Worship Leader, You Are a Theology Teacher

I visited a church recently, one that is fairly prominent in the city it’s in. There were people from all different walks of life, of many different ethnic backgrounds, and the musicians were good. People were raising hands and singing at the top of their lungs and everyone seemed into it.

And then toward the end of the third song, something dawned on me. Not once during the three songs was Jesus mentioned. The cross wasn’t brought up. Sin and redemption and the love of Christ were nowhere to be found. We sang two more songs before the message, and the theme of every song was, “I’m going to get through this. God is going to lift me up.” God was a coach, someone to help walk you through the difficult times in life. And you know what? You can do it! 

Jesus was nowhere to be found.

Worship through music is a big part of most church services, whether it be through a pipe organ or a rock band. Music moves us in certain ways; scientists have done many studies and tests to try to figure out why music affects our emotions so, without any definitive answers. Every known human culture uses music and song to communicate, and it can’t be by accident! We’re wired to enjoy music, and it’s one of the many ways we offer worship to God.

I’m no stranger to worship music: I led the worship team at my home church all through high school, was heavily involved in leading with our college ministry, and was the worship director at a church for a year and a half after college. I come from a church tradition that highly values and emphasizes worship through song and music, and so that scene is a very familiar world.

Early on in my worship leading, I would pick any song that someone could describe as a “worship song.” Songs I liked, songs someone else liked, the latest songs by the best worship bands, songs that really got the church hyped. Songs that tickled peoples’ ears. Songs that tickled peoples’ hearts. I was teaching my people a weak theology with minimal Biblical support. There was a lot of, “This is what I’m going to do, God!” and not much, “God, this is what YOU’VE done!”

I’m picky now when it comes to worship music. Someone once complained that I didn’t do enough new or different songs, that my song database was too small. When it comes to leading congregations, I think worship leaders must use discretion when choosing songs.

Think about your church service last Sunday. Can you remember the preacher’s main points? What Bible passage was he expounding on? It’s a bit difficult, isn’t it? Now think about what songs you sang. Can you remember one or two of those?

The reality is, at the end of the week, people will be more likely to hum a song they sang at church than to ponder sermon points. I found myself just this morning singing the worship songs my church sang the last two weeks. When you put anything to music, you’re bound to commit it to memory. My 6th grade math teacher taught us about fractions and percentages through several songs he wrote, and I still remember them to this day. I’m sure when you’re going through your ABC’s, you sing the tune in your head.

Melodies and lyrics stick with people, and so it is important that when we pick songs to lead our congregations with, we pick songs that clearly point to the gospel and are supported by Scripture. They need to be songs that are doctrinally sound. What we think and believe and sing about God is of utmost importance, and so which songs we sing in our services is of utmost importance.

So how do we do this?

First, worship leaders should be in the Bible daily. Saturating yourself with the Word of God enables you to lead people to God and the full richness of the gospel. It also helps you see when songs aren’t biblically sound and enables you to teach people where the truths in your song come from.

Worship leaders should be excellent theologians. Leading people into worship is more than being able to play the guitar and sing! You have an immense responsibility and calling to shepherd the people God has entrusted to you. It’s not a call for every aspiring musician.  Go buy a book on Christian doctrine or systematic theology and study it. Things like the Trinity, the doctrine of man, and eschatology are rich biblical truths that will inform you when choosing a worship song. Knowing theology helps you see why the line, “you took the fall and thought of me above all” in the song “Above All” is inaccurate and faulty. It puts man at the center of God’s purpose, as opposed to the glory of God being at the center of God’s purpose.

Worship leaders should pick songs carefully. (If you haven’t gotten it yet, this is kind of the point of my post.) People are often quick to include a song in their set list because Hillsong or Bethel or Passion does it. But God has called you to be faithful to Him and your people. Go through the lyrics. All of them. Do they have biblical support? Are they doctrinally sound? Is it a song your pastor would approve of? What truths do your want your people to cherish? Would people know that you’re singing to, about, and for God? Remember “In the Secret?” It sounds like you’re asking someone (probably Jesus) to sneak around the corner and make out with you. Awkward. Same with “Draw me Close to You.”

It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of prayer. And this is before you even get to the practicing part! It decreases the amount of songs in your song bank. It may sound like too much, but as worship leaders, you’ve been entrusted with much! Be diligent and faithful, friends. It is not an entitlement to anyone with with a decent voice. It is a calling by God.

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Why the ‘Indian Church’ Should Not Die

Several weeks ago, my friend Charles Samuel wrote a thought-provoking article with the provocative title, “The ‘Indian Church’ Must Die,” and the response was nothing short of incredible. People whole-heartedly agreed, vehemently disagreed, or sat somewhere in the middle. Some were just upset with the title. This post is not a rebuttal to Charles’ post because as a product of the “Indian Church,” I agree with most of the sentiments in what he conveyed. This is about recasting the vision of the local Indian church for the glory of Christ.

The main idea behind Charles’ article was this: there is something dangerous and unhealthy about an ethnocentric church that solely exists to promote an ethnic ideal. Here’s what we mean by “ethnocentrism”: it is when an ethnic identity, heritage, values, or even church, sees other ethnic identities, cultures, or churches as inferior to their own. It is when there is more talk about traditions and the way forefathers did something than about what Christ has done and the implications of the gospel.

For our purposes, ethnocentrism is when a church’s identity and purpose is primarily found in its ethnic culture, and Christ and what he has done in his death and resurrection is secondary.

The gospel, the good news of Jesus, was given in a cultural context, and it will always be so, but it was never confined to a cultural identity. Whenever we present the gospel to someone, it will always be within the medium of the context of culture, whether it be Indian or American or hipster or conservative or urban or affluent culture. Culture isn’t a bad thing: it’s what you naturally get when you have multiple people together who share some characteristics.

The gospel was also given in an ethnic context, but it was never confined to an ethnic identity. In fact, the Bible promises a day when every ethnos (Greek word for ethnic people groups) will worship Christ as King. The book of Revelation has a glorious vision of this:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number,from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,  and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Revelation 7:9-10

 

Revelation tells us that a day is coming when every believer of Jesus, regardless of where or when they were born, will worship Christ together. Until then, we continue to meet in ethnic and multi-ethnic congregations, working to continue making disciples of all nations. Ethnic churches aren’t bad! But ethnocentric churches are dangerous and a distortion of what the gospel calls us to.

We can argue about how insular Indian churches can be, but instead I want to talk about how they can be used to accomplish the picture we see in Revelation 7.

The Indian church in America is uniquely equipped to reach immigrants from India in a way that other churches aren’t. Indian churches know the language, customs, and traditions that new immigrants from India are familiar with. They eat a lot of the same food, hold many of the same values, and can identify with Indian immigrants in a  way that most other organizations can’t. South Asian Christians in America know what it’s like to move to a new country full of promises, and to feel a little lost and overwhelmed. They know how reassuring it is to find comfort in befriending other Indian immigrants because they’ve done it too.

To my Malayalee churches: there are lost Malayalees in America that don’t know Jesus! Hindu, Muslim, agnostic, apathetic. Malayalees that understand the Malayalam spoken and sung in Keralite churches. Malayalees that enjoy eating South Indian food offered at weekly home meetings. Malayalees that are looking for community and recognizable culture in a culture that is far different than the one they know. Lost Malaylees that, apart from the grace of God in saving them, will be eternally separated from God. And this is true of all the Indian cultural groups. Of every culture and ethnos.

What if we reached out to our immigrant neighbor or coworker or friend? What if we invited them into our homes and lives? What if our Indian churches didn’t lose their ethnic identity or traditions or language, but used them to actively pursue the growing Indian immigrant community? What if we realized that God has sovereignly placed us in our city and around the people we know, not to be an inward-focused holy huddle, but to be an outward-focused catalyst of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

What if we realized that the Church exists primarily to glorify Christ and spread the gospel?

The Indian church in America should live because she is uniquely equipped to reach immigrants from India in a way that other churches aren’t.

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In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul compares the church to the body of Christ, and individuals as members of the body. In a very real way, the whole Church universal is the body of Christ as well, and different congregations are members of this body. If one member suffers, the whole body suffers. If one part hurts, everyone hurts.

The Indian church, for all her flaws, is part of this body of Christ, and there are parts that aren’t functioning well. But what if, instead of cutting this dysfunctional part off, Christ redeemed it and made it new and whole and functioning?

What we need is not amputation. We need healing, and thankfully, Jesus is pretty good at that.

 

 

Photo courtesy of ©Sten Dueland under the Creative Commons License 2.0

suffering in the hands of a sovereign God

Pain and suffering are not things that are foreign to Christians. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if we have more of it.

Following Christ doesn’t mean life gets easier. Loved ones will still die. Disease will steal health. Life will not be kind. People will talk negatively about you. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words may break your spirit.

Following Jesus isn’t a ticket to health and wealth, but a surrendering of your life and taking up your cross, because that’s what Jesus did. We follow the leader who fell to the ground while carrying His instrument of torture. He was bruised and crushed and spit upon and reviled; the King of kings suffered to the very point of death on a cross. He, who could call angels to strike down His persecutors, who did not deserve to hang like a criminal, submitted Himself to suffering because He knew that the Father was still in charge. God still sat on His throne.

Following Jesus means that sometimes, we don’t get to come down from our cross.

This song reminds us that whether it be cancer or criticism, death or disability, our suffering is not just random bad luck or the universe out to get us. It does something in us. Our suffering has purpose in the hands of a sovereign God.

I come, God, I come
I return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You struck down to bind me up
You say You do it all in love
That I might know You in Your suffering

Though You slay me
Yet I will praise You
Though You take from me
I will bless Your name
Though You ruin me
Still I will worship
Sing a song to the one who’s all I need

For the stories behind the song, click here and here.

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” – Job 1:21