Worship Matters | Christian Music and Worship Blog
Bob Kauflin currently serve as the Director of Sovereign Grace Music for Sovereign Grace Churches.I write this blog primarily for those who plan and lead worship in song (pastors, musicians, small group leaders), but anyone who wants to use music and words to magnify God’s glory in Christ should find something relevant here.
Many pastors, music leaders, and production personnel are breathing a deep sigh of relief after this past weekend. After all the planning, strategizing, prayer, preparation, and practice, the Easter weekend service(s) finally happened. Everything (for the most part) came together and people were well served. The music was moving, the preaching powerful, and the effect exhilarating. And throughout the world, thousands of people were baptized and saved for the glory of God.
But you may be starting to wonder what you’re going to do next Sunday. Maybe you’re even asking yourself, “How do I keep this coming Sunday from being a major letdown?” The anxiety is already setting in.
Here are some reasons why we can be tempted to think next Sunday might not be quite as “amazing” as this past Sunday:
No doubt your church was like most in that you saw an increased number of unbelieving guests, visitors, and family members who think that Easter and Christmas are the only appropriate times to fulfill their religious obligation.
You probably don’t have as much in the budget for this coming Sunday as you did for Easter. That means you and others might not to put as much effort or thought into it.
The people in your church probably received daily reminders last week that Easter was coming. This coming Sunday will probably sneak up on them like it does every week. They might not prepare as much nor look forward to it so eagerly.
After the hyper-preparation leading up to Easter maybe you’re really looking forward to the opportunity to get back to normal. Some leaders won’t think as carefully nor intentionally about the cross and resurrection and will pick songs that people just enjoy.
You might be less focused on planning the service as a whole, and consequently, less focused on how everything fits together.
All those factors and more contribute to the nagging sensation that this coming Sunday might not be your best effort. That is, until you start to consider all the things that will be the same:
This coming Sunday Jesus will be just as alive as he was this past Sunday! In fact, one of reasons we gather every Sunday is because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week. In that sense every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection.
Jesus’ substitutionary death and glorious resurrection will continue to be relevant to our lives and the best news we have to offer people. Nothing we do on any Sunday – Easter, Christmas, or otherwise – will make Jesus look better than he really is. All we can hope to do is point to it more faithfully and clearly. And we can seek to do that every week.
God through his Spirit will still be with his people as we gather. What is most eternally impacting on any given Sunday is not the size of our production but the details of what Jesus actually accomplished for those who trust in him. He lived the life of obedience we never could. He took the wrath of God in our place on the cross. God vindicated his atoning work by raising him from the dead. He now lives in us by his Spirit and is changing us into his likeness (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 3:23-26; Rom. 10:9; Rom. 8:11; 2 Cor. 3:18).
Most likely unbelievers will still be coming to your gathering this coming Sunday.
And if that’s not encouraging enough, here are some things that will actually be better this coming Sunday.
We might have fewer distractions in terms of preparing charts, administrating people, and organizing tech details. That means we can give more time to the content we’re proclaiming and singing about.
We’ll be back to the “normal” routine of life which will only highlight that the power of the gospel isn’t dependent on big productions. God meets us and changes us in the messiness and sin of our daily lives.
We’ll be reminded that the earth-shattering, life-transforming good news of Jesus Christ is worth declaring and living for every week.
So we don’t have to wait until the next big holiday to expect God to do amazing things in our Sunday service. All the elements we really need – the Word of God, the gospel, and the Holy Spirit – are available to us 52 Sundays of every year.
Which should make this coming Sunday something to look forward to.
While there are some similarities to choosing and leading songs for my church, I think about conferences differently. Conferences are made up of people from various churches, most of whom don’t know each other. We’re only together for a few days and there are multiple teachings to take in and digest (at least at the conferences I’m at).
I thought it might be helpful to share some of the principles that guide how I think through the songs I lead at a conference and how I lead them.
1. Sing familiar songs.
I can be tempted at conferences to feature the songs I’m most excited about, which are often new songs. That has its benefits (see point #2), but the downside is that people focus more on trying to learn songs and less on engaging with God through familiar lyrics and melodies. Singing well-known songs together is one manifestation of the unity God has brought to us through the gospel. Though we might hail from different denominations, localities, and theological perspectives, we can unite around the glorious gospel, even if it’s only for a few days.
2. Teach new songs.
But conferences aren’t just about doing what’s familiar. They’re an opportunity to sow new songs into churches that will enable the word of Christ to dwell in them richly. That might include songs with unique themes, such as “Not in Me,” a song confessing self-righteousness, or “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken,” a 5 verse meditation on the joy of knowing Christ in the midst of trials and suffering. Singing a new song together enables people to experience the intended effect of the song more than simply listening to it under headphones. Each time I lead a conference I’m looking for 2 to 4 songs I can introduce.
3. Build on the impact of the preached Word.
One of the benefits of a conference is that attendees have the opportunity to meditate on God’s Word multiple times a day. When I’m planning songs for a conference, I ask for the topic and text of each session. For the opening session, I’ll generally sing through the gospel, following a progression of adoration, confession, assurance of pardon, and response. In the rest of the sessions, I choose songs that help us reflect on some aspect of the message we heard in the previous session. While it’s possible to build songs around the theme of the message that’s going to be preached, I’ve found it helpful to look back to the message we’ve already heard and make specific application from it. Apart from the obvious benefit of hearing God’s Word preached, that’s why I try to listen to every message and take good notes.
4. Use your Bible.
We often separate in our minds the preaching of the Word from the singing of the Word. We assume sermons are meant to affect our minds and singing songs is meant to affect our hearts. But singing is meant to flow from and be filled with the word of God and the word of Christ (Ps. 119:54; Col. 3:16). I find it helpful to open each session with a brief Scripture to remind us that our worship in song is a response to God’s revealing himself to us. I’ll often share another Scripture after one or two songs. As a side note, reading from a physical copy of a Bible rather than an iPhone or iPad visually communicates the weightiness of God’s Word over against the transience and distractedness of our culture.
5. Use songs to pastor souls.
I had the opportunity to teach on this topic at a lunch breakout at the Shepherd’s Conference. It’s an area that’s most relevant to a local church context, but it’s an important category at a conference as well. When I choose songs for a session, I’m asking questions like:
What truth from the last message we heard might God want us to meditate on or respond to?
Did the last message reveal struggles we need to see more in the light of God’s promises and the gospel?
What unique challenges might the people at this conference be facing that God can speak to in the songs we sing?
Seeking to pastor people as we sing is one of the reasons it can be helpful to insert spoken comments between songs, or even during songs. We’re not just singing good songs and enjoying the sound of a large group praising the Lord. We’re teaching and admonishing each other (Col. 3:16), pointing each other to who God is, what God has said, and what he has done for us, particularly in Christ’s atoning work. This has the potential of encouraging the downcast, strengthening the weary, convicting the sinner, comforting the suffering, confronting the self-sufficient, and making us all more aware of the greatness, glory, and goodness of the Savior.
What does that look like? In a future post, I’ll list the songs I led at the Shepherd’s Conference, the Scriptures I used, and the reason behind my choices.
In the past few years, a number of voices have emerged encouraging church musicians to lose their music stands.
I don’t think anyone is saying it’s a matter “of first importance” to put the music stands away. But people have said if you really want to serve your church, you won’t use them.
Reasons to Strike the Stands
Here are some of the most common reasons people give for losing the stands.
In many churches, a separation already exists due to a stage. Removing the stands removes the visible barrier.
Musicians and vocalists tend to stare at their stands. When you remove them, musicians look up, look out, and are more engaged.
Singing and playing without stands forces you to memorize music and communicates a higher standard of preparation and excellence. It’s unprofessional and uncaring to use them.
If you’re nervous about forgetting lyrics, you can use a confidence monitor, i.e., project the lyrics on the back wall.
A Few Thoughts
While I appreciate and even applaud the impulses that lie behind church musicians going without music, it seems unwise to make it the rule or even the most-preferred practice.
We’re working with volunteers. Asking musicians to memorize the music each week assumes they’re full-time, specifically dedicated to that role in the church, or have enough time during the week to commit songs to memory. Those aren’t the kind of people I normally serve with at my church! While I appreciate musicians who know their music well, I’d rather have them free from anxiety when they’re leading.
We’re freer to make Sunday morning changes. Due to the limited amount of time our band rehearses, we come up with arrangements on Sunday mornings when we practice. That allows us to make last-minute changes, adjust arrangements to the musicians that are actually there, and make music rather than simply play it.
We want to sing the right songs. Memorizing all the songs tends to push us toward using shorter, more repetitive songs, or songs we’ve been singing for years. It doesn’t have to have that effect but often does. I shouldn’t determine the songs I lead on Sundays by how easy they are to memorize (think Psalm 119). God tells us the word of Christ is to dwell in us richly as we sing (Col. 3:16), and that implies at times I’ll lead songs that go beyond popular fare.
We want to identify the real causes. Singing with stands doesn’t communicate a lack of care, love, or engagement any more than a pastor using notes for his message does. It becomes a negative factor only when he reads mechanically, rarely looking up at the congregation. But I’d rather have him be sure of what he’s going to say than try to commit his message to memory and stumble along the way. And I’ve been ministered to in profound ways by both singers and preachers who have notes in front of them.
We sing in community. Finally, it’s participation, not performance, that should characterize our meetings. We’re singing with the congregation, not to or at them. Rather than being a barrier between us and the congregation, music stands can actually be a unifying element. They communicate we’re not musical professionals, that we can forget lyrics, and that we too can get distracted. Our congregations look at a screen (or a hymnal), but we’d never say they’re insincere or “unprepared” to worship God. Needy, imperfect, and dependent, we look to Jesus to perfect all our offerings of worship (1 Pet. 2:5). (HT to Allen Dicharry for this last insight)
Some Questions We Can Ask
If this is an issue at your church, these questions might help you reach some conclusions, whether that’s to go with stands or without them.
Are we allowing the use of music stands to be more of a focus than the God we’re worshiping and the people we’re singing with?
If so, get your head out of the stands. Go over the music in advance and use it simply as a reference. Develop the skill of looking at the line you’re about to sing, then looking up and singing it with the congregation. Try flattening out and lowering the stand, or moving it to the side, to reduce the physical barrier. Using music stands only separates you from the congregation when they’re a visual obstacle or you’re overly dependent on them.
Are we seeking to serve our congregation well?
Maximize whatever limited time you have to prepare. During rehearsals, sing and play as though there was a congregation in front of you. Sing to the empty seats. In a few days or in a few minutes, they’ll be filled with God’s people. If you do choose to go without stands and can afford it, consider adding a “confidence monitor,” lyrics projected either on the back wall or a television monitor. Besides helping the vocalists with the lyrics, a monitor also helps the leader know when the projectionist is putting the lyrics up.
What’s determining the kinds of songs we feed our church?
Take stock of what factors figure in to your song choices. We can consider ease of memorization, repetition, and simplicity, but they shouldn’t rule what we sing. God is too great and awesome, and our responses too deep and varied, to limit our songs of praise to what we’re able to memorize.
Which is more important to us: visibly engaging with a congregation or leading them to a deeper knowledge of God in Jesus Christ?
Those two ends aren’t necessarily opposed. When we lead a congregation to lift up their hearts and voices to praise God, it should be an emotionally engaging event. But emotions aren’t our focus – God’s glory in the face of Christ is (2 Cor. 4:6). God wants the real events of the gospel to move people, not the fact that they don’t have to look at us over music stands.
Like most secondary matters in congregational worship, using or not using music stands isn’t an either/or issue. We just want to make sure we’re asking the right questions.
I’m happy to announce that after reviewing 170 songs, we finally have another: Prayers of the Saints (Live). It took a while, but I think it was more than worth the wait.
Worship albums are as common these days as a new mattress store (come to Louisville and you’ll know what I mean). I receive an email informing me of a new album almost once a week. That’s about 50 albums, each with at least 12 songs, which adds up to 600 new songs a year. And that’s just scratching the surface of the albums being recorded.
So why produce another one? First, because we think the church always needs more songs that deal with themes like confession, lament, and longing. Second, because there will never be enough songs to sufficiently proclaim the worthiness of the Savior who came to redeem rebels for his Father’s glory. He is that glorious.
What’s in a Name?
This album started in 2016 as a project on the Lord’s Prayer. But after reviewing the 80 or so songs we wrote on that theme, we didn’t think we had enough songs for an album.
We weren’t looking for good songs. We wanted great songs. Songs that would not only express the truth of the gospel in a compelling and beautiful way, but songs people would want to sing and hear again and again.
So in 2017, we changed the theme to “Prayers of the Saints.” It’s a phrase John uses in Rev. 5:8 and 8:4 to describe the prayers of God’s people for the punishment of the wicked, the deliverance of his people, and the vindication of God’s name. It highlights the fact that we live in the time of the “already and not yet.” Satan is defeated, our sins are paid for, the grave is overcome. But we’re waiting for the final consummation when death will be forever destroyed and tears will be no more. So while we celebrate, rejoice, and praise, we also grieve, intercede, and anticipate.
Songs for the Journey
The Christian life isn’t one triumph after another. We endure suffering, sin, persecution, and temptation while fixing our gaze on Jesus’ promised coming. Through his substitutionary death and victorious resurrection he has guaranteed those he’s redeemed a future of eternal glory and joy.
So we wrote lyrics like these to sing on the journey:
O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer, strong defender of my weary heart
My sword to fight the cruel deceiver, and my shield against his hateful darts
(from O Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer by Nathan Stiff)
Deliver us from evil, Lord; the devil’s seeking to devour
With trembling hearts we hear his roar, but Your strong arm will crush his pow’r
(from We Look to You by Joel Sczebel and Matt Searles)
As day unfolds, I seek Your will in all of life’s demands
And though the tempter tries me still, I cling to Your commands
Let every effort of my life display the matchless worth of Christ
Make me a living sacrifice; be glorified today
(from A Christian’s Daily Prayer by Matt Merker and Jordan Kauflin)
Though the dark is overwhelming and the brightest lights grow dim
Though the Word of God is trampled on by foolish men
Though the wicked never stumble and abound in every place
We will all be humbled when we see Your face
(from When We See Your Face by Bob Kauflin and Jordan Kauflin)
The Players and Singers
Sovereign Grace Music doesn’t record definitive versions of songs we want others to copy. We hope local churches will adapt our songs to their own context and sing them in a way that serves their congregations. That might be a full band, a piano and organ, a choir and orchestra, or even a lone acoustic guitar. That being said, we worked hard on this album to come up with arrangements we think will serve you.
David Zimmer served us masterfully on drums, Ryan Foglesong on bass (and acoustic), and Patrick Anderson on electric/acoustic. All three have been a part of previous Sovereign Grace albums and WorshipGod conferences. My good friend, Jonny Barahona (Sojourn Music), did a fantastic job on keys and served as the main arranger. I played keys as well, Gabriel Reyes added another electric, and Zach Fuller covered percussion. Chris Perdue and Whitney Kloceck took care of the moving string parts. Vocalists were McKenzie Fuller, Charity Mick, Lisa Clow, Devon Kauflin, and Caleb Dirnberger, all Sovereign Grace church members.
Nathan Nockels produced the album and more than delivered. I’ve appreciated Nathan’s work since his Sons & Daughters days (precursor to Watermark). I hoped he’d give these songs a more mainstream approach soundwise, and love the result.
In the past, we’ve primarily used Sovereign Grace songwriters for our albums. This time we added Brittany Kauflin, Mary Smith, and Jon Althoff to that list. But on Prayers of the Saints, we also involved a number of friends who are non-Sovereign Grace writers but share our heart to provide accessible, theologically driven, Christ-exalting songs for local churches.
But at the end of the day, producing an album of congregational worship songs is fruitless unless churches actually singing them. We’ve had great feedback thus far, and look forward to seeing God use these songs to serve the body of Christ. To make that easier, we’ve provided all the charts, lead sheets, and piano/vocal scores on the Sovereign Grace Music website. We’re working on choral parts and orchestrations and will put those up as they become available.
What You Can Do
You can help us out by spreading the word through Facebook, comments sections, or by leaving a review on iTunes or Amazon. Most of all, we’d love to hear from you through Facebook, YouTube, or the comments section below how the songs are benefiting you and your church. And if you’re looking for physical CDs you can purchase them from Integrity or Amazon.
We’ve released videos from a few of the songs on YouTube, but plan to eventually post them all. Enjoy!
O Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer • Prayers of the Saints Live - YouTube
Last month, prior to having the joy of participating in the Getty Sing! conference in Nashville, I chatted with Sol Fenne at a lunch sponsored by 20Schemes. Sol is a church planter, musician, and songwriter who has a passion to see the gospel transform lives in the poorest housing projects of Scotland.
One of Sol’s passions is to discover how the gospel enthusiasm and musical excellence from the Sing! Conference could be applied in the contexts of Scotland’s poorest schemes, or housing projects. So he sent me a follow-up email asking if I’d be willing to write a blog post addressing this question:
How we can encourage our 8-chord guitarists facing 10-20 musically impartial believers to strive on in tough circumstances where there is little to no encouragement and new believers who come from zero congregational singing cultures?
A Common Problem
You don’t have to live in one of Scotland’s schemes to identify with the issue that question raises. The majority of churches aren’t working with a stable of professional musicians leading a congregation of enthusiastic, engaged worshipers. We’re trying to get by with:
• Unskilled musicians and/or leaders
• Attendees that check their emotions and ability to move their bodies at the door
• A soundboard that’s limping along on its last legs
• A tight budget that never seems to include equipment
• Musicians that can’t figure out the chords on the album
And on it goes.
Some Ideas to Implement
We regularly find ourselves leading under less than ideal conditions. How should we respond? Here are a few thoughts.
Recognize that the gospel, not music, is the power of God (Rom. 1:16).
When our musicians, instruments, lighting, and technology aren’t impressive, we can wonder why people would come to our church. They come because we have something the world doesn’t: the amazing news that Jesus Christ died in the place of lost, rebellious sinners to reconcile them to God. Music, no matter how great it is, can’t raise a dead soul to life. The gospel can and does. Your church may never come close musically to what the church down the street does or what people listen to on their iPhones. That’s okay. Faithfully preach, sing, and explain the gospel and you’ll see lives changed.
Trust in God’s Word more than your own words (1 Thess. 2:13).
Trusting in God’s Word more than our own means featuring and treasuring the content and meaning of Scripture in our songs, prayers, sermons, visuals, sacraments, and conversations. I say featuring and treasuring because we’re not simply providing information. We’re proclaiming life-giving, faith-imparting, direction-changing, mind-transforming truth. People should be able to see how much we love the word of God and the God of the Word, with or without music.
Pray for and expect God’s Spirit to work in people’s hearts for the glory of Jesus (1 Cor. 2:12; John 16:13-14; 1 Cor. 12:4-7). Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that God’s Spirit prefers working in a church of 5000 or 500 more than in a church of 50. Where Christians gather to sing, pray, hear God’s Word, and celebrate the gospel, God’s Spirit is there to do what only he can do. Bring conviction. Comfort the grieving. Give hope to the hopeless. Satisfy the spiritually hungry. And he loves to work through ordinary, dependent people like you and me.
Teach your people the purpose of congregational singing (Col. 3:16-17; Eph. 5:18-20). People often base their understanding of why we sing more from their own past experiences than from the Bible. We have the joy of teaching them what God says about singing. That can be done in a sermon, brief comments, on a website, or in conversation. Among other things, the church sings to remember the gospel, to teach and admonish one another, to communicate our affection for God, to express our unity in Christ, and to prepare for heaven. Even though my church may not look much like heaven now, every time we meet we’re joining in with the worshipers around the throne (Heb. 12:22-24). We aren’t putting on a performance. We’re participating with saints throughout the ages offering praise to God through the finished work of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:4-5).
Make it clear that instruments are only there to support the main event: faith-filled congregational singing (Ps. 71:22-23). When your church doesn’t have the musicians you think you need, it’s a perfect opportunity to let people know their “worship” isn’t hindered. Instruments can support congregational singing, but they can never replace it. Use a hymnal. Sing a cappella. Find some simple choruses with great words.
Pick the best songs and sing them more often (2 Pet. 1:12; Phil. 3:1) Sol told me that his church has a repertoire of about 25 songs. I think that’s wise. If your church is musically illiterate or inexperienced, learn fewer songs and sing them well (In Christ Alone, All I Have is Christ, It is Well, Behold our God, etc.). But make sure your few songs cover a lot of theological ground. And remember that musical simplicity doesn’t negate biblically thoughtful, gospel-focused lyrics.
Encourage your musicians to improve and provide resources if you’re able (1 Chron. 25:7). Whatever the skill level of our musicians now, they can grow. Cultivate an attitude in your instrumentalists that says, “I want to get better on my instrument so I can joyfully serve the singing of the church more effectively.” Resources and teachers might include other band members, YouTube, books, and musicians outside the church.
Ask God to bring musicians to your church (Mt. 6:8; 2 Cor. 9:8). Without minimizing anything I’ve said so far, pray that God adds skilled instrumentalists to your church, either through conversion or from another church. Although great musicians aren’t necessary to worship God, he can certainly use them for the good of his people.
So while we continue to pursue greater musical proficiency, we never have to wonder if God’s purposes are being thwarted by our below average musicianship or lack of a band. His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
Besides, our limited resources are all he ever has to work with. And they’re all he needs, because his grace, mercy, and power are limitless.
Back in February, I posted a song that Chris Anderson and I wrote for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We called it “Reformation Hymn.” I wrote about it in this post and Chris tells the backstory of how the song was written here.
Around the same time, Tim Chester, a friend from the UK, asked me if I’d be interested in putting music to some lyrics he was working on, also based on the 5 Solas of the Reformation:
Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone
Solus Christus: Christ alone
Sola Fide: faith alone
Sola Gratia: grace alone
Soli Deo Gloria: glory to God alone
I enjoyed writing Come Praise and Glorify with Tim a few years ago and thought I’d give another Reformation song a try. I like what we came up with, and we’ve creatively called it, “Reformation Song.”
The version Chris and I wrote is on the more regal side, with a stately melody in 3/4 meter. With Tim’s lyrics I took a more exuberant approach and came up with a version in 9/8.
Interns to the Rescue
On Thursday nights, I have the joy of meeting with a group of humble and gifted music and worship interns from Boyce College. I asked them if they’d be willing to come up with an arrangement of the song and they gladly obliged. I love what they put together:
Reformation Song by Bob Kauflin & Tim Chester - YouTube
We’ll be celebrating the truths that were recovered in the Protestant Reformation for eternity. Salvation is in Christ alone, through faith alone, based on God’s Word alone, by grace alone, for the glory of God alone. And we can sing those truths any time.
But during this month, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it’s particularly appropriate to remember how glorious our salvation through Jesus Christ alone really is. Our hope is that songs like these will give us one more way to do it.