Back in the late 60’s when we produced our first recording, the idea of leading worship wasn’t even on the screen. However since those early days we found what we saw as principles which, although styles of music may have changed, remain the same.
In this blog I will open up what I see as being unchangeable foundations for those who are endeavouring to lead people to God.
Looking back over 40 years to when we had the single thought, from God I believe, to put His word into the mouths of people using music to carry the word...There is something about the principles He showed us at that time which I think are still appropriate today...
‘Principles’, the unchanging directives that began us on a journey where we produced over 30 Albums and published over 600 songs that were sung by God’s people around the world.
I suppose if I was to try to put those principles into a sentence it would be something like:
Write God’s word into simple songs, easily sung and remembered by people regardless of their musical ability so that in future the Holy Spirit can use the songs to speak and speak again to those who heard and sung them. Pretty straight forward really...
The interesting thing is that Moses, the man who talked with God, whose words are recorded more than anyone else in the whole of the Bible, was given the same simple steps just before God took him into eternity.
In Deuteronomy 31 we read God instructing Moses... ‘Now write a song’
Apart from a blessing he gave to each of the tribes of Israel, this was the final instruction Moses ever received concerning Israel. The nation he had led for 40 years from captivity to the land God had prepared for them.
However when God said ‘now write a song’ it wasn’t just any song. It was a prophetic song right from the Father’s heart written especially for a future generation....
There were just two other things God told Moses about this song.
Teach it to the people... and... The song will not be forgotten by future generations.
People not yet born will find the song speaking to them, challenging them, reminding them of what God was and is saying.
Sometimes we tend to forget that although we may want to hear and respond to the up to date trends there are also principles that have been around for a long time which contain important truth for us.
So when I get the chance to conduct a workshop on songwriting I ask the people, What is God saying to you now? What do you ‘hear’? Is there something you could put into a song that is worth people learning so that the Holy Spirit can remind them (and perhaps their grandchildren also) of this truth?
That the song is ‘His word’ is the most important point God gave Moses and I suggest it is key also for us today…
What I mean by His word is not necessarily a Bible verse but it will be something He is revealing to His people that can be verified in the Bible.
However if, as soon as the overhead is switched off, the song is forgotten, the second point won’t ever happen.
This is why Moses was told… ‘teach it to the people’.
I would like to encourage worship leaders today to ask God’s Spirit for His word for their own people…to write simple, memorable songs and spend time putting those songs into the mouths and minds of the people so they can make the truths their own.
Dale and I have taught many songs line by line and found that by doing so the people are able to take ownership of the song rather than having it just performed for them from a stage.
The song may will be truth for the next generation.
Pretty well every week we have people emailing us concerning songs we published decades ago which they still recall and sing.
It’s time for the principles God gave Moses to be activated again...
I think one of the things that hinders us simply being led by the Spirit is our ego.
I'm not meaning we are arrogant and full of pride but just that we have a reputation to keep and that means we want to make sure everything 'flows' well.
One interesting thing however is that we are told that those led by the Spirit are like the wind. Feeling for His breeze, responding to His whisper, waiting for his word.
There are definitely times when the program hinders His leading and when to put down our props and just ask, Father, what's next? may well be the best thing to do.
He's always ready to give us his suggestions although at times we may have to wait a bit.
If the whole team know that you want to give God room to be God, after a whole they might start listening too. Then it can really get exciting.
Try it sometime, be like a little child...
I don’t consider it particularly worthwhile criticising what we do in church music because I have always taken the opinion that rather than say something negative it’s better to suggest a positive alternative.
However, in August 2003 a thought came to me, quite unprovoked, in fact it was in my mind as I woke: “The music has become the master instead of the servant”. For some reason I knew this thought related to worship in the church worldwide.
Over the time since I had this impression, I have had many ideas including realising that it is not just the music that has become a master, but anything at all we do in a worship setting that doesn’t have, at its core, a dependence on God with a desire to bring him glory alone.
I have also realised that this was a ‘word’ to me as well as others involved in encouraging worship. I need to constantly challenge myself as well.
I will attempt to list a few points which seem to have contributed to why this statement is relevant in the church today and hopefully provide something from our own experience that may help challenge us to put the music back to where in belongs.
There are, of course many great songs being sung in worship services these days so all the news is certainly not bad. It’s just that so often I wonder if we have God’s perspective in regard to leading his people in worship.
Some of what I will share comes from what we believed God said to Dale and me when we first began recording albums and producing music books. Some come from observations of what we see happening now.
Scripture in Song
Perhaps I’ll begin with what seemed important to us as we began Scripture in Song (a 25 year ministry of recording songs for praise and worship). These points cover what God seemed to impress on us as we began this ministry:
• We were to ‘lead the people to God’, not to ourselves• We were to write and gather songs that were easily memorized both by musicians and congregations• These songs were able to be learned quickly• The messages contained in the songs were both Biblical and relevant to the church of our time
We didn’t learn all of the above at one time because after releasing Scripture in Song Vol. 1 in 1968 we were encouraged by the piano player who played on this first recording to allow him to help us do something that wasn't just a three chord four line chorus . . .
This offer from a skillful but non believing musician really appealed as we were not musicians or singers ourselves and felt we badly needed some expert help. In a subtle way we were putting aside our mandate with a challenge to create some music that would really impress.
However, in following the piano player’s direction several things happened:
• God himself remained unimpressed with our change of direction• The harmonies the piano player taught us were complicated and people couldn’t follow or learn the songs easily• The songs he wrote while musically interesting were too complex. We lost our simplicity• We had given the final decision making to a man who didn’t share our vision• As a result (thankfully) the recording sunk without a trace
The music (and the musician) had become the master.
Our trust was in a man rather than God and as a result we had forfeited our dependence on Him.
I am reminded of a statement in one of the Psalms: “some trust in horses and some in chariots but we will remember (and trust in) the name of the Lord our God.”
In the days this psalm was written horses and chariots spoke of human effort and power.
The question is, how do we know if the music is master or servant? I think part of the answer has to do with dependence. Where our trust lies.One reason Jesus said that it was hard for a rich man to get into the kingdom is because it’s natural for a rich man to trust in his wealth. It can also be true with skillful musicians and singers. It is easy to put their trust in their own skill and ability.
ExcellenceWe often hear about the importance of excellence with the worship music these days, with a reasoning (that seems quite logical) that only the best is good enough for God. To a point this is true.
However, the result too often are songs that are cool, skillful, difficult to follow and hard to remember. The instruments sound great. The voices are perfect as is the sound and lighting. However, a performance element creeps in so that the stage becomes the place for us to make our ‘presentations’. The focus of our worship can shift ever so subtly from God to man.
My feeling is that in many cases the worship leaders themselves are real worshipers but decisions are made around them based largely on how things look and sound. An outward appearance to attract more people maybe?
There is no doubt that what we see and hear has an excellence to it that was never seen or heard 30 years ago. But is this the sort of excellence we should be looking for? Once the stage becomes the focus of our worship it is likely that what we do will be judged in the same way that a concert is judged. Scary! We will find attention being drawn to ourselves rather than to the one we are worshiping. This focus is skewed.
Finally on this subject, I need to say that excellence in what we offer is important and I believe it is possible to make excellent music that truly honors God without the music being master. This is altogether possible provided the right foundation is firmly in place.
What is this foundation?
Direction of the Spirit
Let’s think about being directed by the Holy Spirit. Jesus made an interesting statement about the leading of the Holy Spirit: “the wind blows this way and that, we hear the sound but don't know where it comes from or where it goes to...so is everyone who is born of the Spirit”
In an environment where we are seeking to lead people to worship God, the “wind of the Spirit” in what we are doing is vital. Therefore we must give both the Spirit, and the people, room. If whatever we are doing, doesn't give space for this to happen, and the Spirit of God isn't in control then something else has to be.To be led by the Spirit is actually to be childlike in our approach. To listen, to change direction, to hear, trust and obey and take steps of faith.
It seems to me that in many cases these days worship leaders are really no more than song leaders hoping the songs will speak for themselves rather than engaging the minds and voices of the people and allowing time and room for the Holy Spirit to intervene. If the Spirit is going to be given room we can expect his involvement.
The message or the music?
In listening to contemporary worship songs, I find in so many cases the message of the song is its weakest part and in fact often enough we would find it difficult to see a Biblical basis for what we are singing. Either that or we are just repeating many of the same ‘feel good’ lyrics that challenge our thinking very little at all.One reason for this is that on many occasions gifted musicians are making decisions on what we should sing and often these people look for music with good hooks and melodies regardless of whether or not the lyrics are strong and true.
The truth of the message should always be the key to the song with the music providing memorability and support.
In writing and selecting songs, consideration must be given to putting words into the mouths of people that are worth remembering. Words quickened by the Spirit can be real spiritual food and revelation. Song memorization is such an important key as is clearly shown from God's instruction to Moses. Here is God’s directive to Israel’s leader: ''now write for yourselves this song and teach it... have them sing it, so that it may be a witness for me against them. For when I bring them into the land . . . this song will testify against them because it will not be forgotten by their descendants”
Good words accompanied by memorable music will remain in the minds of people far longer than words alone. We can hardly overestimate the importance of singing the truths of Scripture or of singing songs of worship that genuinely place God at the highest place.
So, in a church setting where the objective is to worship God with songs, how do we know if the music has become our master rather than our servant?
1. Look objectively at the upfront stage, does it look like a musical performance?2. Do all the people on stage understand clearly that their primary role is to lead the people to the one who is to be worshiped?3. What about the sound guy? Does he know how to use levels to enable the congregation to hear themselves rather than just what goes on up front?4. Are the songs easy to play, sing and remember?5. Is there room, in the music set for the Holy Spirit to arrive, interject, minister?6. Are there any circumstances where what is pre planned changes during the service because of a prompting of the Spirit?7. Do you ever call for a spontaneous praise response from the people in the room?8. Can the leader or any of the team give a ‘word from God’ (prophecy) during the time of worship?
If your answer ‘yes’ for question one and ‘no’ for the majority or all of the others, I suggest you go through the points I am making here and ask yourself if some changes may be in order.