How Great Thou Art

Just scrolling through my “unpublished” hymn arrangements in preparation for Adelaide Diocese Clergy Conference this week and found this.  It’s a live recording from Jan 2016 CMS Summer Encounter here in Adelaide. Everyone wanted to keep singing this song… when they asked for us to do it a 3rd time I thought we should multitrack it.

So here it is, now officially “published”: How Great Thou Art

Score (in Bb major):


An (unpolished) cry of sadness

This is a new thing for me.

Last year I started diving into the Psalms, and trying to swim deep underwater.  I read a couple of books about the Psalms and started working through them with a commentary.

I was struck by many things.  For example, it seems to me that you can’t do theology without connecting it to life, and that life without theology is not what life should be.  Theology must be expressed in praise.  Conversely, praise must be grounded in theology.

But lofty conceptual generalisations aside, the psalms RESONATE with the human spirit.

I have been connecting with lots of people lately with deep inner struggles.  And then I find myself reading the words of the psalms.  And singing them.  And I personally connect with the yearnings by hearing the expression of the psalmists.

So, yes, I have been singing them.  I have decided to use the versified versions of the psalms as found in the Anglican Australian prayer books… the so-called “liturgical psalter”.  Why?  2 reasons: 1. They scan well (although not necessarily symmetrically), and 2. There is transportability into churches who use the liturgical psalter.

As I sing them, I’ve been finding gradually evolving tunes coming into my head.  These are not for congregational singing, although I am thinking through how they might be able to be done in a contemporary way.

And some of them are starting to crystallise as “musical compositions”.  So I thought I’d share one of them and ask for feedback.

This is psalms 42 and 43.  They are really one psalm, as I have tried to demonstrate. Maybe you know the old chorus “As the deer pants”? Well, this is the entirety of that psalm.

It’s not just a psalm about being a passionate Christian.  It’s a longing to see God in eternity.  It’s a vocalisation of deep torment of the spirit, pouring out of tears, remembrance of better days in the fellowship of God’s people, acknowledgement that it is God himself who has allowed the psalmist to hit rock bottom, as well as a sense that the enemy is involved in the oppression of his spirit.  But ultimately, the psalmist reminds himself that he must put his trust in God, quite simply because he is God the deliverer.

I’ve called this unpolished more to describe the performance and recording than the psalm itself. Yet honestly, life is not about polish and airbrushing our appearance before others.  God sees us as we are.  And as the psalmist reminds us, he sends out his light and his truth, which is our guide, not just for living now, but for finding our way to his eternal presence.

Have a listen:

Song: Safe In The Arms


Safe in the arms of my Saviour
Seated beside him in heavenly realms
I cannot see but I know he’s with me always.
Safe in the hope of redemption
Body of weakness but Spirit of life
I cannot see but I know he’s with me always.
I take hold of him as he took hold of me
I make it my goal to be his faithfully
Jesus is here; Jesus is walking beside me always
I press on to win my eternal reward
I leave behind all that dishonours my Lord
Jesus is here; his Spirit is holding me safely all my days
Safe from the fear of your anger
Though I deserve what my Saviour endured
I was not there, but I know I was spared that day.
Safe in the joy of forgiveness
All my offences you carried away
I cannot see but I know I am free to live.
© 2013 Mark Peterson
Themes: Assurance, Perseverance, Commitment, Heaven, Redemption, Presence

Structure: The verses speak of the safe status the believer has with Christ our Saviour; the chorus speaks of our holding on to him in light of his holding on to us.

Congregations: Most gatherings within the Trinity Network of Churches sing this song regularly.  I have performed it by request at 3 funerals (as at May 2016).

Album: “We Have Freedom” by Revelation Music (a compilation album produced by myself and Tim Wundke)

Music Lead Sheet: 

Writing Notes: I wrote this song at Sunset Rock in the Adelaide Hills.  Written originally on acoustic guitar.  It was a dedicated song writing day and I was simultaneously working on The Mystery Of Your Saving Love.

Antidotes for boring services: Drama

A near miss with a fast-moving truck.

A relationship breakdown resolved joyfully.

A surprising reaction to big news.

When drama happens, it’s hard to forget.  Sometimes it makes us uncomfortable.  Sometimes it stirs us, connecting us with the vision for what life could or should be like that is etched deeply somewhere within our spirits.

And church services that are unforgettable, and perhaps both simultaneously uncomfortable and soothing, are not boring.  In fact, they are the sorts of gatherings we long for.  We’ve got enough hum-drum going on in our lives… it’d be nice if church could jolt us back to reality, remind us why we’re alive, show us what really matters.

These are of course the sorts of things that happen when you encounter God. People like Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jesus’ own disciples and the Apostle Paul all encountered God in his glory in some way that changed their lives.  As, of course, did Lot’s wife, Herod the King, Ananias and Sapphira, each of whose encounter with God led to their grim demise.

When we meet together in what we call “church”, we encounter God.  And so do those who join us.  We are called the temple of the Holy Spirit in 1 Cor 3:16 and in Ephesians and 1 Corinthians the church is referred to as Christ’s body.  Both of these images denote our being God’s physical presence in the world.

And it is particularly as we proclaim the word of God when we meet together that people encounter the reality of God.  God’s word is his expressed will.  If you hear him speaking, you had better take it seriously, because it is not the word of the frail, inarticulate soul stuttering away at the microphone, who just happened to be rostered on Bible reading for that week.  It is the eternal and unchangeable word of the sovereign, infinite, Lord of all things, whose word goes out and doesn’t return to him without achieving the purpose for which he sent it.

Going to church should be dramatic.  Because you meet God in his people and through his word.  You don’t just talk about him; you don’t just catch up with friends. You do even more than just learn things.  You meet with God.  And like any dramatic event, it should be hard to forget.

This is part 2 of 4 in this series of blogs entitled “Antidotes for boring services”.  I am essentially asking what is it that makes a church service edifying.  That is, how do gatherings of the church lead to the building of the church?   I’m trying to get back to the essence of what a church service is.  Part 1 focussed on the fact that we gather in worship of God, and when we are expressing the various acts of worship that God calls for and enables, we edify those around us… that is, we build the church.

So what then is the relevance of drama to church?  Well, I think there are several ways in which drama as a concept helpfully guides us in the way we plan, run and participate in church.  Let’s look at 3 ways in particular: drama as gravitas, drama as story, and drama as conversation.

1. Drama as gravitas

Let me start with a question: should a service leader or song leader make jokes from the platform?

Perhaps it’s never occurred to you that there might be a problem with this.  I mean, preachers make jokes all the time.  In fact, sometimes people gain notoriety and popularity as preachers on the strength of their sense of humour!

But if we were at Mount Sinai, would we be cracking one-liners?  If we had just been knocked down by the glory of Jesus on the road to Damascus, would we be doing funny voices or silly accents?

In thinking about the humour issue, I urge you not just to jump to conclusions… there are probably a whole lot of ways we should continually re-evaluate what we do in the name of Jesus.

That is, in the word of God we’re faced with God’s glory.  A certain gravitas is therefore appropriate for the way we handle the contents of the Bible in church.  Gravitas means weightiness, substance or seriousness.  Interestingly the Hebrew word for glory also means “heavy” or “weighty”, so perhaps gravitas isn’t such a bad word.

This is partly a question of the tone of our meetings.  There is so much vanity in Western society that even when we’re at church we implicitly say to those on the platform, “Entertain me!” “Grab me!” “Keep my attention!”  And so, obediently, those of us on the platform give it our best shot.  We try to be dynamic, humorous, upbeat, and interesting.

I’m not actually suggesting that we shouldn’t be dynamic, humorous, upbeat or interesting.  There are times when our services should have a tone of celebration.  Showing people the Lord’s glory is showing them what he is like, and he is certainly not dull, humourless and downbeat.

The benefit of a bit of weightiness in our service is that it reminds us that God is a consuming fire, not a warm blanket. He is the Almighty heavenly father, not a friendly Santa Claus.

But as well as tone, it’s also a question of the content of our meetings, particularly the words that get said from the front.  In my view, we should demonstrate the highest level of reverence for God and his word in absolutely every word we utter from the platform.  We must never trivialise God’s love; we must never apologise for God’s judgement or his holiness; we must not downplay the seriousness of sin; nor reduce anything that makes us uneasy down to palatable morsels that make us feel good.

Three other practices I’ve observed recently that I don’t think are appropriate:

  • We should not condone, implicitly or explicitly, a position of unbelief in God or unwillingness to become a Christian, although we should respect people’s right not to believe and we should not persecute people for having doubts.
  • We should not suggest that the will of God expressing in his word only applies to those who believe in it, although constantly emphasising to unbelievers the right and wrong way to live can portray a moralism that is just as bad.
  • We should not suggest to visitors that what we’re doing in church is weird, although we may acknowledge that it is different.

Our words and our tone should convey a great loathing of the sin within us, but not in a way that would compromise our love of the people who are present.  We must help people to understand the seriousness of the problem of our world’s alienation from God before they’ll have any hope of understanding the wonder of God’s grace.  And we must remind people that we are at war with the forces of evil and the powers of darkness, whom Christ has defeated, but who have not yet been completely done away with.  These powers still rage against him and us, they blind people’s minds, and oppose the Kingdom of God at every turn.

2. Drama as story

Now in case you’re worried about whether humour is appropriate in church, God uses stories all the time in the Bible, and many of them seem to be deliberately funny in the way they make their point.  Think of the reluctant missionary who repents and is rescued by being swallowed by an enormous sea creature and spat up on the land.  What about the account of the mighty god of the Philistines, who keeps falling over in the night, the second time unfortunately with head and hands broken off, found in the somewhat humiliating position of bowing down before the Ark of God in its presence…  Even the conversion of Saul of Tarsus has a humorous side when you think about all his huffing and puffing beforehand and then the dramatic way his life direction is reversed overnight by an encounter with the glorious risen Christ.

But the humour in the stories is secondary to the stories themselves.  Through a range of different narrative styles, from historical account through to fictional parable, the Bible is story from beginning to end.

People get stories.  They affect us.  They carry us along by stirring fear, admiration or contemplation.  They stir empathy, both for foolish and wise characters, because we see these characteristics in ourselves.  They unfold truth in human experience.

So why not follow the Bible’s lead and let our services be as much narrative-driven as they are explanation-driven.  We need both for proper grounding in the word of God.  What about testimonies, dramatic readings, sermons that let a voice speak from within the narrative in addition to the voice outside of the narrative…

Let’s take this a step further… what about letting the whole service be an unfolding narrative?

I wouldn’t suggest this if it wasn’t the exact method used by the Bible.  One of the distinctive features in comparison with other holy books is that the Bible tells a coherent story from beginning to end, and it is through this story that we understand our salvation and our place in the kingdom of God.

A great book on this is A Better Way – Rediscovering the Drama of God Centred Worship by Michael Horton.  He asks the important question, “Do we have a compelling plot”?  Just as in the movies, where, in the absence of a compelling plot you’ll find filmmakers playing to the “lusts of the flesh”, in life we do the same.  Even as Christians we tend to write our own scripts, defining our lives the way we envision them, picking up bits and pieces along the way, maybe:

  • A set of values we think are good
  • A new hair style we think will suit us
  • The spiritual resources we think we’ll need for life
  • The newest technological resources to get ourselves organised.

Sometimes our spiritual lives are no less consumerist (and random) than the rest of our lives.  In fact, why would we draw a distinction between our spiritual lives and the rest of our lives?

The Bible tells us that God has written the script and it is indeed compelling.  People who come to church do not need continually to rewrite their own script to get them through life.  They are already part of God’s script, which provides a much better story and a much better ending than anything else.  They need to be reminded of God’s story again and again.

Not only is the plot compelling, it is integrated.  Yet many people think of church (and the reading of the Bible in particular) as being a series of spiritual inputs and perhaps a range of somehow-related stories.  But it is more than this: salvation-history is one long, all encompassing story.

It has a main character and a host of supporting characters; the scene is set very early on with a major relationship breakdown between the main character and all the other characters, a breakdown that is initiated by the other characters.  And those other characters show ongoing disregard for this relationship over centuries and millennia (the Bible is a LONG story).  Yet the main character (we’ll call him the hero) continues to pursue relationship restoration, despite hurdle after hurdle, rejection after rejection.  And the promises of restoration get more and more vivid and ambitious as the likelihood of restoration apparently lessens.  There is real tension in this story!

And the story has such an incredible climax: it all turns on a completely surprising move on the part of the hero.  Rather than heading off into the sunset with dramatic (and justified) defiance, rather than committing some momentous act to bring rightful retribution, the hero shows himself to be the most desirable character in any story ever written.  He pursues those who have become his enemies, not to kill them, but to be killed for them, leaving his enemies forgiven and guilt-free, and the way open for healing, restoration and a new life together.  The main character DEFINES love through this story.  Any other so-called love stories we might have heard merely reflect a fleeting shadow of this ultimate love story.

So, we’re hearing this story, and the hero is turning our values system upside down; he is drawing us to himself, showing us that this wonderful character is the fulfillment of all of our human desires.

But the most powerful and important thing about this story is that it is real, and that we are characters in it.  And… that the story is not yet finished.  The part that we play in it has not yet finally unfolded.

3. Drama as conversation

In other places I’ve written about the 3-way conversation that happens when we are in church.  Here I want to emphasise the way in which the story of the Bible gets played out Sunday by Sunday, literally unfolding as people hear it and realise that they are part of it.

Maybe people are coming in the door just expecting to sit and listen.  They’ll join in at the appropriate parts, but since most of the talking is happening up front, they’re anticipating a fairly passive role.

We tend to call our meetings “services” because there is order and structure to our gatherings.  We don’t just make it up as we go along, like who’s doing the speeches at a poorly organised birthday party.

Contemporary services have tended to have a greater appearance of being freeform, but there is and should still be an agenda that the leader(s) have in mind.  This agenda should be to retell God’s story and to make people aware of their part in it.

You may not know the exact expectation of each individual as you look out to the congregation, but you will know this:

  • Some of them are deeply repentant for their part in rejecting the hero and are demonstrating faith in the hero’s restoring act of love
  • Some have completely misunderstood the story (it’s just bounced off them) or have never heard it properly – they’re in church for other reasons (they want to be a good person, they’re looking for love or friendship, they’re supporting a friend or family member)
  • Some of them have heard the story a thousand times but have either become distracted by the busyness of their lives or are allowing themselves to be pulled away from the hero by alternative interests.

How do we plan and lead a service with such diversity of perspectives?  Very simply, we retell the story.  We have many tools at our disposal for this: song choice, song order, song introductions, prayers, Bible verses, words of exhortation, creeds.  What we have to do is think about the telling.

Ancient prayer book services had a very clear process for the telling of the story.  You would hear verses of Scripture telling of the glory and holiness of God and the failure of humanity.  The congregation would say a general confession.  The minister would reply with a declaration of forgiveness.  There would a thanksgiving or a song of praise. The ministry of the word both through multiple readings and a sermon would teach and exhort, and the Lord’s Supper would give the opportunity to receive Christ by faith as you  eat and drink.

Can you see God’s story in all this? The congregation would be part of it… they weren’t just an audience.   The same must be true this Sunday.  You don’t have to tell the whole story every Sunday, just elements of it, perhaps a fresh angle on it or a reflection on a part of it.  Or use a story within the Bible to make your points.  Think about these headings below as ways of making sure you’re covering a wide breadth of topics within the whole:

Part 1: God creates and treats humanity generously, human reject God and our guilt ensues.

Part 2: God acts to redeem and offers forgiveness and restoration.

Part 3: Humans respond either with repentance and faith, or with further rejection of God.

Part 4: Our future orients our life today, either we living under redemption and its implications or under judgement.

Part 5: God’s judgement will put everything as it should be.

There are any number of ways you could map out the chapters.

Conversation in this drama is not about every person in the room getting their 2 mins on the platform (although in some circumstances this could work well).  It’s primarily about God’s story being retold and every person being made aware of their place in it.  It’s not a “choose your own adventure” because it’s God’s story with really only one ending.  But that ending will lead to an irreversible separation of different people’s destinies.

We all have things we need reminding of, and perhaps things we need to hear for the first time.  We all have sins we need to repent of.  Every day of our lives we make a set of responses to God… often unbelief sneaks back in.  It’s really important that when we sit and hear from him that we realign ourselves to the Spirit’s will for our lives.  If the Christian life should be characterised by faith and repentance, then the Christian gathering should be a heightened and sharpened expression of that faith and repentance.


What can you do to reintroduce drama into your services?  Maybe you’re not a leader – but by active participation, you will play a leadership of sorts, whether it’s loud praise, humble sincerity, or generous love of others (all three, really).  If you are a leader, ask if God’s story will be told this Sunday.  Will this great epic be clear, persuasive and participative, drawing people to respond to the glory of God?


Antidotes for boring services: Worship

Perhaps provocatively, I would like to talk about boring church services.  You may therefore feel nervous about forwarding it on to your pastor!  Please assure them that I’m not pointing the finger at any church or church leader… For the record, I find my own church to be a mixture: sometimes our services are sharp and engaging, other times less so.  And I’m forwarding this to our pastors too, in a spirit of robust, loving encouragement!

Getting music right can surely play a part in reducing boredom, as can understanding the culture well, having a great welcoming process, and having gifted people on the platform.

I’m sure there are plenty of suggestions that astute people have made over the years for how to grab the attention of the gathered folk, hold it for an hour or so, and then promise it again for the following Sunday.

Some churches try technology.  Others try winsome, charismatic leadership style.  One pastor who is a good friend of mine has in his service plans a column for something unusual every week, just to make sure he keeps it interesting.

But although these various initiatives can be a great way of loving our people, I’m not sure these are in themselves the solution.  I think there are deeper issues at stake.

I now refer briefly to my background for some context.  I belong to the Reformed Evangelical arm of the Anglican Church here in Australia.  I grew up in Sydney as the son of an Anglican minister and studied theology at Moore College for 4 years.  I’ve been in full time ministry now for 9 years at Holy Trinity Adelaide as the music minister, and have no particular urge to move to any other church or denomination.  I don’t think we’re the best or worst denomination, but neither do I think that matters.  I have a heritage amongst people whom I love and respect deeply, though I also have many friends in other denominations or churches with other styles.

I provide this detail because readers from different backgrounds will tend to have a different experience of church services, and of the efforts that have been made to make them interesting.

I often hear people say they wish they could find a church that has Reformed Evangelical Anglican (REA) preaching with a Hillsong version of music and service structure.  “What a combo,” they say.

I’m not convinced.  That implies that REAs have preaching worked out and Hillsong has music worked out.  Don’t get me wrong: I think we can all learn from each other.  It’s just that I’m looking for something deeper than comparison or benchmarking.

So at this point, I want to try to clarify what I think the question is.

My title suggests that boredom is an issue in church.  But you know, we are flawed creatures, and even if the Lord himself had visited us during his earthly ministry, we would still have been likely to drift off because of the weakness of our flesh.  We get sleepy; our worldly interests still tug at our hearts; we haven’t got a vision of Christ in his full sin-smashing glory.

So maybe boredom isn’t quite the precise category we’re looking for, since it often says more about those of us in the pew than about the program being delivered from the platform.  But there is a biblical category that governs what we should be doing in church, and that is edification.

Now this sounds less exciting than my title, but perhaps the question is simply, “Are our services edifying?”  The problem here is that the term “edifying” has fallen down a crevice between a vapid, inoffensive word to describe positive learning experiences (e.g. “that movie was marginally edifying but not particularly exciting”) and a technical theological term that ministers use rather vaguely and unconvincingly (e.g. “I hope my sermon today edified you in some helpful way”).

What I will seek to do in this 4 part series of blogs is to try to say some things about edification in the gathering and what our role is (those involved in planning or running services) in trying to bring it about.  I’m not going to do an extensive survey of New Testament usage, but rather focus on broader biblical principles and a few key texts.

The first of these relevant biblical principles is worship.

Where we find ourselves

I refer again to my REA background.  In my stable, I think many of us (including myself) have become very hesitant to use the word worship to describe what we are doing in a church service.  This is because our “whole of Bible” understanding of worship has rightly pointed us towards worship as a “whole of life” activity, not simply the activities that we undertake in church.

Let me list some of the things we’ve reacted against.  We have reacted against the reducing of worship to congregational singing when it has so much more of a wide scope than this.  We’ve reacted against the use of the term ‘worship leader’ to describe the song leader when the preacher is at least as eligible for that description, if not anyone up the front urging people to submit their lives to God.  We’ve reacted against the confusing idea that expressing worship is primarily about expressing feelings… we would agree that feelings associated with our awe of God are a natural by-product of worship, but we’ve insisted that they are not its essence.

However, I think we’ve seen an over-reaction to this imprecise word usage that has had wide and deep implications for the way we run our services.  In our reluctance to describe the activities of our gatherings as worship, we have found ourselves without an adequate vocabulary to describe the vertical or God-ward aspects of our meetings.  As a result, those God-ward aspects have often been pushed aside.  We’ve picked up the New Testament’s emphasis on edification when we meet, and tended to focus more on the horizontal aspects of our meetings.  But somehow in doing this, I think we’ve created a division between worship and edification, and here is the nub of the problem.

I have found myself asking, “What exactly is edification?”  I realise it’s the idea of building… that we are built up into Christ.  It’s the idea of Christians becoming stronger and more numerous.

But the problem is, often the attempts to edify me fail.  I was once taught that singing in church was for my encouragement, and yet I usually felt sapped by it.  In fact, one of the reasons I went into formal music ministry was that so much church music made me feel discouraged.  I couldn’t just sit around and complain about it – I felt I had to do something.

So how does the church get built?  It’s by the strengthening of individuals and by the adding of people into it.  2 parts to this I guess: the Christians and the soon-to-become-Christians.

Strengthening the Church by strengthening insiders

For Christians to be strengthened, the Bible has a few ideas.  In Paul’s letters, as in other parts, there is the very common indicative-imperative pattern.  Things are said in the indicative mood (describing), indicating the grace of God, the plan of God or the glory of Christ.  These are then followed by the imperative (instructions or appeals), calling us to adapt our behaviour or our thinking.  Paul doesn’t tend to give out rules – mostly just implications.  If we knew just how much we were loved, we’d love in return.  If we knew the spiritual reality of being in Christ, we would act in Christ and not in a fleshly way.  And so on.

Edification is always grace driven.  It’s always driven by the character of God or a description of the work of God.  And here is a key point: to be edified, we need to be drawn to God himself.

We see this in the book of Hebrews as well, where a series of warning passages are alternated with a series of passages persuading the reader/hearer of Christ’s incomparable glory, and of the manner in which the new covenant in Jesus stupendously surpasses the old.  The key thing is that these words of edification and encouragement to Christians are interwoven with words of praise and acclamation.

Before I go any further, let me say that the alternative is a very dangerous path.  God has saved us by grace, through faith alone, not by works, so that no-one can boast.  If we slip into preaching sermons and running services that for some reason have lost their grace mooring, then they potentially lead people into falsehood.  We can unwittingly preach about the importance of evangelism, or the need to stop sinning, or the putting on of virtues, without couching these in the terms of response.  Every good deed must be a response to God’s gracious work, or I’d argue that it’s not actually a good deed but an attempt to win God’s favour through our own merit.

I should also say that the majority of the time, our failure in this is unintentional… I think!  Those who have the privilege of ministering from the platform in a church are usually very clear in their heads about the grace-driven nature of our faith, and perhaps we make assumptions about the people in the seats.

We get a sense that people need to be reminded to share their faith and so we create a program or a timetable.  We ask people to sign up to things or attend events, and our meetings can start to feel like a campaign meeting in a political party.

We kick off the year with all sorts of new structures, goals and targets that we’re sure will be a vehicle for God’s blessing, and we present them to the congregation much like you might present at an organisation’s Annual General Meeting.

We know that we need to pray to God for our people and our ministries, so we list them off to him much like we’re placing an order at a drive-through window.

I have no doubt that these things are all well intended.  But what I feel is missing when we do this… is worship.  Call it what you will: I don’t mind if you call it a God-focus or a grace motivation.  What matters is that we never make assumptions about how the church is strengthened.  It is only in God that people are edified.

So how might it look to shape our meetings to be services of worship?  I think that the time when we gather together as Christ’s people to sit under his word is specifically a time of worship.  That is, it is a time when we enact our submission to Christ’s lordship in some very particular ways: we sit under his word (which is a first order act of worship), we respond to him in words of faith and repentance, we sing and say together words of praise and thanksgiving, directed both to him and to each other, and through all of these things we remind each other of the kingdom and its implications for our lives.

Now we can have strategy and planning meetings, we can set aside time in the week to review our approach and make improvements.  We can have fun times chatting about interests we might have in common other than the kingdom of God.  But there must be a time in our week dedicated to those activities at the end of the previous paragraph.

This time of worship will actually provide the greatest edification of your entire week.  But if it is watered down to just a meeting of like minded people, then it runs the very high risk of losing its God-ward focus, and therefore not being as edifying for people.  The church struggles to grow because its message becomes like that of the advertisers… yet another appeal for our time, money and energy.

What about the 3 examples above… can they still be done in a service of worship?  Yes.  The first related to evangelism.  But if you want people to evangelise (I run the risk of giving the false impression of being an expert here), you need to proclaim to those around you the glory, love, mercy, wisdom, power and holiness of God as revealed in Christ, and challenge people about whether this message has transformed them.  I would much prefer it if that was the bulk of what was communicated in the service, and that the particular details of the strategy were referred to concisely, not in detail.

I’d say the same with our structures, goals and targets.  Hand out a document if you like.  But use the time in the service to draw people’s minds yet again to some aspect of God’s glory and grace that will make them excited to read your document!

With the example of prayer above, this is something that people could take onboard for leading prayers in the service or in a home group, or even in their private devotions.  Here’s the thing: I struggle to find a prayer in the entire Bible that doesn’t keep making references to God and his wonderful wisdom, mercy and strength.  If we could see clearly with our eyes who it was that we were addressing, we would just find ourselves compelled to refer to him and to what he has done and is doing.  All prayer should be expressions of our worship… not in a high and righteous tone – he is our loving heavenly Father as well as our Sovereign Lord – but in the deep respect and awe of him who holds our lives and livelihoods in the palm of his hand.

Strengthening the Church by adding outsiders

Now briefly, the soon-to-become-Christians in our church services: I suggested that the church is built by people becoming Christians, as much as it is built by our worship bringing conviction to those who are already believers.

The clearest Biblical example of this type of conversion is in 1 Corinthians 14:21-25.  Paul is arguing in this chapter that prophesy is more useful in the church than tongues, since the unintelligibility of tongues usually only enables a person to have an individual communication with God, whereas prophesy enables shared communication which can strengthen others.  In verse 21-22 he even suggests that tongues are a sign of judgement for the unbeliever… yet prophesy is a sign for the believers.  But although prophesy is for believers, there is a circumstance in which it can be for unbelievers, and this is when they witness it happening among Christians.

I won’t go into the discussion of precisely what Paul means by prophesy, other than to say that it is words prompted by God for the uplifting of believers.

But an unbeliever enters our meeting, hears the word of God intended to make strong the believer, and is personally convicted and called to account.  “The secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you”.

So, through our edification can come evangelism.  I think this happens every Sunday in every city, although some definitions of prophesy would lead some to disagree in relation to prophesy… but perhaps agree in the general sense that powerful edifying words lead outsiders who are listening in to join us in worship.

That is, a person becoming a Christian is joining the worshipping activity that the church is already engaged in.  I don’t think Paul is implying that the brand new believer is the only person in the room who is worshipping and falling on his face.  He (or she) is joining in the worship undertaken by God’s people.  We get a glimpse of the church at worship in a passing reference in Acts 13:2.

This bringing to worship through edification is helpful as we plan and lead our gatherings.  I think we feel like we need to jazz it up at church.  We do get bored… sometimes just because of our flesh.  But is it possible that we are feeling an urge to use whatever techniques we can to make our meetings count, week by week?  Are we unwittingly drawing techniques and methods from the creation rather than from the creator?

God is after all the life of the party.  The church is the place to which the world can come to meet this God.  But sometimes I feel that, rather than inviting him to the party, we’re just skyping him in.

Biblically speaking, wherever people encounter God in his glory, worship follows.  Think of Moses told to remove his sandals whilst standing on holy ground – an act of submission and awe that God required of this not-yet-ready saviour for Israel.  Think of Isaiah’s vision of God in which he calls out “woe is me for I am lost; I am a man of unclean lips… and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts”.  God’s presence demands his utmost humbling.  Think of the disciples who when they saw the risen Christ on the mountain worshipped him, “although some doubted”, reminding us that worship is not some triumphant act of super-spirituality.  In each of these instances, worship is the humble surrender to God in the acknowledgement that he is all in all.

This is the God whom we present to the world when we meet for our church services.  Yes, people will see us during the week showing a Godlike love.  But when they visit us on a Sunday, it must all become clear to them!  They should encounter God as he is, hearing his word powerfully proclaimed in speech and song, seeing people’s response of worship in their engagement, humility and deep love of God.  And they should smell the aroma of this beautiful message about Christ.  And so through our worship, they can meet God.

I hope to spell out a bit more detail of what I think Biblically edifying services can look like over the next 3 blogs.  In the next one, I want to look at the idea of drama or gravitas and how God uses this to draw us to himself.


Extended Footnote: a definition of worship (and some key texts)

Although the doctrine of worship is not simple, I do think it can be described simply as the expression of our humble submission to God.

But a bit more detail: Jesus preached “the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).  This message is foundational to understanding worship: Jesus’ coming was about the establishment of a kingdom.  A kingdom means a king and worshipping subjects.  The particular response to that news of a kingdom was about how to become one of these worshipping subjects: turn from sin to God and believe the gospel about Jesus.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus fills this out a little more when he says that true worshippers will worship in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:23-24), indicating that it is through the work of the Spirit of God and the Son of God that people would be enabled to worship.

In summary, to be one of the worshipping subjects of the King, you need to repent and believe: you need salvation that God has brought us through Christ and implanted in our hearts by his Holy Spirit.  And worship is living out that salvation daily, in reverence, submission and service.

It’s really important to see that true worship isn’t initiated by human beings.  It is made possible by God himself, through the gospel of Jesus Christ.  So worship is one of the very characteristics of being a Christian.

One of the places Paul refers to worship in the Christian life is in Romans 12:1, where he says that the presenting of our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, is our spiritual worship.  This underlines the manner in which our whole life is submitted to him in service as an act of worship.  He makes reference to the old system of worship – the official sacrificial system of the Mosaic Law – and shows how for Christians this is fulfilled by presenting our bodies for service.

Whilst Romans 12:1 is a key text, it is not an exhaustive text.  For example, we shouldn’t assume that the sacrificial system was the only aspect of Old Testament worship – worship was all-of-life for Israel too.  Many sections of the New Testament are devoted to clarifying how the Law was relevant and not relevant under the new covenant, and this is one of them.

Hebrews 12:18-29 particularly helps to show how worship now focuses on the heavenly Jerusalem, rather than around Mt Sinai or on the earthly Mt Zion.  Our orientation should now be the heavenly glory of Christ, rather than the glory seen on earth by Moses.  So the kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming in Mark’s Gospel has now been established, since the king has been enthroned and there are thousands of worshipping subjects, referred to as the “assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven”.

God is described as a “consuming fire” and therefore we are to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe”.

It’s important to note that the words that follow on immediately after this are about love, respect and church life in general.  So the writer wants us to maintain both the heavenly view of Christ’s exalted glory and the earthly view of day-to-day life in the church.  I think it’s fair to say that it is this vision of the glory of the exalted Christ that empowers us to serve in the seemingly less glorious ways of respecting leaders and remaining pure.

Finally, the New Testament’s picture of worship is shaped by John’s vision in Revelation.  Several texts outline the eternal worship of the church as it gathers to offer reverence, submission and service to God, such as Rev 5:8-10, 5:11-14, 7:9-12, 15:2-4, 19:6-8.

This is the picture of the end – the shaking of all things that will finally establish the unfettered rule of Christ the King.  And our doctrine of Church today should affirm that we manifest this reality now, even though it is a future reality.  The New Testament writers are at pains to state that we are with Christ in heaven, “seated with him” and so on.

In particular, as I’ve stated above, when people see our good deeds and come seeking God, it is in the church that they will find him.  They should find a worshipping community.  But fundamentally, where they find a worshipping community, they should indeed find… God!

Now although worship involves a horizontal component (e.g. Rom 12:1, Heb 13:1), it must also involve a vertical component by definition.  There is no such thing as worship without a vertical component.

Peter actually makes this point very clearly in 1 Peter 4:10-11, where he says that whoever serves should do so in the strength that God supplies “in order that, in everything, God may be glorified through Jesus Christ”.  That is, the reason we serve others is because we worship God.  Worship, or bringing glory to God through Christ, is the driving motivation for all godliness.

So the church is the open community of worshipping subjects in the Kingdom of God.  It is most visibly the dwelling place of God when we gather together physically.  We seek to display the glorified Christ through our worship, which both strengthens the believer and draws into eternal life the unbeliever.


A band as a building

There are many helpful analogies that can be used to help explain how a contemporary band works.  A pyramid with bass and drums at the bottom, other bits in the middle and main voice or melody at the apex… Or a three legged stool, with the three legs being bass, drums and main melody, then other aspects hanging off it to hold the structure together…

I use both of these analogies at times, mostly in relation to helping sound people get a good mix of a band in a congregational setting.  Note that in both of these instances, the key instruments I’ve mentioned are bass, drums and main vocal.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that these 3 will always be the loudest elements in a band, but as the key structural features of a sound, they need to be clearly audible.

These approaches are somewhat different from the bands I became a part of in churches in the late 80s when I first went on a band roster.  In those settings it was all piano driven.  The main voice was also crucial, but as other instruments, they were simply added to the piano sound, but you never wanted them to overtake.  In fact, at one point, there was even the strange idea that you needed to be the pianist in order to lead a music ministry.  How things have changed!

Both of these analogies helpfully demonstrate that a contemporary band is a complex unit of interrelationships of sounds, with certain key structural elements.

In recent years, however, the analogy I most commonly use in a band workshop setting or a training rehearsal is that of a building.  I like the logic of this, and the illustration is usually communicated within an actual building, so there are props immediately visible to demonstrate the point.

The main reason we build buildings is for the roof.  It keeps rain off and gives us shade.  You can have a building with very limited walls, but you can’t call it a building if it doesn’t have a roof.  In a band setting, the roof represents the melody.  Without a melody it’s not a song.  A chord progression or a grove is not a song.

An intrumental will usually have a melody too, although it may not always be a “melody instrument” – in fact, in some music, the melody is carried by the bass.

But we’re talking about a song, which has a main voice as the melody.

At this point, though, let me pause and say that the main voice is actually not simply the song leader.  We don’t have a “lead singer” approach in church, we have a song leader. That is, the congregation is actually the main voice.  Our band arrangements and mixing of the vocals must always keep this in mind.  In practical terms, I’d say that the main melody is a gently balanced combination of song leader and congregation.

So that’s the roof.

A roof needs to be held up by structures that prop it up off the ground, and in the contemporary band setting, this is usually your middle of the range instruments, such as acoustic and electric guitars, plus piano or keyboard.  They are rhythmic instruments, acting like walls holding up a roof.  It is primarily their rhythmic nature that makes them structurally significant.  They will often play melodies too (the right amount of counter-melodies shared across a band will generally add a great deal of beauty to the sound).  But their main structural role is their rhythm.

So as with a building where walls are laid out in a proper load-bearing fashion, in a song, the rhythms need to be appropriately played to bear the load of the particular melody.  Does it imply an 8s feel or 16s feel? Is it a ballad style of melody? Is it in some kind of triple time such as 6/8 or 3/4?  What is the most stable way of expressing this feel using the instrumentation available?  If each member of the band is thinking substantially differently on these structural questions, it won’t sound very good. Experienced musicians will tend to get this right intuitively.  Beginners may need to think it through more systematically in the early days.

Of course, walls are useless as load bearing structures unless they are solidly stuck to the ground! In the band setting, the footings or foundations are the bass and the drums.  They of course impact (or must be impacted by) the rhythmic structures of the middle of the range instruments.  But their role tends to be more fundamental or foundational.

First of all, drums.  A band is only as good as its drummer.  When a drummer is solid, there is a far greater likelihood that the rest of the rhythm will be solid.  However, when a drummer is not solid, it is actually impossible for the rest of the rhythm to be solid.

Second, bass.  One of the reasons the bass is so crucial is that as well as being a foundational rhythmic structure, it is the most important counter-melody for the main voices.  It provides the harmonic bed of ‘concrete’ on which everything else is placed.  It needs to be mixed in such a way that as you are singing in the congregation you can hear it!  Obviously nothing should be over-emphasised in a mix, but understanding the bass’s role as a foundational rhythmic and harmonic feature should mean that our mixes actually encourage congregational singing volume (which I think is an important goal).

Finally, there is the trimming in any building.  Synths tend to be like mortar holding all the bricks together, or render smoothing out roughness.  Harmonies and counter melodies are the things that create interest throughout the building’s interior.  These can be done with dedicated melody instruments, with voices, or with your keyboards or guitars, depending on what your band has available.

No analogy is perfect, but hopefully this helps create a sense of what what each instrument’s purpose is within a contemporary band, and will help players, band leaders and sound mixers to work towards both beautiful and effective accompaniment to the singing of praise by our congregations.


Music Ministry: Trellis or Vine?

I was recently asked whether music ministry is a “ministry of the word” or a “ministry that supports the ministry of the word”.  Interesting question!  There’s quite a bit behind the question, which I’ll get to.  But I should clarify at the outset that by “the word”, the questioner was referring to the Bible and the message of salvation contained within it, not just to a general sense of word versus musical note, or visual image.

Ever since I started as Music Minister at my church (Holy Trinity Adelaide) I’ve been encouraging people to think of music as a ministry of the word.  In particular, one of the key New Testament verses that shapes our ministry is Colossians 3:16, which every church musician should memorise:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.  (NIV 2011)

The idea is that the congregation sings the word, and sings in response to the word.  This message of Christ is the key topic and the key driver and shaper of our singing.  So in one sense, the answer is obvious.  Yes, music is a ministry of the word.

But if someone is thinking of getting involved in music ministry, are they getting involved in a ministry of the word?  Let me put it more sharply: if someone has gifts of being able to lead a Bible study as well as being an accomplished musician, should they choose Bible study leading at the expense of the musical blessing they can be to the congregation?  Let’s face it, we yearn for our music to sound good!

A few years ago, I came across a book called The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne.  It challenged some of my thinking around ministry, particularly by showing the priority of word ministry.  The word is the vine… it lives and grows.  The book of Acts talks about the word as if it is a character in the story (e.g. Acts 19:20).

But a vine needs the support of a trellis to grow properly.  In ministry, trellises are those supporting activities that open doors for word ministry, make it happen more efficiently and effectively.  Think accounting, plumbing, and electrical.  Or think strategy and vision meetings, or in a gathering itself, think counting attendees, welcoming visitors, operating the sound desk and lighting… the list could be very long.

These things are all essential for word ministry to happen.  In Acts 6, the Apostles were set aside from having to wait on tables specifically so they could devote themselves to the ministry of the word and prayer.  Then, 7 men known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom were appointed to manage the logistics of life in church.  The first Christian martyr (Stephen) was of course one of these 7.

One of the arguments of The Trellis and the Vine is that we should follow this priority of the ministry of the word over its supporting activities.  The reality is, a lot of Christians get very distracted by the supporting activities… there are so many things to keep in mind.

There is a real temptation for churches to lose their way.  We can even find ourselves thinking that trellises create growth in our churches.  We see business strategy, marketing or restructuring working in the secular world, and we assume that we could expect the same results within the church.  We hear extraordinary music played at a concert and we feel that we could impact lives for Christ by trying to emulate the same powerful performances and high production values in the church.

We are well advised not to fall into this trap.  I’m not saying that we should ignore the wisdom that we can glean from the world.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t have music that is even higher in quality than what you would hear in a concert hall or rock music venue.  I’m just agreeing with the writers of The Trellis and the Vine that it isn’t these things that grow the church… it is the gospel: the message that Jesus is alive and that he brings eternal life.

We need constantly to let that message be the engine room of all church activities.  If we’re going to do strategy, let it be gospel strategy.  If we’re going to do marketing, let’s market the gospel.  If we’re going to do music well, let it be music driven by, and seeking to make known, the message of Christ.

So is music ministry trellis ministry or vine ministry?

I think like many other activities, it’s a bit of both.  Bible study leading for example involves emailing people to organise things, buying food, making tea and coffee.  These are all trellis activities.

But it also involves the crucial task of opening the Bible, both in preparation and in the study time itself, and seeking to bring it to bear on the lives of the people in the group.  Sometimes the study itself will be sufficient to teach and admonish.  Other times one-to-one follow up might be needed to help people to apply the Bible to their lives.

Music ministry similarly has both vine and trellis aspects.  If you’re involved in arranging scores, planning or running rehearsals, tuning, fixing or even playing instruments, you may be in trellis ministry alone, depending on the approach.

But there are 3 key aspects of music ministry that are vine ministry, and potentially a 4th.  They are: song writing, song choosing, and song leading.  The possible 4th is band leading, if the manner in which you lead your band involves opening up the word for the band.  Let’s look at them in turn.

1. Song writing – we have a group of budding song writers in my church network.  Whenever they write a song, they are deeply buried in the Bible.  They’re trying to understand things, apply things to everyday life, and re-express things in their own words.  When I’m writing a song at the piano, the music stand becomes my Bible stand.

2. Song choosing – when I get together with band leaders, one of the things we regularly do is choose the songs for the next time they will lead.  This involves usually a half hour or more of me asking searching questions of the text, trying to determine the big idea, key ways to apply the text, and the response that a passage demands of a congregation.

I do this with my music interns on a weekly basis.  As a result, they are receiving training in Biblical exegesis that is not widely available in our church: weekly one-to-one Bible coaching by a senior staff member.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that music leaders often make great Bible study leaders.

3. Song leading – when I’m leading singing at a conference or in church, I see myself as being in a role very similar to that of the preacher.  I’m on the platform, throwing my heart, soul, mind and voice into the task of urging, persuading, encouraging and admonishing people through the message of Christ.  They are often not words I’ve written myself, but they are words that I own personally when I’m up the front.

Different churches have different models of song leading.  On some platforms, the song leader is given the opportunity to introduce the songs verbally, using ideas from the song, a verse or two from a relevant part of the Bible, or prayer or word of encouragement.  In other churches, song leaders lead by simply singing the lyrics of the song.

But regardless of the distinctions, it’s pretty clear that they are in the job of communicating the message of Jesus.

4. Band leading – I believe rehearsals should be times of Christian growth.  In our AM church band rehearsals, which I’ve been running in a fairly consistent format for most of the last 12 months, we always talk about the message of Christ in the songs.  I ask everyone to place aside their instrument or microphone and come and sing around the piano.  We have a simple process:

  1. Choose a song to sing through (often a less familiar one, which has additional benefits!)
  2. Sing it once
  3. I ask the group what the song is about… we talk about it, I summarise the thoughts and try to persuade everyone how significant the content is.
  4. We sing it again, this time with far deeper connection with the ideas
  5. We launch straight into prayers of praise, thanks and appealing to God to bring these same truths home for the people who will gather in the services we’re rehearsing for.

Only then do we get into rehearsing the songs as a band.

So in my music ministry, I’m trying to increase the number of people involved with the word/vine aspects of what we do.  For me this means developing what it means to be a song leader or band leader.  There are plenty of players whose chief area is trellis work, but a growing number of people directly involved in vine work.

I generally work towards music ministry constituting a part time involvement for people, unless they’re doing an internship or some other intense program.  I am keen for everyone in our ministry to be involved in a range of other ministries, both vine and trellis ministries.  In particular, I believe that if people have the gifts to be involved in the ministry of the word, then the best training is diverse training.

Perhaps this next statement is controversial for some, but the logic is hard to beat: Someone who develops Biblical understanding through song choosing and through Bible study leading will be better equipped than someone who only develops understanding through Bible study leading.  There is just so much to learn by choosing songs.

Most of our music ministry members are also either Bible study group leaders, youth group leaders, children’s ministry workers, preachers, members of young adults groups, and members of all sorts of other groups in which they serve.  I work hard not to over-schedule people, because burn-out is always a risk with people giving loads of their time.

But I need to finish with what I think is a really important point.  There is a real tendency to de-value trellis work.  And I think this is just as unbiblical as it is not to set aside vine workers for vine work.  In 1 Corinthians 12 & 13, Paul speaks about a range of gifts, including those that we should eagerly desire.  But love is to be the driving characteristic of how any gift should be exercised.

The distinction between trellis and vine is not about one person’s work being more valuable than another’s, but about the fact that neither should be jeopardised by everything being blurred into one category.

It is appropriate that ministers be set aside for preaching and praying, just as the Apostles were in Acts.  But it is also appropriate for us to have high standards that we expect of those we recruit into trellis work, just as was applied to the wise and Spirit-filled 7 in Acts.

So in music, I am deeply grateful for gifted musicians!  And I know our congregations are too.  Their trellises enable the vine aspects of our work to be presented clearly and strongly, without distractions, appropriately carrying the lofty content of the word of God.

We often talk about the PRIORITY of preaching… perhaps this is a good way to think about the distinction in music too, without saying that some people are greater than others.   Let’s try to see the gospel as the great gift, and our skill-gifts as means to honour the gospel gift.

Everyone in the church should be seeking to make sure the preaching of the word is happening as the primary activity, both those who support it with wide-ranging trellis type gifts, and those who are given that unique Biblical insight and communication ability.  All of us in the church should pray for that deep yearning from within the soul to see the church and its visitors dwelling richly on the message of Christ.





How to plan music for a service (Part 4 Final: Step-by-step song selection)

So, this is part 4.  Do you need to read parts 1-3 before actually choosing the songs for a service?

No, I suppose.  Every generation makes a contribution.

But I think we make an infinitely more valuable contribution if we humbly stand on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us.  It helps us to see what we’re trying to do.

In fact, try asking yourself that very question: what exactly ARE you trying to do when you pick songs for church?  Common responses:

  • Satisfy congregational music preferences?
  • Satisfy your own music preferences?
  • Connect with people emotionally?
  • Re-state the Bible text for the sermon musically?
  • Maintain the particular musical characteristics of your church?

I think each of these are actually valid: if a congregation’s preferences are ignored, they won’t enjoy it; your preferences are often as good a benchmark as anyone else’s; songs that are not emotionally connecting might as well just be spoken rather than sung; restating scripture musically opens it to a new fresh hearing; a church that changes its traditions continually and suddenly will run the risk of losing its congregation.

In parts 1-3 however, I have tried to demonstrate that singing in church is an activity for which we can draw a great deal of wise guidance both from history and from the Bible itself.

In part 1, I suggested that music is the new liturgy.  That is, in place of the formal prayers, readings and other liturgical content of the prayer book services of the past, we have inserted songs.  Often up to a third or even half a service can be singing.  So the big question is: does our music feed our people with a weekly diet of gospel re-expression the way the old liturgies used to?

In part 2, from some of the basic ideas of the old liturgy, I outlined a 4-part service structure into which we can slot our song choices to try to achieve some of the things we might otherwise lose:

1. Approaching – is the part of the service in which we draw near to God in faith and confidence on the basis of the gospel.  As such, it is a time for spelling out in no uncertain terms what the gospel is, particularly if the teaching on that day is not expected to cover it explicitly.

2. Hearing – is the part of the service in which we hear and reflect on a part of God’s word, and where it is expounded for us.  You don’t actually need to sing at this point, unless you have something to reinforce the text.

3. Responding – is the part of the service in which the congregation specifically responds to the word that has been heard.

3. Sending – is the part of the service in which the people of God prepare to return into the world in which we are witnesses for Christ.  So songs that challenge us to have an outward focus are suitable.

In part 3, we turned to the Bible, and saw how we are exhorted to a particular approach to singing in Colossians 3:16 – that of a 3-way conversation between God, you, and the rest of the gathering around you.  God is the initiator of that conversation, and we need to make sure we are willing and enthusiastic listeners, as well as those who re-express his word enthusiastically to each other.

So that’s a summary of parts 1-3… maybe you don’t need to read them after all!

But what difference does this context make?  Is it really that significant?

Well, if I’m honest, I think we’re often up against pride in this discussion.  I remember many, many occasions when I have sat in a dreamy state at my keyboard and imagined the perfect musical moments in church.  Perhaps this is what has taken me into music ministry… I have imagined a passionate congregation singing vibrantly, completely unashamed to lift their voices and their eyes to heaven and belt out a deafening chorus of praise.

I’ve tried to imagine writing the songs that would lead to that kind of spiritual and emotional engagement… I’ve seen myself as the leader of that moment of devotion… the selector of the songs, and then the model of music ministry that people would want to flock to in order experience the same things.

I think a lot of people involved in music ministry have this sense of what it could be.  We think it’s worth the effort, not only because Christ is honoured, but also because people are switched on to him, they are empowered for Christian living, and they are an extraordinarily powerful witness of the realness of faith to any in the gathering who are not Christians.

But nearly 25 years of involvement in music ministry has taught me that I’m not the answer to this.  And I don’t mean to be irreverent, but I have also learned that… it’s not my problem.

It’s certainly my concern, it’s my plea and challenge to the congregations I’m involved with, my area of faithful service, and of course, my prayer, in the same way that it’s my concern that many of my friends do not know Christ.  But God himself is the one whose Spirit needs to work to bring this result.

I believe strongly that my responsibility is to be faithful. For me to be fruitful is God’s responsibility.

This is liberating.  It means that my priority is not pleasing people, impressing people, persuading people, even impacting them emotionally through my song choices.  My priority is faithfulness to God’s word and his people.  But please note: I’m not saying that faithfulness doesn’t involve appropriate persuasion and emotional challenge.

So, I believe that following the patterns of the Bible and the history of the church are essential to my ministry in the present.  They are the vehicles used by God for his work amongst his people.  And be sure of this, his Spirit WILL bear fruit.  People who are exposed to the properly and faithfully expressed gospel WILL respond in joyful, passionate worship.  Not all of them, of course.

Ok, so having laid a detailed foundation, here is the process I use:

1. Read the passage that will be preached on – I’m assuming a model of Bible expounding in which the preachers will attempt to say nothing more or less than what they believe God is saying through a passage.  The passage won’t be used as a springboard for what the preacher thinks is the more important issue of the day.  I’m also assuming that the preacher will adequately put the passage into the context of the unfolding revelation of the whole Bible.

2. Identify the main point of the passage – i.e. finish the sentence, “This passage is saying that …” or “This passage is about …”  It involves considering the context of the section of the Bible.  Some examples:

  • Gen 22 (Abraham being challenged to sacrifice Isaac): “This passage is saying that God commended Abraham for his supreme act of faith”
  • Mark 4 (Parable of the sower): “This passage is saying that there is a variety of responses as people hear the word of God”
  • Eph 6 (Armour of God): “This passage is saying that the elements of the Gospel itself are the means God uses to help people to persevere.”

3. Identify the main application of the passage – i.e. finish the sentence, “This passage is telling us …”  This involves moving from the specific context of the Bible passage to life today and the circumstances of our people.  Some examples:

  • Gen 22 (Abraham): “This passage is telling us to have faith that God will fulfil his promises”.
  • Mark 4 (Sower): “This passage is telling us to be aware of the things that may make us fail to hear God properly”
  • Eph 6 (Armour): “This passage is telling us to remember the key elements of the gospel when we feel under attack”.

4. Identify phrases that a congregation could say in response to this main application – i.e. finish this sentence, “The congregation could respond to this by saying …”.  Examples:

  • Gen 22: “Your promises are trustworthy” or “You will always achieve your purposes” or “Lord, I will put my faith in you”.
  • Mark 4: “Thank you Lord for speaking to us” or “Help us to hear you clearly” or “Lord I turn away from idols and distractions”.
  • Eph 6: “Thank you for saving us and protecting us” or “We rejoice in our righteousness, our salvation, the truth that saves us, and the word that has power”.

5. Identify a “response song” that says a similar thing to these phrases – i.e. get to know all your song lyrics well!  Titles of songs are sometimes a helpful clue, but not always.  Here are some thoughts about a few well known songs:

  • The song “Indescribable” is saying, “Your creation shows us that you are amazing”.  It does use the word “indescribable” in the chorus, but that’s only part of the picture of the song.
  • The song “Blessed be your name” is saying, “Even when times are tough, the Lord is worthy of praise”.  That is, it’s not necessarily a happy song, but it is a song that points us to God even when we’re not happy.  It is about the Lord’s name being special, but particularly about how this is true regardless of our circumstances.
  • The song “Mighty to save” is saying, “We need salvation and God is totally up to the task”.
  • The song “In Christ alone” actually is saying exactly what its title suggests.  This little phrase comes up surprisingly often for me as a phrase of response.

Please note, I’ve only listed these songs because they’re well known on just about every corner of the planet.  In my experience, there needs to be a fair amount of topical breadth in my repertoire to choose response songs well.  You may find it difficult to find the perfect song every Sunday that puts into the mouths of the congregation the response that a specific part of God’s word is calling for.  But it’s worth spending time on this.  When you do find that right song, it can be a powerful moment of the Holy Spirit at work.  People will be given EMOTIVE, CORPORATE VOICE in their response to the word of God.

6. Identify a “sending song” that helps people to take the gospel out the door – i.e. develop a group of songs relating to “out-the-door” type topics, such as:

  • Evangelism and mission
  • Implications of the gospel for holy Christian living
  • Hope of the Lord’s return, and readiness

I think sending songs should instil confidence, have a positive tone, and leave people with a song ringing in their ears.  Some songs that I find work well for sending (as long as you don’t use them all the time!):

  • I cannot tell
  • See him coming
  • Song for the nations
  • Let your kingdom come
  • Live for the kingdom
  • Be thou my vision
  • Stand up, stand up for Jesus
  • O the mercy of God
  • Living for your glory

7. Considering the theme of the Bible passage (and appropriate response), choose “Approaching songs” that pick up any core gospel ideas not yet expressed in the songs you’ve chosen.  Please note, I believe that our music should always tell the gospel in the same way that our liturgy used to in days gone by.  Every Sunday we need to proclaim the basic message of God reaching out to sinners through Christ, declaring them righteous through his blood, and raising them up with the resurrected Christ to bring eternal reconciliation.  This is the message that makes us the church.  And yet it will often not be specifically covered by the sermon, even if the preacher is competent and faithful.

This is why I choose “Approaching songs” last.  If the response to the message is best conveyed through a song like “In Christ Alone”, then the gospel is thoroughly covered in that selection.  But if the response is to devote ourselves to serving Christ, then the gospel has not necessarily been expounded.  We must not assume that people can manage without this weekly repeating of the gospel message, using the array of songs available to us.

8. Organise Approaching songs around a “theologic” – ok I made this word up.  But it simply means trying to use gospel logic.  The structure of the song list can then be part of the teaching provided by our music ministry.  Some examples:

  • We are only forgiven if we repent of our sins; we repent because we know we cannot face God unrepentant.  The logic in this can be spelled out as follows: 1. God is holy; 2. Sinners must repent (or confess sin) before him; 3. God forgives through the gospel.  So you could choose songs that allow you to tell that story to the congregation.
  • 1. God’s word created the universe; 2. God’s word (Christ) also redeemed the universe; 3. God’s word therefore gives us hope for the future
  • 1. God is revealed through creation as mighty, glorious; 2. God is revealed through the gospel as also being merciful, faithful, righteous, holy and wise.

Use creativity!  But always within the context of being faithful to the message.  It might be a good idea to run some of these ideas past your pastor and get some input as to how we can tell the gospel story through our song choices.

9. Provide rationales – if you’re going to put this work into song choice, you might as well let people know what is behind your choices.  In particular, if a person other than yourself is going to introduce them (e.g. a song leader, a service leader or a preacher) then let them know why you’ve picked the songs you’ve picked.  Our church uses an online service planning tool so that everyone involved in planning and running the service can see the same document.  It has a “description” field, where I try to put these rationales.  They then get seen by everyone, and picked up as appropriate in the running of the service.

Thanks for reading… this is a pretty detailed process.  I’m sure there are shortcuts.  And of course there are other ways of doing it.  However you approach this, remember that singing is a ministry of the word and Spirit of God.  Let’s pray that our song choices make the most of the opportunity to share God’s gospel with his people.


How to plan music for a service (Part 3: 3-way communication)

3-way communication is the sort of thing that happens in a meeting of three people.  Perhaps one person speaks, the other two listen.  Views are challenged and modified perhaps, or reinforced.  Then a second person speaks and a response is now out there for the two new hearers to take on board.  A third participant may do the same.

Will the conversation lead to modification or reinforcement of views?  Will it lead to consensus, unity, and maybe growth of relationship?  Or will it lead to frustration, disagreement, or possibly even alienation?

The kind of 3-way communication that happens in a church meeting has some of the same outcomes: growth, unity, life transformations, as well as negative responses.  And when one of those in the conversation is the infinite and invisible Sovereign Lord God, it takes a slightly different shape from anything else we know.

His speech is through his word.  So I guess we need to make sure he gets a hearing.  Although his word is eternal and unchanging, we have the choice every Sunday to allow him to open his mouth or not.  Of course he may speak to peoples’ hearts independently of our willingness to put his word in our gatherings.  But even to them it will be through his word that he speaks.  Kind of obvious when you think about it.

There are many bits of our services through which his voice may be heard.  Probably the most important of these is a Bible reading.  It doesn’t have to be long, or from a lectern.  It must be understandable, and must be done with respect for the speaker, and awareness of the desperate need the hearer has to hear it.

Preaching is another part of the service through which the voice of God is heard.  If a preacher is not preaching the word of God, then what exactly is being preached?

And of course, singing is another key part of the service in which we can hear the voice of God.  As Paul says in Colossians 3:16, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”

So it’s not automatic.  It will be out of obedience to God’s word here that we make our singing a means by which the congregation can dwell on the gospel of Jesus.

This is really important for anyone planning music for a service… don’t just assume because you’re singing that you are allowing God to speak.  And it should also be said, don’t feel that while we’re singing together you need God’s voice to be heard separately from the song.  The point is, when the people read the words of our message on the screen and then sing them together, God is speaking.

Now in applying this, perhaps we may choose songs that are loaded full of gospel content, and neglect to provide for people’s response.  The best songs are those that contain “revelation” and “response”.  These should be seamlessly woven together.

This is what the ancient hymns often do exceptionally well.  I believe that this is one of the reasons why we are still singing so many songs from 200 years ago and more… that they combine the wonderful truths of the gospel with a personal response.

For example,

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the Prince of Glory died

My richest gain I count but loss

And pour contempt on all my pride.

This wonderful verse tells us of a cross on which Christ died.  It tells us that he was the prince of glory, which is a bitter irony: why would the Prince of Glory die on a cross?  That is a BIG question.  It DEMANDS an honest answer (if you are someone who believes that this death was for you).

The appropriate answer is to admit that I live a life of pride and that I have a distorted view of what is truly valuable in the world.  I must re-evaluate, and I must hate that pride that dwells within my flesh.

Isaac Watt’s lyrics say the same thing as these 2 paragraphs, but in a much more concise, poetic, captivating manner.  And that’s why we love to sing it.  The lyrics are not just objectively good.  They are subjectively powerful. That is, when the members of our congregations sing them, they will hopefully be impacted.  They will step into the verse.  “I” in the verse will be owned personally by all of those he’s and she’s before us in the gathering.

What happens when you sing a song in which God speaks and the people respond is that those around us are impacted.  When we sing a moving song in the congregation, we are impacted by the gospel content through which we exhort one another.  But we are also impacted by the response of our brothers and sisters around us.  When people adopt the “I” or the “we” in the song as their own, and do so with conviction and personal response, we are drawn into it.

And so we’re having a 3-way conversation.

God speaks, we respond to him, and we minister to one another.  If you look back carefully at Colossians 3:16, you’ll see that this is what Paul is saying.  This is how our singing should work: with the message of the gospel dwelling richly, as we’re blessing one another with our songs and expressing a response of gratitude to God.

So, in choosing songs:

  1. Ask in what way a song will be proclaiming the message of Christ
  2. Ask how well it enables the congregation to teach and admonish one another
  3. Ask whether it enables the congregation to respond to God gratefully.

If you keep this 3-way conversation in mind, your congregational singing should be a  vehicle for God’s rich blessing.


How to plan music for a service (Part 2: The Pastoral Ministry of Structure)

One of the sayings I tend to overuse is: “The right song at the right time for the right person can change your life”.  I say it so often because it says something crucial about what we’re doing when we sing in church.  I believe that singing is a pastoral ministry.  In a similar way to how preaching brings the word of God to bear on people’s lives, so too singing.

Whereas the average sermon might be 2000-3000 words in length, the average song is 200-300 words in length.  This gives songs the distinct advantage of being easy to remember, easy to understand and potentially easy to categorise (assuming they’re well written).

Singing can therefore be part of our teaching program.  A church’s life together will be greatly enhanced if its teaching through sermons and singing are well integrated.

Of course in Colossians 3:16, Paul challenges the church to “Let the word of Christ (the gospel) dwell richly”, and ties together the functions of teaching and admonishing with singing.  How do we actually do this?  Songs need their own space, but they are part of an agenda that is far bigger than just musical.

In part 1, I suggested that music has tended to take the place of liturgy in our churches.  Therefore, thinking a little bit liturgically about our songs is likely to reap rewards.

Set prayers and readings, specific instructions for how a service will run, and a 1 year or 3 year cycle of Bible passages are the stuff of prayer books.  Without becoming predictable and boring, we can draw principles from this that will help us to have a road map for what church can look like, and for the role of singing within our services.

In actual fact, I think that a lack of imagination and creativity in the way we plan services is more likely to lead to predictability and boredom than a lack of structure.  Structure simply shows us the opportunities for imagination, whilst at the same time helping us to stick to a planned course.  All forms of art depend heavily on structure.

I adopt a 4 part structure to our services, and then I select songs that will fit those 4 different parts appropriately.  I won’t tell you my song choosing process just yet – that will be the subject of a later blog.  But the 4 parts help us to think what is happening at different points in the service.  These are not rocket-science, but they are drawn from the pattern laid down in many prayer book services.



This is the idea of “Drawing Near to God”.  Our people cannot remain detached when our service gets underway.  We are not Christians unless we come to God in the first place: the truths of the gospel need to be taken hold of, appropriated by each person.  Repentance is not a work by which we are saved.  It is a turning away from our godless life to faith in him and his gospel.

A repeated coming to God throughout our lives is what the Christian life to a great extent consists of.  Whether in repentance of sins, in prayer, in searching the Scriptures, and even in our good works towards others, there is a drawing near to God.

In the regular gathering of the people, we expect to encounter God in extraordinary ways.   We should anticipate every church service being a time when we hear the eternal voice of God and respond with thoughts, words and actions of our own that are renewed by that encounter.

Therefore, songs at this point in the service can play out that encounter with God.  We might choose a song that reminds us of his character or power, or infinite, eternal nature.  We would do well to remind each other that he is our creator and sustainer, and in fact the judge before whom we must all stand.

But I believe that ESSENTIAL to this time of “approaching” is the re-expression of the key elements of the gospel of Christ.  The message of Christ is the GROUNDS for our approaching God, so when we fail to mention it, we run the risk of giving people false confidence.

When we encounter God, we encounter him as our redeemer and saviour.  He is the Father of the prodigal son, who meets him on the way home, running undignified, determined to restore.  We need to tell people this message every Sunday.

This heading of “approaching” can include under it a range of songs, prayers, verses of Scripture, or words of edification.  It is a crucial part of the service, and not only shapes the tone of our meeting, but far more importantly, the establishes the validity of our meeting.  We meet IN Christ, under his banner of salvation.  Without that, it’s not church.


Where part 1 of a service restates core topics and ideas from the Bible that summarise our relationship with him, part 2 is about the word for the day.  When we hear the Bible read, preached, summarised, dramatised, or sung, we are hearing the voice of God.  This too is fundamental to church.

Most churches have a preaching program, and when that program is based around a systematic plan for working through the whole Bible over a given period of time, I believe it is best suited to hearing the voice of God on his terms.

Despite the fact that there are many difficult sections of the Bible, the words in it are his words to us, even if they often need careful explanation and application.  I strongly recommend that churches let the books of the Bible set the agenda for our preaching programs.  That is, rather than preaching on random Bible verses or ideas, we can benefit from structuring our program to make sure our congregations understand how the Bible fits together.  If we preach a series on a gospel, then a book of Old Testament narrative, then a New Testament epistle (for example), we have the opportunity to help people understand how that small section fits within the whole Bible.

Of course there are many times when our preachers need to help us through particular issues that are thrown up at us from life, whether relationships, politics, work life, or family, etc.  Also, there are times to try to help the congregation to get on top of key theological ideas, such as grace, holiness, wisdom, love, sin, wrath, heaven and hell, etc.  However I still believe that the priority is to hear GOD’s voice on all of these things, and so putting the Bible at the centre of the service is essential.

I often don’t actually choose songs for this part of the service.  We don’t need to have singing at every point.  But if a Bible passage for the day is echoed in a song I know, it will often be in this part of the service that we might sing it, usually before the talk or sermon.

We might occasionally put a performance item prior to a Bible reading or sermon to ask questions that are then answered by the word.  I don’t put secular songs in unless we’re going to make reference to them specifically.  And I want the word to come after the question.


Once we hear the word, we need to respond to it.  Without a response, we cannot say that we’ve properly heard.  But neither should a response be contrived, or vastly different from the call of whatever passage of Scripture we’ve been listening to.

When preachers are preparing, they first seek to understand the passage, and then to apply the passage to their hearers.  This “application” is really important.  For example, what does the story of the Good Samaritan mean for this particular crowd?  How should we understand the Exodus out of Egypt… should we be asking God to open unexpected paths for us, or should we be rejoicing in the fact that he used his mighty power to bring salvation for his people and we should put our trust in him for our own salvation?

The application of that passage of Scripture will lead to a certain call for response.  After we hear the word of God, we should be adapting our lives accordingly.  Depending on the passage, that response might be to trust, to pray, to rejoice, to give thanks, to share the faith with others, to repent of sin, to ask for wisdom in a situation, to grip more strongly to a particular promise of the gospel, or any number of other things.

This requires considerable wisdom, careful consideration and prayer on the part of those choosing songs to follow the hearing of the word.  It can be very helpful to ask the preacher beforehand how he would like the people to respond to his message.

But not only does this require a mature knowledge of the Bible, it requires a mature knowledge of the songs available for the congregation to sing.  There are hundreds of thousands of songs to choose from these days, and I’m not just looking for the song that will make the congregation feel the most intense emotion possible.  Nor am I trying to find a song that just says the same thing as the passage.  I’m after a song that puts into words the response that is called for by the passage.

So for example, in the case of the Exodus out of Egypt, there is a display of the Lord’s great power, through which he brings salvation to his people.  An appropriate response song will effectively praise God for his power and thank him for our own salvation.

In the case of New Testament exhortations to love and unity within the church, an appropriate response song might praise God for the wonderful eternal work he is doing in the church and exhort each other to love and kindness.

Since Jesus is the centre of our faith, I usually try to bring him into the picture too, somehow.  I would prefer a song that helps the people to see how things are shaped around Christ than one that didn’t.

Clearly this can be a complex task.  But if ever the right song at the right time was essential, it’s at this point of response to hearing the word of God.


The final part of the service is the interface between being in the church and being in the world.  People are about to walk out your doors and return to their lives.  So what do you want them to carry with them?

Our place in this world as Christians is to be lights in a dark place.  We shine the light of the gospel through our words and witness and through the way we live our lives.

People need encouragement at this point.  They need something that stirs them to this noble task of living for Christ.

There are a number of themes that work well at this end of the service:

  • dedication to Christ’s service
  • commitment to mission and evangelism
  • reminder of the hope of eternal life
  • re-centreing people on Christ
  • expression of the joy of salvation

This list is not exhaustive.  The end of a service is a time for expressing our confidence, and reminding each other of the one whom we worship, and the one in whom we place our trust as we live our lives.  


Well, I realise I’m suggesting quite a detailed approach to how a service can or should be structured.  But without some kind of plan for what we’re doing, services tend to become predictable in a bad sense, rather than reliable in a positive sense.  These are not rules, although I do believe they follow a Biblical pattern.

I’d love to hear of churches coming to grips with just how powerful a service can be, not just because of powerful personalities, but because of careful planning that makes God the main personality, and puts the gospel of our salvation as the main event each week.