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.