but it was part of a sermon given by Pastor Brian Rice at Living Word Community Church.

Unqualified to Lead

I’m taking a class with Leadership ConneXtions International at my church that’s pushing me to be thinking about leadership, and the tone of my writing here will no doubt be affected through the duration of that class.

For many years I felt unqualified to lead (people, worship, you name it). I can recall the past few years and my development as my thinking shifted and I grew as a leader.

It’s been revealed to me that feeling “unqualified to lead” can be the result of very flawed thinking of what leadership requires. If you’re unsure whether or not to step into an opportunity of leadership, for whatever reason, I hope this blog post makes you feel empowered and encouraged to at least consider stepping up to the plate. God does not call everyone to leadership, but if he’s calling you, and people around you seem to be indicating a green light, you need to follow that.

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When I first came to the church in which I now serve and work, I had a hard time speaking with authority because I felt that God was already doing so much work that I didn’t have my head around. While I did need to spend time aligning to what was going on, I also failed to recognize that God had called me into a position of leadership to add my own voice and vision what he was already doing there. My initial failure to speak up or to speak out only compromised what he intended to do.

One scripture passage that resonates with my heart is the conversation between Moses and God through the burning bush. Moses does not believe he is qualified or equipped to handle what God is calling him to do. Towards the end of the conversation is my favorite part…

10 Then Moses said to the Lord, “Please, Lord, I am not a man of words (eloquent, fluent), neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; for I am slow of speech and tongue.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute or the deaf, or the seeing or the blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and will teach you what you shall say.”

—Exodus 4:10-12

What a beautiful and practical picture of how God goes with us where ever he calls us! I love when God answers someone with a question that just shuts them down (although it’s not much fun when I’m on the receiving end 🙂 ).

This also reminds me of Paul’s words in Philippians that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:12). If you follow God’s call, he’s with you. It doesn’t mean that you won’t get in over your head at times, but there is no better place to be than exactly where your Creator wants you to be. He made you, and He’s going to pull off a miracle through you, there’s a pretty good chance of that happening right in the center of where He’s working and moving.

Leading with confidence doesn’t mean you have all the answers, or the most knowledge, or the most experience. But it does mean living into the authority that has been given to you and being willing to speak up and step out. If you foster your relationship with Christ, His spirit will guide you. If you’ve been vested with leadership, it means that you need to humbly lead out for the sake of those you’re leading. That vesting shouldn’t be a burden or a platform for wrongful power, but rather as a role of responsibility that you should take up with gladness.

May you have the courage to take hold of the responsibility of leadership that God places in your path!

Unexpected Worship Leaders

I have been sharing this idea with my teammates and thought I would expand upon it a little more here.

While a worship leader may have the primary responsibility of bridging the platform with the congregation, the entire team has responsibility of leading from the platform. From countenance, to presence, to engagement, everyone on the platform is a leader. To highlight this, I’m going to talk about non-worship concerts/shows, and then I will connect it specifically with worship.

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Imagine if you’re at a show where the guitarist is frustrated. The rest of the band is engaged, but you can clearly see that the lead guitar player is irritated about something. Once you notice that, it does one of a few things:

  1. The momentum that’s being put into the show by the other members is “leaking” because of that one teammate.
  2. It hinders you from getting excited.
  3. It irritates YOU. Most likely you paid for your ticket and want to get your money’s worth. But regardless, you came with an expectation, and the guitarist being irritated is totally ticking you off.

Whenever someone is given a platform, they have a RESPONSIBILITY to those watching who are not on the platform. There are expectations that have been set, and the responsibility is that each member does their best to fulfill those expectations. These are, most basically, “do a good job” and “love what you do”. Otherwise, why should you be up there?

People on the platform REPRESENT those who are watching. It’s as if we “elect” certain people to the platform. Many people wish they could sing/dance/speak, but not everyone can. Therefore we choose to watch others do this who have put in the time and have been gifted with the talent to express themselves through an instrument or their voice. And it’s not about the music: it’s the self-expression, the passion, the skill. They awaken things that are already inside of each of us. It’s all of those things that are universal to humanity that platform leaders can tap into and represent.

Now let me connect this to worship team.

We are not on stage to put on a show, instead we are on the platform to give glory to God. So how do we rectify the issue of fulfilling our expectations yet not in such a way that attributes glory to ourselves?

One huge piece of figuring this out is realizing that if you DON’T fulfill the expectations of a platform leader, you ARE either 1) attracting attention to yourself, or 2) promoting indifference.

“Wow, that guitarist looks scared.”
“Wow, the singer is really in his own world.”
“This is boring, I can’t wait until it’s over.”
“That one guy is so focused on his music…does he even know what he’s doing?”

Another part of connecting showmanship to worship leading is to think of the congregation as part of the team. Don’t think of it as “us, the band” and “them, the people”. Think of it all as “us”. We are all in this together and we all have a role to play. If you lead a set of worship but no one shows up in the audience, you’re just having a band practice. And if no one sings, it is your fault, as platform leaders, that you’re not leading them effectively enough to do so*.

The mistake with being too “showy” often comes when someone on stage considers themselves above the congregation. Anything other than a mindset of being humbly “elected” to your role is prideful and will lead to ineffective worship leading.

Earlier this year I wrote a three part series on Worship Leader Stage Presence which may help with some practical ideas for improving your platform presence. It is critical that we get this just right and fulfill the responsibilities of the platform(s) to which God has called us.


* Obviously, this could actually be a bad culture in the congregation. But take the approach that it’s your fault, and do everything you can to lead better before looking elsewhere for the problem. Even if it’s not your fault, you can grow from the experience.

Greater than Goals

Setting goals is one of the most sure-fire ways to improve at something, strive for excellence, and reach your potential. There is also a great sense of accomplishment: a healthy measure of success that you’ve defined for yourself. It is absolutely essential for being all that God designed you to be.

Paul speaks of finishing the race well, and goal-setting is one way to make the most of your performance. Personal goals are milestones along the way. They are a reminder to you and to others of your progress, and they give you energy to keep pushing forward and being all that you can be.

But sometimes the goals we set can conflict with each other. Some goals worth reaching come with a high price. How can we know that paying this cost is not in vain?

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God calls us to something higher than just setting and achieving goals. Of course, He expects us to be a good manager of the time, energy, and abilities he’s given us. But to merely set goals and achieve them is in vain if we don’t pause to consider the direction our goals will take us.

That is why God calls us to very specific and unique assignments for our life. These assignments are according the divine direction that He has for us individually. While he does want to see us thrive and be all we can be, he also wants to build character in us. For this reason, God may have assignments for you that look like a step in a completely different direction than you want to go. And that’s OK: he’s your creator and he is writing the story of your life.

Assignments are tasks or missions that God calls us to. Often, they will line up with what our passions or gifts—that’s why he designed us the way he did. But sometimes they won’t. And this is where the assignments should transcend personal goals and aspirations.

We have short-term assignments and life-long assignments. God calls us here or there to do his will. He calls us to a simple conversation we keep putting off. He urges us to serve selflessly in a certain way. But he also calls us to missional work, the work of our lives that we will always do in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in.

If you think about the life of Christ, to say that he achieved all he was capable of is not really the most accurate statement. He could have done so much with the power he was given, and yet he only spent the last three years of his thirty-year life doing ministry. He carried out exactly what the Father intended for him to do. No more, and no less.

Consider, what are the specific assignments God has given to you? What situations do you find yourself in right now that you have been called to? Maybe it doesn’t feel exactly like a calling. But what relationships are you building, what work situation are you in, and what day-to-day activities are you doing right now? God has placed you squarely in a time and place with a unique heart and mind to do work that only you can do right now.

What assignments do you feel God calling you to? Something you’re not doing right now that you feel an urge that he might want you to move toward. Maybe you’ve got a gift in a certain area and you’re totally unable to use it in your current life situation. What changes might take place to put you in that situation? Don’t force it—wait on God’s timing. But hold tight to that longing for a future assignment, so when God calls you there, you’ll be ready.

Finally consider what long-term assignment God has called you to. Maybe you have a gift of hospitality, or a gift of leading worship. You should always look for opportunities to carry out that long-term assignment wherever you go and whatever you do. God has stamped that on your heart and doesn’t expect you to neglect your life mission.

As you form your goals, may they be in light of God’s goals–His assignments–for your life. He knows you best, and doing the work he has you to do is way more fulfilling in the long term than someday bringing a list of achievements to show him all you’ve done.

Post-Excellent

1970s rock ‘n roll was excellent. Bands like Zeppelin, Queen, and Van Halen took the musical foundations of the previous decade and pushed them further into new territory that was absolutely mind-blowing. But curiously, the level of proficiency at which some of these musicians were operating is greater than much of the music we have today. Why has a lot of our popular music regressed in terms of musicianship?

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We live in a modern culture that is pushing for excellence. Greatness is attractive. But I often wonder, what will be next? What comes after we become exhausted by the chase the elusive status of “great”?

I sometimes think about the pursuit of greatness as similar to the pursuit of beauty or the pursuit of style. The standards for these types of things are not chiseled in stone somewhere, and there is also room for subjectivity. Yet, somehow true greatness, like true beauty, is generally undeniable. Within a culture, there is an unwritten, but agreed upon, standard to which we measure things and call them great.

Some people, or organizations, have this greatness thing figured out. They know how to be great. We call those people and organizations words like world-class. This would suggest that excellence requires comparison. It requires you to measure, or be measured, against others in order to achieve the status of being great.

In light of that, my guess is that after excellence comes authenticity. When someone can ditch the comparison game altogether and simply be exactly who they are–flaws and all–they appeal to another part of humanity: the fact that we are all broken and we know it. We have all heard stories of how the mighty fall—someone who was once on top of the world comes tumbling down in a scandal, or disease, or an unpopular misstep in their career. Yet it’s sensational because we believed that person’s excellence had somehow elevated them above the rest of us.

So to propose an answer to my question at the beginning: fast-forward a few years and the popularity of bands such as the Ramones and Nirvana was quite possibly, in part, a response to all the face melting in the 70s and 80s. While people gravitate to the untouchable, they also love the relatable.

Jesus told a parable of a master who gave 10 talents to one servant, 5 to another, and 1 to another, each according to their capabilities. They were each expected to make a profit with what they’d been given. While every one of us is called to be faithful in what God has given, not everyone has been given 10 talents. Some of us only have a few to work with. But God will use each of us according to his own plan as we offer ourselves to Him.

I’m not suggesting we need to move beyond the pursuit of excellence, just like no one would say that we’ve “graduated” from Eddie Van Halen’s or Freddie Mercury’s imprint on music as we know it. But I think we should consider pursuing excellence with care and caution as we balance it with an authenticity of who we really are as uniquely designed children of God.

Planning Worship: Use Both A Map and A Compass

Planning a worship set can be quite tricky. On the one hand, you can plan the Holy Spirit right out of your worship set. But on the other, no planning can result in chaos that is difficult for a congregation to follow or understand.

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You’ll often hear reference to worship leaders being “shepherds”, where we are guiding the people on a journey of worship. While that makes sense, I sometimes feel it is more accurate to think of yourself as a “sheep with leadership responsibility.” As we are all journeying together, someone has to be tasked with leading out and making judgement calls.

Planning worship is essentially studying the map of where God would like you to take the congregation. If you don’t look at the map, and only rely on your compass, chances are you’re going to hit some pretty tough terrain. But if you rely too heavily on your map, you might miss some beautiful scenic routes. And as they say, it’s about the journey, not just the destination*.

So first, take some time to draw out your map. Thinking ahead allows for quiet time in prayer, and some time for God to move you to certain songs or a specific feel. It also opens the door for your teammates to practice and OWN the songs so that they can autopilot on the music and just worship. So pick songs and send your team members some song charts and recordings. Also, the more limited you are with rehearsal time, the more important it is that you have a plan in place before everyone arrives.

Second, find pockets for either spontaneity or space. Those pockets will vary in size based on the culture of your church. At the very least, look for a place that you can repeat a chorus or bridge that was not in the radio-friendly recording. Look for a section where you can play an extended reflective instrumental, or share a word of encouragement. This is also a place where you could drop in an extra song or two, or more if your time constraints are freer.

I have found myself leading worship in both of these situations: without a clear plan (map) or without a sensitivity to the congregation and Holy Spirit (compass), and I strongly encourage you to use both of these tools as you look forward to a worship service. Combined, they are a powerful and orderly force that allows God to move and breathe through your leadership.

Leading Worship as the Everyman

Lately something that’s been running through my mind when it comes to great worship leading is the word “everyman”. I’ve noticed some of the greatest worship leaders of our generation do not always appear to be the most gifted singers, guitar players, or performers. In fact, sometimes their abilities seem borderline mediocre, when you consider the vast amount of talent in our world. So what sets these leaders apart? What is their “claim to fame”?

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God calls each worship leader individually according to His purpose. He also gives each leader a special platform of influence, tailored specifically by His will for their life. But I believe there is something more that we can learn from this type of worship leader. As you lead, how well do your actions, words, and plans line up naturally with the average person in the room? The answer to this question might give you some indication of how well the congregation can connect with you.

Let me give you an example of the opposite. Take, for instance, a worship leader who is a fantastic performer. Their words bring laughter, their performance draws out emotion from the congregation, and their very presence is captivating. While this may be enticing to experience, it can also devalue the leading into mere entertainment.

High excellence can, as an unintended side effect, perpetuate a consumerist culture that desires ONLY the best and most excellent. Suddenly, the talented worship leader is on vacation and worship itself feels mediocre because the fill-in does not have the same level of proficiency. People are bummed, and then delighted next week when they arrive at church and see their favorite, more excellent leader, is back again.

Leading as an “everyman” means, to me, that you’re authentic. And authentic worship leading means that you’re free to be yourself and worship from your heart. You should lead as a guide, and simultaneously as a worshiper who is demonstrating and communicating to others what it means to worship. You become someone to whom others can relate and follow easily.

Does this mean excellence is sacrificed? Not at all. But it should put a pursuit of musical greatness into perspective. Excellent ability is a tool to use for effective ministry, but knowing when to disguise that tool within great leading is another affinity altogether and will push a “culture of worship” over a “culture of really great sounding worship music.”

Finding your unique place of authenticity makes you accessible to others. It’s a landmark on a long journey of the practice and repetition of leading worship. Instead of being “that really great worship leader”, you become a friendly gatekeeper on the road to glorifying our God. May your pursuit of excellence be in the humble light of what God desires from you as a worship leader: an authentic and trustworthy steward of the song that touches His heart.