Category Archives: Music Ministry

Learning Each Other’s Songs

Yes, friends, it’s true. I didn’t preach a sermon this week. We had a “hymn sing” at First UMC New Ulm, and it was not like any hymn sing I’ve ever experienced, I can tell you. For one thing, it was hard to hear the congregation actually singing.  For another, we discovered that we don’t really know each other’s songs very well. What is near and dear to the heart of one may be totally new to someone else. It makes us a little nervous to sing songs we don’t know – which may be one reason why the volume level was pretty low as we bravely muddled through the unfamiliar.

We had plenty of opportunities to share. In fact, there were more songs and hymns listed on the chart paper at the front of the sanctuary than we had time to sing. As you might expect, most of the favorites came from the Methodist Hymnal.  As you might also expect, a number of selections from our own “Songbook” of collected worship songs made it to the list. What surprised me was the relatively few number of songs chosen from one of the denomination’s “more contemporary” songbooks, The Faith We Sing. But what really surprised me was the number of songs that were noted on the list, but no one seemed to actually know. When I asked for a show of hands on one of these, only one person claimed familiarity – presumably the person who wrote it on the list before worship began.

What does this tell us about the songs we sing together in worship, and what we value about those songs? Sadly, it means we don’t know each other’s music, and after years of worshiping together, we haven’t bothered to learn what our fellow worshipers find … worshipful. It isn’t a matter of having different musical tastes, or even different theological approaches to singing our praise. It’s a matter of failing to listen to each other with our hearts wide open. And if we aren’t listening to one another’s heart songs, how can we expect to hear God’s voice, singing into and over our lives?

We’re doing this again on August 31st. May God open our throats to sing with gusto, and may God open our hearts to hear one another’s songs with delight instead of fear, so we can sing along with each other as brothers and sisters who worship a living God, a God who sings, who delights in singing.

Monday Mash-Up

Busy week ahead! This is the week that pastors in the Evangelical Covenant Church gather for professional development, spiritual renewal, and fellowship at the Midwinter Conference. This isn’t my year to attend, but that doesn’t mean I can’t participate. All the worship events are live-streamed here. Meanwhile, those of us who can’t be in San Diego are covering pastoral duties on the home front. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for creative writing. Good thing I can read faster than I can write, and this seems a good opportunity to share some reading (and viewing) material that jumped out at me this past week.

In fact, I may take a cue from Rachel Held Evans, and do a weekly synopsis of web links that I think you might find useful or enjoyable. She calls hers “Sunday Superlatives” but Monday Mash-Up makes more sense to me – what church musician hasn’t been thrilled to discover two songs fitting together in unexpected ways? See if you can find this week’s theme (and no, it had nothing to do with the Super Bowl).

This is the blog that started it all, from a photographer who doesn’t enjoy being on the other side of the camera.
Then there was Cameron Russell’s TEDx Talk, and over at Her.Meneutics, this thoughtful response to it from Caryn Rivadeneira.

Eugene Cho’s piece is more than a year old, but surfaced this week in a friend’s feed, and includes a video that is still worth watching.

And this  from Kim Gentes popped up on my LinkedIn feed this week. Be sure to read the comments.
Finally, Jeff Scheetz chimes in with a broader question.

So how are you being authentically who God made you to be? What are the implications for worship and spiritual health in all this?

I haven’t forgotten that I owe you a post about breath for singing. It’s coming, I promise…

Ready for Christmas?

Once a month, I contribute to the Worship Connect blog on the Covenant Church website. Here’s the link to today’s post – and a promise to write more regularly in the New Year. until then, Merry Christmas!

Getting ready to get ready…

Getting ready to get ready…

The O Antiphons are a set of medieval refrains originally used before and after the singing of the Magnificat (Mary’s song).  Each invokes the Messiah under a different title derived from the Old Testament.  This title is then amplified and followed by an appeal to “come” and save us in a particular way. Around the 12th century the antiphons were collected into a Latin verse hymn, which was later translated by John Mason Neale into the hymn we know as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  As you prepare your heart for the first Sunday in Advent, I invite you to ponder these verses:

O come, thou Wisdom from oh high, embracing all things far and nigh;
in strength and beauty come and stay;
teach us your will and guide our way.
Rejoice!  Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

How have you seen God’s wisdom at work in your life?

O Come, O come O Lord of might, As to your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times you gave the law
In cloud, and majesty, and awe.
Rejoice!  Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

 How is God’s power evident in your life?

O Come, O Branch of Jesse, free your own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell your people save,
And give them vict’ry o’er the grave.
Rejoice!  Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

 Has death threatened you, or someone you love?

O Come, O Key of David, come, and open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice!  Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

When has heaven come near to you? How did you know?

 O Come, O Dayspring, come and cheer our presence by thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadow put to flight.
Rejoice!  Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

 Where do you find joy?

 O Come, O King of Nations, come, O Cornerstone that binds in one:
Refresh the hearts that long for you;
Restore the broken, make us new.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

 How has the diverse beauty of God’s Kingdom become evident to you?

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

 As Advent approaches, how will you worship the Son of God?

Waiting to wait

This week is a gift, and I hope I do not waste it. Usually, the first Sunday of Advent falls on the weekend when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. The holiday feasting pushes Advent’s sense of expectation aside. Black Friday and Cyber Monday scream for our attention, drowning out the stillness of waiting that Advent brings. Honoring the beginning of Advent with festive worship becomes a challenge when most of the choir has traveled over the river and through the woods for the long weekend.

Not this year.

The beautifully long week between Christ the King and Advent One has no other holiday cluttering its rhythm. The shopping season kick-off has settled down to a dull roar, and there is time, sweet time. Time to plan for festive worship. Time to clean house and take out the Advent wreath without feeling exhausted already. Time to read the Word slowly, to listen for new revelations in old, familiar words. Time to grow expectant, waiting for the Waiting to begin.
The temptation is to use this “extra” week for catching up on unfinished business. I am resisting that temptation with all my might. I want to savor these moments at the end of the liturgical year. This week is the hour or so after all the guests have left the New Year’s Eve party that was Christ the King Sunday, when the dishes are done and the house is quiet. How will you spend it, this luxury of time?


Ground Rules and A Clarification

Thanks to all of you who read yesterday’s inaugural post, and especially to those of you who offered encouragement for this endeavor!

Now for some ground rules as we move forward:
1. I promise to post regularly, but never on Sunday.  Probably not on Wednesdays, either.  I’m a part-time worship pastor, and these two days comprise 70% of my workweek hours.  In other words, I’m kinda busy on Sundays and Wednesdays, and that ministry is my first priority.

2. Yesterday’s post was an anomaly: I won’t be using old material, as a rule. “God sings!” seemed a good introduction to my personal theology of music and worship. It tells you a lot about who I am, and who I think God is. I wanted to get that foundation laid right away, but now it is my hope to build on that foundation with new bricks.  One by one.

3. This blog is not about me.  I have avoided creating a personal blog (until now) because I know how easily I can be sucked into narcissism, and expounding daily about my personal inner life seems oh-so-narcissistic to me.  But this blog is really an invitation to conversation, so I invite you to leave me comments and interact with what you see here.  I especially invite you to disagree with me – we all need more frank discussion in our lives, I think.  “As iron sharpens iron… (Proverbs 27:17).” I promise to respond.

4. That said, let’s keep our discourse civil, shall we? I am blessed to serve in the Evangelical Covenant Church, and one thing we affirm is something called “Freedom in Christ.” You can learn more about it here. That freedom allows us to differ on non-essentials while we agree on this fundamental belief: Jesus Christ is Lord. (We agree on some other stuff, too, but this is enough to get the conversation started.)

Four Rules is plenty.


Yesterday I mentioned that Luther Seminary had “announced that it is eliminating it’s graduate program in church music next year.” That was a mistake.  They are not eliminating the Master of Sacred Music program, but they do plan to suspend it while they figure out how to move forward after Paul Westermeyer retires.  Here is what they posted on the Luther Seminary Facebook page on Thursday:

Luther Seminary’s Sacred Music program has been very influential in equipping excellent leaders for worship, music and the arts. We are proud of this contribution. In recent years, we’ve seen significant changes. Churches tell us their worship and music needs are changing. We’ve also experienced a decline in the number of students coming to Luther Seminary’s Master of Sacred Music (M.S.M.) program. And, Paul Westermeyer, our respected colleague and leader of the Master of Sacred Music program at Luther Seminary, has announced his plan to retire in June 2013.
Given the changing congregational needs and Paul’s upcoming retirement, we have decided to not recruit new students for our Master of Sacred Music program for the 2013-2014 school year. We will, of course, ensure that our current students continue to receive an excellent education at Luther Seminary and complete their degrees in the M.S.M. program.
The faculty at Luther Seminary is committed to establishing a vision and moving the study of worship, music and the arts forward at Luther. As part of our overall curriculum revision work, we will take this next year to explore ways to proceed and build on the excellence we’ve established in equipping leaders to meet the critical needs of worship and music in the church.
Please keep this process in your prayers as we seek God’s guidance for how we can best respond to the changing needs of the church.

Please do keep this fine program in your prayers, and pray especially for those who have worked so hard to build it into an exemplary training ground for church musicians.  I lament that Bethel Seminary, where I received my MDiv, offers no courses related to worship planning, worship elements, or music in worship.  I hope Luther recognizes its important role in the broader faith community, and handles this transition well.

What should be included in a pastor’s musical training?  What is the best way to teach pastors how to lead worship? Please share your thoughts!

God sings!

Five years ago, as I embarked on my journey into ministry, a singing colleague commented, “the world needs more pastors who can sing!” This thought has stuck with me as I ponder the ways God is prodding me toward a broader view of pastoral ministry. This week, Luther Seminary announced that it is eliminating it’s graduate program in church music next year. How will this impact the greater church? Do we really need seminary-trained musicians leading worship anymore?

Too many questions, too little time.  Let’s start here, now. Maybe together, we can find ways to keep the song alive. Meanwhile, I’m reminded of something I wrote on another blog last year. Here it is, to get you thinking, and maybe joining the conversation:

The following post appeared first in a slightly different form on the WorshipConnect blog of the Evangelical Covenant Church.  You can read more posts from other Covenant worship pastors here

Hear the beautiful five-part blessing in Zephaniah 3:17:

“The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

He will rejoice over you with singing. I remember the first time I read these words and realized, “God sings!” In worship, we do a lot of singing to God and about God. But consider the idea of God singing. If we are made in his image, and we sing, then doesn’t it make sense that our voices must be an echo of God’s voice?

The whole idea of ruach – God’s breath moving through our own lungs and vocal folds as an expression of his Spirit – shapes my theology of singing. Singing is putting pitch to breath. Singing is sound we make during the process of respiration. As we inspire breath to sustain a singing tone and expire that breath in a stream of sound, we conspire with others who sing alongside us. What transpires has the power to transform us, as we sing praise, prayers, scripture, and hymns that stay with us long after the song ends.

There are over 150 references to singing in the Bible. Only this verse has God doing the singing, and when God sings, he is rejoicing, loving, and protecting his people. That means you and me. Singing is a pleasant endeavor for God.

Listening means paying attention to what you hear. It is a conscious decision to focus attention, and to filter out the sounds that do not belong to that focus. I think God is singing all the time, maybe even right now singing into your heart. The challenge is to truly listen, and to join in the song.

So, what is your theology of music? How does it shape your attitude toward worship? How do you express your faith through music as you worship God with your congregation, or as you spend time in personal devotion? How does God sing into your life through his Word, and through the music that weaves together our corporate worship experiences?