Have church people stopped singing?

It seems to me that church people don’t sing like they used to.

First, a few caveats:

  1. I really don’t know about churches aside from the ones we visit and when we visit we generally visit Nazarenes and their kin.
  2. Of course, I don’t know about YOUR church – maybe people there sing to the top of their lungs.
  3. And, of course, I’m not talking about YOU.  You may be on the Praise Team with a microphone and singing loud and strong throughout the worship service.

Now, with all that out of the way, let me tell you what I’m seeing.  We are pretty much professional church visitors through most of the year.  The worship service in the vast majority of the churches we visit looks and sounds pretty much the same:

  1. There’s a Praise Band: guitar, keyboard, bass, drums – maybe other keyboard instruments (in interest of full disclosure, I play bass guitar whenever I am asked)
  2. There are singers with microphones who sing with energy
  3. The words are on the screen
  4. Everyone is standing anytime there is music being played

So far so good.  We have music being played – generally well played.  We have leaders who are singing out.  We have the words and, most often, a repeatable melody.

But very few people are singing.  Usually, the church leaders are really into it: hands and faces raised in worship.  Scattered around the congregation are others who are singing along.  However, they are the minority.  My most generous estimate is that 1 in 10 worshipers are singing.  Everyone else is just standing there.

Maybe that’s not all bad.  Maybe they are carefully listening to the words, reading them on the screen and being deeply moved by it all.  I don’t know their hearts and I understand that it’s really none of my business.  My business is to be in the moment, turning my thoughts and spirit away from the mundane things of life and focusing on the Lord.

However, my hip starts aching after a while and it starts feeling to me like we’re saying the same words over and over again.  I can’t help but wonder how much longer we’re going linger at this particular stage of worship.

So, I start looking around, being impressed by the sincerity of the folks who are, apparently, really into the worship service.  But I also note that a lot of folks are just standing there like me.

I know I’m one of the senior citizens now and the old people always complain that things used to be better – longing for the good old days.  I don’t want to be one of those people.   I think the point could be made that people just don’t sing any more.  Rather, they go to concerts, stand and listen while people on stage do the singing.  I’m convinced that the concert goers aren’t there for a show, and they really do worship.  Maybe when those concert goers go to church they treat the worship service as another Christian music concert.  They are there to worship but not to sing.

Still, I keep going back to a worship service we attended  in a large church a couple of years ago.  We were near the front, center and, yes, we were standing for the whole song service.  There was a Praise Band and singers with microphones and words on the screens.  There was also a pipe organ and grand piano.  And we were singing a 250 year old Wesley hymn.

The congregation was singing their hearts out.  At first I joined in, singing bass as best I could.  Then I became overwhelmed and had to stop singing.  I just stood there letting the sound of all the voices wash over me.

I miss being part of a congregation that sings like that.

And, by the way, my hip didn’t hurt at all that day.

Thinking about the tomb that first Easter morning

empty-tombIn a cold, dark, dead tomb a corpse is wrapped in a shroud. No motion, no life.

Then, there’s a small motion as cells in the body begin returning to life. Tissue begins to regenerate and suddenly the body moves as the dead man takes a deep breath.

He stirs and finding himself bound by the shroud casts it off. He sits up and then removes that which was wrapped around his head and lays it off to the side.

There’s nothing frightening about all this. In an unexplainable way it all feels “right” – the way it should be.

In a flash of brilliant white light an angel appears in the tomb. The angel immediately falls to the ground, bowing, “My Lord and my God” he says.

At that moment the stone sealing the entrance to the tomb is rolled away. A second angel bows low, “My King,” he says.

The Resurrected One smiles and cheerfully replies, “Good morning! I think I’ll go for a walk in the Garden.”

Sing it right! “Christ Arose”

There are a lot of great Easter songs, both old and new.  However, I think my all time favorite is Robert Lowry’s “Christ Arose.”  “Up from the grave he arose” never fails to get my spiritual heart to pumping!  This old song, to me, captures the resurrection with powerful words and a simple melody that the congregation can sing with joyful abandon.

But many churches don’t know how to sing it!

The song is supposed to contrast between “low in the grave he lay” and “up from the grave he arose.”   The verse is “in the grave.”  It’s a funeral song.  The chorus is Easter resurrection: victory over the grave.  It’s exciting and joyful – maybe even a little giddy.

The verse and chorus aren’t supposed to be sung at the same speed.   Stated simply, sing the chorus at twice the speed of the verse.  Don’t over think it – sing the chorus like you are four years old at a birthday party and having the time of your life.

Then, Lowry ingeniously puts the brakes on with the final lines of the chorus, preparing the singers to slow down again for the next verse.

Please share this with every worship leader you know who, having never heard this song sung right before, are destroying (yes, it’s an over-statement) an awesome Easter hymn!

Holy Saturday

Saturday of Holy Week carries a weight of its own. This day speaks to people facing great disappointment, people who are hurt and confused, and people who cry out to God but have received no answer.

Since we have the advantage of knowing what tomorrow is all about we tend to see Holy Saturday as merely a day of preparation for the big celebration, but the day actually has its own message.

This day speaks to people who are hurt and confused; to those who are living in a spiritual desert where the voice of God has not been heard. Holy Saturday teaches us to be stubborn in our faith; insisting on standing firm in it even when it feels as if all is lost.

Good Friday is a “No Parking Zone”

parkingThe story of the Crucifixion is powerful. The cross was more an instrument of torture than it was one of execution. Some film makers have made it their mission to portray the agony of the cross with as much graphic realism possible.  Maybe it’s that realism or something else but it seems to me that many Christians are stalled at the cross, thinking it is what Easter is all about.

It’s not. Easter is about victory, hope, and redemption. The only reason to go to Good Friday is because we can’t get to Easter without it. However, the enduring symbol of Christianity isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) a crucifix. Rather, it’s an empty cross. The reason we don’t make a cross with its victim our primary symbol isn’t because we can’t bear seeing Jesus hanging on it. We make an empty cross our primary symbol because Jesus is no longer on the cross. He has defeated it and all it stood for.

So, for believers, Good Friday is a “No Parking Zone.” We spend time on Good Friday remembering the cross and especially the love of Jesus for us that caused him to endure it. But we happily turn the page to Sunday morning, Resurrection Day.

Easter services shouldn’t be about the Crucifixion. References to the cross should be about Christ’s victory over it. If pastors and other church leaders have done their job the ordeal of the cross should have already been brought to the attention of the Church. That paves the way for Easter.  Individuals too should make it their practice to visit the cross on a regular basis, but not park there.  Its the Resurrection that transforms the crucifix into an empty cross and its the Resurrection that should be our primary focus.  Let’s turn the page from Good Friday and celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord and what it means to us.

Good Friday

Friends, don’t get in a hurry this Good Friday. We will celebrate the Resurrection soon enough. Let’s linger at the cross without “padding” it with reminders that “Sunday is coming.”

Instead, for six hours, from 9 to 3, gaze at the cross and the One suffering on it. Realize that he is hanging there for all of us, unworthy though we are. Realize he is hanging there for just one reason: love.

Save all the rest till later. For now, spend time at the foot of the cross.

Pastor, this is real commitment

2014 – Oysterville Historic Church – Near Long Beach, WA (not the church in the story)

I heard a pastor deliver a heartfelt message calling for his congregation to really commit to the church.  He told the church that he had had opportunities to go elsewhere, including a return to his home area to a previous pastorate.  However, he had turned it down because he was committed to this current church.  Then, at the conclusion of the message all those in attendance were invited to join the pastor in his commitment by coming forward as a testimony to their allegiance.

Frankly, there was nothing wrong with any of this.  However, having known many of those laypersons for over 20 years I couldn’t help but smile to myself.  If anyone was qualified to call anyone to real commitment to the local church it was several of those laypersons.  They have already proven themselves faithful.  Several, for a lifetime.  They stayed true to that church through a series of pastors who after a while had declared that the Lord was calling them elsewhere.  They hung in there through some hard times when others moved on to a church down the street.

These were the people who had financially supported the church through the years.  They gave of their time by teaching Sunday School, working in VBS, leading Bible Quiz programs, and showing up for church work days.  They showed up for choir rehearsals and took a turn mowing the church lawn.

Meanwhile, pastors had come and gone.  Some retiring and others just packing up to continue their ministry elsewhere.  Listen, I know that that happens.  I do believe that there comes a time when a person needs to move on in their ministry – often for reasons they, themselves, don’t understand.  Circumstances change and both church and pastor can benefit from a healthy change.  Also, in my own ministry, especially in my younger years, I ran out of gas way too early in more than one assignment.  Happily, and to my credit (I think) my stays got longer as I matured in my ministry.

I also understand that some church people need to make a decision and quit playing church.  Some folks have been around the church for years and are still hanging out in the shallows rather than fully committing to the Lord and his Church.  They need to be challenged to go deeper in their spiritual lives.

Still, as I watched those who are prime examples of commitment and faithfulness respond to that sermon I couldn’t help but think things were the reverse of what they should have been.  It was those people who should have been challenging the pastor to commitment.  They should have been on the platform inviting him to come forward and accept their example.

Or, maybe said better, the good pastor should have told his congregation that the example of many in the congregation had inspired him and, as a result, he was committing to them to join them in their faithfulness.  I really doubt that some of them could be more committed to their church than they already are, and have proven over the decades.

Many churches are full of dedicated people who love their church and continue to sacrifice time, talent, and treasure.  We can only hope for pastors who will join them in that commitment.

Looking for a pastor

My mother was a regular delegate to District Assembly (it’s a Nazarene thing). In the old days, every pastor on the district was required to give a verbal report to the Assembly. Some of the reports were inspiring and some not so much. At some point through the years Mom started “grading” pastors. If she liked the way the pastor reported she would put a mark beside their name. She explained that if it so happened that during the year our church went through a pastoral transition (and it happened a lot during those days – the average pastoral tenure at that time was less than three years) she would use her star system to vet potential candidates.

Honestly, I don’t know that it ever happened that way, but she was ready – just in case.

As I remember her approach I realize that we do something similar with Facebook these days. In the past few years I’ve been involved in a couple of churches going through a change of pastors. Both times, as soon a potential candidate’s name became known a significant number of people headed for Facebook to find out all they could about the candidate.

And, using Facebook in particular and Google in general, you can find out a lot about a person. Some things are really easy to see and others take a bit of digging, but if a person is even marginally Facebook savvy they can learn a lot about someone who posts on Facebook.

I’m not discounting the spiritual in the least here. For years I’ve encouraged church people to see a pastoral search as a spiritual rather than business endeavour. Still, I think church people are probably wise to use this to their advantage, at least in the early part of the process. We all know that resumes don’t tell the whole story. If a pastor is active on Facebook it is easy to get a more candid look at how they interact with people and what interests them when they are “off the clock.” This, I think, can help churches find a good match when they are looking for a new pastor.

Pastor Appreciation – why some churches don’t do it

I’ve been thinking about why churches fail to honor their pastor during pastor appreciation month. I can think these possibilities:
 
1. In denominational churches at least, the district, etc. needs to contact church board secretaries prior to October, possibly with examples and suggestions, encouraging them to see to it that the pastor is honored. Then in November, they should be contacted again, asking them what their church did.  If the church leadership isn’t being encouraged to honor their pastor by someone with authority, it may never happen.
 
2. I have the idea that church leaders who listen to Christian radio are more likely to honor their pastor during this time. Most Christian radio stations make a big deal out of it. If church leaders don’t listen to these stations (and I’m not saying they should), they won’t be influenced to take action.
 
3. Many churches are so pastor-centric that nothing much happens unless the pastor is either leading it or at least approving it. (I had a women’s council one time that was amazed that I didn’t attend their meetings – all previous pastors had attended.) In the case of pastor appreciation, it doesn’t happen because the pastor isn’t in a position to organize it like he/she organizes everything else.
 
Just some passing late October thoughts.

Pastors need Mondays

For many years prior to retirement from pastoring I took Mondays off. I generally took a long walk, did some banking, and pretty much crashed. Since retirement, of course, most days are “days off” so Mondays are pretty much like any other day of the week.

Right now, I’m filling in for a friend who is taking Sabbatical leave so I’m back “on the clock” at least in part. My only real responsibility is preaching the Sunday morning sermon although I’m “being the pastor” in a few other ways as well. I certainly don’t have the full pastoral load.

The interesting thing to me is that that old Monday weariness has returned. It has to be the preaching and maybe interacting with a number of people throughout the day because I’m not doing much else. I confess that I’m not much of a people person, so spending a large part of the day chatting and “being nice” does wear me down a bit. Still, I think the preaching is the biggest part of it.

It’s not as though I’m a high energy, pacing, pulpit pounder. My style is conversational, considerably thought through, and much prayed over. To most non-preachers I know that that doesn’t sound like much and some may accuse me of whining or maybe just of getting old and more easily tired. Honestly, there may be some truth in the second accusation and hopefully none in the first.

However, I think that there’s a least a reminder here that pastors work harder on Sundays than most people think they do, even if all they “do” is preach a sermon for 30-40 minutes. The preparation, both academic and spiritual, takes a toll. The energy spent, even with Spirit anointing, is considerable.

I don’t think I’m just whining or wimping out. Pastors carry a burden that takes a toll and they both need and deserve a Monday day of rest.