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Music Myth: It’s EASY

“Must be nice to get paid to waive your arms, sing your little songs, and pluck your bass guitar, eh?”

“I don’t know why they felt the need to hire you full time… I mean, you just get up there on Sundays, pick ’em and sing ’em, right?”

“What, exactly, do you do all week? I mean, it’s not that hard to sing songs and make noise…”

“I don’t understand why you need to get up early and practice to play 3 chords.”

“Anybody can lead worship music. It’s easy!”

These are just a few of the many comments I’ve heard in 20 years of worship ministry. Sometimes they were meant as a joke, sometimes they were a genuine misunderstanding, and sometimes they were espoused with malicious intent. No matter the intention of the person, the comments hurt just the same. Each one points to the gross misperception of the average western American churchgoer when it comes to understanding what it takes to put together and execute an excellent worship experience. For some reason, many folks seem to think what happens on the platform during worship services. The MYTH is that what we do is easy. The TRUTH is far from it.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of what happens, it is important to look at what the Bible says about those who lead worship for the body.

Psalm 33:1-3 – Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him. Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre. Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.”

1 Chronicles 15:16; 19-22 – David told the leaders of the Levites to appoint their fellow Levites as musicians to make a joyful sound with musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals… 19 The musicians Heman, Asaph and Ethan were to sound the bronze cymbals;20 Zechariah, Jaaziel,[d] Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Maaseiah and Benaiah were to play the lyres according to alamoth,21 and Mattithiah, Eliphelehu, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom, Jeiel and Azaziah were to play the harps, directing according to sheminith.[f] 22Kenaniah the head Levite was in charge of the singing; that was his responsibility because he was skillful at it.

1 Chronicles 25:4-7 – As for Heman, from his sons: Bukkiah, Mattaniah, Uzziel, Shubael and Jerimoth; Hananiah, Hanani, Eliathah, Giddalti and Romamti-Ezer; Joshbekashah, Mallothi, Hothir and Mahazioth. (All these were sons of Heman the king’s seer. They were given him through the promises of God to exalt him. God gave Heman fourteen sons and three daughters.) All these men were under the supervision of their father for the music of the temple of the Lord, with cymbals, lyres and harps, for the ministry at the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun and Heman were under the supervision of the king. Along with their relatives—all of them trained and skilled in music for the Lord—they numbered 288.

These are just a few examples, but do you see a trend here? Everyone who was in charge of music for the temple had to be skillful. They were all called to exhibit that skill in leadership of the people for the glory of the Lord. For those who think worship is easy, these biblical texts should begin to break that thought down. What we do is not easy. Rather, it is difficult. I have been an on-call musician for the better part of 25 years, but I couldn’t sit down at a drum set, keyboard, bass guitar, or vocal mic and do what I do now back when I started. I had to practice. My parents spent copious amounts of money over the years for me to obtain lessons and learn. All that learning translated into the ability to play and sing skillfully, and God has used in me to lead His people in worship. While might look easy on stage, it is most certainly not. The same can be said of those who serve faithfully on the technical side of worship as well. They do a great job of mixing, presenting, and lighting the elements on the stage in a way that hopefully means you don’t notice them at all.

To help nullify this myth, it is important to let you in on what happens “behind the curtain” in order to better understand how things appear that way.

1. Music Prep – When we prepare, we don’t just “pick ’em and sing ’em” on a Sunday morning. We begin preparation for each Sunday morning 5 weeks ahead of time. I spend the better part of each Monday in the office scheduling music, listening to new music, and prayerfully choosing music that fits where the message is taking the congregation that week. Our team utilizes a worship planning software program from which we schedule technical and stage team members, build the service flow, and add chosen songs. Those songs all have a sheet to show how the song goes, a chord chart to practice with, and a listening track for the team to familiarize themselves with the music. Each scheduled musician and vocalist has 5 weeks to work at home on that music, and have it ready to go. The Wednesday before the scheduled service, that team gets together for an initial rehearsal. This is where we iron out all the musical issues and rehearse transitions between songs. The team then comes in 90 minutes before the first service of the week to do a full run-through and sound check, putting the finishing touches on our musical offering to the Lord. Some folks from the outside have questioned the need for all this rehearsing, as they don’t personally need that much prep. The deal here is that it isn’t about the individual, but rather, about the team. We want to give God our best, so we work hard as a team to do so. We put our own preferences aside for His glory and the benefit of those who attend.

    2. Technical Prep – The technical aspect of worship experiences don’t just happen. There is much to be done on the backside in order to present and support the live stage elements with excellence and minimal distraction. Wednesday is when those elements are implemented so they    are ready to go for rehearsals, and it takes most of the afternoon. The technical systems for audio, video, and lighting are updated, and the software is tested to ensure it works properly. From there, the entire Sunday morning “script” for both our Classic and Modern worship experiences are built from scratch, including scrolling pre-service announcements, service start countdown, songs with still and motion backgrounds, sermon notes, communion cue, and pre-post service elements. Once that is complete, all the lighting is set for each element of each service. There are generally 8-10 lighting changes in the classic service, and 14-17 changes in the modern service. Each one has to be programmed individually and set to change manually when commanded by the lighting tech. Our lighting system controls the stage lights and the house lights individually, so it can be an involved process to build those lighting scripts each week.

    3. Maintenance – There is also a large portion of maintenance to be done each week. Drums have to be tuned, cables tested, software updated, stage elements and musical stations moved to fit the next week’s service needs, batteries changed out, camera and monitors tested, etc… We do this every week to ensure everything is in working order. Now, technology is a funny thing, and there are times when it is finicky during services, but we do our best to make sure it is working correctly before we get started.

In all honesty we want it to look easy, because when it looks easy, it means we’ve done all the work necessary for a relatively distraction-free worship experience. When the flow is seamless, the music is on point, and the technical aspects of audio, video, and lighting all come together to create an atmosphere of worship where folks can let go and give God glory in spirit and in truth, then we’ve done our job! It takes a ton of back-end preparation and planning, rehearsing, testing, checking, tweaking, and maintaining to pull off a seamless and distraction free worship experience. Even when all the prep is done correctly, sometimes things still go wrong! We are human, after all… Even so, our skillful team pulls together to get the job done and lead our congregation in worship. Just remember, when it looks easy, it really isn’t. With that in mind, why not take the time to thank your worship team and tech team? Better yet, if you are skilled, why not get involved?

Music Myth: Everyone Can Play

One of the most beautiful things God designed into the church was the great diversity in gifting. It is truly amazing to view all of the different ways God uses people to do kingdom work, and to see how He maximizes the uniqueness of each individual believer to enrich the lives of the church both locally and globally. Paul spoke of the diversity in spiritual gifts in his first letter to the church at Corinth, and shares the same sentiment.

1 Corinthians 12:4-7 – There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

This diversity allows kingdom work to take place in all facets of both personal and corporate church life, and especially so when everyone is serving within the strength of their giftedness. It is inspiring to behold a local congregation functioning in unity with each other as each person gives of their giftedness in the various ministry opportunities! Unfortunately, what happens more often than not is that our fallen humanity cracks God’s beautiful design. When that happens, we end up with a system that doesn’t function as it should because sin has gummed up the works. Instead of looking to the interests of others (Philippians 2), we begin to look to our own selfish interests and try to do things we simply aren’t designed to do. Working outside of our true giftedness puts the entire system out of balance, and we end up perhaps taking a space from someone else who is uniquely gifted for what we are doing. In turn, they either serve outside of their giftedness, or choose not to serve at all, thus putting God’s design even further out of whack.

During my time in ministry, I have seen various forms of functioning outside God’s giftedness occur: pastors who were better equipped to be college professors, ministry team leaders who great “do-ers” but weren’t skilled in leadership, and kids ministry volunteers who didn’t even like kids!  No matter what the scenario, each of these instances has one thing in common, which is people working outside the boundaries of the giftedness God has given them. That theme is no different in worship ministry.

Worship ministry is one of those places that people find to be a potentially exciting place to serve. We get to be on stage, sing and play songs to the Lord, and be an aid to the congregation in worship… and it is really fun! It is also a TON of work (see next week’s post), and takes a certain musical skill level to execute. Many times in my years of ministry, folks want to be involved but may not have the skill-set to do so. The only way to figure out whether or not they are a good fit is to have an evaluation process of some sort. Where I currently serve, we have an audition process to determine the spiritual health, personality type, and musical aptitude of those who want to serve on the team. These are all important, as those on the stage are considered by our leadership to be lay-ministers. Our process assesses the following:

  1. Are they morally pure? (Exodus 20; Psalm 24:3; Luke 12:2)
  2. Are they humble and teachable? (1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6-7)
  3. Are they willing to submit to spiritual and church authority? (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 2:13)
  4. Are they dedicated and willing to work hard? (1 Chronicles 6:31-32)
  5. Are they musically gifted and working to improve? (1 Chronicles 15:19-22; 16:4-7; 25:6; Psalm 33:3; 73; 83; 137:5)

If one or more of these considerations are not met, that becomes a red flag in the audition process, and can give cause to not offer an invitation to join the team.

When that happens, there have been instances of resentment and anger because everyone should be able to play!  The “Everyone Can Play” myth in worship ministry is a tough one to overcome, as opponents of the audition process tend to invoke the old adage, “God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called,” based upon Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1 and Romans 8.

1 Corinthians 1:26-27 – Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

Romans 8:30 – And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Once these scriptures are used to establish the initial support, then the “I can do all things through Christ” passage from Philippians 4 generally gets added as an additional leg to prop up the position. At first glance, these appear to make a solid argument for the myth, but one must look deeper to understand just how flimsy the argument really is. When the passage from 1 Corinthians is read in context, the true argument Paul is making is that the message of Christ’s sacrifice is true wisdom, and God chose to use ordinary people rather than influential ones to ensure His redemptive work would not be attributed to a human source. Similarly, the passage in Romans is not about serving where we want to serve, but about God’s salvific work through Christ to redeem humanity. And lest we forget the Philippians reference (which could use an entire post of its own!), Paul was speaking of his contentment in Christ that allowed him to continually serve God no matter the circumstance. As you can see, once these passages are looked at in-context, the myth becomes a straw man argument.

The Bible does have much to say about music and musicians, and every one of them show leaders putting those specifically gifted with a high level of musical ability in positions of leadership for the tabernacle. In today’s paradigm, that should be no different. Now, let me add a caveat to that statement: Excellence does not equal perfection!! No one is perfect, and we all have work to do. Excellence is simply giving God our absolute best at all times. Some churches have more people with superior musical skill than others, so their version of excellence will look and sound different. Our church in Tonganoxie doesn’t have the same musical skill level of Bethel, Elevation, or Willow Creek, but we still strive for excellence by giving God our best. We do that by interviewing and auditioning those who desire to serve on the team, which allows us to prayerfully discern whether the candidate’s spiritual, personal, and musical levels are a good fit for what we do. If it doesn’t match up, we work hard to help that person find a place where their gifting is a better fit and they can thrive in ministry, because we WANT them to serve in their giftedness.

“Everyone Can Play” is a myth, but “Everyone Can Serve” is the truth!

Music Myth: Lyrical Content

I’ve been involved in worship ministry in one way or another since I was 4. My parents led the congregational singing and choir at my home church for years, and 36 years later, my mom is still preparing the music there for each Sunday. I’ve been in either part or full-time ministry as a vocation for the past 19 years, and in that time I have seen both the good and the bad of worship ministry. Over that span, I have worked in several different churches with several different Senior and Associate pastors. While each had their own unique leadership style and personal interaction with congregation members, each one of them had a similar thought. The good and the bad of ministry all revolves around people. The BEST  and the WORST part of ministry is working with people! We love to see people “get it” and grow in their relationship with Christ, but we also grieve when people “just don’t get it” and continue to struggle with the symptoms of an un-surrendered life.

That struggle manifests itself in many ways, and can create “myths” that lead people to take their eyes off Jesus and put them on selfish desires or personal preference. One of the most popular areas where myths tend to crop up is that of music in the church. Music is a deep and powerful gift from God that can be a great aid to spiritual maturity. However, it can also become an idol that takes the place of God and must be destroyed. If music is to be used for God’s purposes rather than our own, the idolatrous mythology that often surrounds it must be exposed and removed. With that in mind, I’m going to use the next few weeks to post on some of the most popular music myths in worship. Hopefully, this will shed some light on these issues and create opportunities for honest dialogue. This week’s myth deals with words.

Myth #1 – Lyrical Content

One of the largest fights I see in church congregations today is that of lyrical substance in worship music. Perhaps the largest issue here is the misconception that “modern” or “contemporary” music in worship has no true substance to it. Rather, it is simply a mindless repetition. Often, this manifests itself like the picture below:

 

Make no mistake, there is a valid point here. No one would argue that the lyrical content of “Be Thou My Vision” is much more rich and meaningful than the chorus of “I See You” when taken out of context (the song was written by Rich Mullins, and the verses are rich in content and imagery!). Even so, this instance (and others like it) are used on a regular basis to bolster the argument that the well-known hymns of the faith are “better” or “more powerful” or “more meaningful” than the stereotypical contemporary worship song. As a worship leader who sifts through both classic hymns and modern songs to build meaningful worship experiences, there is no question that some newer tunes simply cannot compare the the rich tapestry of songs found within the standard church hymnal. In fact, I’ve heard the term “7/11 song” attributed to modern worship music more than once. The idea there is that modern music uses the same 7 words 11 times in a row rather than having some real substance. The 90’s were filled with such songs, so I can understand the sentiment.  BUT… we must remember that there are two sides to every argument, and in our case, every myth. Take a look at this:

Now, before I suffer the slings and arrows of those who love Handel’s Messiah, please understand that I do as well. I’ve sung the first tenor part in the Messiah more times than I can count, and it is a wonderful experience. Even so, we must focus ourselves on the point of this post, which is the lyrical content. Musical composition aside, Handel used one word over and over and over again. In fact one might say that the Hallelujah Chorus is the epitome of a 7/11 song! Andrew Peterson is a modern worship writer, and just look at the word tapestry he created!! If someone had never heard the Messiah and simply looked at this meme, how would they respond to the 7/11 modern worship song myth? You see, we can make anything fit our own personal paradigm when we take it out of context and cherry pick for our own purpose. Taking things out of context is exactly what got this myth started in the first place! The fact of the matter is that both classic songs of the church and modern songs of the church have instances of repetition and instances of deep lyrical meaning. The question, then, becomes less about the lyrical content of the song and more about the personal preference of the listener.

Perhaps the largest reason this myth needs to be debunked has to do with the very people who make up the Church. I grew up in an era when traditional hymns were the norm in worship, but the switch to a more contemporary style of worship was happening. From birth to middle school, I attended a very traditional church with a very traditional music selection. But, when I got to high school, I started attending a youth group where more contemporary music was used in worship. Now, I serve in a church that utilizes both, and can easily switch back and forth because of my upbringing. However, there are those who grew up in a time before mine where traditional church music was the only way they connected to God in song. There are also those who came up after me who only connect with modern worship songs. There are also some adults my age who came to know Christ as an adult, so modern worship songs are all they know! They have no church tradition to hearken back to, so the lyrical content argument doesn’t make sense to them. If we are really honest, it shouldn’t make sense to any of us, because it doesn’t have anything to do with spiritual growth or kingdom building. Rather, it stunts spiritual growth and thwarts kingdom building.

If our lives are truly surrendered to Christ, then this myth becomes a non-issue because our personal preference is supplanted by a posture of submission to the Lord and to others. Only complete submission to Him will allow us His people to follow the instructions given to believers in Philippians 2.

Philippians 2:1-4 – “Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.”

As believers in Christ, we must put this myth to rest for the sake of other believers and other non-believers who are searching for something real and authentic in Christ. If all they see is church people grumbling and complaining about songs, how will they ever see the true freedom and joy there is in Christ? Let’s put selfish preferences aside, destroy the idol of lyrical content, and worship God together in spirit and in truth!

 

 

King of My Heart

As a Creative Arts Minister, I oversee many of the aspects of weekly church life that come into contact with our people. Website maintenance, graphics design, social media updates, etc… However, one of my greatest joys in ministry comes during weekly rehearsals and worship experiences when I have the honor of leading people in song. There’s something extraordinarily beautiful about hearing God’s people raise their voices as one and give honor, praise, and glory to the Triune God. One of the songs that has been very powerful for our congregation as of late is “King of My Heart” by John Mark and Sarah McMillan. Based upon Psalm 136:1 and Psalm 100:5, this song uses wonderful imagery to paint a picture of God being the mighty refuge we run to, and the song eternally on our lips. He is God, and He is good to us, even in the worst of times. Sarah McMillan speaks of how the song was written below:

“This song is about the tension we often find ourselves in this life. At the time I wrote this song, I was processing the divorce of my parents and at the same time experiencing the overwhelming joy of having children of my own. Both experiences changed my identity so deeply. I wrote ‘King of My Heart’ to remind myself that there was no joy or sorrow that could dilute the pure goodness of who God was. Everything I thought I lost, could actually be found in the Force of His goodness.”

 

While I have experienced different highs and lows (sometimes simultaneously!) than she has, I can identify with Sarah’s thoughts on God’s goodness to us. In fact, the Psalms have more to say about God’s goodness.

Psalm 31:19 – How great is the goodness you have stored up for those who fear you. You lavish it on those who come to you for protection, blessing them before the watching world.

Psalm 34:8 – Taste and see that the Lord is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him!

Psalm 46:1 – God is our refuge and strength; an ever present help in trouble. 

 

In my own personal worship time, this song has become an anthem that keeps me focused on why I serve the Lord no matter what happens around me. I serve Him because He has been so very good to me! The tallest mountain tops and deepest valleys experienced in life simply cannot compare to the goodness of God. He blesses me in the good times, and He holds me together in the bad. Because of His goodness and unfailing love for me, I choose to make Him the King of my heart. It is my hope that this song blesses you as well!

 

King of My Heart

Verse 1

Let the King of my heart be the mountain where I run, the fountain I drink from, oh He is my song

Let the king of my heart be the shadow where I hide, the ransom for my life, oh He is my song

Chorus

You are good, good, oh

Verse 2

Let the King of my heart be the wind inside my sails, the anchor in the waves, oh He is my song

Let the King of my heart be the fire inside my veins, the echo of my days, oh He is my song

Chorus

Bridge

You’re never gonna let, never gonna let me down

Ending

When the night is holding onto me, God is holding on

 

Spoiled Fruit and Yeast

“One bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” My Nana used to say that to me from time to time, usually referring to a newspaper story. It was usually a story about one person with bad intentions ruining something for others. Sometimes, however,  she would say it to me because my attitude, words, and actions were ruining things for myself and others around me. She wanted me to understand that how I acted and what I said had implications far beyond my own little bubble of personal preferences and desires. If I pushed, pulled, twisted, and deceived others to get my way, I would ruin everything for everyone else just to succeed in my own personal endeavor. 

The New Testament writings show the Apostle Paul dealing with the issue of personal desires being pressed through false teachings. In Galatians 5, he speaks to the church at Galatia about false teachings regarding circumcision. There were those within the church pushing for ritual circumcision as a necessity for “true believers” when Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection had removed the need for that Old Testament practice. And yet, some continually tried to reintroduce it as a necessity. However, Paul puts a stop to that issue in his letter to the church.

Galatians 5:7-10 – You were running the race so well. Who has held you back from following the truth? It certainly isn’t God, for he is the one who called you to freedom. This false teaching is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough!10 I am trusting the Lord to keep you from believing false teachings. God will judge that person, whoever he is, who has been confusing you.

False teaching spreads through the whole church like a little yeast spreads through dough to leaven the whole batch. One bad apple spoils the whole bunch. Sounds similar, yes? Paul’s words here are strong and to the point, but he doesn’t stop with coming against physical circumcision. Rather, he takes it a step further and speaks to the root cause of the dispute.

Galatians 5:13-15 – 13 For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. 14 For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.

This is the heart of the issue! For the Galatian church, the real problem wasn’t the false teaching on circumcision; it was the sinful nature of those pushing for circumcision cropping up and trying to take control. The “bad apple” was spoiling the barrel! Paul’s admonition shows he was aware of the true heart of the matter, and desired for the church to dig it out by the roots rather than simply treat the symptoms. Referencing Leviticus 19:18, which the false teachers would more than likely have been familiar with, he speaks against fighting against each other and encourages serving one another in love just as Christ commanded.

When we live for ourselves, we trend toward a “bad apple” existence. Paul names some of the “fruit” borne by those who live that way, including sexual immorality, idolatry, hostility, quarreling, anger, dissension, and division just to name a few. Not one to mince words, Paul calls these things exactly what they are: SIN. That’s right… they aren’t “mistakes,” “human nature,” or “just who I am.” They are SIN and must be rooted out through repentance and submission to God’s Will and Way. If allowed to continue, these actions and attitudes will most assuredly ruin whatever they touch.

Today’s church is no more immune to the dangers of “yeast” infiltrating our congregations. In fact, it is my opinion that we are more likely to deal with it now due to the “microwave culture” of instant gratification surrounding us. Thanks to companies like Netflix and Amazon, we can get what we want when we want it and how we want it… right now. From TV shows to appliances and more, our own personal desires are being catered to at an ever-increasing rate. While these things are not necessarily an issue in and of themselves, they can become a contributor to the push for personal preference over God’s plan in the church. We want the furniture, paint, lighting, music, classes, service elements, and message to fit our paradigm. If it doesn’t we complain until something changes, and if it doesn’t change, we get indignant. We pray for God to bless us and our church, all the while cursing those in charge because they won’t do what we want them to do. What are we doing??? Nothing more than acting like yeast in unleavened bread or a bad apple in a fresh apple barrel. Our actions “spoil” others around us, and cause dissension and division within the body.

God calls us to live differently. He calls us to share each others’ burdens… to look to the interests of others, serve in love, respect and honor those He has placed in authority, and submit to His Will. If we do so, our lives reflect being led by the Spirit rather than our own fleshly desires. Subsequently, the “fruit” we bear looks much different. That fruit is the only thing people see, and it is a telling feature of our lives and whether or not we have truly submitted ourselves to the Lordship and Leadership of Christ. May the following passage be what people see in you!

Galatians 5:22-25 – 22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. 25 Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.

Who’s in First Place?

If I were to ask you, “What place does Jesus hold in your life?” then what would your honest answer be? I mean, really… if you were totally honest with yourself, God, and me, what place would Jesus hold? I don’t know a truly committed Christian who wouldn’t want to answer the question confidently with Jesus in first position, but what makes this a hard question to answer is our human nature. That constant fight between the natural and the spiritual causes the answer to fluctuate more than we’d like. There are days when Christ is in first place in our lives, and it shows! I remember serving as the interim Youth Pastor for Tonganoxie Christian Church last year, and spending an entire week with 9 students and 3 sponsors at the Christ In Youth conference. What an amazing week!!! It was an easy transition to put Jesus first, because our entire lives were focused around Him that entire week. We had amazing times of worship, deep conversations, spirit-led study times, team-building challenges, and some serious stuff surrendered at the foot of the cross. Christ had it all, and we were free!!!

Problem is, the week AFTER the conference came, and we all went back to life as normal. Work deadlines were still there, a return to school for the students loomed ahead, and the daily grind of life in a world where Jesus is decidedly NOT first began to take its toll. For me, the weekly grind of ministry began to unseat Jesus from first place. For our students, things like football camp, soccer camp, marching band, school prep, part-time jobs, girlfriends & boyfriends, “senioritis,” and even family got in the way of Christ having that first spot in their lives. Jesus was no longer first, and our lives showed it more than we wanted to admit.

In Colossians 2:6-10 Paul admonishes the readers: And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body. 10So you also are complete through your union with Christ, who is the head over every ruler and authority.” 

If Jesus is to be that “head” over us, we need to be deeply rooted in Him. We need to spend time with Him in prayer, in meditation upon His Word, and in submission to His Will for our lives. When I speak of submission, don’t get that confused with following a set of “do” and “don’t” rules on a piece of paper or written in a book. We can’t just check off some sort of list each day and expect that our lives will naturally place Christ first. Rather, we have to develop a deep and abiding relationship with Christ through prayer and meditation that leads us into a life of loving and voluntary submission to Him.

This is something Satan fights against tooth and nail. He will do whatever it takes to get believers off the path to a real and deepening relationship with Christ, and we must be aware of this if we are to combat his tactics! He will use anything and everything against us, including other believers who do not have Christ in the right position in their lives. Committed believers in Christ are not immune to this, and he works overtime against those who publicly declare Jesus as Lord!

So, I ask the question again: What place does Jesus hold in your life? 

Are your personal desires ahead of Him?

Are your spouse or children ahead of Him?

Are possessions, status, career, or reputation ahead of Him?

Are you struggling with sexual sin, either by yourself or with another?

Are you struggling with anger?

Are you trying to fill Jesus’ place in your life with food, alcohol, drugs, pornography, exercise, sports, or something else?

All of these and more can push Jesus out of first place in your life and plant themselves firmly on the throne of your life where He rightfully belongs. That’s the bad news. The good news, however, is that there’s never been a better time than right now to recognize the trend, repent through confession, and return Jesus to His rightful place in your life.

If you need some encouragement today, watch this video of Kristian Stanfill’s “Draw Near.” Skip to the 2:30 mark for the song, or watch the interview too!

Leaving Well Means Grieving Well

Sometimes being a pastor is one of the single greatest things I could ever imagine doing. It is immensely rewarding to see what happens when God makes His plan known and the congregation gets behind it. To see people fully engaged in the process of growing in their own faith and spiritual maturity while they engage their circles of influence to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commandment in Matthew 28 brings a feeling of accomplishment and being right in the center of God’s Will.

But… sometimes being a pastor is one of the single most excruciating things I could ever imagine doing. Standing by families as they lose loved ones. Watching individuals and families struggle personally, professionally, and spiritually. Seeing the division within the church body over various items that may or may not have spiritual significance… Each of these and more can leave a pastor mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually drained, and wondering how all of this can possibly be God’s Will.

Even so, there’s a natural ebb and flow to these things when you’re firmly entrenched in a ministry location and living life with the people you minister to and serve alongside. There are always highs and lows in ministry, but the relationships you’ve built and the teams you work with help to enjoy the good and cushion the bad. Perhaps that’s why the hardest thing a pastor has to do is follow the call of God to another ministry assignment.

When that time comes, I’m sure many of you have heard that a pastor is going to try their best to “leave well.” This means the pastor is working to put things in place, make sure teams and team leaders are well prepared for the transition, and ensure that their departure will have as minimal an impact as possible. If a pastor does this poorly, it has an opportunity to set a church body back in trying to achieve what they believe God has for them to accomplish. If a pastor does this well, the effect can be much the same as shoving your fist in a bucket of water, pulling it out, and looking at the hole that’s left behind.

The hope in every case is that a pastor desires to, and does, leave well. Regardless of the circumstances by which a pastor leaves one ministry assignment for another, people’s eternal lives are at stake. With that in mind, any other issues must be put aside for the sake of God’s kingdom moving forward in that place, which means leaving well must be the intent. However, there’s an interesting and sometimes painful side effect for pastors when they do leave well and watch their former ministry location flourish in their absence. Grief.

This type of grief comes with all the trappings of losing a loved one, and while that may seem strange when looking at it from a corporate business perspective, ministering in the church cannot be viewed as a move from one corporation to another. Rather, it must be thought of as a familial relationship, which is a much more personal connection. There are deep friendships, familiar surroundings, spiritual mentorships, and other strong ties which, while not completely severed, are stretched quite thin in the process of leaving one ministry location for another.

Even though there’s an excitement and a newness to getting involved at the new location, the lasting memories and familiarity of the old location can linger intensely for much longer than one might anticipate. It takes years to build the relational capital and trust to make hard decisions and change ministry culture, while the old location had enough stored up to perhaps make headway more quickly. When you see success and significance happening in the old ministry location without you, there’s a torn feeling inside. You’re happy for them; happy for the ministry teams, the other pastors, and the congregation. Yet, you’re also sad that you weren’t there to experience it with them. The ups and downs of ministry where you are remind you of similar events where you were. And there’s always the “firsts” once you change locations. First major ministry events, first holiday events, first team get-togethers, and even the monthly or weekly meeting times… all of it leads to feelings that are hard to deal with.

And so, to leave well means to grieve well. Ultimately, as time passes, these feelings fade and become fond memories and genuine admiration of what God is doing where you were. It also leads to that much more excitement for where you are. If God did that there, why wouldn’t he do even more here? This is the silver lining in leaving one ministry location for another. God used you in one way or another to prepare that ministry location for what’s happening now, and He’s going to do it again where you’ve been planted anew.

Jeremiah 29:11-14 speaks of God having plans for the nation of Israel. They had been grieving an extended period in exile, and here through the Prophet Jeremiah, God reveals His plan to bring them back and give them a hope and a future. BUT, only if they seek Him with all their hearts.

Likewise, the Apostle Paul speaks of present suffering for future glory. Romans 8:26-28 speaks to the way the Spirit intercedes for us when we are in the midst of grief, and that God is working everything for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

Both of these passages can lend some relief in the grieving process for pastors. In our grieving process, we can sometimes feel like we are in exile, and especially so when our former ministry location is experiencing what appears to be great success while our new location may just be setting the stage for forward momentum. Even so, we know God’s plan is a grand one, and we can work through our grief by seeking Him with all our heart. Perhaps the growing pains of our new location cause us to wonder if our decision was the right one. Even in the midst of this grieving process, the Spirit intercedes for us, and we can trust that God is working His plan for not only our benefit, but the benefit of our new ministry location as well.

Pastor, are you leaving? Do your best to leave well.

Are you experiencing moments of grief after leaving well? Lean on God as you grieve, and allow Him to walk you through.