Thursday, December 20, 2007

Lament: God is bigger than our songs

Songs are hugely important. Anyone who knows me, knows how much weight I give to the theology of our songs, the accessibility of our songs and the creativity in our song-writing: all of these, in my view are hugely important in terms of one major aim: they connect people to God.

We need good theology because we know that it is only the truth that will set us free; we need accessibility so that people can relate to and understand that truth; and we need to engage our creativity so that we are constantly attuning ourselves to the way that God is moving and speaking.

But it is in the way that our songs connect people to God that must be the context in which our songs operate.

And so there is something in me that has come to realise that, at the end of the day, a song is just a song. What I treasure the most in worship - what drives me on to keep leading worship - is that people encounter God in worship. And the more I lead worship, the more I realise that the way that God reveals his presence to his people when they sing is far greater and wider and higher than the quality of our songs could ever hope to determine in themselves.

I love hearing stories of what God does during any time of worship. On occasions it seems that God has a very specific thing he is doing amongst the whole of his gathered people: maybe we together we celebrate, or confess, or bow down. And those times are very special and draw us together as a people of God. But on more occasions than not, it seems that God is at work in a multitude of ways: almost as though he deals with each person completely individually. We may all be singing the same songs, but we all seem to be able to testify to the very individual things that God is doing in our lives.

So we can all sing the song ‘great is your faithfulness’. Some maybe celebrating, some may be weeping. Some maybe singing out of a place where they have seen God move incredibly in their lives, some maybe singing as they hold on to the last fragment of faith. In a very real way, some people can be in that place of lament at the same time some people can be in the place of rejoicing. This is one of the huge mysteries of worship.

So as I start to examine lament in more detail, I come from the point of view that a whole lot of lament happens already in our gathered worship times. I know it in the stories I hear, I see it in the tears of people as they sing. And all this happens without any sense that we are writing specific ‘lament songs’ or engaging in any specific corporate ‘lament times’.

And that happens, I think, because God is so much bigger than the songs we sing.

I’m not saying that we don’t need to be open to more corporate, specific acts of lament over particular situations, or that we don’t need to write specific songs for that purpose. But I do want to challenge the view that we don’t already have some tools that enable us to do this.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Lament: to feel, show, or express grief, sorrow, or regret

One of the studies I hope to be doing over the next weeks and months is into the whole area of lament, and in particular the extent to which our gathered worship can reflect lament.

Over recent times this issue has been raised in a number of situations which I have been personally involved in. In open letters to worship leaders, some theologians have requested that we sing songs of lament; in seminars I have done at New Wine, I have been asked why we don’t sing more songs of lament; and at some gatherings of songwriters in recent years there has been a spoken intention for us worship leaders to embrace the language in lament more in the songs we write.

And it is abundantly clear to me that lament is part of life. It was part of the life of great biblical characters; it has been part of the life of nations throughout history; and most of us can probably point to seasons in our lives where we have personally lamented because of our own life situations. It seems that lament is part of us living in the ‘now and not yet’ of the kingdom, and will be with us until death, or until Jesus comes again.

Yet despite the clarity we have over the place of lament in life, there seems to be little clarity in how lament should impact our times of corporate worship. In one sense it has to impact it in some shape or measure - if we say that our gathered worship and our lives of worship are inextricably linked then that is an obvious consequence. And of course we have to be able to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice’ as well as ‘weep with those who weep’.

But if I am honest, at this moment of time I come from a slightly sceptical point of view, in that whereas I want our times of gathered worship to be a place where those are struggling can encounter God, I don’t want to generate, or drive, or manipulate my congregation into that place of lament. And so when I hear the voices of theologians or songwriters insisting on the language and form of lament in gathered worship, I am naturally cautious.

But rather than stay in that place of scepticism, I want to study, I want to seek God’s voice and try and understand. And so every so often on this blog I will return to this subject, and, as ever, your comments and pointers and opinions would be gratefully received.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


if: when or whenever

If you can keep going with what God intends for you, always doing the small thing well, even when all your peers are moving from one big conference to the next;

If you can love your congregation when they are driving you to distraction with their un-responsiveness and consumeristic tendencies;

If you can continue to serve week in week out, year in year out, in your own local church without ever seeking the big gig;

If you can hear critisism of your very best efforts but not critisise back;

If you can be used greatly by God and never take the opportunity to brag;

If you can accept that some people will always be jealous of your gifting and try and bring you down;

If you can hold lightly onto your anointing, and use every song that God gives you to serve Him and not yourself;

If you can persevere through the times that ‘god doesn’t seem to show up’ and not be conceited when ‘god does show up’;

If you can put as much energy into living the life as you do into singing the songs;

If you can bounce back with enthusiasm when you are let down badly by people who should know better;

If you are not afraid to take risks and push boundaries and not be worried about looking a fool;

If you are not afraid to move on from every failure without losing enthusiasm, and without ever complaining;

If you are prepared to bear your heart and soul before people and keep going when your best efforts are thrown back in your face;

If you are prepared to stand up and serve people even in that moment when you feel you have absolutely nothing left to give;

If you can lay your ambitions down for the sake of serving your congregation, and never let success go to your head,

If you treasure the approval of God far above the content of public opinion, and consider it ‘job done’ when those you have served can’t even remember your name;

Then, my friend, you will be a worship leader.

Friday, November 30, 2007


insecurity: lack of confidence or assurance; self-doubt; subject to fears, doubts, etc.; not self-confident or assured

The story goes like this.

Saul is King. David is the intern. David kills the giant. Then everyone likes David more than Saul. As they march back glowing with the success of victory, the Israelites chant ‘Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands’. Saul doesn’t like it. And from that moment on he kept a jealous eye on David.

That was a defining moment in the life of Saul.

In that moment his insecurity got the better of him. In that moment his fate was sealed. In that moment he started down the road to destruction. Because insecurity isn’t a small character flaw that a person is OK indulging every now and then. Insecurity isn’t a small wound that causes a person the odd bit of discomfort.

Insecurity is a cancer that feeds on a persons obsession with self.

It kills.

Compare that with this.

David pursues Saul and enters into his camp. He gets into Saul’s tent whilst Saul sleeps. He had a moment where he could kill Saul and claim the crown. If ever there was a moment to make his mark, this was it. If ever there was a moment to remove this destructive force in his life, this was it. If ever there was a moment to guarantee his future prosperity, this was it.

But unlike Saul, David didn’t let his insecurity get the better of him. And in that moment his fate was sealed. In that moment he started down the road to success. Because his security in God gave him the strength of heart to focus on the kingdom of God rather than his own place of influence and power.

The secure person looks for signs of kingdom life but the insecure person looks for possibilities of personal profile. The secure person sees a church growing and lives being changed but the insecure person sees opportunities for extending influence. The secure person lives in the tension of the ‘now and the not yet’ of life but the insecure person sees every box left ‘un-ticked’ in their portfolio as a challenge to their self worth.

However, if insecurity is a cancer that feeds on a persons obsession with self, then security is the mark of a person’s obsession with God.

If I am obsessed with God I will make decisions that shine light on Him, not me. If I am obsessed with God I will find places of hidden-ness to serve Him, not just places of profile to serve Him. If I am obsessed with God I will rejoice in seeing those around me succeed and fly in their ministry, and not be afraid to take a back seat. If I am obsessed with God I will take the route of faith rather than the route of celebrity.

And if I am obsessed with God I will realise just how big He is, and just how small I am, and be satisfied with both.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


tension: the interplay of conflicting elements

We live life in the midst of tensions.

Some of those tensions come about purely because people view things in different ways.

Take our car for example. When I look at our car, I think: “O look, a haven of peace and quiet away from the busyness of life; a place where you can listen to the pleasant hum of radio five live; a place where everything is clean, organised and tidy”. Whereas, when my wife looks at our car she thinks: “O look, a place to store stuff’. Tension results. We have to live with it. At least until one of my songs starts to make a huge pile of cash and I can buy my own car.

Some tensions are creative.

In our songs we get melodies and harmonies that move us from one flavour to the next - from something that builds expectation to something that provides rest, from something that questions the mind to something that satisfies the heart. There may be tension in a painting or in a piece of writing as we seek to explore themes and illustrate emotions. They are tensions that provide interest and colour into our lives.

And then some tensions arise because you are forced to watch disastrous circumstances unfold from the sidelines, unable to have any influence on the eventual outcome.

England vs Croatia. Enough said.

Then there are divine tensions.

Divine tensions.

Makes you want to close down this blog and turn on some trivial television, doesn’t it?

Divine tensions.

But just stay with me for a moment. There’s still a few more minutes before strictly come dancing starts.

Divine tensions.

These are tensions inherent in the nature of God that are not designed to be resolved but form the foundations of His character and activity. They are tensions that we may well never fully be able to explain, but they are tensions that we need to fully embrace as we walk with God.

And here is one of the tensions that I am wrestling with: God is the God of Miracles. He can, and does, perform wondrous acts that can only be explained by divine intervention. Water becomes wine, the blind immediately start to see, the lame instantaneously walk. Yet God is also a God of Majesty. He is a sovereign God, and as such, He makes decisions about how and what and when He will reveal things to us. And sometimes that seems to mean that the sick don’t always get better, that the wine runs out, that the lame have to live with their disability for a very long while.

It’s a huge tension. Miracles and Majesty.

And I often find that people tend to identify themselves with one side of this tension more easily than the other.

There are those that are living for miracles. Their favourite words are ‘glory’ and ‘experience’ and they look for gold dust and diamond studded teeth. They live life ‘plundering heaven’ and ‘walking in the victory’. Just say the right prayers with the right words and with the right hand and body gestures and you’ll see God break through with miraculous power. It all sounds so plausible. But there is a weakness in this approach. It’s consumerism in a brand new hat. And actually God probably isn’t a God who deals out His favours in response to a formula. His miracles aren’t there on the shelf waiting to be picked up and taken to the checkout. He has compassion on whom He has compassion. His choice.

Then there are those who can only understand the majesty. They are resigned to whatever life throws at them. Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be. Their favourite words are ‘humble’ and ‘contrite’ and they sit and wait for an invitation to a royal tea party that never arrives, whilst their lives descend into a numbed inactivity. And there’s a weakness in this approach too. It’s laziness wrapped up in the illusion of humility. And God doesn’t expect the treasures He gives to us to be buried out of sight where they don’t demand any attention. He expects us to invest everything we have in making them work for His purposes.

You see, it seems to me that we actually need to be people who hold in tension the miracles and the majesty of God. We need to pursue Him, and pray for His miraculous intervention in our world and the lives of those around us. We need to draw ever closer to Him, seeking His intervention, but as we draw closer to Him, we also need to bow down lower before Him, yielding to His sovereignty.

And yes, we need to lift our voices as the gathered people of God, crying out for His wonders to be performed in our towns and cities, desperate to see His kingdom grow amongst us. But as we cry out ever louder to Him, we also need to throw off our shoes and remember we stand on holy ground.

And as we do this, we discover one of the main qualities that embracing divine tension brings in life.


Tension is the strength for the world’s tallest buildings and longest bridges. It stands at the heart of sky-scrapers in their steel structures, and it rests in the very wires that support the bridges that span our widest rivers. And when we embrace this tension of miracles and majesty we too find our strength. Strength to continue to pray with all our might when we are desperate to see God move in a particular way. And strength to believe that, when the answer is not what we hoped for, God has made His choice from His heart of love that ultimately has our best interests, and His best interests, in mind.

When we embrace divine tension, we find divine strength.

Now where’s that TV remote…..

Thursday, November 22, 2007


wonder: to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; marvel

Now you need to know something about me.

And it’s this.

I don’t do tears.

I get frustrated often, angry occasionally, ecstatic very occasionally, emotional now and then. But tears? No. Not me. No way Hosay.

OK I lied. There have been a few times. I cried when my dad died. I cried at my grandparents’ funerals. I cried when things got really bad at a church I was at once. And although I don’t remember, I probably cried a lot when I was a child. But as an adult, apart from these, and a very few other isolated incidents, tears just really aren’t my thing. I’m one of those characters who generally seems to go through life with a very level emotional temperature. I’m not emotionally dysfunctional. I don’t need tones of prayer ministry. I haven’t got some sort of dark secret from my childhood that needs uncovering, exposing and dealing with. I just don’t really do tears very often. Sorry.

So imagine my surprise recently, then, when I was watching a competitor on one of these TV talent shows when I felt the old salty water start to well up. It didn’t actually flow. It just sort of bubbled there just beneath the surface. But it caught me by surprise.

And the program?

X factor.

The artist?


It nearly made me cry.

It was weird.

And it wasn’t just the once. It happened a few times. All the way to the final. And then again when I watched the highlights of the series some months later.

Really weird.

Now you need to know something else about me. Before I took the humbling and financially suicidal step into full time worship pastoring, I worked as an actuary in the insurance industry. And for those of you who don’t know what an actuary is, it is basically someone who analyses to death anything that remotely whiffs of numbers, finance or statistics. It was my job to take what may have appeared to be a random sequence of events, and search for patterns, construct models round those patterns, and then predict the aforesaid sequence of apparently random events into the future. I just couldn’t sleep at night until I had understood and analysed, processed and sanitised. And so when I began to sense these tears well up whilst watching X factor I couldn’t just let it go. I had to know why.

Could it be the songs? Well no, because I had heard them all before by other artists such as Judy Garland and Whitney Houston and hadn’t remotely bottled up.

Could it be that the program itself was so beautifully put together? Well of course not. I have watched it before and since and managed to hold it together.

Could it be that because here was someone who had finally silenced even Simon Cowell? Well this is probably something to be thankful for, but no.

So what was it?

And then it struck me.


Something you don’t often see in people these days.


Something that, in this age of self centered-ness and lack of innocence we rarely come across.


Something that is totally missing in most of the talentless egos that appear on our screens most of the time.


This singer came over as someone who really couldn’t believe what she was getting involved in. When any of the judges complimented her on her singing, she seemed totally surprised. When ever she got selected for the next round, she seemed genuinely mystified. Even when she came first in what had to be the most one-sided final ever to exist in a talent show, she seemed to find it incredulous. The rest of the country, and many other counties around the world clearly recognised what an incredible talent she was. But Liona seemed to be almost mystified. She seemed to be truly in awe at what was happening to her. And when she sang, with such a breathtaking perfection, with such a gut-wrentching emotion, you could see it in her eyes.


And through all this I think God spoke to me.

I say ‘think’, because my spiritual ears are pretty dull most of the time. And also I’m feeling a little daft admitting that maybe God spoke to me through the X factor. But just for the moment, humour me, and let’s assume that this was God.

I think God began to speak to me about something that maybe I have lost a little in my worship. O.K. over the years I have probably got a bit better at what I do, I think I understand more what I do, and I have even maybe become more articulate expressing what I do and why. But when I plug my guitar in, and start strumming, maybe, just maybe, I have lost a little of the wonder of what I am getting involved with.

Wonder. The wonder of worship.

And this is the wonder: we actually get to do this. We actually get to worship God. We actually get to encounter Him in our songs, our music, our church. We actually get to do this thing called worship. And even more than this, this thing called worship: it was God’s idea. He designed us this way. It’s at His initiation that we worship. It’s because of His mercy we can worship. From the moment we were born, God has been singing over us. And throughout all of our lives He has been seeking us out. He has been singing over us. And as He has been singing over us, He has been inviting us to come and join in the song. To feast. To be satisfied as His children.

It is underserved. It is unmeritted. It is incredible.

It is wonder-ful.

You see, I could write the most widely sung worship songs ever. I could record the most played worship album ever (‘dream on’ I hear you cry), I could have the most amazing worship band at my disposal (well actually, they are pretty good), and lead worship at the largest of all conferences. But unless I carry a whole heap of wonder in my heart through it all, it becomes a purely intellectual exercise: dull, lifeless and self centered.

Whereas if my worship is full of wonder it becomes colourful, life-giving and life-changing.


Bring it on.

Friday, November 16, 2007


close: to take or clasp in the arms; press to the bosom; hug.

Many of you may know that my eldest daughter, Lizzy, had an accident a few weeks ago. She was on her bike. Probably doing some sort of ridiculously outrageous wheely, knowing her.

The first I heard was when my wife called my office and said that she had been sitting on the sofa, apparently in agony for half an hour. I rushed home, and then drove her down to the hospital. Apparently what had happened was that she had fallen off her bike, and as she fell, the handlebars twisted round, and the end of the handlebars went into her stomach.

So there I was, sitting in casualty, feeling helpless as my daughter sobbed in pain, waiting for the doctor to see her. It took a while. Eventually we got her seen by a pediatrician. After a few tests, and a second opinion, we were told that she should have a full scan. It was the equivalent of her receiving a full years ‘background’ radiation in one go. There were other options, but they wouldn’t give the doctors the information they needed, in the detail they needed. So I agreed. My wife had arrived by that time too, and so we went in for the scan as a family.

Lizzy was really brave, and did very well. It was distressing, but she seemed ok by the end. We went back to the waiting room and….waited. I popped of to the toilet. When I returned, my wife and daughter had disappeared. I questioned the nurse, and she told me that they had gone back to CT area. I found my wife there. She looked at me and said ‘they want to do another one’.

That was one of those moments that parents dread. Given that they had been reluctant to do the full scan in the first place, the fact that they wanted to do another one could only mean one thing. They had found something wrong. I could see it in my wife’s eyes. A fear, tempered only with a desire to hold it together for the sake of Lizzy, and my younger daughter Sarah, who was of course with us.

Lizzy had her second scan, and quite quickly we were taken back into the consultant who said they had found some fluid around her duodenum. They said they had done the second scan to try and confirm their suspicions. And their suspicion was that the handlebars, whilst not going through the skin, had effectively momentarily trapped the duodenum between the handlebars and the spine, and had punctured it.

And that, they said, didn’t get better by itself.

They needed to rush her to the hospital in Gloucester because they were expecting that Lizzy needed an operation.

So my wife stayed with Lizzy, and prepared to go in the ambulance to Gloucester. And I left with Sarah, to take her home to try and settle her. As we left the hospital, me and Sarah, hand in hand, she started to weep. Even at that young age she had sensed that she had needed to hold it together for Lizzy’s sake. But now at that moment, finally out of sight from her sister, Sarah cried her eyes out.

And as we walked, hand in hand back to the car, we prayed together.

That evening, I had intended to be at a meeting at church. It was a gathering of all our leaders, cluster leaders and ministry leaders. So, as we drove home, I ran past the church, hopped out of the car, and met my friend and co-pastor Tim, and asked him to pray. I rushed away, anxious to get Sarah home, and then get down to the hospital where Lizzy was headed. I found out later that the whole gathering prayed for Lizzy during that time...many stayed late to pray more.

But I had left, I took Sarah home and got her to bed. I had to lie down with her on her bed to settle her. Eventually she drifted off.

By then a friend had come round to baby-sit. So I headed off to Gloucester hospital. As I arrived and parked, I found my great friend Mark there too. He had left the leadership gathering early to come and give some moral support, and pray for us. We went up to Lizzy, who by then was in the high dependency unit. We prayed, and then waited for the specialist.

Eventually the specialist came and spoke to us. He had reviewed her scan, and decided that he wouldn’t, after all, need to operate. He too had seen the fluid around the stomach, but felt it was better not to operate, but to wait. He now thought that it was just a bit bruised.

Anyway to cut a long story short....

Well, not too short, if you’ve got this far....

Lizzy had a few very uncomfortable days in hospital. Susie was incredible and stayed with her through the nights. And I did the relatively easy day-shift.

By the weekend, five days after her accident, Lizzy was back at home, and feeling much better.

Then on the Saturday morning, she and I went out for morning coffee and hot chocolate together. It was her first trip out after the accident, and she was so much better.Now I’m one of those people who tends to claim little, but be thankful alot. And that morning I was so thankful to God that she was there with me, thankful for all my friends who had prayed, and thankful that Lizzy was apparently well on the road to recovery.

And we strolled into town, in the fresh, cold, but beautiful autumn sunshine.

Now Lizzy is at that stage where she doesn’t like too much contact. I only get a hug if I creep up on her unawares. And holding hands is completely out of the question. But I am allowed to put my arm around her shoulders as we walk. That seemingly is quite cool.

I try and know as much as possible about my daughter. That’s so important as I seek to serve her, and invest in her as a father. That really is so important. But in that moment, we were walking together into town in the fresh early morning autumn sunshine, my arm was around her shoulders, and she and I were smiling. I was close enough to see the glint in her eyes, and the flash of teeth in her smile.

And my heart was captured.

And I thought: all the knowledge I have about my daughter is really important, but it is in this moment of closeness that I am compelled to a life of devotion towards her.

It was in that moment of closeness that I was compelled to live a life of devotion to her.

You see, we can have all the knowledge in the world about someone. But we need moments of closeness where our hearts become captured, moments of closeness when we are compelled to live lives of devotion.

Friday, November 9, 2007


mistake: an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge.

I think I may have made a mistake.

Well maybe not a mistake, at least not a huge one. Maybe it was more of a mis-calculation, an over-reaction. It happens all the time in life: We get challenged about something, we see some things that leave us uncomfortable, and with the best of intentions we go about changing them, and go too far the other way.

The trouble is with people like me is, that for some very strange reason, I seem to have ended up in a position where people listen to me. Despite being a pretty poor singer, a very average worship leader and a technically awful guitar player, I seem to be in a place where my actions and words and seminars and blog articles are actually read by people. Sometimes they may even act on them. And so any small over-reaction on my part is potentially going to be amplified into the lives of others, into other churches around the country.

Scary, isn’t it.

Well, you’re probably wondering what my mistake was. And I will get to it, honest. But first some background.

I grew up as a Christian, in a baptist church in my home town, Winchester. I grew up singing great hymns, played on a not-so-great pipe organ, by a lovely man called Arnold. Arnold even taught me how to play the organ, for which I am very grateful. I sang with gusto. I sang these great anthems about God, probably in the main to show my peers that I knew the bass line.

I then went to University, and suddenly I came across some very passionate, expressive Christians, and they seemed to sing songs to God, not just about God. Over the coming years, I then came across the teachings of people like Wimber. And he taught us about about intimacy in worship. And suddenly I was singing songs like ‘I love You Lord’ with a passion myself. I had discovered intimacy in worship myself. And it was a good thing.

But after a while, I started to feel uncomfortable. Then a little confused. And finally a little empty. As I worshipped more, I studied the word more. And over a period of time, I found that the things I was learning from the Bible were not being reflected in the songs I was singing. At least, they were reflected, but only in part. The songs I was singing had become one-dimensional and thin at the same time that my theology had become mult-dimensional and deep.

And that left me with a problem.

I ended up sitting in some of these big conference halls, full of thousands of people worshipping, feeling like a spectator. I ended up looking through my songbooks with despair as I tried to find good new songs to sing in our church. I got almost angry with the casualness of some of the lyrics I was being asked to sing, which were so theologically weak or just plain wrong.

But after while, I sensed I was not alone, and then some great worship leaders started to write some great songs that were full of truth. Songwriters like Redman and Smith brought a balance to the great songs of intimacy from writers like Doerkson and Tuttle and Ruis. These songs became our modern day anthems. And as we saw the rise of the big conferences worldwide, we saw the rise of more and more of these big anthems of praise. And I loved it. We had rediscovered a part of worship that the church had lost. My own songs, though in no way comparable to those of the aforementioned writers, also took on the anthemic themes. And so my songbook became full of songs that I felt so much happier with. Balance, I thought, had been restored.

But just recently I’ve had this little nagging in the back of my mind. And maybe, just maybe, it’s a the feint voice of God just reminding me of something. “Don’t forget Intimacy. Maybe you’ve over-reacted a little, swung too far with all these songs of proclamation”

And actually there’s some truth in that. And that’s my confession.

But then again, I am still not sure about the use of this whole word - intimacy - in worship. At least, not unless we fully understand it, explain it, put it in a strong theological framework.

The word intimacy in the English language is still almost exclusively used to describe relationships of affection, of a close, personal, and often sexual nature. And in the bible, the language most akin to intimacy is saved for Song of Songs which for me is clearly about a sexual relationship between man and woman. When I normally talk about intimacy in everyday life, it’s one of those words I would only really use in the context of my relationship with my wife. And this intimacy is a safe intimacy: my wife and I have made a commitment to each other in this respect. Almost always, the word intimacy is a word about embrace, an embrace between equals.

But Isaiah 33:13 God says ‘You who are near, acknowledge my power’. Psalm 85:9 says ‘Surely his salvation is near those who fear Him’. Psalm 25:14 says ‘The Lord is a friend to those who fear Him’.

When we come close to God, we certainly are invited into an embrace. But this embrace is not an embrace of equals. Far from it. Intimacy with God is a dangerous intimacy, an intimacy of the creator with the created, an intimacy of the Holy One with one who is made holy only by His grace. The promise is that, if we draw near to God, He will draw near to us. But we also have to know that when we draw near to God, we are compelled to bow down in fear and reverence for who God is.

Then we also need to read Psalm 145:18 which says: ‘The Lord is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth’.

You see it is not enough for us to aim to be honest and real and sincere in our worship. We have to aim to be right too. We have to worship in truth, with truth. It is not acceptable to sing songs that have bad theology, merely because they make us feel good, or have good tunes, or are played by very slick bands. God says we should worship with all our hearts and mind and soul and strength. The mind is part of it.

And I think this is where I have got to. Yes maybe I, like many others, have moved a little too far away from intimacy in worship. But if there has been any error in my ways, it has been because I have in the past, had an incomplete theology. And the trouble with incomplete theology is that it can lead us astray, leave us flapping in the wind. My mistake was in thinking that I needed to find balance between intimacy and proclamation, when actually I should have understood that they were inextricably entwined.

So here is my plea. Let’s continue to sing songs of intimacy. Let’s continue to sing songs of proclamation. Let’s embrace God, and let’s bow down before Him. But let us continue, as worship leaders, to grow in our theology and understanding as we do it. And this should leave us, not on the middle ground of balance, but on the solid ground of truth.

Friday, November 2, 2007


description: a statement, picture in words, or account that describes

Worship describes.

Worship describes the symphony of praise from the whole of creation
and the faintest of prayers from a heartbroken mother;
Worship describes the resounding shout of praise from a gathered congregation
and the hidden act of kindness to a person in distress;
Worship describes a glorious encounter with the God of the heavens
and the reality of a conversation with a dying relative;
Worship describes the very real presence of God’s hope and light in the world
and the harshness of living with pain and discomfort and injustice;
Worship describes the joys, colours and harmonies of the mountain peaks
and the hard slog of every-day servant-hood and service;
Worship describes the way I speak to my daughters
and the way I instil a sense of value and identity into their lives;
Worship describes the way I listen to my wife
and the way I share my hopes and dreams and frustrations;
Worship describes the way I rejoice in my success
and the way I put the needs of others before my own;
Worship describes the lavishness of my devotion towards God
and the stewardship of the resources He puts my way;
Worship describes the first breath of a new-born child
and the final cry of a homeward-bound saint;
Worship describes the triumphant song of the victorious warrior
and the humble confession of the contrite heart;
Worship describes the thankfulness for the miracle of life
and the acceptance of a life littered with disappointment;
Worship describes the intentions of my heart as I speak
and the intensity of my prayers as I remain silent;
Worship describes the perseverance of the tear-strewn journey
and the peace in my soul when I arrive;

Worship describes


Saturday, October 27, 2007

ready meal

ready meal: prepackaged, frozen or chilled meal which usually comes in an individual package. It requires very little preparation and contains all the elements for a single-serving meal.

Is it just me?

Am I the only one who never wants to see, read, watch or listen to another ‘resource’ in my whole life.

Maybe it is just me. But the word ‘resource’ now just leaves me twitching, stressed, running for cover in need of a large whiskey. It used to mean something that helped us, taught us, inspired us. Unfortunately it now, more often than not, means something that confuses us, disappoints us, lines the pockets of some-of-us. We are largely confused by the sheer quantity-of-it, disappointed by the poverty-of-it, and suspicious of who is gaining-because-of-it. If I look back over recent years, I am struggling to think of more than a handful of books, cds or dvds that really really helped me in my role as a worship pastor. So much so that I've almost stopped buying and reading most populist Christian books, and stopped listening to most mainstream worship cd's (even the one's I happen to be on), and now positively avoid the dvd-of-the-course-in-ten-easy-steps. And probably I'm missing out. But actually I generally find more substance in a Jeremy Clarkson book or a Yes Minister DVD. Sorry.

O.K. so maybe you think I’m going a bit over-the-top-with-it this time. And I probably am.

But I am slightly confused.

Our bookshelves are full of more books than ever before. Our cd cases are filled with more worship cd’s than ever before. You can’t blink without another DVD being produced. As the church in the west, we are in total resource overload. And yet I have to ask the question ‘is the church better off?’. And I need alot of convincing that it is. My observation, generally, is that whereas it’s never been easier to find a book, cd or dvd for our own particular circumstances, it’s never been harder to get anybody to lead or serve the work of the church. Whereas we find it easy to get someone to buy a book, cd, or dvd, we find it hard to get them to give money to fund the vision of the church. We are supremely over-resourced in terms of materials, but supremely under-resourced in terms of people and money.

That’s why I’m confused.

Is it really just me?

Maybe it’s just another symptom of a largely consumeristic church culture.

Anyway, my point is this. I think we spending too much time trying to resource people, and not enough time trying to lead people. We are teaching people to stack their shelves with stuff of every size shape and colour imaginable but at the same time we are breading a generation of people who just don’t seem to be able to think for themselves, create things for themselves, lead themselves.

It’s like, instead of teaching people how to cook, we’re creating an ever increasing number of ready meals for people to nourish themselves with. You know, those meals that, whatever supermarket you get them from, they all taste pretty much the same - meals that probably have roughly the same ingredients, use approximately the same recipe, are more than likely all made by the same producers, but then just packaged differently and sold as ‘own brand’.

Just like most worship cd’s really.

Whoops! There’s the ultra-cynical Bennetts emerging again. I must try and control it.

There’s that old phrase ‘give some one a bowl of rice and they will eat for a day, but teach them how to grow rice and they will eat for a lifetime.’ Well in terms of worship songs, maybe we could re-write that as ‘give someone a song and they will have something fresh to sing for a season, but teach them how to write songs and they will have something fresh to sing for a life time’. If we resource people, we give them a range of options to choose from, depending on their circumstances. If we raise up leaders, we teach people to listen to God, to interpret the community and culture around them, and be creative for themselves.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are some very original, theological, thoughtful, helpful books out there. There are some incredible songwriters producing some wonderful songs and music. I’m not sure about DVD’s, but otherwise some of this stuff is truly inspiring. But there is also a huge amount out there that just seems to either recycle the same ideas, or appears to have no connection to the real life of doing church.

But rather than just rant, let me try and suggest some things that could make a difference. Let me just ‘put them out there’ and see if they resonate with anyone. My focus is really on the whole worship industry, but I think these things could equally apply to other arenas.

Firstly, the business models that those of us involved in producing resources use may need to be adjusted. If our business model has, at it’s heart, a need to create new product just to be viable, then it may be the wrong business model. In my mind, this means that generally we are too driven by the need to produce something - anything - rather than the need to be responding to fresh and new moves of the Spirit.

Secondly, and this is related, we need more of the intellectual and creative ownership of resources to be based within the church. It doesn’t mean that there is no room for strong partnerships between churches and distributors or service providers. But in my mind, this move would bring a creative edge back to many of our songs, books and cds. There would then be less pressure for writers to conform to a standard, other than the one that God is laying on their hearts.

Thirdly, we need to amend the way we train and invest in people, which needs to be far more relational based, and far less program based. Too often I fear we are teaching that one size fits all. The big worship conferences have their place, but I fear that, whereas they may be increasing our general skill levels, they are maybe not producing more creative, risk taking leaders.

And then I think we may be surprised. I think we may find that the baby is capable of a whole lot more than we currently give it credit for.

Anyway. I Must go. Top Gear is just about to start, and my Tesco Tikka Massala is just about done.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


real: true; not merely ostensible, nominal, or apparent; existing or occurring as fact; actual rather than imaginary; genuine; not counterfeit, artificial, or imitation; authentic; unfeigned or sincere;

Time and time again when I’m discussing issues about worship, I come across this plea: ‘we just want our worship to be real’.


It’s got a nice ring to it, hasn’t it?

And everything in us wants to agree. Surely our worship has to be real. It can’t be anything else. It certainly shouldn’t be false. It certainly shouldn’t be imaginary. If worship is worship, it has to be authentic, unfeigned, sincere, genuine.


But what does ‘real’ really mean? What does real worship look like, sound like, feel like?

Well, let’s start with some things that real worship is probably not.

Firstly, real worship is probably not about a certain style of music. Even if it totally floats our boat. We all have likes and dislikes, and musical likes and dislikes are some of the most passionate we come across. And we may find certain styles help us to worship more than others. We may also find some styles of worship are more accessible to those outside the church. And that certainly is important. But certain styles of music in themselves do not make worship more real.

Secondly, real worship doesn’t depend on our state of mind, our emotional circumstances, our social status. Worship is not more real because we happen to be sick or suffering, living in a deprived area, or going through a heartbreaking personal tragedy. It may hurt more. But does that make it more real? I’m not sure it does. Conversely I don’t know if you have ever watched some of those satelite religious channels where the band is awesome, the choir all look like models, dressed in sparkly and black uniforms, the songs are all up-tempo and happy-clappy, and every one has that o-so-perfect smile on their faces. Have you, like me, ever questioned the authenticity of their worship? But actually, I’m not sure that we can - certainly not just on the basis that ‘surely no-one can be that perfect’ mentality. Just because a bunch of people are that happy does not make their worship unreal, does it?

Thirdly, I’m not convinced that worship is more real purely because the band is cut back, more acoustic, more ‘sit in a field of mud round a camp fire and earthy’. And likewise, it’s not more real because you have a ten piece band, a 100 strong choir, the psalm drummers and the national philharmonic orchestra. All of these may be appropriate in certain circumstances. All may speak of God in different ways. But I’m not convinced that either in itself makes the worship more real.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not just trying to be clever here. I’m certainly not trying to undermine people’s creativity. Anything but that - in fact, one of the biggest challenges to the church generally is how to release more creativity - not only in worship - but in the widest possible activity of kingdom life.

But what I am saying is that many of these things in themselves do not make our worship real. And in fact my biggest, biggest frustration is that, so often when I hear people say 'I don't think that the worship is real’, what I am really hearing them say is ‘I don’t like that worship’. So often I sense a consumerism underlying a plea for realism, and that is so disappointing.

Let’s have a look at some worshippers in the Bible. David for example. accompanying the ark back to Jerusalem. He engages in a very extravagant act of worship. It cost lots of money. It was very public. And when you read the Psalms, you don’t get the impression this is something necessarily in character. Elsewhere David comes over as very intense, thoughtful and, ultimately, broken. Maybe this act of worship was more reflective of what God required than what David naturally would act like?

Let’s look at Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son as an act of worshipful obedience. Hardly easy. Hardly fashionable. But he was willing to go with what God required.

Let’s look at Mary. Worshipping with tears, pouring perfume over the feet of Jesus. Hardly dignifying. Hardly financially prudent. But judging from Jesus’ words, seemingly that was what was required of her in that moment.

And let’s hear the words of Jesus, who says that the Father seeks those who will worship in spirit and truth. Those who will worship with all that they are and with all that they have. People who don’t take themselves too seriously, but take God very seriously.

It seems to me that real worship means living with our hearts set on God - loving mercy, acting with justice, walking humbly - and then engaging in worship with our hearts set on God: singing to Him with all we have, singing to Him because of all we know and have seen of Him. Regardless of personal circumstances, regardless of the style of music, regardless or the size of the band. And we who are mature in Christ should be those taking the lead in this. We should be the ones that should worship with all that we are whatever is on offer in terms of style or variety. We should be the ones who are worshipping with everything we have, regardless of our own personal circumstances.

Yes we should grow in creativity. Yes we should be relevant. Yes we should be accessible. Of course we should. But no amount or creativity, relevance or accessibility will in itself make our worship real.

There’s someone in our congregation at Trinity Cheltenham who comes every week to church, and throws themselves into every song, sometimes with exuberance, sometimes on their knees, sometimes with hands held high, sometimes with tears flowing, often with a huge smile on their face. Outside Sundays this person talks to people on the street about Jesus, and then serves some of the poorest communities you can find around the world. And then this person comes back to church and sings again.

For me, this is worship.

Real worship.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


together: into or in one gathering; in union; into or in relationship; into or in a condition of unity; at the same time; simultaneously; in cooperation; with united action; conjointly; with mutual action

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another (Hebrews 10:25)

Together, together, together everyone. Together, together, come on lets have some fun. Together, we’re there for each other every time. Together together come on lets do this right. Everyone is special in their own way. We make each other strong. We’re not the same. We’re different in a good way. Together's where we belong. (High School Musical 2006)

It seems that even in the earliest years of the church, people sometimes gave up on coming together to worship, and needed encouraging, needed reminding of the huge gift that gathered worship is to the church. And we are no different today. The pressures maybe different, the culture is almost certainly very different. But the fact remains that, as ever, the desire to come together to worship in church today is sometimes under threat. Not so much due to political pressure, or persecution (though this may come one day), but through something far, far more dangerous and potentially terminal: a misguided theology.

There are some elements of the church that are currently, ever so subtly, backing off from attaching the highest of priority to meeting together for worship. It’s wrapped up in some ever so appealing language promoting community or mission, but it’s inference is worrying. It can give the impression that joining together and singing is not really so important after all. And this makes me sad. Because when a church comes together, a church that is made up of a diverse range of people from a wide range of backgrounds and a huge variety of personal circumstances - when that church comes together and joins with one voice in singing songs to God, they are making one of the most important, counter cultural statements imaginable. In a society that is increasingly individualistic and consumeristic, that statement is ‘we are better off together’.

I understand why some are devaluing worship in the life of the church. We all desire to be relevant to our culture. We all have a huge longing to see our friends, our neighbours, our work-mates come to know Jesus. And we are slightly afraid that this thing called worship may put them off. And the concept of a worship ‘service’ feels slightly, well, old-fashioned. Certainly not very post-modern. I remember some time ago when a whole load of our friends came to the morning service when one of our daughters was being dedicated. When I got up to lead worship - singing - I suddenly felt slightly exposed. I could sort of see how they would relate to the dedication, and the kidz actions, and even the prayers. But the singing? In a very real sense I felt uncomfortable at expecting my friends to do this.

I do understand those who are backing off.

I understand why they think this way.

But I don’t agree with them.

When people come together to worship, they experience the manifest presence of God, they hear the voice of God, they see Him break into impossible situations, they see people come to know Him for the very first time, and they themselves become satisfied as children of God.

Yes, I know that worship is a lifestyle. Yes I know that we need to act justly day by day. Yes I know that we need to give ourselves wholeheartedly in service. Yes I know we need to develop ways of expressing community. All these things are hugely important. But it is misguided to say that they can in any way replace gathered worship: The truth of the matter is that God still wants us to come together and sing.

It is a command.

But it’s a command that, like every command from God, has a heart of love at it’s centre. A heart of love that knows who we were created to be, and knows what we need for this life. God has designed us with a deep hunger to worship Him, encounter Him, be intimate with Him. And He has given us this gift - singing together - to help us do just that.

I passionately believe that coming together to worship as his people - yes after living a lifestyle of worship, acting justly, serving wholeheartedly, living in community - but coming together as his people to worship, to encounter Him together, is fundamental to our identity and purpose as his church.

It maybe that our gathered worship needs refreshing, making it more accessible, making it more relevant. The bathwater may need changing in this respect every now and then. But the baby will begin to die if we throw it out altogether.

Because we are stronger, better together.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


local: pertaining to or characterized by place or position in space; spatial; pertaining to, characteristic of, or restricted to a particular place or particular places; pertaining to a city, town, or small district rather than an entire state or country

I was chatting to a musician friend a couple of years ago. He played in the band of a worship leader who often travelled the world leading worship. For one particular event he travelled with the aforesaid worship leader to Australia. The flight for the band took a whole day and night and cost a whole lot of money. Then one evening during a time of worship my friend said this thought came to mind:

‘surely someone up the road could have done this’

And he’s got a point.

We are dominated in our world and in our culture by internationalism; whether in business, in entertainment, in politics. Networking tools such as facebook mean that we can keep in touch with people all over the world at the click of a mouse. Many high streets in many countries, especially in the most developed parts of the worlds, look quite similar, and are often dominated by the international brands of Macdonalds, Next and Starbucks. (Although actually, Starbucks is a specific gift from God to worship leaders, and so probably stands out on itself as acceptable and honourable). And in recent years, the church has seen the rise to prominence of a number of worship leaders that also have an international presence.

Now I have to say at this point that this isn’t one of those ‘if I can’t be an international worship leader, then no one should be allowed to’ sort of rants. In fact, personally, I can’t think of anything worse than travelling around the world on a cramped tour-bus, losing sleep, eating badly, playing and singing night after night, venue after venue to the hoarding masses. The fact that I can’t sing in tune and my guitar playing is really pants, so no one in their right mind would ask me to anyway has absolutely nothing to do with it either. And I also have to say I have been significantly helped by some very high-profile worship leaders along the way, for which I am truly thankful. To have had one-on-one time with worship leaders who have such a greater wealth of experience than me has been awesome. To observe, even be-it ‘from afar’ worship leaders with considerably more skill and anointing than me, has helped inspire and urge me on in my own worship leading. I would count many of them as worship leaders with an apostlistic gifting. And I hope, that for many years to come, I will still be able to benefit from them in this way. Our church sings their songs and it’s worship is enriched because of them

And yet.

And yet there is something about the growth of internationalism in our worship that also leaves me slightly dissatisfied. You know, I think you could go to most churches around the world and still expect to sing the songs that you know, with bands all sounding much the same. One of my good friends, David Gate, calls it ‘McWorship’. In one sense it’s great to be able to get a sense of unity in the church in this way. But after a while, I just feel like I want things to be different. To be a bit more fresh.

A bit more local.

So let’s step sideways for a moment.

I love seeing my two young girls develop their creativity. Elizabeth, my eldest (actually, she will get cross with me if I call her Elizabeth, rather than Lizzy as she now like to be known) plays the flute. She recently passed grade 2 and is now moving on to grade 4. Just recently I’ve noticed a change in her attitude. We used to have to tell her what to do, note by note. Sit with her and work through each piece of music. We used to have to explain what a crescendo was, and a staccato and so on. But now, she is doing much more of it all herself. She takes much more of the initiative. And that makes me proud, because it shows she is growing up. In fact generally in life I am finding that Lizzy is less and less likely to take my own views and likes and dislikes on for herself without challenging them. She is growing her own character and mind and heart and soul. Sometimes that is frustrating, in that part of me longs to have a daughter who just gazes longingly into my eyes and hangs off my every word. But it just doesn’t happen. And actually I’m glad. Our lives as a family are so much the richer for her difference. She is growing up, spreading her wings, and beginning to fly.

Growing up, spreading her wings, and beginning to fly.

And this is what my longing is for my church.

My local church.

In a rather unsightly looking set of buildings opposite a car park in the center of Cheltenham.

When I look at the birth of the church in the New Testament, I see the first apostles moving from place to place, planting churches, and encouraging them, before moving on. New churches got ‘the best’ help when they were at their most embryonic, when they were starting out. Over time we see those churches grow and develop, and new local leaders take on more and more local responsibility.

As a church here in Cheltenham, we have just sent a group of people into another church in the town which was on it’s last legs. The vision for that church is to grow, to raise up it’s own leaders, to make a huge impact in that area of the town. Initially, as the ‘mother church’ we are having to invest and support and encourage. They are getting a significant investment of our time and resources and people - some of the best we can offer. Over time, whilst links will always be strong, our involvement will surely diminish as that church spreads it’s own wings and begins to fly. It’s our first (but hopefully not last) venture such as this, and I’m sure we have, and will make many mistakes along the way. But I sense that we are bumbling, in our own imperfect way, into something that resonates, al-be-it faintly, with New-Testament times.

Someone, who was involved in running a conference, once said to me that hopefully, a few years down the line when the conference got big enough, it would be able to attract higher profile worship leaders, but for the moment they would have to make do with more local unknown people. And I sort of see what they were saying.

But something about this feels up-side-down.

Surely the aim of a church or conference or whatever, over time, should be to have less and less reliance on the ‘high profile’ itinerant leader or worship leader. Surely it’s aim shouldn’t be to get strong enough so that it can attract the ‘high profile’ people, but that it becomes strong enough so that it doesn’t need them so much. And surely this is what apostlistic ministry is about: not to develop resources for the church - providing an ever increasing volume of book, songs and cd’s - but to develop leaders of the church, so that they can do it themselves.

So it can become truly local.

Grown up.

It can then place more emphasis on developing it’s own creative mind, heart and soul. Write songs just to serve it’s own congregation. Record albums just to serve it’s own membership. Write books that speak into the lives of their own communities. Spread it’s wings and fly.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


beauty: the quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.

Approximately 60 seconds after I proposed to Susie we were in the jewellers shop buying the ring. I thought it was quite a quick decision, really, when you consider how much we were going to spend and considering how long the ring was going to have to last. But then, as Susie has explained to me many times since, I had been ridiculously dull and slow and hesitant in asking, and so she had had many weeks to do her research. We brought the ring, and it now rests on the third finger of her left hand and reminds me of the day that I made the second best decision of my life.

My wife is from Ireland. I love her, and my two girls and the life we share together. She is gorgeous, and thoughtful, and far more godly than I am. The ring we bought that day was a gold ring, with an emerald, and two small diamonds - one on either side. And I love the choice she made when she picked it out. It is a beautiful ring. But beautiful as it is, it will never outshine the beauty of the one who wears it.

Every now and then, you come across someone, normally in the celebrity world, who has just got engaged, and whose ring is under the spotlight. We find out how much it cost, how big it is, how many carats, and we are led to believe that it is the biggest, brightest, shiniest, most expensive ring of it’s kind, and how that means it is perfectly fitting for the celebrity who wears it. Now I truly think that no ring, however expensive, could ever outshine my wife. I’m sure every husband would say the same. But I do think that there would become a point when a ring became so big, so significant, so expensive, so consuming of my attention, that it would start to be a distraction.

There is something about the word ‘beauty’ that seems to indicate purity, integrity, a quality that can’t be manufactured or imitated. And in my mind, true beauty comes above all through depth. It is understated but not forceful, pure but impassionable. It shines but doesn’t glare. It speaks of fragility but not weakness, originality but not arrogance. When I sense God shining through people, this is what I think I see.


Not a brash, pretty, attention seeking attractiveness. But an integrity, a truthfulness, an originality, an understated quality that says far more about the One shining though them, than about the individual themselves.


Now I’m slightly worried about all of this. I’m worried that I may lose credibility amongst my mates. Because I actually want to encourage us worship leaders to aspire to the quality of beauty in our lives - firstly through a closeness to God, and secondly through an intentional arrangement of our actions so as to give maximum possibility that God alone will be glorified. You see one of the dangers I face as a worship leader is that I can get carried away with achieving technical excellence, or recording a great album, or producing outstanding visual presentations. I can start to marvel at the quality of my vocal improvisations, or my clever way of transitioning between songs. But whereas all these things are highly commendable, they can, if not handled carefully, become a distraction. They can come over as slightly forced, slightly glaring, slightly arrogant. And then if I’m not careful, they will start to take people’s attention away from the One who is true beauty. And even if we distract people for only a moment, the danger is that we snatch a little of the glory that God is due, and claim it for ourselves.

One of my heroes in worship leading is a friend called Scott Underwood. The very first time I led worship at New Wine, Scott guided me though it. I remember the first night. I was nearly physically sick with nervousness as we sat in a side room preparing to lead worship. And as we sat there, him changing his guitar strings and chatting comfortably, and me biting my fingernails and fretting stressfully, he said this to me: “Neil, our job as worship leaders is just to get people to focus on Jesus, and then leave them there as long as possible”

It’s an incredible thing, worship. And it's an incredible, humbling responsibility we have to help people connect with, and gaze upon the Beautiful One. Let’s not get in the way.

Friday, September 21, 2007


tolerance: the allowance of the existence, presence, practice, or act of without prohibition or hindrance

There’s a saying that I came across a few years ago, a phrase that has really stuck with me, one that I have found relevant in a multitude of circumstances and situations. And it’s this: ‘You deserve what you tolerate’

You deserve what you tolerate.

It’s quite an uncomfortable phrase isn’t it?

It sort of puts quite a lot of emphasis on us, on our willingness to make decisions and bear the consequences of them. And it’s also not that black and white. It seems to suggest that there is a whole range of options for us in any situation, none that maybe particularly right or wrong, but all of which bring with them a range of consequences. And we don’t like that sort of responsibility really.

If, when she has some spare time, I let my daughter watch telly for too long rather than go out and play with her friends in the street, then it may make life slightly easier for me, and for her, for that moment. She has a nice time watching Doctor Who, and I get a bit of peace and quiet allowing me to create another dubious blog article.

Now actually, there is nothing wrong with watching TV. And despite what many psychologists tell us these day, I reckon it’s quite O.K. to watch it for a few hours at a time without becoming totally relationally dysfunctional. I do it from time to time. (Ok so I’ve set myself up perfectly there...). And I also think that it’s O.K. to let your children watch T.V. for a few hours at a time occasionally. Let’s face it, after a week at school, numerous children’s clubs and homework, who wouldn’t let their kidz slouch on the sofa for a while in front of the box on a Saturday morning? But if I let my daughter watch it too long, too often, a few things happen. Firstly she begins to believe that this is what her spare time is for. Secondly, it becomes harder and harder for me to change her view of spare time, should I want to. And thirdly she finds it all the more difficult to get back into the ‘playing with friends in the street’ mode. Which means that when I ask her to turn off the T.V. and do something more interesting, I have a battle on my hands. I have made a decision, to which there are consequences. I have tolerated something, and I deserve the result.

I deserve what I tolerate.

I got this press release on e-mail recently. I have removed the actual names.

"One of the world's leading contemporary hymn writers will return to the place that inspired his latest album - the highly successful XXX (some concert venue), in XXX (somewhere in the UK). XXX (the worship leader) - who goes back to the venue this autumn for XXX (a conference) - named his new studio recording XXX (the latest album), partly in recognition of this venue. For it was there that he presented some of his latest material to a massive 8,500-strong audience. The impact of that moment was remarkable. Since then, XXX (the worship leader) and his fellow worship leaders have been numbered among the likes of Coldplay and Snow Patrol for drawing such big crowds."

Now we could discuss endlessly the ‘right-ness’ or ‘wrong-ness’ of using such language such as this. We could talk about the need to make commercial decisions and make sure we are being wise stewards of money invested in albums and so on. And actually I’ve got some strong opinions on all of this - but that’s maybe for another time. But even if we can get to the point of justifying the use of such language (which I doubt - I mean let’s face it, when has worship been about ‘presenting material’??), there are still, very probably, some consequences. In fact, every time we are tolerant of something, there are consequences to bear.

Every time we put an album out into the market place with a big picture of a good looking worship leader on the front, we have to spend more time explaining to our youth that worship isn’t about giving profile and adulation to a gifted individual, but about giving profile and adulation to a Holy God.

We deserve what we tolerate.

Each time we put on a worship concert with an international worship leader, we have to work hard to re-establish in our local church that worship is primarily about the way we respond to God in our hearts rather than an experience delivered by a skilled musical performance.

We deserve what we tolerate.

Each time we put out a CD that claims to be ‘the best ever worship songs’ we have to work harder to convince songwriters in our own local churches that it is serving your own congregation, writing songs for your own local church that counts, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t ever get a song on a worship album.

We deserve what we tolerate.

Every time we put out a ‘live’ worship album that has had every wrong note, tempo inaccuracy and out of tune harmony removed and the sound of any congregation taken out from it, we have to work harder to explain to our congregations that worship is more to do with the united and untidy song of worshippers, rather than the neat and polished sound of a band and worship leader.

We deserve what we tolerate.

Every time we put a press release out that talks about a worship leader as being a draw for big crowds, then we have to work harder to re-establish that it is God alone who is due glory, and honour, and worship in this world.

We deserve what we tolerate.

It’s not that any of these things may be entirely wrong in themselves. It’s just that we have to bear the consequences of our tolerance of them. I listen to worship CD’s, even ones with pretty pictures of pretty worship leaders on the front. I like some live worship cd’s. Especially the ones with me on them (O.K. that was a joke). And I reckon I could go to the odd ‘worship concert’ and enjoy it. But the problem is that all theses things are becoming so high profile, so common, so much the focus of attention, that many people are now beginning to think that this is what worship is all about.

And it isn’t.

I had a sabbatical a couple of years ago. It was a hugely generous gesture on the part of my church for which I am so grateful. Whilst on my sabbatical I managed to visit a few churches that I had heard about. And I wanted to go and see for myself what God was doing there. One of these churches was a large church in London. The presentation of the worship was, in all honestly, nearly as good as any secular gig I’ve been to (O.K. so I haven’t been to one since 1981). It had great lighting, a very good band, and awesome visual presentations. I have to say I loved it in so many ways. I had no problem with any of the ‘glitz and glamour’. And I truly encountered God and was able to worship Him with some abandon.

Was the whole thing riddled with theological inconsistencies? Yes, I think it was. Did it fully embody the values I adhere to in worship and church? No, it certainly didn’t. Would I feel happy taking my children there and be comfortable that it was a good part of their spiritual formation? No, I wouldn’t. Am I happy that the place was full of young people who could otherwise have been in the pubs and clubs that day? Yes I am. Do I think that the worship team were operating with a heart for God and a desire to honour Him? Yes, I do. Could I worship God myself? Absolutely yes.

You see it’s not that easy. It’s not black and white. It would be so much easier if it was. But more and more I’m discovering that leadership is not so much about choosing between black and white, but about searching my way through an ever increasing number of shades of grey.

Looking at it one way, you could say, "Anything goes. Because of God's immense generosity and grace, we don't have to dissect and scrutinize every action to see if it will pass muster." But the point is not to just get by. We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well. (1 Corinthians 10:23, The Message)

I don’t want to ‘just get by’. I want to live well. But more than this, I want the people, the church that I help lead to live well too. And so for me, the question that we, as leaders, need to be asking is not “Is all of this ok?” but “Is all of this the best way?”.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


sing: to utter with musical modulations of the voice; to escort or accompany with singing; to proclaim enthusiastically; to bring, send, put, etc., with or by singing; to chant or intone; to tell or praise in verse or song.

We all have our songs, our heart cries to God. We sing them in our cars, our homes, on the way to work. We sing them through pain and through joy. Sometimes they are audible and beautiful to the human ear. Often they may be silent, or lack musical expertise. But to God they are all treasured, and they are at the heart of the way He wishes to relate to His people: God Himself sings over us, and we sing back, responding as best we can to His overtures of love.

But so often our individual songs can feel inadequate, our acts of praise can feel isolated and faint. We may feel limited in our ability to articulate what we want to say to God, frustrated by the lack of colour in our words, disappointed by any sense of immediate impact in the Kingdom. However precious to God our own individual voices are we long to be part of a greater song. And that is why, since the birth of the church, worshippers have sought each other out. We find that when our individual heart cries come together, when our personal descriptions of God’s character as He has revealed Himself to us combine, they produce something altogether stronger, louder and more courageous.

Some weeks ago I was enjoying being part of the congregation, loving the worship being led by one of my team, excited by hearing the passion and enthusiasm of the worshippers around me, and through it all, encountering God myself as I sang. And then just for a few moments I stopped singing. And out of the combined sound of the 500 hundred or so singers that were there that evening, I began to hear some individual songs stand out. Behind me to my right I heard someone proclaiming God’s power and glory. Just behind me I sensed a more painful cry, a lament of someone struggling through difficulty. Another voice seemed to be pouring out pure love and devotion to Jesus. They were all singing roughly the same words, and nearly the same tune. But the different heart cries of those individual voices shone through, and it was as though a bigger, more glorious, more beautiful picture of God was being painted before my eyes. And I found myself being urged on to sing louder, to lift my hands higher, to rejoice with more faith and maybe slightly more understanding.

I don’t know what you think a worship leader is trying to do. For me it is clearly not about pushing the next great song, about performing to people, about speaking clever words over people, or meeting album sales, or impressing people with technical ability.

But for me, the role of the worship leader is to draw together all the individual voices and intentions in the room, to gather together all the heart cries of all the people present -

those who are going through good times;
those who are hurting;
those who have just lost a loved one;
those for whom the very act of opening their mouths to sing that day causes pain;
those who have never known God work so powerfully in their lives that week;
those who feel God is a thousand miles away;
those who are dealing with a terminal illness;
those who are going through a relationship break up;
those who are struggling because they aren’t married;
those who are excited because they have just got married;
those who’s children are causing them pain;
those who may have come to know Jesus only that day.

The role of the worship leader when he plugs in his guitar and counts in the band is to gather all those voices together. And whereas in isolation each one expresses some small part of God’s character, some small piece of the picture of who God is, gathered together they give a far more glorious expression of His wonder and completeness:

the Creator;
the Eternal Father;
the Faithful One;
the Source Of Life;
the Comforter;
the Sovereign King;
the Healer;
the Saviour;
the Redeemer.

And suddenly those voices that may have previously felt somewhat inadequate begin to find their strength.

I’ve often wondered what Paul means when he urges us to ‘speak to one another with psalms hymns and spiritual songs’. The thought of turning to my neighbour in church on a Sunday and singing some sort of cheesy ‘Jesus loves you’ ditty leaves me cold. In fact I remember singing a song, many years ago, which had the line ‘Jesus stand among us at the meeting of our eyes’ and being encouraged by the worship leader to look around at my mates in the congregation whilst I sung it. This sort of thing doesn’t really work for me. But what does work is finding my own feeble voice joining together with many other feeble voices, and being encouraged and inspired and urged on in my worship. What does work for me is having my picture of God enlarged by the expressions of worship in the voices around me.

But that’s not the end of it. As we saints on earth gather and sing our songs together in what may be a few short moments, we join with the multitudes of saints in heaven, with the thousands on thousands of angels singing a song that goes through all eternity. They sing ‘worthy is the lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise. Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’

Now I’m not sure that I would recognise an angel if it stood up in front of me and slapped me round the face. I’m a little dull like that. But every now and then as I worship, it’s as though a little window of my heart opens up, and i get a faint glimpse of what may be happening in the heavens. Every now and then we feel the breeze a little stronger on our faces and we know we are part of something much more powerful and glorious than our earthly status allows us to fully see.

But even though we may not see it all, we know that as us saints below begin to join with the saints above, not only does the song seem to get even stronger, but the powers of darkness begin to be defeated. The weaponry of the evil one begins to be dismantled because the people of God are saying ‘whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in, we won’t let that stop us praising God’. They are saying ‘God He rules, God He reigns’. And then God begins to shine brighter - the very songs that express our wonder of Him reflect His glory back to Him. And then we see more of Him, and we encounter Him in greater power. People who have come into the church for the very first time encounter God for the very first time, fall on their knees, and proclaim Him Lord.

This is the true mystery, and the crowning glory, of worship. In the same moment that God meets the broken hearted and gives them peace, meets the weary and gives them rest, meets the hungry and satisfies them, meets those in pain and gives them hope, meets the downtrodden and gives them dignity; in the same moment God shows His Fatherhood to these people in a tender and compassionate way, His awesome power is released into the most fierce battle in the universe: the battle over lost souls, the battle of light and darkness; the battle of good and evil.

And all because we decided to come to church that day and sing.

(thanks to Brian Howell and Naomi Lippett for their help in putting this article together)

Thursday, September 13, 2007



the state or fact of being present, as with others or in a place; attendance or company; immediate vicinity; proximity; the quality or manner of a person's bearing; personal appearance or bearing; of noteworthy appearance or compelling personality; a divine or supernatural spirit felt to be present:

What does the presence of God look like?

in Genesis 1 it hovered over the waters;
in Exodus 3 it was a burning bush;
in Numbers 9 it was a cloud that moved from place to place
in Isaiah 3 it is described as glorious
in Psalm 89 it is described as light
in Hosea 6 it is described as sweet spring rain
in Naham 1 the earth trembled at it
in Psalm 5 the arrogant couldn’t stand in it
in Acts 10 people listened to the voice of God in it
in Isaiah 26 people in agony cried out in it
in Leviticus 9 and 10 God’s fire came out of it
in Psalm 9 nations were judged in it
in 1 Thesselonians 3 people found joy in it
in Joshua 18 and 19 people made big decisions in it
in Psalm 18 hailstones and thunderbolts flew out from it
in 1 John 3 people found rest in it
in Psalm 41 those with integrity were allowed to remain in it

Samuel grew up in it

in Psalm 90 people were convicted of their sins by it
in Deuteronomy 27 people rejoiced in it
in Jeremiah 23 the disobedient were thrown from it
in Luke 1 the angel Gabriel stood in it and spoke of good news
in Deuteronomy 19 disputes were settled by men standing within it
in 2 Kings 17 those who worshipped false idols were removed from it
in Hosea 6 the injured and wounded were revived in it
in Genesis 27 people blessed other people in it
in Ezekiel 46 people worshipped in it
in Deuteronomy 4 people were led by it
in Deuteronomy 18 people served in it
in 1 Chronicles 29 people ate and drank in it with great joy
in 1 Thessalonians 3 people's hearts were strengthened in it
in 2 Chronicles 6 people made their requests to God in it
in Psalm 31 people found shelter in it
in Psalm 16 people found pleasure in it

John had the dream to end all dreams in it

in Deuteronomy 12 people brought their gifts into it
in Deuteronomy 16 people made sacrifices in it
in 2 Peter 2 angels watched what they said in it
in 2 Chronicles 20 people cried out in distress in it
in Deuteronomy 29 people made promises in it
in Lamenations 2 people poured out their hearts in it
in 2 Chronicles 34 God listened to the cries of his people in it
in Psalm 139 David found it would be everywhere he went
in 1 Chorinthians the unbelievers fell down and worshipped because of it
in Habakkuck 2 people were silent before it
in 2 Samuel 6 David danced with abandon before it.

In Psalm 84 we learn that a moment in it is better than anything else the world has to offer.

And one day all the saints will worship in it.


How exciting is that?

When we come together to worship, we expect that we will meet with God. And when that happens, we all have our idea of what that looks like. And maybe that is a problem. Maybe we need to relax those ideas. Increase our expectation that he will meet us, but be more open to what things will look like when he does.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


treasure: [verb] to retain carefully; to regard or treat as precious; cherish

guard what has been entrusted to your care (1 Tim 6:20)

My life is littered with the precious things God has entrusted to me. My family, my home, my friends, my Avalon guitar. And one of the things God has entrusted me with is the leading of worship for my church. And I have come to treasure it.

Of course, I know it’s not me, it is God working through me. I know it’s not my ministry it is God’s ministry. And I know that I am only entrusted with it for as long as God deems that it is beneficial to his purposes. But while he entrusts me with it I will look after it, cherish it, guard it, retain it carefully, treat it as precious.

Treasure it.

But this type of treasuring means holding onto it lightly. In fact, it probably only continues to have power whilst I hold onto it with the gentlest of pressure. Clasp it, and I risk suffocating it, risk it becoming ineffectual. Hold onto it too tightly and it will soon start to take on the form on a idol, stealing the glory that God alone is due.

And as a worship leader myself, I need to know that this gift that I treasure is entirely for God’s glory. Any desire to bring glory, or reputation, or adulation onto myself is not treasuring it, it is exploiting it. In fact it is in the complete disregard for my own personal gain that I display the greatest level of treasuring, and that God gets the greatest measure of Glory.

God requires us to treasure what he has entrusted to us. Not seek earthly treasure from it.

And one of the things I am learning is that, because I am involved in something that has such huge potential to bless the church, I need to be so so careful with it. I need to try and be whiter than white as I operate in it. I need to seek to minimise the chance that anything I do could be seen as self-seeking or self-promoting through it. The high profile that comes with it demands a proportionately greater level of thought and care. And I know I probably fail miserably.

Every time I get preoccupied with the number of cd sales I could make, I stop treasuring my gift and start to idolise it. Every time I hope for a higher place on the CCLI chart for one of my songs, I stop treasuring my gift and start to idolise it. Every time I manoeuvre myself into a place to be asked to lead worship at a particular conference, I stop treasuring my gift and start to idolise it. Every time I say ‘no’ to leading worship at an event purely because it isn’t high profile enough, I stop treasuring my gift and start to idolise it.

I recently bought a new car. Well not entirely new, but nearly new. We inherited a little money, and as our old car was on it’s last legs, we decided to buy something that would last us for a long time. Now you need to know something about me. In my twenties, I was your archetypal bachelor. Playing footfall, going to the football, beers, curry, sports car, the works. Then over the last twenty years this has been slowly chipped away at. I am now married, have 2.4 children (well 2 really - it just seems like more) have a respectable job and live in a three bed semi in a tree lined cul-de-sac. And the purchase of this new car complimented this image perfectly.

Yes, I brought a Mondeo.

Can you believe it? But actually it’s quite a nice car. Jeremy Clarkeson thinks so too, apparently. And when we got it, I decided I needed to really look after it. Clean it regularly, clear out all the rubbish which accumulates remarkably quickly from the aforesaid wife and 2.4 children. And so I do. But my wife, with her ‘holier than thou’ Christian face on, says I am idolising it. I try and explain that I am just looking after it, but it won’t change her mind. She tells all our friends I’m in love with a Mondeo. It’s so hurtful.

It seems that even with a boring family car, it’s really easy to mistake treasuring for idolatry. The line is fine.

And think there is so much that we worship leaders do in the name of worship these days that, despite every good motive on our part, could be perceived as idolatry. We only need to look at some of our marketing, our concert tours, our photos on our albums, our press releases, to see this may be happening. And this gives us a huge problem. Because as soon as we are perceived to be self-seeking we will cease to be able to serve our churches properly.

And maybe the bathwater has got so murky in this respect that the baby has every right to shout ‘foul’.

And maybe what we worship leaders need to do is become a little more faceless, a little more local, a little more in the background, a little more in awe of the one who has entrusted this amazing thing to us.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


loss: detriment, disadvantage, or deprivation from failure to keep, have, or get; something that is lost; the state of being deprived of or of being without something that one has had; death, or the fact of being dead; failure to make good use of something.

I’m quite excited. Next Saturday, one of my songs is being used at an event in Kings College, Cambridge. A 100 strong choir, the organ, the great setting with it’s great acoustics. I would love to be able to go, but it looks like that won’t be possible, as I have a busy week, followed by a busy Sunday, and it looks like Saturday will be my only real family time. Now I’m not telling you about this to self promote myself (well, probably not), I’m telling you because I love to hear that sort of music, to that sort of standard, in that sort of setting. It’s potentially a beautiful sound that can capture our senses and set our hearts on God, and to hear one my songs being used in that way would be incredible.

Now I realise my confession that I like choir and organ music will probably destroy any sense of coolness or street credibility that I like to think I may have had. After all, I am a worship leader, and we’re not meant to like this sort of stuff.

But actually I think that beautiful music such as this has been a sad loss to the wider church. The organ as an instrument is awesome. The range of sounds and tones it can produce is incredible. It has great musical power than can reflect the majesty of God. It has exquisite delicacy that can reflect the gentleness of God. Just one person and one instrument can produce a range of sounds and melodies and harmonies that can gather the largest of congregations together for an encounter with God in song. And a choir seems to mirror and complement the sound of an organ so well.

It’s a loss to the church.

OK, so it still exists in some places and some contexts in the UK. But not a huge number, and certainly not in the depth or quality that used to serve the church in this country for so many years. And sadly, most contexts where it operates to a good standard tend to be civic, state events or cathedrals. [now just for clarification, I am commenting on my own country and context. i don’t know enough about other countries and other contexts to comment]

So why?

Why has something that used to serve the church so incredibly become something that is now viewed by so many people in the church primarily (though not exclusively) as an art form, and has become something that seems to more closely represent the death and the irrelevance of the church, rather than the life and the vitality of the church?

Well one possibility is that God just moved on, as he can do in his sovereignty, ensuring we listen to him and follow his voice. Just as in the desert times. And if that is the case, those of us who are set on his purposes, and seeking his kingdom would probably shrug our shoulders and say ‘that’s life’ and move on with it. Those of us who were organists (and I have been one!) would probably be content to learn the drums, or the guitar, or the pan pipes to help the church worship (ok so I lied about the pan-pipes).

Another possibility is that our culture changed around us, and so the style of music employed by the church with organ and choir became something that failed to capture the hearts of the masses. And so rather than lose touch with our culture, we needed to change our style of music in order to stay relevant. And again, we would probably be sad that the church has had to follow the culture, rather than shape the culture, but would not hang on to the old wineskins for the sake of the mission of the church.

But what if there was another reason.

What if it was our own fault?

What if we had made this music an idol? What if we had made it sacred. What if we had not been a good steward of it’s power. What if we had used it to serve our own purposes rather than serving the church. What if we had tried to steal some glory from the God who won’t share his glory out. What if we had started to do too many international choir tours that promoted ourselves above God. What if our own identities had become so wrapped up in it that we had lost the ability to hear the voice of god.

What if, because of our own stupidity, God just gently, silently, removed his hand of blessing from it?

Friday, September 7, 2007

the baby and the bathwater

So yes, I have entered the world of blogging.

And because I am 'Mr Cheese' I have a cheesy name for the blog. But there is a point (there always isn't there).

What I want to do on this site is make some observations and write some articles on worship: partly because it's good for (me) us to work hard at articulating truth - so often we blame the inadequacy of language in formulating argument - but actually, language IS the argument - and so we need to quickly get over that excuse - but also because I am beginning to sense God is speaking to the wider church on the whole area of worship (well, he would, wouldn't he. he is God after all, and it is his church). And I think we need to review some of what we are doing and maybe make some tweeks here and there or maybe dismantle some things (either clean up or throw out the bath water) to make sure that this whole worship thing continues to serve the church (the baby)*.

Get it?

I told you it was cheesy.

The other reason I want to start a blog is that I have found myself clogging up other people's blogs with my ranting, and so I want to release them from having their own sites corrupted by my own deliberations. But I do want to point you to a couple of sites of worship leaders who I think are beginning to ask similar questions. 'Daily Health Scare' (David Gate) and (Nae Lippett).

So over the next little while, I'll be looking at some of the issues that I think need either cleaning up or throwing out. They are my own personal views and as my finite understanding of theology is changing all the time as I hopefully understand more about a hugely awesome and infinite God, I may say some things and then change my mind later. But that's because I hope my mind is open. Some of it may make you laugh. Some of it may make you scream. But most of it will probably show just how little I know or understand.

And I don't mind if you disagree. That's what debate is about.

* please note, I have ammended this sentence as one or two people said my original one was confusing. I agree with them.