Welcome!

Welcome! I’m an elementary school teacher by day and the Director of Worship & the Arts at Hope Community Church in Feeding Hills, MA, all the other times. I’ve been involved in worship ministries for many years, and I feel God calling me to share the many experiences (both successes and failures) I’ve had with other worship ministry personnel, especially those serving in smaller churches. I hope to dialogue and learn from others here, also.

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You, Too, Can Be Hip!

setlist 03.08.15

In my last post I described part of my selection process for creating Sunday worship setlists. I believe this week’s list encompasses many, if not all, of the points I tried to make, specifically music from different time periods. While “Unstoppable God” is a new song (and new to our congregation), it blended nicely in the set with “In The Garden” and “Awesome In This Place,” two songs from 1912 and 1992, respectively. Again, we have a multigenerational congregation, and to see some of our older saints (and younger ones, too) sing out to “In The Garden” made me as excited to hear their voices as those singing “Unstoppable God” or the better known, “Christ Be All Around Me.”

One point I just want to make this week pertains to some of the newer songs that are being written and produced for contemporary churches. As I’ve stated before, many new songs incorporate a lot of modern instrumentation including a host of effects that many smaller churches just don’t have. You may be thinking, “We’re fortunate to have a guitarist at all, never mind an electric guitarist complete with a rack of digital effects and loops like on the recordings.” Some of the churches producing new music are getting wise, though, or at least understanding. Elevation Church produced “Unstoppable God” and put out a video of the song that appears to have been recorded during one of their mega-church services. Like many of the newer recordings, the song was recorded in an arena of some sort with at least a few thousand people participating. Take a look at it here. However, they did something awesome: they also put out an acoustic version (two of them, really) that showcase the song in a different light. They stripped it down to its basic elements to demonstrate that the song is good no matter what instrumentation is used. I can’t tell you how encouraging that is to a small church worship leader! Many times I’ve heard some great bombastic recordings from larger churches and thought, “There’s no way we can pull off that song with the resources we have.” But I believe that a good song is a good song, no matter how it’s arranged or what instrumentation it has. Not all songs are like that. So, I greatly appreciate Elevation Church’s efforts to provide quality songs (and videos) for the contemporary small church. Be encouraged, small church worship leaders! You CAN be contemporary and relevant using modern songs in your repertoire. You just need to hunt them down.

Unstoppable God (acoustic) #1

Unstoppable God (acoustic) #2

To List or Not to List

Setlist_02.22.15

I’m a fan of lists. But let me be clear: NOT the ones that I have to make (or others make for me) to get things done. No, I’m talking about lists that someone else makes to prove there’s hierarchical meaning to important stuff. I enjoy getting lost in all kinds of resources that contain lists, such as:

The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky

Rolling Stone’s List of All-Time Favorite Albums

David Letterman’s Top 10

Kasey Casem’s American Top 40

CCLI’s Top 100 Worship Songs

You get the idea. So it’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that I’m curious to know what churches’ setlists are for any given Sunday. When I see a setlist from a church, I ask myself, “Why did they pick those songs this week?” There could be many answers to that question, but I always seem to make it personal. Why do I pick out the songs we do each week?

So here are some questions I ask myself when choosing music for our worship gatherings:

  1. Are the lyrics biblically based on truth? Now this doesn’t mean that each song has to have lyrics that were plucked directly from scripture. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, scripture songs were the new genre in the local and global church. They were great, although I still don’t know why some people pushed back on them. I understand how some people thought they were too short or repetitive. However, they were scripture set to music! (Think David and his lyre.) How anyone could call these songs “shallow” still amazes me. Many new songs certainly use scripture, either directly or thematically. However, a handful of songs sneak through that are not based on biblical truth or just don’t make sense. Can you really hear “the brush of angels’ wings” mentioned in “Surely the Presence?”

There is an aspect of lyrics that can be poetic, and therefore open to some interpretation. You’ll need to discern if it’s worth including a song in your set if it will spark too much debate in your congregation. One recent experience I had with that is from John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves.” You probably think it has to do with his lyric about God giving us a “sloppy wet kiss,” but it’s not. (We sing the alternate lyric, “an unforeseen kiss” instead.) No, it has to do with his first verse saying that we are trees that bend “beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.” One person in our congregation spoke to me privately (thankfully) about his interpretation of the lyric, saying that it suggests God makes us bend to his will or forces His love on us. While I appreciated his comment (mostly because he was paying such close attention to the lyrics!), I offered another interpretation, that God’s amazing love is overwhelming at times. While he still didn’t see it that way, he understood my position. He just chooses not to sing that line in the song.

  1. Are the songs both horizontal and vertical? Sacred songs are either sung to God or about God, and speak for the congregation or to the congregation. Some songs are indeed personal and don’t necessarily speak for everyone who’s gathered. As a worship leader, I believe my job is to share who God is, remind people what He’s done, and offer ways for the congregation to express itself to Him and about Him based on how He’s been revealed to us. There should be opportunities for vertical and horizontal expressions during our worship services.
  1. Are the songs singable? This has been addressed a lot over the years. Chris Tomlin and others like him sing in keys that are too high for most congregations. Since the majority of people sing the melody of worship songs, it makes sense to bring the key down to a place where most people can participate. I believe this is partly to blame for the participation vs. performance debate in many churches these days. (Another blame goes to musical rhythms in a lot of modern music that congregations of different ages can’t get their heads around, thereby decreasing participation. More about that in a later post.) But with online tools like CCLI’s Song Select, there’s no reason to not help the congregation by lowering the key to a song. There are some songs that I’ve lowered the key by 5 steps. Lately, there have been songs written where the same melody is expected to be sung in two different octaves. (Listen to “My Heart Is Yours” by Kristian Stanfill as an example.) Most people can sing one of the octaves, but even then, it’s either too high or too low. My thought is make it singable in a key that’s comfortable for most people and throw out the idea of the octaves. You’ll get more people participating.
  1. Do I have both old and new songs to sing? This topic makes me laugh. There are some posts I’ve read that say anything written before 2010 is considered old! Although we should be “singing a new song,” I don’t believe that all the music in your church’s setlist should be only from the last few years. I’m not even going into the hymns vs. choruses vs. new music debate because that’s not really the issue. Each congregation is unique, usually made up of people from different backgrounds and ages. Yes, there are churches that have mostly older or mostly younger participants. Neither of those scenarios is bad. But my hunch is that most churches are multigenerational. In my opinion, that’s a great thing! After all, won’t heaven be like that…as well as multiethnic? We’re getting into my next point a little here, but we shouldn’t exclude songs based on the date they were written. Songs can be good no matter how old they are. Arrangements can be updated, if needed, or played “traditionally.” I believe there should be something for everyone who attends your church. But you need to really know the make-up of your congregation to be sure that happens. If you cater to one demographic’s musical style over another, you’re sending the message that the other group is not as important. Yes, a church has a certain feel to it and is known, good or bad, by its musical/thematic style, but you shouldn’t ignore people by only using music from a definitive time period. Now this brings us to the next point…
  1. Do the songs speak the language of the congregation, both lyrically and musically? Again, know your congregation, but sometimes we make idols of our songs. Some people would consider it blasphemous if we sang “Great is YOUR Faithfulness” rather than “Great is THY Faithfulness.” But is either version right or wrong? I would say not. If you’re trying a new arrangement of a hymn that used Old English expressions, it may sound awkward. I think the issue is education. Tell your congregation why you’ve chosen certain language options if you think it’ll be an issue. In most cases, unless someone argues “we’ve always done it that way” (a poor excuse in my book), most people with go with the flow. Or if you use the verse from “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” that says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer…,” you’ll need to inform the congregation its meaning (i.e. the stone altar Samuel set up to signify the Israelites’ victory over the Philistines in 1 Sam. 7). Education is key. But overall, the lyrical expressions should mirror the appropriate language of the congregation.

But what about musical style? I’ve gotten into some heavy discussions over this topic. “Contemporary” to one person may mean something entirely different to another. I once had a conversation with someone who argued that the style of music in our church was definitely not contemporary. You see, she came from a church that was playing music produced in just the last couple of years with instrumentation much like what’s used in the latest Bethel, Hillsong United, or Elevation Church’s repertoire. We were playing songs from Tomlin, Maher, Redman, as well as revamped arrangements of hymns. I think it became an argument over terms. What she meant was that we didn’t play “modern” worship songs with electric guitars (with digital delay, U2 sounding effects, etc.), multi keyboard synth sounds, and lots of singers on individual mics. While I agreed our style wasn’t modern, it certainly was contemporary. The demographic of our church is mixed with our core group primarily 30 to 40 y.o.-something families. We’re not primarily in our 20s, nor do we have the instrumentation to pull off the kinds of sounds found in some of the latest recordings. But the bottom line is…we don’t have to. We’re not a southern or black gospel church, or techno, or a cappella, or traditional. We are contemporary. However, we’re not opposed to bringing different styles into the church IF we can pull it off with excellence. Whatever your church’s demographic, you need to provide a musical voice that hits the majority of people with options to also express yourselves on both ends of the spectrum at times. You don’t want to fall into the “sin of preference.” It may sound snarky, but if someone informs me that he/she didn’t like a particular song (based on musical preference), I usually say, “Then that song wasn’t for you.” Nine times out of ten that song was used by someone else in the congregation to effectively worship God.

And there are some other guidelines I use:

  1. Sometimes the songs come from the congregation. If you’ve led worship, you’ve probably had someone come up to you and say, “I’ve gotta’ song you need to share with the congregation,” or “We MUST play this song in church sometime!” Usually the person who suggests the song doesn’t know the criteria you set in putting forth new songs, or they’re unaware of how many songs you already have in the pipeline ready to introduce. I always graciously accept the idea and tell them I’d consider it, but that it may not happen based on some of the criteria I’ve set up. Most people who suggest a song have some kind of personal connection to the song, which is great. But it may not be a congregational song. However, don’t think you know all the songs that are best for your congregation. Listen to what they’re telling you.
  1. Good songs transcend the instrumentation of your worship team. I firmly believe that a good song is a good song is a good song. What I mean is a good song can be played in a variety of arrangements, from a solo guitar, to piano, guitar, and bass, to a full-blown band. Many songs have crossed my desk that only sound good played one way. God has brought to you people who play certain instruments with a certain amount of skill or ability. Thank God! As I mentioned earlier, you don’t have to sound like the latest Hillsong recording. You have to sound like you. If there happens to be a Hillsong song that can be translated with your particular musicians, then wonderful! If not, then let it go. I often tell my worship team, “We’re going to make it sound like us!” I also believe that each church has to have it’s own identity…it’s own thumbprint. If we all sounded the same, how boring that would be!

So what? OK, now you know how we at Hope operate. What does it mean to you and your church? Well, that’s a question you need to grapple with. Whatever you decide when it comes to the music you select for your worship gatherings, make sure you 1.) honor God by using what He’s given you in terms of musicians and vocalists, 2.) know the culture of the people you’re leading, and 3.) understand why and how you’re going to select the songs you sing. As always, the thoughts I’ve expressed are my own and may not reflect yours. Take what you need and leave what you must.

Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.  ~Colossians 3:16-17

Humble Beginnings (Part 2)

In my last post I shared a bit about my faith journey and how I came to believe in Christ as my Savior. Now I’d like to share how I came to be involved in worship ministry. It’s funny, but when I look back at my life I see how God was preparing me for this adventure. At one point I took a seminary class, and the professor asked all of us to write down as many experiences, both good and bad, that stood out in our lives. When I was finished, I was truly amazed at the road God had led me on to bring me to that point. It’s not until we stop, look back, and see when His hand was upon us that we really understand our purpose. It’s like the poem, Footprints… when I look back and see only one set of footprints, it was then that God carried me. Well, in this case, I saw the myriad of ways He groomed, pruned, and molded me as I grew more mature in my faith.

I’ve always loved music. I have an aunt with whom I spent a great deal of time in my youth. She bought me my first hi-fi record player and album, The Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Incense and Peppermints! She turned me on to 45’s, including one of my favorites, Sugar Shack by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHzjfGF6MiU). We’d spend hours listening to the sounds of the 60’s when I got to stay at her house. She definitely was a huge musical influence in my life. Another major influence was my mother. I remember her singing all the time growing up. One of my earliest memories is of her cleaning our house while belting out Tom Jones songs with the record player blasting in the other room. She still has a great voice. In an indirect way, my brother was also a musical influence. You see, he is seven years older than me and autistic with what they called in those days, “atypical mental retardation.” We never really communicated like ordinary brothers, but we shared the language of music. He would hear snippets of songs on the radio and ask my parents to find the records. However, being autistic, he latched onto key phrases, usually not in the chorus, and perseverated on those words. I remember my parents going to record stores and singing those few words to the clerks to see if they could figure out the song my brother desired. It was like a game, and we didn’t always win. But when we did, we felt like we struck gold! It made my brother so happy to sit in front of his portable record player listening to his favorite records again and again and again, all the while smiling, laughing, rocking back and forth, hands flapping in the air with joy. I heard a LOT of music in my house, and learned to love it. Music had meaning to me.

I admit that my first real instrument was the accordion. I must have been around seven or eight years old when some good friends of our family had a son who took lessons. Immediately I wanted to play and my father signed me up for lessons at a local studio. I played for several years, and between the lessons and some great public school music teachers, I gained a solid understanding of music theory at a young age. Next came the French horn in sixth grade, but that was too hard for me, not to mention that I had to carry it home each week from my lesson! (I know what you’re thinking: Wasn’t the accordion heavy, too??) Eventually, I entered high school and wanted to play a cool instrument. So I chose the drums. I had a fantastic teacher who taught me the importance of timing, musicianship, and attitude. I was in the school band playing percussion and enjoyed timpani the most. I played in several rock bands, one with a little bit of exposure in the local scene, and some just really bad. But they were experiences I stuffed in the back of my brain for later times. Being the drummer, we often played at my house so I didn’t have to lug my drums around. The other players would leave their instruments and amps there, too. So when they weren’t around, I’d play around on whatever was available. It was almost like living in a music store, and I loved it!

At an early age I became interested in magic. For years I’d seen those magic kits sold on tv by Ronco (or some such company) and dreamed of “amazing my friends and family” with the cheap plastic tricks that came in the box. In a relatively short time, I had learned, practiced, and performed those Five and Dime tricks for my family. I admit…I loved the attention. When I began taking it more seriously, my mom and dad invested money and time in me to learn more. I bought some “real” magic tricks, joined the Society of American Magicians, and performed for all kinds of occasions and events. I even had an assistant, a childhood friend who put up with my passion for magic and was always there when I needed her. (Many times she didn’t really want to, I’m sure). And this all happened before the age of 10. I include the experience here because it helped train me to be in front of people. Each time I had a show in front of more and more people, it got easier. God was training me then. I recall days when I just didn’t want to do magic anymore. I had lost the joy of it, but I had made commitments to people to perform. I honored those commitments and stood up in front of hundreds of people doing what they expected me to. And I wasn’t afraid.

So how does this all relate to worship ministry? Music and magic helped form me into someone who was willing to share my soul with other people. I don’t believe you can be a worship leader and NOT be willing to leave a little bit of yourself on the platform exposed for all to see. Worship is not performance. But you do need to be comfortable and able to worship in front of people to lead them. God had prepared me for such a task.

When my wife and I got married, we settled into a small evangelical church. It was my first “saved” church experience and our first as a couple. We met in a local Women’s Club, setting up and tearing down each Sunday. Usually, worship consisted of someone on the piano playing hymns and only a couple of those newfangled choruses that were creeping into hip churches in those days. Someone other than the pastor led the singing. (Hymns were new to me. Growing up in a Polish-Catholic church, I don’t remember singing much at all. An older woman warbled something in Polish up in the choir loft accompanied by an organ.) So I learned a lot of new “old” music in those hymns, and I’m grateful I did. But it was those choruses that spoke my language. Although they were simple, they spoke biblical truth, mostly because they were scripture set to music. I still don’t know why some people in the church (especially the pianist) opposed them.

Small groups were introduced to this church, and our newly appointed associate pastor was responsible for getting them off the ground. We were part of that initial small group where we shared our lives, learned the Bible, ate a lot, played games and sang. I have such fond memories of that first group and lifelong relationships still with many of the people in it. But my musical world was rocked. I remember our leader and his wife gave to me a cassette tape of these choruses that were being sung at their previous church. I was blown away! Upbeat, modern instrumentation, singable….and moving! They expressed what I wanted to say to and about God in a way that I could relate. At that time I was also a new elementary school teacher teaching first grade. Since I loved music, I wanted to be able to sing with my students. Raffi was a popular children’s singer/musician, and I wanted to be able to share his songs with my kids at school. So, a friend let me borrow her guitar and I learned the three necessary chords to be able to play his songs. I remember having so much fun just playing and singing with my class! With those chords in my pocket, I began learning some of the fun choruses that we were now singing in our small group.

One Sunday, we asked if our small group could sing a song or two that we’d been learning. We were initially told we could, but something happened as we were waiting out in the lobby readying ourselves to go on. Our leader came back to us and said we couldn’t…that there were some people opposed to these songs and didn’t want us to sing them in church. I was devastated, and irate. I learned a couple of important lessons that morning. First, I needed to heed my pastor’s request even though I didn’t agree with it. Second, I wouldn’t do that to anyone I led in a worship ministry. If I give the green light to someone to minister with his/her art (unless the pastor said no), I see that that person fulfills his/her mission.

Time went on and I learned more chords and worship songs. Instead of concentrating on guitar in church, however, I served on our newly formed “worship team” playing what I knew best, drums. Of course, that was a whole other experience! If some people thought playing choruses with a guitar was dangerous, imagine bringing in drums! Long story made short, many of those people eventually left the church to join more traditional churches. And the music just kept getting better.

Our team and I cut our musical teeth on the new Integrity worship recordings that were popular in the ‘90s. Don Moen could do no wrong! Haha! But there was an excitement about not only singing these great worship songs, but playing them, as well. The church grew and we ended up raising a church building across town. Those were the formative years in my ministry. I really don’t recall when it happened, but I knew I wanted to pursue music ministry. Our pastor and I got along well, and I believe he encouraged and mentored me to become a worship leader. I also don’t recall when I first led people in singing because it had to have been away from the drums. More people came to the church who wanted to serve on the worship team and it just grew. I found leadership skills that had lay dormant for so many years. I was in my early 30’s leading a wide range of ages in the ministry. But the great part about this time period was we were all learning together. This was new ground being broken so there weren’t too many rules to follow.

As time went by I tried to hone my musical and leadership skills. Encouraged by my pastor I attended my first worship conference at Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area. I understand that not too long ago the leaders of that church evaluated their programs to measure their effectiveness and found that they were great at bringing in seekers to hear the good news about Jesus, but were weak on developing disciples. But one thing I learned at Willow is that they developed creative teams to share that good news utilizing the arts like no other church around. They spoke my language and I wanted to do that with my life: create artistic teams to share the gospel. During one of the worship sets, I remember sitting in the midst of a large group of worshippers just crying my eyes out. Between the lyrics of the songs, the delivery of the music, and the Spirit of God, I dedicated my life to leading others in worshipping the God of the universe. Some people seem skeptical of others having an encounter with God during worship, a real soul-stirring moment of transcendence with Him. I have had such moments and they were powerful. It was certainly not just emotionalism. Like my encounter with Him during my salvation at the Billy Graham Crusade, I just knew that I was in His presence and there was no other place I wanted to be. It was personal, and it was real. No one can deny my experiences with God.

I learned a great deal during those years as a volunteer, and later part-time staff, director of worship at my first church. More about those experiences will come forth in future posts. But suffice it to say there were many ups and many downs during that time. I was young and feeling my way through this leadership responsibility. At one point, my pastor told me I had to develop tough skin, to let negative criticisms roll off my back, that it was part of the job. Though he was correct in some instances, I always took criticism personally and struggled emotionally.

Time and experience change people, and they did me. My wife and I had disagreed with some things that were developing at the church. After approaching the elders and pastors with our concerns and praying for some kind of direction from God, we decided it was time for us to leave. That was one of the hardest steps we had taken together. But when God shows you it’s time to leave, then it’s time to leave. We attended another church in town, which was our “healing church.” We didn’t stay there long, but it was a place for us to just “be” for a while. Having been so active in our previous church, it was strange to just sit, soak, and reflect. But then God called us somewhere else, somewhere more permanent.

We chose to visit a fairly new independent church-plant in a nearby town called Agawam Church of the Bible (ACB). It met in a junior high school. We knew some people who attended that church so we packed up our two young kids, tried it, and stayed. I didn’t want to be involved in worship at first because God was still wanting me to rest. I admit that I was still very emotionally devastated from my last church experience and even thought that God pulled worship ministry away from me for good. But His voice kept telling me, “Wait. It’ll be soon.” Well, the time came and I jumped into leading worship again in this smaller church. I think it was there I learned humility. You see, in the growing church I left, I got a bit big-headed. God was using me and I learned to enjoy being the leader who received accolades for “producing” good moments of worship. There were times, I confess, that I felt I didn’t do my job correctly unless I received some positive feedback from the congregation. I was serving man and not God. At my new church, I tried to remain faithful to God, not man.

We arrived at ACB the week of that church’s brand new pastor’s first Sunday. Pastor Ray is one of the most humble guys I know, and with whom I had the privilege of working. He’s also one of the most intelligent, caring, and musical guys, but he never let anyone know that about himself by his own admission. He didn’t need to; others did it for him. From Ray I learned how to see others as God sees them, not for their particular talents, but as children of the King. And he had a way of treating everyone with sincere kindness. He always saw the best in people and remained positive, even in light of difficult situations. He saw people as people, not a task. He mentored me as a worship leader and as an accountability partner while I was getting my master’s in theology. Eventually, he and his family decided it was time for them to move back to Florida to pastor there. But before he left, he set the stage for a new church plant with the elders from ACB and another nearby church called Valley Community Church.

Valley Community Church (VCC) met in an old New England style church building up on a hill overlooking the Pioneer Valley near Springfield, MA. The congregation had dwindled to approximately 25 people, many of them elderly. ACB, on the other hand, was a growing congregation without a church building. So unbeknownst to either congregation, the elders of both churches began meeting to see if it was possible to merge the two congregations in the little church on the hill to form a brand new body of believers. Through much prayer and seeking God, Hope Community Church was born. To say it was an easy transition is incorrect. Some people from both churches decided the new church wasn’t for them. VCC had been very traditional in their style of worship, while ACB was decidedly more contemporary. When the two mixed, it was already decided that Hope would stay in the contemporary vein. Some of the people who left either didn’t like the “new stuff” or thought we weren’t being modern enough. As harsh as it may seem, I just rationalized it by saying you can’t please everybody, and that’s OK. People do what they’ve got to do.

So Hope was born and continues to grow today, although we’re still considered “small” by most standards…about 130 people. We eventually called a full-time pastor on board. Until then, the elders from both previous churches took on the monumental task of preaching each week. Pastor Brad and his family have been a wonderful addition to our fledgling church, and we’ve seen growth since he’s been with us. After having served two very different pastors as their worship leader, I feel God has placed me with the perfect match in Brad. We complement each other, working off each other’s strengths. And we just get along so well, too. Although he oversees my ministry, he gives me creative license to plan services, select songs, grow our team, and do what I think is best for Hope without micromanaging me. He, too, is very positive and encouraging to me and our congregation. I can’t imagine working with anyone else in my life right now because I feel God has placed us together at Hope for His purposes. As of this writing, there are approximately 25 people who serve in some capacity in the worship ministry at Hope between musicians, vocalists, actors, and technical crew. They are hard-working Jesus followers who are committed to seeing His church grow and the Triune God worshiped. That’s almost one-fifth of our entire congregation!

God has taken me from being a kid who loves music and magic to leading a group of committed artists in a small local church. I’m sure I’ve said a lot more in this post than I should have. But there’s something cathartic about putting my thoughts and life experiences in writing. It’s given me the chance to stand back, look at my life again, and see how God has moved. Maybe it’s because I’ve turned 50 this year, as well. Lately, I’ve realized that although I’ve done some great things in my life, I’ve also wasted time. God desires that I live for Him in all I do, and I want to leave this earth content in knowing that I’ve done that. Maybe it’s also something about leaving my mark for others to notice and learn from. If I’ve shared something that struck a chord with you, then let me know. If not, then just quietly pass me by and continue on your own faith journey. Maybe this wasn’t meant for you. If you’ve read this far, thanks for taking the time out of your day to indulge a wandering soul.

Humble Beginnings (part 1)

Now that I have your attention, now what? So many thoughts are flowing through my head (and they all make sense to me). But, what would make sense for you? For the most part, I want this blog to address issues that affect smaller churches, especially those in New England. Eventually, I want to discuss things like creating an arts ministry, building a worship team, effective sets lists, and the pastor/worship leader relationship, as well as the successes and failures I’ve encountered along the way. After some thought though, I’m thinking that I need to tell you something about my background, especially as to how it relates to my worship journey.

I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition and was always interested in spiritual things. I attended religious classes until I didn’t have to anymore, as well as church on Sundays with my mom. I remember praying to God a lot growing up, not because I had to, but because I knew that God was there. There was a “knowing” about His existence to me. Sure, I learned church doctrine and prayers, but that’s not what was calling me to God. God was calling me to Himself. Then I got distracted. As I grew older, church was boring, some things in life got tough, and I had no desire to pursue anything related to church life or God.

I’m skipping a lot in between, I know. But suffice it to say I drifted away from God and the calling He had on my life. During freshman orientation of college, however, I met a girl. She was so attractive to me. You see, I was an elementary education major (the only male, I might add) and so was this girl. I remember having a meeting on our first day with a faculty advisor…me and about 20 young women. So when we met for that first meeting, I thought, “I picked the right major!” The advisor never showed up for it, but I struck up a conversation with this particular young lady. We hit it off and soon began dating.

This girl was different than others I dated: energetic, sincere, sweet, and deeply religious. One day while hanging out in her dorm room, she turned me on to an album she was playing by a guy named Keith Green. I had always been a huge Elton John fan, and Keith’s music reminded me of Elton’s. It was passionate, raw, but talked about Jesus. The music led to some wonderful late night conversations with my now girlfriend. She was a “born-again Christian” like Keith Green. I was a little leery about this Jesus talk, but didn’t let it interfere with our dating, until one night, when we had a very deep discussion about getting married. (Mind you, we only dated for three months at this point.) During the discussion the topic arose: If we got married and had children, in what religion would be bring them up? Yeah, I’m laughing about it now, but it’s true! Sticking to what I only knew, though far from any religious life, I was adamant that the correct answer was Catholic! She, on the other hand, tried telling me about this Jesus stuff. We broke up because of that talk. Then I dated other girls, and moved farther away from God.

My ex-girlfriend and I stayed in touch, mostly because I still liked her, but also because we were in many of the same classes together. One spring, Billy Graham was having a week-long crusade in nearby Hartford, CT. My ex kept telling me about it and invited me to go. I kept putting her off, saying things like, “Maybe,” which meant, “No.” But a mutual friend who was much more persuasive and resolute that I go literally threw me in the back of her car and the three of us drove to Hartford one night. I really thought I was there just for the ride with nothing else to do.

So, there I was, one of twelve thousand people in the Hartford Civic Center listening to religious music and waiting to hear this guy named Billy Graham speak. I knew nothing about him. But then he arrived at the podium and spoke. He seemed like an old man to me then (about 30 years ago), but the tone and sincerity of his voice pierced me. He spoke about Jesus….who He is and why He matters. God loved me so much that he sent Jesus to earth to die for my sins, my wrong doings. I was riveted. I didn’t remember hearing about Jesus and His plan to save me when I was younger. But I do remember sitting in the middle of that huge crowd feeling like I was the only one there to hear Billy Graham’s message. Rev. Graham extended an invitation to anyone who wanted it to accept Jesus’ offering of love and salvation, that it was a free gift. I remember he quoted Romans 10:9-10,

“That if you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”

So, there, in the quietness of my own seat amongst 12,000 people, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to surrender my life to Jesus. I prayed to Him and told Him I would accept Him into my life. Immediately, I felt rush in my body. It was like a burst of excitement and a sense of tranquil peace all at the same time. That’s the only way I can explain it. Tears ran down my face and I knew I was changed forever.

I remember soon after telling others about my decision to follow Jesus. Some people seemed genuinely excited for me while others politely acknowledged me with a “That’s nice for you” kind of comment. I began reading the Bible, something I never did growing up, and listening to more Christian music. To cut to the chase, the young lady whom I met at freshman orientation and who turned me onto Jesus and Keith Green?? I married her, and we have two beautiful young adult children.

Next: The Ministry Years

To be continued…

Really?? Another Blog About Worship?

Something’s been nagging at me for quite some time. I tend to believe it’s been God nudging me to take this next step in my personal walk with Him, as well as an opportunity to share years of experiences I’ve had leading worship services in the churches I’ve had the blessing to be a part of. But why another blog concerning worship? There are hundreds of great sites already out there, each with authors who have shared their thoughts and experiences to help encourage and edify other worship leaders, participants, and on-lookers, and I’ve enjoyed many of them. But one thing kept staring me in the face…many of these blogs are written from the perspective of leaders from either larger churches or those far from my home turf of New England. I believe there’s something unique about every church. (As the saying goes, “That’s why there’s one on every street corner.”) But I also believe New England churches are more so. More on that later. If you’ve been an observer of current evangelical worship media (websites, magazines, iTunes, etc.), you get the sense that larger “modern” churches are where it’s at: the music, the programming, the hipster looks, the mega-facilities, the cool lowercase fonts. (OK, you’ll sense some of my very dry humor on here, as well…) But, the smaller local church is where it’s at, wherever you live. Smaller churches have unique needs that larger churches don’t (and vice versa). One of my goals is to highlight some of those needs, including possible solutions, so that worship personnel in the smaller church may be encouraged, edified, and understood.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have lots of experience under my belt that I’m willing to share. That’s where the “confessions” come in. My aim is to be as transparent as possible (in a public forum) as I share my ministry life with you. Names may be changed to protect the innocent, and especially the not-so-innocent! This isn’t a public whipping post, just a place to share stories and other stuff related to worship, church life, struggles, and grace.

This is an experiment for me, too. There’s a learning curve associated with this new venture; so please be patient with me.  If you find something helpful, then great. If not, no worries. We’ll see how God uses this blog for His glory just the same. My hope is that this forum will be a blessing to somebody, even as I stumble through my thoughts and the logistics of this site.