I’ll admit, I’m probably the last guy who should be writing to worship leaders. So, full disclosure, I’ve never led a worship team. I’m a mediocre singer at best. You’re not going to get a list of the top 10 ways to get get your congregation to engage in singing from me.
But, as a person who loves the church, let me share with you the burden of my heart.
Your position, whether you are a paid worship leader who has albums available to stream or you are just a person brave enough to sing loudly in your house church, is important. Paul tells us in Colossians that part of the way we let the word of Christ dwell in us richly is to “[s]ing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts,” (Colossians 3:16). We need the whole body of Christ to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs so that God’s message can dwell in us deeply. You are important to helping us do that.
Now, here’s my admonition:
The days ahead for the church are going to be difficult. I’ll let you interpret what I mean by that, but let’s just say for now that I don’t foresee the job of the church becoming easier and I don’t foresee the church’s position in society becoming more revered. I actually see the church becoming less revered and our job becoming more difficult. Paul says “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution,” (2 Timothy 3:12) and I believe that will become more and more real in the days ahead.
Because of that, worship leaders, we will need you–yes you–to lead us in songs that prepare us for that season. What sort of songs prepare our hearts for that type of event? In my head, there are two emphases that will be important. We need to sing songs that tell of the greatness, glory, and beauty of Jesus and we need songs that emphasize the importance of faithfulness to Jesus in the midst of hard times.
Why songs that emphasize the greatness, glory, and beauty of Jesus? Well, we need to constantly remember that Jesus is the pearl of great price. No one lays down their life for things that aren’t of great value. It’s important for us remember over and over again what Jesus did and why he is worth our lives, whether that means a life lived for him in hardship or a life lost for him to physical persecution. Singing songs about the worth of Jesus doesn’t make him more worthy, it just causes us to remind ourselves that he is as great and glorious as we thought he was at first. If Jesus is more valuable than anything else we have, then laying our lives down for him is an easy thing.
What about songs that emphasize faithfulness to Jesus in the midst of hard times? I think its obvious why such songs are important. However, in our Western culture where very little physical persecution has happened, the theme isn’t often sung about and so we think about it less. In cultures where persecution is more prevalent, this isn’t the case. In fact, Paul quotes an early hymn when writing to Timothy in order to encourage him to be more faithful:
“If we die with him,
we will also live with him.
If we endure hardship,
we will reign with him.
If we deny him,
he will deny us.
If we are unfaithful,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot deny who he is.”
These were words that the early church used to sing to encourage each other to be faithful. We need to recover this ancient practice for ourselves today. Singing these types of songs won’t in and of themselves make us more faithful. There are plenty of people who sing songs about things they will never do. But as we sing them, we meditate on the importance of faithfulness in our walk with Christ and that will help us in the days ahead.
I never like writing without actionable advice, so before we close, let me list some songs that I find helpful in these two areas. You may not like their style, so I’m not saying you have to sing these songs, but these are examples of songs that make much of Jesus or stress the importance of faithfulness in times of trouble.
Songs About the Greatness of Jesus
Songs About Faithfulness in the Midst of Trouble
The days ahead are going to be tough. My hope is you can become a part of strengthening the body of Christ for the days ahead. If we all do our part, we’ll all stand a little stronger and shine a little brighter when hard things come.
Last week I tweeted a link to the statement of imprisoned Chinese church leader Wang Yi’s church. You can read it here.
In brief, Wang Yi is the pastor of an underground church in China, Early Rain Covenant Church. Pastor Wang and 100 of his fellow believers were arrested by the Chinese government about one year ago. Now, Wang has been sentenced to nine years in prison for subversion of state power and illegal business operations.
What I love about this statement is how it emphasizes things that we wouldn’t emphasize if we are being persecuted. The statement is written by a people who know what it means to suffer and how to do it well. It’s a model for how us as Christians should handle suffering as it becomes more and more normal to suffer for Christ in the West.
Here are just a few thoughts from the letter that I think Western Christians can learn from:
- “Christians should be willing to submit to the government’s physical restrictions of them.” What’s refreshing about this take is that Christians in America often get caught in a kind of antagonism where if we are jailed or even lightly rebuked for sharing the Gospel, we want to demand our rights. The apostle Peter tells us to submit to civil authority and to bear up under the pressure of suffering, even though we’ve done nothing wrong (see 1 Peter 2:13-20).
- Pastor Wang’s arrest is part of his calling. In the West, we often take on titles and positions as an antidote to suffering. We give difficult, arduous tasks to those who are farther down the “ministry ladder” than we are. However, Pastor Wang and his church understand suffering as a normal part of his calling. 1 Peter 2:20 tells us that we are called to follow Jesus into the same type of suffering he endured. We are called to suffering, especially as a servant of the Gospel. So OF COURSE he’s suffering. He’s responded to God’s call on his life. May we understand again that our calling is not what’s written on a business card, but to literally follow the footsteps of Christ, whichi includes suffering as He did.
- No crimes were committed. In a free society, Yi would not be jailed for his actions. I find this part of the statement interesting, mostly because I believe this to be an effort of the church to earn credibility with the Chinese people and people around the world. In arguing that he has not committed a crime, the church is defending his morality and trying to earn rapport with the rest of the world. Peter tells us it’s better to keep our integrity and suffer rather than to suffer for committing and actual crime (1 Peter 3:16-17) and the church seems to be making a case that this is what happened.
- No hate, just evangelistic love. After some exhortations of the Chinese government to “stay in their lane,” the church calls on believers to pray for the salvation of the Chinese government. This is so crucial. Many would be tempted to pray down God’s judgment, but the church is following in Jesus’ steps and saying “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they do,” (Luke 23:24). It’s this kind of heart cry that will open the hearts of unjust persecutors to the truth of the Gospel and save some of them.
Imagine this-the church in America can learn to suffer for the glory of God. We can learn to submit to government authority and still obey God. We can embrace suffering as part of our calling and maintain our integrity. We can even pray for those who persecute us to find the light and the truth. We have no better teacher in this than our brothers and sisters in China and other parts of the world.
We just need to be willing to learn from them.
The other night, I had the privilege of praying with a brother who has started a house church network in an African country where the people in his churches can be killed for accepting Christ and becoming part of the church. I hope you’ll understand why I don’t give you many more details.
Our goal was to pray for the brother. We’ve supported him some financially, but we thought that it would encourage him to pray together over the phone. There are needs that frequently come up, there is constant persecution in many areas, and there are economic realities that make life difficult for anyone, let alone someone trying to plant churches full time. Our brother’s life is not an easy one.
Yet, when we got on the phone, the brother was constantly praising the Lord. He was doing it so much that we felt obligated to join in praising the Lord with him. When we praised the Lord with him, though, it was different. Our words were a bit more wooden. They didn’t have a natural feel coming out of our mouth, they felt hollow, even forced.
It provoked me a bit. I realized that my brother who lives in persecution and with less than me is better at praising God, though I lead a more comfortable and less stressful life. Why? My guess is my friend from Africa has had to learn how to praise God Himself, and not just praise God when circumstances are good. My friend has learned God is worth praise for who He is, not only for what He does. So he always has praise for God. Me, not so much.
So I’m on this journey, now, of not being a spoiled American. I’m going to start asking God to help me to learn how to praise Him for who He is in addition to what He has done for me. I think it’s an area I need to grow.
How about you?