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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when grace meets mercy

Grace. Mercy.

Those two words have become so common in Christian-speak. We talk and sing and teach about the grace of God and the mercy of God, and we use them rather interchangeably. But what do they even really mean?

Simply put, grace is when you get what you don’t deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you do deserve. *

Confused?

We must start off by understanding humanity and God. At the heart of it, humans screw up on a daily basis and God is perfect. We have this incredible knack of sinning, and God is holy. We’re broken people breaking the world even more. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

The justice of God is to exact punishment for crimes and sins. After all, that is what we expect our own law systems to do: to catch and punish criminals. If God did not do so,  He would not be a just and fair God. How just would our justice system be if we let violators of the law go free? The wages of sin is death, and that’s what every person rightly deserves, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Justice is when you get what you deserve.

The mercy of God is that He does not always mete out the punishment right then and there. You and I, we deserve punishment and death on a nearly daily basis. How many times have you screwed up this year? This week? Today? Do you ever marvel that God hasn’t struck you down by lightning yet? I do. But it is the mercy of God that He has hasn’t struck us down, not giving us what we duly deserve. Mercy is when you’ve been speeding and the cop pulls you over, but doesn’t give you a ticket. It is the mercy of God that “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:10)

The grace of God is that He gives us salvation and communion with Him. The grace of God is that He gives us Himself in Jesus, even though we don’t deserve it. It is that in spite of who we are and what we do, Christ loves us and died for us to reconcile us to the Father. We don’t deserve to be saved into a relationship with God! We’re getting what we most certainly do not deserve. Grace is when the cop who pulled you over takes you to lunch and offers you an escort to where you’re going so you don’t get pulled over again. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and it is not because of yourself; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

Grace and mercy are similar, yes. But also beautifully different. If not for mercy, we would have perished a long time ago. If not for grace, we would be a hopeless lot. Mercy saves us from condemnation. Grace grants us eternal life.

Lucky for us, God is merciful and gracious.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Psalm 145:8

And in Jesus, we see where the grace of God meets the mercy of God.

*These definitions aren’t absolute throughout the Scriptures, and sometimes the writers (and biblical translators) used the words for different purposes. For example, in the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10, “mercy” is used to mean compassionately caring for someone’s needs. The definitions I have provided are more to be understood in Paul’s writing, and what we mean when we talk about the terms in our understanding of what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection; they have judicial implications.

roll away your stone

In a black and white world, most of us live in the gray. In a black and white world, music and poetry explore the gray.

Much has been said and written about the themes of religion and faith woven into the lyrics of the band Mumford and Sons, but much has also been debated about where their faith stands. I don’t want to argue about whether they’re Christian or not, but their lyrics are some of the most thought-provoking ones out there.

“You told me that I would find a hole

Within the fragile substance of my soul

And I have filled this void with things unreal

And all the while my character it steals”

There are echoes of Ecclesiastes where the Preacher writes that God has set eternity in our hearts, but perhaps more so, the famous words of Blaise Pascal when he wrote, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.” We try to fill the deep longings and desires of our hearts with everything we can find, thinking surely something will satisfy and fill the hole, but it’s like throwing fistfuls of sand into the Grand Canyon. You will never fill the hole. But worse, the things we try to fill the hole with actually do us more harm than good —  it steals our character.

Darkness may be a harsh term, and it may have dominated the things I’ve seen. But the grace that changed my heart with the welcome I received at the restart ensures I don’t stay in darkness.

what’s in a name

What does your name mean?

I got into a conversation with a woman the other day because her son and I shared the same name, except he was Brice with a “y”. I’m the more rare kind. We were talking about how the name Brice/Bryce isn’t that common of a name. In fact, she had wanted to name her son “Ethan” but this didn’t sit too well with the boy’s father, and they couldn’t agree on a name. So one day, while she was still pregnant, the woman and her husband were driving along and stopped at a hole-in-the-wall dive in a small town. As he was using the restroom, the father looked up to see the usual scrawled graffiti on the stalls of public restrooms, but the name of one of these artists caught his eye: “Bryce”. And he loved the name. He told his wife, she liked it, and they decided to give their son that name. Now the whole time she was sharing this story, the little boy just sat behind her, playing with a small toy, listening to the story he undoubtedly had heard dozens of times before. As the mother finished the history of the boy’s name, little Bryce looked up at me with big eyes and asked me the sincerest question I have every been asked:

“Did you get your name from a bathroom too?”

Kids say the darndest things.

My mom actually got my name from “Mr. Belvedere”, a television show from the late 80s/early 90s. It was the name of the little boy on the show, and my mom decided she liked the name. It was either that or Chris…. or Charlie. Thankfully God providentially ruled out Charlie.

My name throws people off sometimes. When people hear “Brice Johnson”, I’m not necessarily the first person they expect to see. Or the second through sixteenth for that matter. You know, that whole being Indian thing. “Sorry, I’m looking for Brice Johnson.” I had people in my classes growing up that asked me what my “real” (Indian) name was.

My freshman year at the University of Texas, I was sitting in class as the professor was calling roll the first day of my Freshman Seminar course. After he finished his list, the elderly professor asked if there was anyone in the class whose name was not called, and another student and I both raised our hands. He peered at us, looked down at his roll sheet, looked up at me and asked, “You must be Vikram.”

Of course I would be Vikram.

Names are powerful things! They carry identity, history, and to an extent, worth. You can be in a large crowded room, but your ears will always catch even the faintest use of your name. You perk up, look around, and immediately tune in to where your name was used. It’s the reason why parents agonize over what to name their children. Unless of course you find a catchy one on a restroom stall.

I looked up the meaning of my name and found out that “Brice” means “speckled”. How appropriate. Indeed, that is how I often view myself, as someone speckled, freckled with huge spots of brokenness. I try and attempt to give off the impression that I’ve got it together, that I’m good, that I’m worthy of some unknowable merit. But I am plagued with depravity, sin and broken relationships. I feel the deep crevices of my brokenness. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, I try to clothe myself with the scant coverings of shame, of promises to be better. But speckles don’t disappear too quickly. I am Brice, the speckled one.

But I found that “Brice” also has another meaning: “son of a nobleman.” How fitting! Its a gladdening reminder that I’m not just some spotted stranger struggling to enter into grace, but that grace has adopted me into a Royal Family, making me a son of the true Nobleman: the King of kings. My acceptance in this family has ensured me eternal life in the Kingdom with no end. I am loved and cherished and have value, not because I’ve managed to cover my sin speckled self, but because I am in a new family, because the Father has called me His own. It’s a bit of redemption. I am Brice, son of a Nobleman.

Lord, now indeed I find
Thy power, and Thine alone,
Can change the leopard spots
And melt the heart of stone.

Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow!

Of course there isn’t mystical power in your name. Your name isn’t a fortune cookie for the outcome of your life. But maybe it can be a reminder that you have worth, that you are more than just the problems and issues piling on you. That you are more than your broken past.

Characters in the Bible recognized the significance of names. For them, it really did carry identity. The Angel of the Lord changed Jacob’s name to “Israel” after the memorable wrestle in the night. Saul of Damascus began going by the name “Paul.” And when the angel announced the magnificent news to the virgin Mary, she was commanded to name her son with a name that means “Yahweh saves.”

And if you’re a Christian, this is the Name you live under, the Name above all names. The Name by which we find our true identity. The Name that takes our botched, ruined selves, and calls us heirs in the Kingdom of God. The Name that redeems our brokenness.

The Name of Jesus.

— The Speckled Son of the Nobleman

Jesus’ Friday

Today, Christians remember the death of Christ. We celebrate it, argue over it, dismiss it, glorify it.

I grew up in a denomination (and culture) that did not place emphasis on religious holidays.

“Christmas? Psh, we celebrate the birth of Jesus every day. Easter? We celebrate Jesus’ resurrection every day. Halloween and Mardi Gras? Those are Satan’s days!”

Where other Christian groups spent time on Good Friday remembering that Jesus was unjustly crucified, we would mention it, but not usually dwell on it. And a sort of spiritual pride crept into me as a kid, this thought that I didn’t need a specific day to remember any event in the life of our Lord or Christian history. You do what you need to do, but I don’t need to dwell in the past; Jesus is coming, and I’m going to be ready!

And what was lost in all this is the realization and wonder of what happened when Jesus came into this world. There was a moment in time when GOD stepped into history. GOD walked among regular people, people who constantly sinned. GOD sacrificed Himself for our wickedness and overcame death!

What does it even mean that Jesus died for our sins? We say it so much in Christian-speak that we gloss over whenever it is said. What really happened on the historical Good Friday?

You and I, we have this uncanny propensity to sin. Even in our attempts at goodness, we do so out of selfish reasons, or pride will creep in. And God hates sin. One of the things that confuses most people about the story of the Garden of Eden is the fact that Adam and Eve (and all of humanity) were cursed and banished because they ate a piece of fruit. What’s the big deal?! It’s just a piece of fruit.

Isn’t it?

The deal is they disobeyed the God of the Universe. They looked at what God offered and what Satan offered, and chose what was in Satan’s hand. And that is what we do when we sin, we choose what something else has to offer over the goodness of God.

And so the wrath of a holy and just God was coming towards us, and fast.

Jesus Christ, who is very God of very God, lived a perfect, sinless life, even though he was also fully human and tempted and tried just as we are. So “the wages of sin is death” didn’t really apply to Him. But He willingly walked toward the cross every day of His life. He allowed His very creation to torture, ridicule, and falsely accuse Him. And on the cross, he who knew no sin became sin.  Wrap your mind around that thought. Jesus took on the sin that condemned you and I, and bore it on Himself. That’s why He sweat blood in the garden, why He cried out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”

For the first time in His life, Jesus, who had forever been in community with the Father, was separated from the Father. And the wrath of God that was headed toward us was satisfied.

It was more than physical pain. More than mental torture. It was spiritual anguish.

Many since Jesus have died in worse ways. There are stories of people glorifying God and singing hymns as they were repeatedly dipped into vats of boiling oil. How’s that for suffering well? Many martyrs died more “glorifying” deaths than Jesus. But what set Jesus apart was the fact that He bore the weight of sin and that sin was crucified on the cross.

And He did it because He loves us. And more importantly, He did it for His great Name.

Take some time and reflect upon that. Go through the Gospels and read Jesus’ time in the garden after the Last Supper, His betrayal, and His crucifixion. It is incredibly humbling.

But remember, the story doesn’t end there.

Jesus… bearded heart surgeon

Jesus had a beard.

I’m pretty sure he did. After all, nearly every Western portrayal of Jesus (movies, paintings, Family Guy episodes, etc.) depicts the Christ with a few common themes: dark, flowy hair; a loose robe that is probably white; and a beard. Actually, most historians agree on the latter, since it fit into the culture and practice of the Jewish people.

And so I, too, have decided to grow my beard. Taking the Nazirite vow, I am not allowing a razor to touch any part of my head or strong drink to enter my lips. Samson ain’t got nothin’ on me.

Okay, maybe not. Maybe it’s just for my own personal entertainment as I see people start in surprise with no small sense of satisfaction. It’s the little things.

At first there were jokes and laughter around the house as my beard began to thicken and curl. Then slowly my parents started to gently coax me to shave. Then they told me I was ugly. Last night I’m pretty sure I caught my mom trying to find the clippers in the middle of the night.

About a week ago, she asked me why I was growing the beard, to which I quipped, “Jesus had a beard, and I want to be like Jesus!” She smirked, went back to her vegetable chopping, and retorted (in Malayalam), “Be like Jesus in your heart, not in your beard.”

At first, it seems like a simple, logical statement. If you are a follower of Christ, of course you want to be like Jesus, and I don’t mean physically. But we often relegate this to doing things Jesus would have done, or doing things that would honor him. Not to knock that, actually doing something for the sake of Christ is crucial, but it arises out of being. Being like Christ means penetrating past me and letting Christ invade and change my heart. We can do “good” things for all sorts of reasons, many of which would be less-than-selfless. At the core remains the self-centered heart that still judges, mocks, and probably doesn’t look like Christ’s heart.

When we allow Christ to replace that heart, then we can truly begin to be like him. The things that break his heart will begin breaking ours, and what causes his to leap for joy will explode excitement in ours.

Imagine that…. We wouldn’t have to fake it. And those stirrings would hopefully produce actions. And maybe Christians would begin to look like Christ.

As Paul admitted in Philippians 3:12, not that I’m there yet, but I keep striving. I fight the part of me that refuses to submit to the authority of Christ.

And I’ll sport my Jesus beard while I do it.