The following is the product of a few conversations I’ve had lately (with fellow members at my church) regarding the skills needed to lead singing in church. While I’m an advocate of musical skill (including 4-part congregational singing) in the church, our culture sadly tends to relegate music to nerds and superstars. So here are some thoughts to challenge that tendency:

  1. In a culture where music participation is considered the sole property of recording artists, we should encourage our people to sing to the Lord genuinely and fearlessly. They should not feel a burden to stack up against recording artists who “are the real musicians,” nor should they feel it appropriate to say “I can’t sing” because they are not trained musicians. Singing is part of being human, is a natural response to deeply held affection (of any sort), and is even the assigned task of the church (the Psalms, Col.3, Eph. 5).
  2. A capella singing may help increase a congregation’s confidence in singing. Our church has been attempting to do this more frequently, sometimes singing from the hymnal (since some of them can read 4-pt harmony), other times from the screen (since some of them will improvise harmony, which is an important skill, too). By singing stanzas or entire hymns this way, we remove the “cover” of instruments and normalize the sound of the “unadorned human voice” (that might be a quote from someone–maybe Alice Parker). For a lot of people in our culture, singing is foreign and awkward, and normalizing singing will take a while. But our church is trying  this on songs our people know and love, and so far, so good.
  3. We may need to disentangle high musical expertise from our congregation’s concept of (a) ordering corporate worship and (b) leading singing. So there are two aspects here: a liturgical task and a musical task, and I suspect in some cases that our people’s concept of both of them is more complex than it needs to be.
    (a). On the one hand, perhaps you have guys who are quite capable of choosing excellent songs and Scripture readings but would never consider offering to “lead worship” because they don’t know how to play piano, “wave their arms,” or play guitar (never mind that congregations usually just follow the loudest instrument anyway). They’re capable of the liturgical task but don’t know it because they associate it inseparably with being a musician.
    (b). On the other hand, perhaps you have children’s program leaders who don’t include singing in their weekly ministries because they don’t consider themselves good singers. But again, just as you can be an effective liturgist without being a lead musician, you can lead musically (with your voice) without being a highly trained musician (or having such musicians on hand).
  4. I’d like our people to know how simple music leadership can be. Lots of churches thrive with no songleader, worship leader, or “emcee.” The organist gives an introduction for the next hymn in the bulletin, “breathes” with the congregation as they play, and things have gone swimmingly for 300 years. Congregational singing, provided the congregation sings, can subsist very well on very little. And while my own church isn’t accustomed to this, it would healthy to add it to our “toolbox.” It not only is really handy when musicians are in short supply, it also highlights the centrality of the congregation’s singing.

We still need need skilled singers, pianists, and guitarists who understand their craft. But regardless of the level of musical talent we happen to have in our church at the moment, we can always “Sing to the LORD,” successfully and joyfully, with the people we have.


And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

John 17:3

I’m finally getting around to reading Michael Reeves’ Delighting in the Trinity (IVP, 2012). After making the point that it is part of God’s nature to give himself in love (and specifically to us through the Son and the Spirit), Reeves continues with a crucial remark that exposes some of the impoverished view many of us (including faithful churchgoers) entertain about God:

This is one of those truths that is a bit like silver—easily tarnished and covered with grime. When Christians talk of God giving us “grace,” for example, we can quickly imagine that “grace” is some kind of spiritual pocket money he doles out. […] But the word grace is really just a shorthand way of speaking about the personal and loving kindness out of which, ultimately, God gives himself.

We are getting close now to the heart of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. In medieval Roman Catholicism, grace had come to be seen as “stuff”: Catholics would pray “Hail, Mary, full of grace,” as if Mary were a bottle and grace like milk. The fallout from this belief can be felt in the seminal debate in 1539 between (in the red corner) the Roman Catholic Cardinal Sadoleto and (in the blue corner) the Reformer John Calvin.

One of Sadoleto’s arguments against the message of the Reformation was that, if it is preached that God saves people by his grace alone, people will be given no reason to want holiness. After all, if my holiness does not contribute in any way to my getting saved, why should I bother? I’ve got “grace,” after all. [Calvin] replied with a knockout blow: that Sadoleto had fundamentally misunderstood salvation, as if it were something other than being brought to know, love and so want to please a beautifully holy God. For Calvin, salvation was not about getting some thing called “grace”—it was about freely receiving the Spirit, and so the Father and the Son.

pp. 88-89

This is spot on: The Sacred Teaching Task of the Christian Worship Leader, David A. Gundersen.

Have you ever listened carefully to the words of this familiar Christmas hymn?

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting Light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

The first stanza introduces us to one of the themes of this hymn: People move through daily life, often unaware both of God’s providential care (upholding creation, as seen in the movement of the stars) and of the movement of his salvation plan (the coming of Christ). But the reality that Jesus defies our expectations and goes largely unrecognized does nothing to diminish the reality of his significance: here, in this little town, is born the Answer to every human need from age to age!

For Christ is born of Mary,
and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars, together
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King,
and peace to men on earth.

While the humans sleep, unaware, the angels know and celebrate what God is doing. Yet even “morning stars” (Job 38:7) “wonder” at it (1 Peter 1:12).

How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him
still the dear Christ enters in.

This is where I think I’d misread the hymn in the past. When it says “so God imparts,” the so doesn’t tell us the reason God imparts but the manner. That is, in this way (“just so”) God gives his grace: in ways unexpected (to us) and unrecognized (by us) and ordinary (cp. Lk 1 in Mary’s song/Magnificat). This is true both of the Incarnation and of a Christian’s salvation–not everyone will recognize what has happened, and it may not be flashy, but just as surely (in both cases), Christ has come to live with His people! Conversion is an invisible yet real work of God; in Christ God applies the blessings of heaven to flesh-and-blood, sinful people (cp. Ephesians 1). It is a gift both heavenly and earthly, equally real in every part.

And so having reflected on those theological bits, isn’t the last stanza a logical response?

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in;
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel.

To this day most ears still don’t hear his coming, but unbelief never damages or changes the truth (Rom. 2:3-4). When we hear the good news (the Gospel) announced by the angels (and repeated today by very ordinary Christians and pastors), we must receive it. Christ will deal with our sin so that we can be restored to him. Welcome, our Lord, Emmanuel!

In no particular order, and for no particular reason:

  1. The Christmas season serves up arguably the most profound, well-produced music you’ll hear all year in public space; it also serves up a glutton’s portion of the most mind-numbing, sentimental drivel you’ll encounter all year. For this reason, I find myself avoiding streaming services during the holidays and sticking to albums I own. So much of the stuff played in stores/malls is empty secularism, or rank sentimentalism (fishing hard for emotional euphoria), and I think its long-term effect is less like jollity and more like despair. And I’m not discounting the holiday cheer to be had from Vince Guaraldi or Nat King Cole (may it never be!), only observing that with time my love for the Gospel hope and biblical truth expressed in the traditional Christmas hymns has matured and grown.
  2. Just who in the Christmas story is the most mild? Depending on the song, it could be Jesus, Mary, or Joseph; it appears to depend on who is poetically closest when the word “child” is invariably summoned to end a line. In fact, I almost wonder if there are images or nuances that have worked their way into the vernacular theology of the Church because of those privileged English words that happen to rhyme with key words of our Faith. I don’t have any other examples in mind (thankfully), but I find it an interesting proposition.
  3. In general, Christmas hymns and carols sound great sung a capella. While caroling in some of our town’s nursing homes last week, I opted to leave the guitar in the car this year. Never mind that Christmas carols just aren’t harmonized for easy strumming, and that I kick myself every year for attempting it (I’m no guitar wonder). But I thought our singing this year sounded better without accompaniment. The tunes just sing heartily all by themselves.

    Now, I suppose one could argue that this has more to do with familiarity than some sort of objective “tunefulness” of the tunes, and indeed it would be overstating the case to suggest that every tune in a church’s repertoire must fly a capella in order to be of quality.  I’m also keenly aware that accompaniments can easily, instead of encouraging expression, actually restrict it because of poor skills on the instrument (my guitar playing?!) or a thoughtless choice of tempo. But I also wonder if tunes that depend on harmony for their interest really endure past a generation or two. What songs that are popular today will actually last past a few years, or even a few decades? Might the a capella test prove to be a valid pointer (among others) of long-term success or failure? Do we serve our church best when we build its hymn repertoire around tunes that thrive regardless of setting (auditorium vs. living room) or accompaniment (skilled pianist / worship team vs. a capella)?

Because our culture makes feeling happy the goal, when our feelings are negative, when we experience the cost of love, we think that something has gone wrong, that we’re not being true to ourselves. […]

Our “in tune with my feelings” era believes that to be true to myself, to be authentic, means I need to act on my feelings. But the opposite is true. In fact, true authenticity means I maintain a trust through thick and thin. To obey when I don’t feel like it means I will feel dislocated. That frees me because it allows me to do good no matter what my internal spirit is doing. When that happens, I am on my way to maturity, to becoming a seasoned pilgrim of love.

– Miller, A Loving Life, p.60

The “means of grace” are such as Bible reading, private prayer, and regularly worshipping God in church, wherein one hears the Word taught and participates in the Lord’s Supper. I lay it down as a simple matter of fact that no one who is careless about such things must ever expect to make much progress in sanctification.

– J.C. Ryle, Holiness 

HT: a friend on FB

In my experience, people apologize badly. If you speak an honest word to them, they rarely say, “Oh, thank you for that rebuke. I’ve felt pride welling up in my heart all morning. Your honesty has restored my soul.” More typically, I hear, “I know I am wrong, but you do the same thing,” or just a flat, passionless, “I’m sorry,” which can mean, “I’m apologizing because I got caught.” Or they retaliate or withdraw emotionally. But if I’m doing hesed love, if I’ve accepted that life is uneven, then, like God, I can accept even a grumpy apology. The humility that characterizes hesed love absorbs the other person’s pride like a giant sponge and keeps me from turning the apology into a quarrel.

– Paul Miller, A Loving Life, Crossway 2014 (p. 59).

On Acts 4:23-31 (which I’m preaching in a few weeks), Eckhard Schnabel says this regarding the NT pattern of prayer as a habit of God’s people:

“If sustained prayer is eliminated from ‘worship services’ on Sunday mornings because they are deemed unattractive for ‘seekers’ who expect to be entertained, or awkward for churchgoers who expect to be guided through a fast-paced program, the risen Lord may well be knocking at the door–from the outside (Rev 3:20).”

From Acts, ZECNT (Zondervan 2012), p. 261.

Also this: “Christians who do not pray regularly and consistently are a contradiction in terms — they deny what they profess, that they have been reconciled with God (with whom they do not want to spend time), that they follow in the steps of Jesus (who prayed), and that they have received the Holy Spirit (who is God’s presence, which is experienced in prayer).” (p.262).

All right knowledge of God is born of obedience.
– Calvin
This is sobering. When we disobey God, our moral and even intellectual vision is skewed and blurred. Knowledge of God (shall we say “right theology”) is not just the product of sufficient information or biblical study. Sometimes hard hearts (refusals to obey) may harden the mind, too, and make us blind. This means that God is only accessible on His terms, after we have humbled our hearts to His authority–something that feels offensive to us. Thankfully, though, our King has come, offering not just grace but also truth to those who welcome Him (John 1).
(Here’s the full quote)
“No one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself. But not only faith, perfect and in every way complete, but all right knowledge of God is born of obedience.”
– Institutes, Bk 1 / 6:1
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