Friday, November 16, 2012

Here is the other ordinary neighbor page....except this one is plural to include Susanna. We're getting everything all synced up between our sites and with bandcamp where you can purchase our record and her books. You can also find us on facebook....yada...yada...yada..... Internet marketing blitzzzz on this release because we have two boys and won't be able to get out to play and support the record properly.

I don't know if I've been more stoked about anything I've worked on. The goal was to make a record I would want to listen to and hopefully that love will be interesting to others. We'll see. If you do take a listen and enjoy it, please spread the word and help us find some more listeners a fb post, a tweet etc.

I'll share more later. Right now Casper, Shepherd and I are all sick. Sus is healthy thankfully.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Here We Go - Ordinary Neighbors

Here We Go - Ordinary Neighbors from Joshua Banner on Vimeo.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


God Is The Dream - Ordinary Neighbors from Joshua Banner on Vimeo.

Monday, June 18, 2012

New Song 1 Peter 6:6-8

Sus and I wrote a little piece based on 1 Peter 5:6-8 for the Verses Project that Joel Limpic and others have put together. The challenge was to write a song without any changes in the original bible passage. We fudged in one little place. Even though the arrangement and mix was done really quickly, this song can give you a glimpse into the sound of The Necessary Dark even though it isn't necessarily worship or devotional in nature.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Dose of Techno-Pessimism: The Problem(s) With the Smartphones

It's up online here.

I'm glad to get some of these thoughts down. I'm really interested in those who disagree with me and might be optimistic about these things. Please, please continue the conversation in the comments below or email me.

Kickstarter Soon For The Necessary Dark

It is six years this summer that we've been in Michigan and six years total that we began work in earnest working on a full length recording. I'll be putting up a kickstarter page soon, so you can help us get the funds together for mastering, artwork and manufacturing. It'll include links to early digital downloads and most likely options for CDs and vinyl along with other things like copies of one or both of Susanna's books, a signed broadside of the title track (originally one of Susanna's poems), a house concert and things like that.

Please check back soon or email me your contact info so I can keep you updated. 

Some factoids/reflections regarding the record:

Record Title: The Necessary Dark
Artwork is being done by Chris Cox

Most of the songs were started on analog tape, my 8 track 1/2 inch Otari 5050. I then transferred all that to the computer. Most of the mixing was done at home. Final mixes have been tweaked at the school studio.

Many great thanks are due to John K. Erskine, my hero.

I apart from Susanna though, I owe many, many more thanks to Dustin Ragland. He plays all the drums, some synths and synth bass lines. He also contributed some sequencing.

The shape of most of these song was established during that week of recording at my house in Oklahoma before we left. We were packing boxes and leaving the drums and mics up all over the place. It was a mess. I think working on those tracks was a way for me to cope with the pain of leaving. Justin Rice, Dustin, Susanna and Judson Thompkins all contributed various arrangement ideas. 

As soon as the basic tracks were in place, I had Brian Bergman add some synth from his Roland poly and a bit from Reason.

The record substantially took on a whole new life with these basic tracks and with Dustin's drum parts. I didn't know what these songs were becoming. It's taken me these years since to come to terms with what each song is wanting to become. It's not like I've been working on it each week for six years. It's been little bursts every few months for a few days or a week.

After our first year here, I flew Dustin and DM Stith (Asthmatic Kitty) to our new home. David arrived a day or so early and Dustin stayed a day later. We had drums in the dining room. The main control was setup in the basement. David had a little rig setup in his room upstairs. Dustin had his MPC and other gear in the breakfast nook. Susanna might be working on vocal craziness with David in the basement while I was in the nook with Dustin working on sequencing. I was so glad that David later asked Dustin to add some drums to a few songs for his (then) forthcoming record, Heavy Ghost. The song that made the cut is "Creekmouth." Check it! 

Once again, after that week in Michigan, I was left with an even larger sense that the songs had taken on a new life of their own.

Most of what Dustin added remains on the record. I usually would 'screw' his sounds up by adding distortion or filters or slowing the drums down.

Much of the time spent bringing the songs together is due to my insecurities of my mixing abilities but even more to do with the enormity of the sounds and layers of sounds.

Justin Rice played added some guitars on a visit back to OKC. Dustin also added some more synths and scant drum parts. Then Justin added more guitars and a little bass when he and Dustin were visiting back here in Michigan last winter.

Judson has a little vocal part on "It's the First Thing." I needed him somewhere.

A few students have added bits: Larry Figueroa (he probably doesn't remember...he was just messing around and I kept it) and Michael Reynolds (vibraphone and a small Rhodes part).

Surprisingly, I played most of the synth and rhodes parts on the record, but I couldn't remember how to play each one if I tried. But I could learn them since they're so simple.

The first song Susanna and I ever wrote together was "Here We Go." We wrote it over the phone. I was in OKC. She was still in Tallahassee.  We weren't married yet. I would strap the cordless phone to my head/ear with a scarf so I could play the guitar. I used a second phone as a mic in front of the guitar so she could hear.

I wrote the lyrics for four of the songs. 3-4 other songs are originals written together. The rest are adaptations of Susanna's poetry and one short story. 

I write the music but she is usually near or within reach to give me direction/encouragement. She can tell me quickly if something isn't working. There are lots of ideas between the two of us. Making music with her is a gift.

We can get into a fight while writing or while recording. You will probably hear/feel that tension in some songs. Even though the mixes have been worked over, I tried to avoid much editing. I often rely on 'scratch' takes especially for vocals. Those alway seem more real and immediate. With all the parts, I tried to keep a real performance in the core of the song.

Yes, I believe I'm in great debt to Boards of Canada. I don't think most people (even those familiar with BOC) would immediate suspect that, but I owe those two much...not just for the songs, but for a way to experience the world. I mention this mostly because I hope you'll go listen to them soon. 

I also owe much to DM Stith. His early, unreleased home recordings, The Ichabod & The Apple, has also had a great affect on me. He had borrowed a little interface from Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) because she didn't know how to work it yet and he had the time and a computer to hook it up to. He'd never fully completed a song before and was working on other projects...a novel and a children's book I believe. In less than two weeks he'd written and recorded something that is much better and haunting than what I've been working on for six years. I hope The Necessary Dark somehow does honor to that precious record and I hope somehow David will release it.

I initially conceived of the Ordinary Neighbors as a way to invite a long list of friends to contribute but I've not had the confidence to add many more 'voices.' The contributors already have left such enormous parts that it's been enough pleasure/work to not add any more people.

DM Stith recently added some of his signature vocal, choir-like textures and bass to "Ontario" [working title]. The fact that he would take time so late in the process means many good things to us. 

I'm elated and also sad to be finishing this big project. My main goal was to put together a record that I will want to listen to. And I will want to listen to this record especially after it is mastered, but I won't be able to listen to it in the same way once its finished. 

We won fourth place in Calvin College's FFM, band spotting contest. That little bit of love helped me want to finish this record. We'd hoped to have it done before June 15, 2012, Shepherd's due date. He came five weeks early, so that plan didn't work out. I'm now building a fence to keep Casper, our two year old, in. I also have work to do for the college, and I'm the head of the board for an urban farm. I really will get this finished. I will. I'm too excited not to.

I'm thinking about ending this blog once the record is out so that it isn't confused with the music.

This is a photo from (friends of Chris Cox) that inspired me to go with The Necessary Dark as a title. It will not be the cover though.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Thinking About Metallica in Church and Other Things

I wrote a response to a piece in Perspective's Journal that was published a few issues ago. My essay, "The Liturgical Question of Metallica: A Response to Jason Lief's "Leave Metallica Alone!" is in this month's issue.

Tonight I'm going to hopefully finish my techno-pessimist essay on the smartphone that will be in next month's issue of The Cresset. I'll link to that when it's available.

It is nice to have some places to publish bits and pieces here and there especially after being at Calvin's Festival of Faith and Writing last weekend. It was great to see old professors and friends and to meet new friends. The festival was a huge gift for Susanna. She was involved in four different sessions, sold a bunch of books and moved lots of people with her workshops and readings. She inspired me. We are exhausted still from the event. Casper is getting over a cold, but Sus and I are both still feeling the goodness of a great weekend.

Also, Susanna has won another award! Her newest book, Entering the House of Awe was selected to with The Society of Midland Authors prize in poetry. If we can make it work out, she'll receive her award at a reception in Chicago on May 8. The challenge here is to see what a pregnant woman can't do.

While time at Calvin was excellent, stumbling upon William Baskinki and his disintegration loops yesterday is probably the best discovery I've made in a long while. Enjoy this please:

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Eighth Day Farm's New Urban Location & Thanks

One of my glad joys is the privilege to serve on the board of directors for Eighth Day Farm. Last year the farm moved into a plot of land that used to be a preschool. That just over half an acre produced more food than the 3 acres of remote, rural land we farm. Based on that success, a developer of the Holland Town Center, a dying outlet strip mall, has worked together with us to expand into another urban location. After a great morning meeting with the board, I was inspired to finally drive out to the location and see the roughly 1.5 acres of parking lot that has been removed and the 'new' dirt that is being laid in.

It is mind blowing to imagine what this this land will look like in four to six months.

This place:

Will look like this place:

So yesterday morning I hosted the Eighth Day board for breakfast at the house. Jeff, good friend and our farmer, brought a large dish of steel cut oats with apples and walnuts. I threw together some quiches and made a pot of coffee. Susanna graciously set the table. If our aim is to help our community to redeem food from the ground to the table, I assumed it'd be good for the board to share more time around a table too.

I'd asked everyone to come prepared to share for 3-5 minutes about what is inspiring each of them respectively to give their time, energy and even financial resources to the farm. Each board member had differing stories, different details, different explanations, but each exuded a tangible sense of enthusiasm about what we are doing together. We watched a fantastic new video that has been produced to help get the word out (which I'll be posting here soon hopefully). It was an exciting morning, a morning to believe in spring, and new life, sunshine and plants.

Being involved in community development, organic food and just good old-fashioned neighborliness...this farm, these all keeps me, the busy busy worship leader, somewhat sane, grounded (figuratively and literally), placed, and thankful.

I just came from brunch with renowned painter, Makoto Fujimura and a dozen or so Hope College students. Mako is presenting tomorrow in our chapel and doing a late afternoon lecture on what he calls "visual theology." The students asked questions that filled up almost two hours of discussion. At the end of our time together, looking around the table, Mako quoted Dana Gioia, former chairman of the NEA who often said in Mako's presence to any given group of people he was working with, there is enough creativity and energy in this room to change the world.

Driving home just now, I thought about how this describes much of my daily and weekly encounters with students, the ministry staff I serve with, the people I pray with, my good friends who are just now starting The School For Contemplatives in Action, and especially the board of directors who met here in my home yesterday. Thoughts like this along with the intoxicating weather outside, my baby boy sleeping upstairs (finally), and my pregnant professor-wife sitting over at the dining table grading papers make me a rich, happy man.

You have put gladness in my heart
   more than when their grain and wine abound. 

Psalm 4:7

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mysticism vis a vis Theology

Recently I posted a series of relatively benign political statements on facebook. I guess all the heat of the Michigan primary boiled something in me. I felt like I was going to pop, so I tried to offer a smattering of 10 political thoughts that could hopefully be so wide ranging that they would either stir up some conversation (perhaps something like, "Josh, what do you mean by ________") or so wide ranging that it wouldn't be easy for someone to just pin me down to one club or team or box or caricature.

Attempting a political statement that way in our day and age of internet and twitter vitriol seemed instinctual and not premeditated. Upon reflection I've realized that the wide range of political thoughts is a kind of dialectical polemic. This is the way I've learned to take my theology, so it's no surprise that my politics are eking their less than formed nature in a similar way.

A dialectic is a statement of point and counter point in a manner of a 'both/and' summation rather than an 'either/or' where two counter points either cancel one or the other or both points altogether. It is a way of looking at two sides of a coin rather than the yin and yang, yet it does lean toward more of an Eastern way of thinking rather than a Western set of rational categories. Christianity, after all, began in a Hebraic tradition before it was spread throughout Europe.

Right there we might begin to identify a dialectic: East vis a vis West. The way I identify Christianity as originally of the East might lead one to read me as saying, "East good. West bad." This would be the same confusion and error that is made when we pit faith against reason or religion against science or the imagination versus reason for that matter (Romanticism against the Rationalism).

It seems just as overly simplistic to pit Mysticism against Theology or contemplative prayer against doctrinal formation. I'm sad there continues to be so much baggage with what people call "religion." It is popular to say, I am spiritual but I'm not religious. Yet this is by definition misguided. Anthropologically speaking a human being is essentialy made up of cult and culture. 'Cult' is the ordering of our spiritual being. 'Culture' is the ordering of our physical being. Even atheism is cultic in its negative view. Hermits, likewise, are just as involved in a kind of culture as the most cosmopolitan. They just chose to order their earthly existence in solitude. So the most mystical of persons are also doing a kind of theology, it just may not be as defined as other theologically minded people would like.

I will say, however, that theologians of any era have always been in desperate need of prayer just like the rest of us. Orthodoxy, the pursuit of straight, true doctrine is also the pursuit of straight and true worship. Ortho, as in orthodontist or straight teeth, plus doxa, as in glory or worship. Theology and doxology must be married. 

I am currently on a journey that is leading me into a joyful discovery of what might be characterized as the mystery of God's presence as revealed through vigil and prayer. My life is being transformed. I admit on one hand, that my theological formation does at times act like a kind of doctrinal radar scanning for half truths and mistruths. Richard Rohr, for example, is a resource I've just barely begun to explore. So far he has been very helpful. In the video below I completely sympathize with his sentiment that all seminaries might better be transformed into places that teach pastors to pray. This new season includes a bit of grieving. Little of my training has taught me how to come to the well and drink. Further, the work culture of vocational ministry itself contains little guarantee that a pastor will have access to time and rhythms for prayer and meditation unless he or she goes to great lengths to create that time. So the likes of Richard Rohr or Parker Palmer or Thomas Merton are a healing balm.

However, appreciating the kind of stream of Christian spirituality that Richard Rohr champions does not necessitate the abandonment of doctrine. An author and teacher like Rohr seems to fall into the prophetic tradition that rails against empty tradition in search of the true, "you honor me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me." Such mystical portions of the church do avoid an overemphasis on naming God, "the one before whom our words recoil." Yet it is interesting that the Roman Catholic church has always sustained within its fellowship some of the breadth between the Franciscan and the Jesuit, between the contemplative and the scholastic. Can such mystical teaching lead to confusion and even heresy? Sure. You can find many examples of mystical transgressions throughout the history of the church.

Yet, there is also such a danger in merely toting the doctrinal line as it were. Theological correctness can lend itself to stagnant, institutionalized, the-form-of-without-the-substance-of religiosity. I did a little search last night of "richard rohr" and "heresy" and found stuff like this "appraising ministries" site. I don't have much of an appetite for watchdog 'ministries.' After all it is the King of England that carries the title of "defender of the faith." I don't want it. Yes we are admonished to test spirits and to not be led astray (1 John 4, Ephesians 4 etc.), yet I am leery of giving too much attention to people and ministries who feel their primary calling is to sniff out and root out false teaching. In my experience these people are more interested in their own power and their control. They lead us toward fear and panic when the grace of God in truth leads us to peace and charity, patience and surrender and trust.

While my theological training can function as a kind of radar, the greater benefit of it is how it has led me to this place of prayer and how it guides me in it. My two knowings of God are becoming one. They work together instead of against each other. The Trinitarian godhead is the One in whom my heart is found. Further, I don't know if my faith would still be intact if it weren't for the clarity of my doctrinal formation. Who knows how the Spirit works? I have watched friends lose their faith, distance themselves from the Church, stray into dark clouds of confusion and suffer tremendously. These words have been an anchor and a harbor:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
    the Maker of heaven and earth,
    and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
    born of the virgin Mary,
    suffered under Pontius Pilate,
    was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
    and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
    from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
    the holy catholic church;
    the communion of saints;
    the forgiveness of sins;
    the resurrection of the body;
    and the life everlasting.

Watch Richard Rohr on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Derek Webb & Sandra McCracken At Hope College All Day, March 2

Announcement of visiting artists, Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken
March 2, 2012

Please join us as we welcome husband and wife Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken to Hope College. Derek and Sandra will appear in our:

10:30 AM worship service, Dimnent Chapel

3:00 PM Seminar/Discussion, Hemenway Auditorium, Martha Miller Center

8:00 PM performance, DeWitt Theater $5 student/$10 public. Doors open at 7:30pm. With special guest: Just Married of Grand Rapids.

"The Christian Artist Vocation: Worshipper or Activist? A Conversation With Husband & Wife, Derek Webb & Sandra McCracken"

An important question that might occur to a young Christian seeking to discern her calling as an artist is, “should my creative gifts be directed toward explicit Christian spirituality and worship (heaven) or toward a Christian perspective of how we shall live (earth)?”

Are these tensions between a heavenly or earthly focus arbitrary?
Are some artists explicitly called to emphasize on one rather than the other?
Should all artists stretch to incorporate both within the scope of their life’s work?
How have each of these two artists wrestled with these questions individually?
How have these artists wrestled with these questions as a married couple?
How have these artists wrestled with these questions as artistic collaborators?

Derek Webb has had a prolific career as a Christian artist whose music does not necessarily always address what might seem on the surface to be explicitly Christian topics. His solo work has been considered controversial in the way he has addressed topics of poverty, war, gender identity and government.

Sandra McCraken has also had a substantial music career starting as part of Indelible Grace, the worship ministry of Reformed University Fellowship at Belmont University. She has also released eight solo records along with two EPs with Derek.

While Sandra’s recordings as a singer/songwriter cover many topics, she has freely engaged corporate worship music as a genre. Conversely, Derek’s only explicitly worshipful offering of music is Feedback, nine instrumental songs responding to the Lord’s Prayer.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"what would you tell someone who is just taking on the role of a worship leader in a church?"

A graduate from Hope College and the chapel worship team has written me a big, open-ended question that I figure is a good occasion for another post here. It's not that I believe I have the best or the final word on these things. I hope mostly this blog will stir up more conversation like it has in the past. Perhaps you are a Hope student who reads something here and you'd like a further conversation. I have a tab at Lemonjellos, our local corner coffee shop, and would be glad to buy you a cup and sit down to chat further.

This is what she sent my way:
I was also hoping get some insight from you on worship...I'm not really working underneath anyone because our church doesn't have a worship leader. Basically, I'm it. Period. My pastors are really good at giving me encouragement--right now they are all just so happy to have me because we haven't had someone in so long, but I'm finding that no one really knows how to give me constructive criticism or guide me in a musical sense because none of them are musical people....tough, right? I've definitely taken SO much from what I learned on worship team with you and the group, but I know there's a lot I don't know. For instance...what is your process for choosing songs/repeating songs? I'm in a weird position because I've been away for four years, so I'm not completely familiar with all the music [her church name here] does. I've introduced a small handful of new songs, but I know I need to take it slow... that I'm finally writing you, I can't seem to think of questions....but maybe I should just ask, what would you tell someone who is just taking on the role of a worship leader in a church? And I was wondering if you could suggest some readings/books about worship, maybe the ones from your class?
Dear friend,

Some topics here: song selection, critical feedback, how to familiarize yourself with your congregation and serve them well...and book recommendations.

Let me begin with "what would you tell someone who is just taking on the role of a worship leader in a church?" Those other topics are good, but there are some fundamental basic ideas I work with that should be touched on first.

Back in college, John Willison, the worship leader at my church taught me the difference between:
  • Song leader, aka a musician
  • Worship leader, someone who is musically and spiritually capable of leading a group of people into the presence of God.
  • Worship pastor, a worship leader who also has nurturing gifts with a long view of how to shepherd a congregation through music.
This can get tricky in regards to semantics because I always taught you and the rest of the students on the worship team that each one of you are called to be worship leaders with me. I don't want just good musicians who warm a drum throne or sound good on a mic. I want each member to participate in the discernment and the public presence of drawing people to God. A side benefit of this for a person like myself with limited musical abilities like is that when we get stuck creatively, we can always fall back to the long conversation of answering the question, "how can we best use these instruments to focus on God," or said differently "what does that guitar sound like when you worship through it?"

So now you are not just a member of the team. You are the point person introducing the songs, creating the liturgical flow. You are no doubt leading prayers and interacting with the pastoral leadership at some level to consider the scope of the worship services. Here is the semantic trouble: while I want the whole band to be filled with worship leaders, there are some people who have specific gifting in being able to lead the worship leaders: lead worship leaders, or further...the worship pastor.

I'm excited for you. You have the musical ability and the charisma no doubt to be a worship leader, but I read in your email a deeper question that leads to the question of what a worship pastor is. More on that in a bit.

As you wade deeper into this new, unexpected position of leadership, there will be many things that you don't quite know yet, both practical things and also instinctual things. All leaders feel a deep sense of inadequacy at the beginning, middle and endings of their tenure in any given place. I know this based on my own experiences and from watching others. There will always be more to know, better ways to serve people, more creative approaches, but ultimately we have to accept our limitations and just go to sleep at night.

Focus more now on finding some regular personal time to worship on your own. You are busy with other things too, so schedule in 30 min or an hour a day or every other day. Spend some time praying, time in the Scriptures and singing through songs. Sing, sing, sing. You are a very well trained musician. You have the skill. Now the goal is to nourish your personal worship space, your worship self. You knew who you were as a worshiper as part of our team, but do you know what you will sound like, feel like, think like...what presence you should project as the lead worship leader? This kind of leadership only comes from a secret place of solitude with the songs and silence. The more you nourish this place in your being, the more resilient you will be with challenges and the more focused you will be on learning what next is necessary.

I have a curriculum for Theology of Worship & Music, MIN 21, the course I teach. I can recommend some books to you , but in your development as a worship leader there is a curriculum of the Holy Spirit that only comes with time, love and patience.

Quick thoughts about:

Song selection: find some people you really trust who know the church well and brainstorm. Start making lists of possible songs that you know would easily serve the congregation well. Then add to that list a set of songs that really inspire you personally. Then spend as much time alone with the songs as possible before you lead them.  A good worship set should be focused on worship that will both truthfully (Biblically) form and also immediately serve the congregation. Being a worship pastor means you will grow in the ability to pick songs out of love for the people you are serving, loving them by aesthetically connecting with them but also loving them by making sure the music you serve up is worth singing.

While worship pastoral decisions are largely other focused on the congregation, you will also need to connect with a portion of the music. You need to do some music that makes sense to you creatively and spiritually. I lead songs that aren't my favorite. They are like my "yellow zone." I rarely do songs that I dislike ("red zone"). I'd say at least half of the services I plan are in my "green zone," stuff I connect to and enjoy. But I've been in this position for six years and the distance between my preferences and what connects with the college students has gotten smaller each year as I learn to love college students more and as I have shaped the sound (aka tricked them into liking what I like...joke).

Critical Feedback: very important. I wouldn't sweat the musical feedback right now as much as I'd focus on ministry feedback and surely your pastors have the intuition to help you know if your leadership is spiritually feeding the congregation. They are likely able to identify certain moments in the service, a transition, a prayer, a particular song...that can be improved upon. Try to find some people who love you but who will speak honestly about your leadership. My chapter in For the Beauty of The Church has some further thoughts on critical feedback. If you aren't interested in purchasing the book, I can send you a .pdf of the essay.

Getting familiar with the congregation: in order to know what songs and what aesthetic are best for a congregation, yes, you need to know your people. You can't fake this. So don't worry if you miss the mark for now. From what it sounds like everyone is just happy to have you. In a year or so that will wear off and people will start to get picky, but in a year you will know this church better.

Always place yourself in a learning/listening posture even with people your not ready to trust. Some of the best things I've learned come from people that I might not ever be able to consider a friend. I tend to go out of my way to listen to people who are different than me. I want to connect with those people too and especially. There are several songs I've picked up over the years that were chosen precisely because I knew I this other person would enjoy it. Even though I would never have picked such a song on my own, sometimes these are the very songs that really connect with the congregation. And when I can see my people worshiping, I learn to like the song. But of course I don't just pander and grab any song willy nilly. There is a set of criteria that I have internalized so deeply that it'd worthless for me to try and write out here when I can just recommend Constance Cherry's The Worship Architect. She includes, among other great material, a long list of evaluation questions for song selection.

A good book to start with for asking good questions: How Shall We Worship? Marva Dawn

For thinking about Biblical, Psalm oriented worship leading: Answering God Eugene Peterson

For theological, heart warming Christianity Augustine's Confessions...(seriously)

The best "how to" worship leadership manual The Art of Worship Greg Scheer (I don't like these kinds of books, but Greg's is thoughtful, experienced and gets to the point)

For thinking about worship language Worship Word Deb and Ron Rienstra

For deepening your understanding of the church calendar and an abundant source of material: The Worship Sourcebook Calvin Institute of Worship

A good website with lots of resources:

Isaac Wardell has some good thoughts here:

You honor me by inviting me to spew out some thoughts, friend. I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to continue with any further questions.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Heschel on the Sabbath

The section below is very helpful and only from the beginning of the book. The question is how to live Sabbath everyday and pray without ceasing while still also protecting a single day.

From The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel pp. 1-2

When the Romans met the Jews and noticed their strict adherence to the law of abstaining from labor on the Sabbath, their only reaction was contempt. The Sabbath is a sign of Jewish indolence, was the opinion held by Juvenal, Seneca and others.

In defense of the Sabbath, Philo, the spokesman of the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, says: "On this day we are commanded to abstain from all work, not because the law inculcates slackness....Its object is rather to give man relaxation from continuous and unending toil and by refreshing their bodies with a regularly calculated system of remissions to send them out renewed to their old activities. For a breathing spell enables not merely ordinary people but athletes also to collect their strength with a  stronger force behind them to undertake promptly and patiently each of the tasks set before them."

Here teh Sabbath is represented not in the spirit of the Bible but in the spirit of Aristotle. According to the Stagirite, "we need relaxation, because we cannot work continuously. Relaxation, then, is not an end"; it is "for the sake of activity," for the sake of gaining strength for new efforts. To the biblical mind, however, labor is the means toward and end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one's lost strength and becoming for the forthe-coming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. "Last in creation, first in intention," the Sabbath is "the end of the creation of heaven and earth."

The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.

Great News: Psalm 126 From the Bifrost Arts!

Isaac Wardell has given us permission to include the new Bifrost tune, Psalm 126, on this year's annual chapel CD. I'm incredibly thankful since Bifrost won't be able to release the song themselves until next Fall. The agreement is to release our live version of the song on 'hard' disc only and not for download on the internet. CDs will be available for sale on Monday, March 12 right before Spring Break. Internet downloads will take a bit longer.

The circumstance of how we learned Psalm 126 makes a good story: Isaac called me the week before arriving at Calvin's Worship Symposium and said they were free on Friday...would I be free for breakfast or would I be interested in having them join us for chapel? I quickly put together a small choir, vibes, upright bass, fiddle to complement the Bifrost players. It was a setup very similar to what we did with Welcome Wagon last year. I had asked Isaac if we could do a standard hymn (we decided on Come Thou Fount) and if he could teach us a new song. It wasn't until Thursday, the day before chapel that Isaac was able to send me an mp3 of a demo of the song. I listened to it. Thought, nice song, but it was just two vocalists and a guitar. I had no idea how it would be arranged with this somewhat large ensemble. Rehearsal started at 7am Friday morning as always. Introductions were made and Isaac quickly pulled together the arrangement. It was exciting that the song went so well for the service itself. It is even more exciting that the live take was solid. And its more exciting that its such a great song that many people have asked about it since.

Over a dozen emails...what was that Psalm song? Where can I find it online? Who wrote it?

Well, the song is unavailable because its new.  And you should all check out to check out Bifrost's previous recordings. We have several copies of "Come, O Spirit!" for sale at the Keppel House, $10.

In the past few years I've found myself picking songs I might never have considered four or five years ago. On one hand we have pushed into some more aggressive contemporary expressions (Philip Rice's Hallelujah and Your Love Never Fails last year, Furious and Search My Heart this year). As I stretch to understand more about the intensity of those kinds of songs, I find that we become more free to also push in other directions: adding the Gospel Choir to our regular worship, drawing upon the hymns even more intentionally, looking forward to our Monday contemplative "Be" chapels, and then there are these songs from the Welcome Wagon and now Bifrost. The area I want to continue to grow more in is global or non-western songs, but overall there is much joy in stretching the boundaries of the sound of our worship. I can't do this on my own. I'm not a good enough musician. It's people and friends and students who stretch us. Thanks again Isaac.

Another little crazy anecdote: we are focusing on the Psalter this semester in chapel and using it as an occasion to enter into the "school of prayer." So having a song written directly from the Psalms given to us with such little planning on my part...this is a sign of the Spirit's work. Then that morning in our staff prayer, Isaac joined us. We've been using Shane Claiborne's Common Prayer book and the reading for that morning was Psalm 126 too.

I'm looking forward to the CD release. Paul Chamness is finishing up the mixes as I write this and they sound better than ever. Matt Odmark will master the disc this week polishing the record up even further. Chris Cox has put together another smart, well-crafted CD design that includes some more images of Dimnent chapel.

With nine new recruits at the beginning of the year spread out between two bands, I didn't know what to expect from this year's recording. I had thought we might only attempt an EP, roughly 5 or six songs. Surprisingly, the disc will have 10 tracks if you include the doxology. I'll let the track list remain a surprise.

Online sales of the CD will be available through CD Baby, iTunes and

Friday, January 6, 2012

Auditioning/Recruiting Worship Musicians

I was recently asked this question by a local worship leader:

I'm working with a new worship ministry through [for anonymity...I'll not disclose the name of the church], and they are asking me to audition band members. I have met with some of them and have reviewed their applications, and while they may be talented musicians, some of them lack the spiritual maturity I was asked to discern. I was wondering if you have any suggestions as to how you respond to applicants who may be talented but not as spiritually mature as you would like, when auditioning for the worship team.
Some leaders might not be too thrilled about the prospect of auditioning worship team members. Before Hope College, I had never formally auditioned anyone. There are several liabilities in the audition process that I'll let you imagine for your own circumstances.

I'll point out a few benefits however:

First, over the years, the process has clarified what it is that we need in each musician and team. It is one thing to have a working definition of what a church musician is on paper. It is another thing to see these expectations actually lived out in real people. It is both sobering and inspiring.

Second, auditioning raises the level of commitment, my commitment to each person and their respective commitments to the ministry. A thorough audition process earns you access into each other's lives both to encourage and also to bring correction when needed. It is difficult to challenge people to grow in their character or musical abilities if you have no relationship with them, no trust. I strongly believe in beginning relationships well. If you begin with each person well, you will ensure a steadier and substantial learning curve.

Third, the audition process has forced me to become a better leader. If I pry into each person's life, question their gifting and character, then I must be someone who deserves their trust. Who am I? Why should I have the power to recruit and reject people? Why should I have the right to correct someone's artistic sensibilities or challenge their spiritual growth? This is the humbling/sobering part: I have to continue to be strong enough, to love well, to serve, to be patient and kind yet decisive and consistent.

I realize I haven't yet answered the question posted above. What I've shared so far is the context--some assumptions that I need to explain in order to give a more substantial answer.

So this is some of what I can put in print to describe what I'm looking for in worship musicians:

We should call all of our musicians to worship leadership. They should at some level desire to not just play music but to also want to direct that music toward God. We don't need warm bodies who can ice the guitar riff; we need willing hearts.

Now with that said, I don't expect all of my musicians to be to most spiritually mature students on campus. In fact part of my joy is watching many deepen their faith from year to year. Being on the worship team is hopefully a life changing experience. It is okay for people to be on the team who are struggling in various ways. A good audition process allows me to name those struggles and enter into them with each student. If during the audition process I discover that a person is not interested in growing spiritually, if there is not an inkling that this person could at some point be able to ask for and receive prayer, then they will probably not be a good fit.

You will need a good core of strong believers, people who have a proven track record of consistently practicing their faith. You'll need the help of these stronger leaders. Perhaps you invite these persons into a smaller core leadership team to pray and plan. You need to have team members who can give you reliable positive and critical feedback on song selection and your leadership among other things. You need to be teachable yourself and without a strong contingent of reliable people, you won't be able to continue growing yourself through the accountability of these core leaders.

Ideally, you'll have a healthy balance of more mature Christians and others who are on the journey.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

How He Loves Us

Alrighyteeee....Here goes as promised.

If you want to engage this post, I ask you to read (or skim) a few of the previous posts, especially "Should We Critique Worship Music?" Some have been overwhelmed and even frustrated with the effort I'm taking to critique worship music. What I'm doing is analytical, but I hope and pray this critique can better be described as discerning. Discernment, as I use the word is redemptive and positive rather than heavy handed and grumpy. I extend these critiques to you not to ruin your worship experiences, but perhaps to offer you a chance to step back and take a more careful look at your worship practice. Some would rather not take these things so seriously. We should instead lighten up and get on with the "real" act of worship, the opening of the hearts entering into the presence of God and not think too hard. In fact this is the general theme of the song I am considering here (below). The thrust of John Mark MacMillan's "How He Love" is experience, experience, experience--abandonment to experience the tremendous, overwhelming, tree bending love of God. It appeals to Christians who already function with a worship theology that values experience above all else. I find the song compelling, and useful in awakening those who might be more cerebral, the less emotional  Christian hoping they might also discover God's all-embracing love in new and fresh ways.

Here is a working assumption that is helpful to entertain when discerning a worship song: each of us bring our own personal interpretations. My studies in Literature and Language theory are exposing themselves with this point. It is not that I believe all texts are relative. I'm not a deconstructionist in the way it has been fashionable especially in America. Yet I do believe in a kind of fluidity of interpretation. This fluidity is a result of our respective personal histories and vocabularies as well as our respective worship dispositions.

First our subjective histories: if I draw your attention to the word rose, each reader will potentially have a variety of intellectual and/or emotional responses depending on a myriad of factors. You might like roses while others prefer ranunculas. You might have had a bad experience with a rose, given a bunch to a young lady who didn't want to receive them from your hand. Perhaps you've spent too much time pruning your grandmother's rose bushes and been stung by thorns. Or perhaps roses are your favorite and what you look forward to each February. There is a dictionary definition of "rose" that we can all agree on. We know technically what a rose is, that it is not a ranuncula or a tulip and definitely not a tree or even a bird or a house. Language is not relative in that sense, but it has a fluidity because there is within each of us a personal lexicon that continues to be edited and revised as our vocabulary is laden for good or ill by a myriad of experiences.

Further, our interpretations of a worship text are also filtered through our respective personalities. It is perhaps difficult for some of us to accept that God has intentionally designed a variety of emotions in a variety of different types of persons that are all uniquely important to the body of Christ. It is common to assume that because I like a particular song, therefore everyone else must. Here I am somewhat treading near the subjective nature of aesthetics, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I don't believe that line is true; beauty is instead in the eye of God. It just so happens that none of us are God and none of us completely see what he does. Therefore some of us tend to be more intellectual and approach God through ideas. These Christians desire tangible, true teaching and doctrine. Others are more apt to focus on the heart. These worshipers want to experience a present and tangible person. Other Christians are interested in ideas or emotions if only they lead to action, the doing and serving of the Body of Christ. And then there are the mystical or contemplative worshipers who do not like to use lots of words but prefer silence in God's presence. The essential point is that our denominational or church preferences often have more to do with how they match our personalities than our doctrinal confessions.

In sum: our respective taste based on our histories and personalities often dictate which worship songs we find worthwhile.

So I'll be honest. The first reason why I was put off by "How He Loves" was because it had been  referred to me as that song that has the line "heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss." I hadn't heard the music or experienced the song in a worship setting and I had already come to it with a chip on my shoulder. Before I explain more my trouble with that line, it is important to confess that my personal taste, my history and my personality, made me grimace at the idea of singing "sloppy wet kiss."

A challenge for a worship song writer is the matter of interpretive space. If we utilize little creativity, little metaphor and limit ourselves to common word choice, then it will be much more obvious to identify what the text means. There will be little space for mis-readings and confusion. However, as Dillard says, "ours is a God who loves pizazz." God is abundant in the work of his creation, should our worship not somehow reflect such extravagance?

It would be a shame to overly limit ourselves creatively, yet the defining nature of corporate or congregational song--worship that serves a larger group of people in honor of God--is a brand of music that must be fairly accessible. This means that our worship leading should not be primarily based on lyrics, chord structures and song arrangements that are merely personal satisfaction. Worship cannot be reduced to my own taste. I must constantly ask what music, what sounds, what words will serve and help the congregation. One scholar describes the great hymn writer Isaac Watt's as one who possessed an "artistic kenosis." We would do well to follow Watts' example in the way he emptied himself of his own creative agenda. Watts was a sophisticated scholar of theology and philosophy. He knew the heights to which language could be used but instead utilized what can be called "sunk phrases" in order to reach a larger group of worshipers. And of course it was his hymns that accompanied and nourished the Great Awakening. It is hard to argue with such fruit from a man who penned more than 500 hymns.

This is a difficult tension then, something of a paradox: how can we think of God and others, the corporate nature of our worship, and still find something personally nourishing, something that we can gladly share in? It is possible but will require surrender, patience, discernment and fidelity.

Honestly, what turned my interest to the possibility of considering "How He Loves" for our worship was the apparent strong interest of students. I want to know what inspires my congregation. Then I heard that Crowder covered it and changed the controversial line to "...unforseen kiss." I spent part of a summer listening to different versions of the song, Crowder's, Jesus Culture's and McMillan's own. I had ordered his record, "The Medicine" and was greatly surprised. It is a good record, very deep and wide lyrically and musically. Overall, the experience of "How He Loves" left me personally moved and excited to give it a shot...with Crowder's lyric change.

What do we loose by avoiding "sloppy wet kiss"?

I very much enjoy those who appreciate this line for its raw, abandoned, very human/heavenly expression of God's love for us in the form of the incarnation. In fact, a very dear friend of mine recently remarked how much he preferred "sloppy we kiss."  I've found myself wanting to engage this line if only because my friend prefers it. It is good to see God through the eyes of someone you love. This is the essence of sharing and worship that we should be after. I learned something about the song through Joesph. And this will be a key way for all of us to grow together: to begin to appreciate what seems foreign through the appreciation of others. We need to keep stretching ourselves and this can most easily be done through relationships. If anything, I hope these posts will stimulate conversations that will help you engage others in important conversations and thus grow deeper in the way you fellowship in worship.

The beauty and force of the song is in its abandonment. I can personally approach the song even now with "sloppy wet kiss" and truly worship without distraction. Yet this is not my position; my leadership is not to give each song a wink, hope for the best and expect everyone to generously appreciate each song the way I can. We must take words seriously enough to identify the best of them for the sake of the church at large.

Why prefer " unforeseen kiss" instead:

Let's be literal about the experience of a "sloppy wet kiss." What is it that makes a kiss good? It's sloppiness? Its moisture? Again, remember the question of interpretive space I mentioned above. If there are a myriad of reactions each of us might have to a word like rose, how many more reactions could there be for the sensual kiss? Yes, we have the Song of Songs with some very erotic imagery that has been interpreted by some scholars as a metaphor of our passionate love relationship with God. While I personally appreciate this reading of the Song of Songs, this is still a controversy among  scholars. The underlying question is how much of our human experience can properly be read back into our experience of God? How much of human relations can be used to describe God relations? Does it elevate our understanding of a love relationship with God to compare it to a human, sloppy wet kiss, or does it perhaps reduce a divine engagement with God that far supersedes the human experience of a raw kiss? Is it possible that "sloppy wet kiss" might--all personal style/taste set aside--actually be a reduction of God's engagement with us?

Herein we struggle with the very core essence of the incarnation, "when heaven and earth meet." Is there any other biblical warrant that gives us a sense that it is proper to describe our experiences with God with such sensuality? The prostitute washes Jesus' hair with pure nard and her hair. Jesus reclined at the table with his disciples. The New Testament portrays Jesus as a man who knew how to fish and cook. He walked long distances, probably could sail a boat and knew how to sweat and work hard. Yet we don't have a prevalent sense of him that might give warrant to the sensuality of a sloppy wet kiss.

Further, apart from biblical models, on a human level, how many of us really want to think about our kisses as sloppy and wet even if they might be? This is not what we cherish in our hearts. We don't relish sloppiness and wetness. Those are only the byproducts of something more intimate and profound. "Sloppy wet kiss" does appeal to the raw, humanity of the rest of the song. Unfortunately it can become a sentimental distraction. As we've said before, the sentimental is a focus on an emotion for the sake of an emotion. It is a mistake to confuse the essence of physical intimacy with sloppiness and wetness. Those are ephemera. The prize of intimacy is just that: intimacy.

What about kisses that are not sloppy? Are they less passionate or intimate?

Giving McMillan the benefit of the doubt, I'm assuming this lyric is an allusion to the doctrine of the incarnation. Yet, I sense he is intending more. What McMillan seems to be getting at is less a biblical truth and more of an existential or mystical idea of oneness between God and humanity. There is a great tradition of mystical authors that either border on or cross over into the territory of the sensual/erotic to describe our participation in the love and life of God. So the next question is whether or not our corporate worship songs should draw more from our subjective understanding of such mystical unions or if we should restrain our spiritual poetry to more sound Biblically grounded conceptions of spirituality.

Because I do value this mystical tradition and do claim to be Charismatic who wants a warm heart and consistent communion with the person of God, to walk in the Spirit, I can see both sides--to keep the original lyric or to use Crowder's re-write.

However, my final argument against the original McMillan lyric is again in regards to the context in which I lead. While a good portion of our students may be deeply moved further into intimacy with God in the lyric's original form, I know there is another contingent of students who may not be able to appreciate the artistic license. How many of  the students I regularly lead have ever been kissed? How many have enjoyed being kissed? How many have been hurt by the wrong kiss? Especially in the context of a campus ministry, it seems appropriate to avoid the use of sensual language that opens such a large range of subjective mis-readings.

I am aware this is especially hard at Hope College. How many students in a Friday chapel with hands raised, singing at the top of their lungs with such seeming many of these students later that night will be expressing their passion with a beer in their hand (either underage or too many), or passionately in the arms of someone they shouldn't be touching? The music we make in chapel is already very physical and perhaps even sensual. The beats are strong. The melodies soar. The layers and textures of sounds are evocative. The rest of McMillan's song is already powerful and effective in its offering of striking images that hint at the intensity of God's immanent approach to his people, "I am a tree bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy." Or "if grace is an ocean, we're all sinking." I don't believe we need "sloppy wet kiss" to get the point. To do so in our particular campus ministry context seems gratuitous.

Meeting John Mark McMillan

One last bit of a story might be helpful for those of you who still disagree with me: I feel queasy dropping names, but I did have the pleasure of being around McMillan for a few days at a worship conference roughly a year ago. Of all the worship leaders I encountered that weekend, he seemed the most down to earth and easy going among them. We had a few substantial conversations. We discovered a shared affection for the worship leader Kevin Prosch and the recording engineer/producer, Ethan Johns. My interaction with him was a true gift.

Ironically David Crowder led "How He Loves" during one of the services. Afterwards, I gathered up the courage to ask McMillan what he thought about the lyric change. If I am remembering correctly, he seemed either clueless to the switch or unaffected. He said something like, " what do you mean?" I explained that "sloppy wet kiss" had been replaced by "...unforeseen kiss." He shrugged his shoulders, a kind of "oh well...whatever."

I share this story as an encouragement to those "sloppy wet kiss" loyalists to pursue Watt's "artistic kenosis" as I witnessed it in John Mark McMillan: be less worried about a lyric change and more concerned with moving ahead to worship God. Why should any of us be more offended or alarmed by the lyric change than the song's original author?

I've mentioned this before: I'm concerned that a generation of young Christians have made these worship leaders and worship movements their church, the primary source of their spiritual formation. I like John Mark McMillain. I'm looking forward to listening to his new record. I hope our paths cross again someday. But no single leader or song is my priority. I care more for the corporate body of worshipers I lead weekly. As with my decision regarding the Jon Foreman verse, "How He Loves" is so well written, it already is so creatively effective that these alterations are small and minor.