[This post is based on a message I gave at the Christian Musician Summit in 2008.]
When Christian musicians get together, we tend to assume we all have our theology down and we can focus on honing our chops, discovering new gear, and improving our techniques and methodologies. Or maybe we think that theology isn’t that important. Whatever the reason, I wanted to make clear that even at the Christian Musician Summit, theology matters.
Theology is literally the “study of God,” particularly as he has revealed himself in Scripture. It includes not only studying the Bible, but understanding how the different parts of the Bible fit together. Christian musicians need to know theology. But before I explain why, here are four potential objections people might have.
1. People just argue about theology.
Yes. Partly because we’re sinful. But mostly because there are some truths that are worth defending and fighting for. Even dying for.
2. Theology just makes life complicated.
It depends on what you mean by complicated. If you think that knowing how to play your instrument makes it complicated, then yes, theology makes life complicated. Theology doesn’t make like complicated. It actually makes life simpler. It protects us from reading verses out of context or reading only our favorite passages. Theology tells us what words like glory, gospel, salvation, and love mean. Theology helps us understand what we’re actually doing every Sunday. What complicates life is not theology but ignorance of theology.
3. Studying theology makes people proud.
It shouldn’t. The better we know God, the humbler we should be. The more we should realize that what we know will always be dwarfed by what we don’t know.
4. We’ll never know it all anyway.
Just because we can’t know everything about God, doesn’t mean we can’t know some things truly. God has revealed himself to us in his word and given us his Spirit so that we can know him.
Here are three reasons why theology should matter to Christian musicians.
1. You’re already a theologian.
Every Christian, musical or otherwise, is already a theologian. The question is, are you a good theologian or a bad one? We’re good theologians if what we say and think about God lines up with what Scripture says and affirms. We’re bad theologians if our view of God is vague, or if we think God doesn’t really mind sin, or is we see Jesus as a good example and not a Savior, or if we our god is too small to overcome evil or too big to care about us.
2. God reveals himself primarily through words, not music.
Because we’ve encountered God profoundly during times of musical worship, we can wrongly start assuming that words restrict the Spirit, while music enables us to experience God in fresh and powerful ways. If God had wanted us to know him primarily through music, the Bible would be a soundtrack, not a book. Music affects and helps us in many ways, but it doesn’t replace truth about God. By itself, music can never help us understand the meaning of God’s self-existence, the nature of the Incarnation, or Christ’s substitutionary atonement. Simply put, truth outlasts tunes.
3. Being good theologians makes us better musicians.
- Theology teaches us what music is meant to do.
- Theology teaches us that worship is more than music.
- Theology teaches us that Jesus is better than music.
You can download a copy of my notes here.
Why? If YouTube videos and conference worship bands are any indicator, we’re unintentionally (I trust) cultivating an understanding of musical worship and its leaders that draws more from rock concerts and Entertainment Tonight than biblical principles.
We can start thinking that the “best” corporate worship context is characterized by bright stage lights, a dimly lit congregation, Intellibeams, fog, high end musical gear, multiple screens, moving graphics, and loud volumes. We can start to think the ideal leader is good-looking, sings tenor, plays a cool instrument (usually guitar), sports hip hair, and writes songs. And by the way, the band members and vocalists should be near studio quality, if not actual studio musicians, and look pretty good themselves.
To be clear, I thank God for godly, good-looking, musically gifted, well known leaders who are simply seeking to be faithful and bring glory to Jesus. I know a number of them. And God is all for skill and excellence when we bring our musical offerings to him (ps. 33:3; 1 chron. 15:22). Technology isn’t evil (although it inherently affects the message we’re communicating).
Overemphasizing or consistently focusing on technology, skill, and excellence can leave most us with a nagging feeling that our musicians, our leaders, our equipment, and our songs are never quite good enough. We resign ourselves to the thought that we’ll never be as successful, used, or important as the people we see on YouTube and at conferences. Or we breathlessly pursue the trappings and externals of “modern worship,” attaching biblical authority to very cultural practices.
That’s why today I want to salute the average worship leader.
Are You an Average Leader?
By average I don’t mean mediocre or lazy. Just normal. Because that’s what most of those leading in churches today are. Normal. Maybe you can relate to some of these “average worship leader” characteristics:
- Your musical training, if any, was years ago.
- No one wants you to sing lead on an album, but you get the melody pretty much in tune.
- Your vocal range is a little over an octave, but almost always lower than the recorded key.
- You prepare and rehearse in the midst of a full time job and responsibilities at home.
- You and some of the other musicians could do better with your dieting.
- Sometimes it’s hard to figure out the chords or strum pattern on a song.
- Your sound system has been pieced together over the years and still works. Most of the time.
- Your choices for lighting are ON or OFF.
- Twice a year you lead surrounded by a set for “Phantom of the Opera” or some other school play.
- You have good folks on your team who don’t have a ton of time to practice or rehearse during the week.
- The ages of your team members range from 14 to 56.
- Some people in the church love what you do, some aren’t crazy about what you do, and some aren’t sure what you do.
- You don’t even try to keep up with the gazillion worship albums released every month.
Here’s why I want to honor you. God sees your labors. And he says they’re not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do” (Heb. 6:10).
God seems to favor doing his work through the weak and the few (1 Cor. 1:26-28; Judg. 7:2-8; Dt. 20:1-8; Mt. 15:32-28). That’s why I think average worship leaders play a significant part in God’s purposes to exalt his Son throughout the world.
While there’s never anything “average” about leading people to exalt the glories of Christ through music and the Word, we can always grow. So to encourage you and spur you on, here are a few thoughts:
- It can’t be said too frequently that while God can use technology, skill, and excellence, he doesn’t require them
- What every leader has to offer people is the gospel, God’s Word, and the Holy Spirit, working through redeemed sinners, i.e., us.
- The same God who seems so present in a crowd of 10,000, is just as present in your church of 113.
- The Holy Spirit doesn’t need a dark room or dramatic lighting to reveal Christ to people. He’s been using natural light quite effectively for thousands of years.
- We’re responsible for the resources we have, not the ones we don’t have (2 Cor. 8:12).
- Being average doesn’t mean we can’t get better through practice, evaluation, and hard work.
- Being average doesn’t give us freedom to uncharitably judge or fail to learn from those who have greater gifts and opportunities than we do.
- Average musicians can be as self-sufficient as gifted ones, which should motivate us to pray consistently.
- The goal of our labors is not success or popularity, but faithfulness.
So if you fall into the category of the average worship leader, I want to thank you for your labors and encourage you to keep growing. God is using you in more ways than you can imagine to build his church and bring glory to his Son.
And because Jesus is the perfect worship leader who paid for all our sins and failings through his substitutionary death on the cross, we can look forward to the day when every faithful leader, average or not, will stand before the Father and hear him say, “Well done.”
Recently, I posted thoughts on attempts to manufacture and market the presence of god, both wrong responses to God’s experienced presence. One person commented that what I wrote seemed to “create hesitancy about pursing His presence” and encouraged me to “stir people’s faith to encounter God and His presence.’”
Today, I want to do just that by addressing a third way we can approach thinking about God’s presence wrongly.
3. We don’t want to minimize God’s active presence.
God has always intended to dwell with his people. We see this with Adam and Eve in the garden, in God’s command to the Israelites to build a tabernacle so that he might dwell among them (ex. 25:8, 29:46), in Moses’ plea that God’s presence go with them (ex. 33:15-16), in the building of the temple (2 chron. 6:2), in the incarnation of Christ (mt. 1:23), and in the final chapters of Revelation (rev. 21:3-4).
It’s a cause for continual wonder and amazement that the transcendent Creator of the universe would want to dwell among with those he created. God’s presence continues to be one of the distinguishing marks of the people of God.
But does that make any difference in real life? Time after time we meet together expecting nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary, as though it was just us, as though we were attending a Rotary Club meeting. We’re satisfied if we simply execute our plans well and avoid train wrecks. We act as though the Holy Spirit only suggests thoughts for a meeting beforehand and never during. We’d be shocked if anyone in our meetings ever lifted their hands in wonder, shed tears of conviction, laughed for joy, or knelt down in awe. We just don’t expect that kind of thing in church.
We should. When the church gathers, God himself is present with us to bless, to guide, to speak, to convict, to strengthen, to illumine, and to build up, all that we might more profoundly and consistently glorify Jesus Christ. We worship a risen Savior, not a dead historical figure.
Sundays are never “business as usual” because God is among us.
We are never merely “singing songs.” We are proclaiming and meditating on life-transforming realities that God uses to change our perspective, fill us with fresh faith, and open our eyes to his immeasurable power. We are joining in with the myriads of saints and angels around the throne who unceasingly praise the Lamb and the one who sits on the throne (heb. 12:22-24; rev. 5:11-14).
We are never merely “hearing a sermon.” God himself is speaking to us as his Word is faithfully, carefully, thoughtfully, and persuasively proclaimed. The Spirit of God is seeking to soften hearts, open eyes, reveal sin, and impart faith. God is present and working in our hearts.
We are never merely meeting with each other. We meet with God in the presence of God at his invitation to celebrate the gospel, enjoy the miracle of being his adopted children through Jesus Christ, and to be changed.
How do we anticipate experiencing God’s presence without getting derailed; without getting drawn into the pursuit of emotionalism and mere experience?
1. Cultivate an awareness of your desperate need for God’s empowering presence.
We are to walk by the Spirit and be led by the Spirit (gal. 5:16-18). If we don’t have the Spirit of Christ, we don’t belong to him (rom. 8:9). Apart from Jesus we can do nothing (jn. 15:5). We worship by the Spirit of God and put no confidence in the flesh (phil. 3:3). “Self-sufficiency” is a misnomer, and is a pure, complete, and very common delusion. That realization should make us more faithful to pray for God’s blessing and to express gratefulness for God’s aid.
2. Live with an expectation that God has promised to dwell in and among his people and is eager to manifest his presence to us.
Too often we perfunctorily pray for God to act and then approach our meetings with no anticipation that he will. Too often we’re shocked when we or the people we serve are actually affected. Some of us are even tempted to look down on people who are regularly moved by experiences of God’s presence rather than desiring more of the same in our own lives.
3. Don’t let the pursuit of experience replace a pursuit of faithfulness to Scripture and the gospel.
It seems every generation is tempted to value and pursue experience over faithfulness. The perils are numerous. It can lead to equating elevated passions to encountering God, feeling disappointed if we’re not emotionally or physically affected, making secondary means (technical skill, lights, videos, arrangements) primary in engaging people’s minds and hearts, and being overimpressed with unusual manifestations. If the people I lead get more excited about the latest “move of God” than the fact that Jesus Christ came to die for our sins and rise from the dead to reconcile us to God (the gospel), then we’re responsible to lead them back to what is of first importance (1 cor. 15:1-4). Likewise, if my congregation thinks “hearing from God” only means prophetic or spontaneous events, I need to help them treasure God’s sufficient and authoritative Word more than gold (ps. 19:10-11).
4. Respond humbly to what you believe to be the Spirit’s promptings.
Often we fail to experience God’s presence because we fail to respond to the Spirit’s leadings. In 1 cor. 14:24-25 if no one was prophesying the unbeliever wouldn’t have his heart exposed. If I don’t step out to pray for someone that just came to mind I may miss seeing God work in a powerful way.
5. Thank God for his promised presence more than you ask him for his experienced presence.
If God is truly with us when we gather, we should rejoice and be filled with faith! Both attitudes are undermined when we repeat/sing phrases like, “Come, Holy Spirit,” or “Fire fall down,” “Send the rain,” or “Show us your glory,” endlessly without corresponding expressions of confidence that He is indeed near as He has promised. If we only focus on our requests and longing, God in his mercy will often work in our hearts during that time, but it can also leave people confused, dissatisfied, or more impressed with our pursuit of God than God’s pursuit of us.
6. Eagerly anticipate his unveiled presence.
No experience on earth will ever rival what we will experience in the age to come. That’s why Peter encourages us to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 pet. 1:13). I don’t want to set my hope fully on what’s going to happen next Sunday or at some conference. I can be thankful for experiences of God’s presence here without making them the goal or foundation of my relationship with Him. Our hope is knowing that one day we will see our Savior as he really is and will be transformed into his likeness (1 jn. 3:2). And then we’ll no longer be seeking his presence. We’ll be in it forever. Praise God.
For further study check out god’s empowering presence by Gordon Fee, and this message called a people of god’s presence by my friend, Jeff Purswell. You can also check out this post i did on resources related to the holy spirit.
In his kindness and mercy, God often reveals his active presence to us. By “active” presence I mean God’s presence as distinct from his omnipresence and his promised presence, both of which we accept by faith. Whether we “feel” it or not, God is present when his Word is faithfully preached, when his people meet in Jesus’ name, when we celebrate the Lord’s supper, when we sing, and we were serve in his power (1 tim. 6:13; 1 cor. 5:4; mt. 18:20; 1 cor. 11:27-32; acts 10:33; eph. 5:18-19; 1 pet. 4:10-11).
At those times and others we can know that God is with us, empowering what we do.
But there are times when God makes his presence known more clearly, more tangibly. Like in 1 cor. 14:25, when the secrets of a man’s heart are revealed by prophetic words and he declares, “God is really among you” (1 Cor. 14:25). We experience it when our hearts are flooded with peace, or we are suddenly aware of God’s greatness and majesty, or when someone is healed. It might come as well when God’s preached Word pierces to our heart and we find ourselves weeping at the Holy Spirit’s conviction or God’s mercy in Christ. We think, “God is really here.”
1. We can’t manufacture God’s active presence.
Good intentions notwithstanding, no one can consistently and meaningfully “bring God’s manifest presence” to a group of people. No musician, no pastor, no singer, no preacher, no leader – nobody. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit and he functions on his own terms, not ours (john 3:8; 1 cor. 12:11).
Of course, the Spirit uses means. When God’s Word is preached in an engaging, faithful, Christ-exalting way, people will often experience a greater awareness of God’s presence. When we sing biblical truths together, God will often make his presence known among us in a tangible way. It’s the rare Christian who hasn’t at some time experienced the nearness of God at a Sunday meeting.
The richness of those experiences can tempt leaders to think our ultimate goal is helping people experience the presence of God. Well, yes and no. If “helping people” means doing everything I can to exalt the glory of Jesus in their minds, hearts, and wills through biblically informed words and actions, then yes. But if my goal is to have people “feel something,” and if the measure of my success is the degree of emotional fervor in the room, I’ll tend to use what ever means I can to produce that emotional response. I may start to believe my song, my leadership, my voice, my set list, or my playing will bring God’s presence. And it’s possible I’ll begin to view every experience, regardless of its source, as the result of an encounter with God.
One year John Piper spoke at our worshipgod conference. Before his message I told him that while the conference was going great, it was going to be even better because he was speaking. In inimitable Piper fashion, he challenged my perception that any man, even John Piper, could insure that “God was going to show up.” To be clear, God did “show up” and we were greatly encouraged. But John’s point is true – no man can guarantee the active presence of God. And we shouldn’t try to manufacture it.
2. We can’t market God’s active presence.
Marketing God’s presence refers to promoting my ministry, song, book, or concert on the basis of how consistently people experience God’s presence as a result.
I recently received a promo for a Christian artist who said his ministry goal is to “take people into the presence of Jesus Christ where there, they are forever changed by His amazing love!” Actually, I can’t take people into the presence of Christ. But I can proclaim the gospel that assures us we have been brought near to the Father through the finished atoning work of Christ (heb. 10:19-22). I leave it to the Holy Spirit to apply that to people’s hearts.
I’ve been invited to attend conferences, download songs, attend concerts, buy books, and listen to preachers who all claim they will bring me into God’s presence – for a price. But we can’t buy the presence of God. Simon the Magician realized that when he saw the disciples laying their hands on people with dramatic effect. He offered them cold cash, saying, “Give me this power.” Peter rebuked him.
God’s power, like God’s presence, can’t be bought or sold. God doesn’t call us so much to be facilitators of his glory as faithful to the gospel. Our job isn’t to create an “environment of excitement” but an environment of response to the true God through the gospel in the power of the Spirit.
If I want people to spend money for something related to my ministry, I want to be clear that it’s for production costs, salaries, resources, and a commitment to be faithful to God’s Word – not because it will bring them into the presence of God.
In the next post, I want to take a more positive tone and share some thoughts on the dangers of minimizing God’s presence.