How to “label” worship music

Though not a South park fan, my husband is. He occasionally makes me watch an episode, and I confess, I have laughed. No harder have I laughed at an episode though than Christian Rock Hard. In it, the boys try to start a band, and Cartman decides to start a Christian band; because Christian music is easier to break into, and because it’s easier to write Christian songs. He then takes a pop song and plugs “Jesus” into the lyrics. Voila. Instant Christian classic.

This makes me wonder… does a song have to mention Jesus to be a worship song? I have heard discussions on Christian radio where people have tried to remove certain songs from the station because it didn’t mention God or Jesus. Never mind the positive, encouraging message it was communicating. Apparently that’s not enough.

I confess, I used to be of this mindset. I didn’t really want to listen to a song unless I was sure that it was talking to or about Jesus. My intent was to protect my mind from some of the crap that is communicated through much modern music, but I took it to the extreme. All of a sudden my music tastes became incredibly narrow-minded. Even my pastor encouraged me to branch out.

Now I’m discovering that worship music doesn’t have to be so limited. I just read this article on Relevant Magazine’s website and was impressed by the band interviewed.

This was my favorite quote:

Writing music, you can write any sort of music, and that can be a sacred act; it doesn’t have to be Church music. That was a theological shift for me, personally, seeing it wasn’t about me having to put enough crosses in every painting I paint, enough Jesuses in every song I write. Not that you don’t ever do those things, but it broadened the scope of potential human work that could be sacred.

More than praise and worship music can be sacred. That’s a freeing thought for me. The simple act of writing a song from the soul is a sacred act. It doesn’t need to mention Jesus.

This song doesn’t mention Jesus, but I challenge anyone to say this isn’t worshipful.

And what about instrumental pieces? There’s no mention of Jesus’ name, yet there are so many that are mysteriously worshipful. Granted, this one is based on a classic sacred melody, but the way he plays with such passion just screams worship to me.

My mind is open to so many other musical options, and I think it’s opening wide the avenue for worship again.

Mediocre Worship

I didn’t get along well with my first voice instructor at Florida State School of Music. Don’t get me wrong; I liked him. He was an interesting fellow. He told me countless stories that made me chuckle; many of them centered around his marriage. He proudly told me how he had been married for some 40+ years and announced this:

“We never once considered divorce… murder a couple of times, but never divorce!”

An old joke, I know, but it was new to me at the time, and I appreciated his efforts to make me feel more comfortable in his voice studio. Our problem was that his teaching style and my learning style never quite “meshed.” I spent a semester in frustration trying in vain to connect with the pieces he gave me, and he spent week after week trying to get through to me. It was a frustrating experience for both of us, and I ended up switching teachers at the end of my first year.

Nonetheless, I am thankful for the time he invested in me, and I have a few memories that stick out to me. Here’s one.

In the midst of another frustrating lesson, my teacher takes a deep breath and pauses. He seems to be thinking as he gazes out the small window of his office door. He strokes his beard for a moment and then looks at me. I am looking down at the music stand in front of me, hoping desperately that the notes on the page will sink into my subconscious, and then flow out of my vocal cords with ease. No such luck yet. Afraid to meet his gaze, I bite my lip and continue to stare at the stanzas in front of me, pretending to scribble notes in the margins. He decides to change the subject.

“You sing in your church choir, right?”


“Are you doing anything special for Easter?”

“Yes. We’re working on our cantata for Palm Sunday.”

“Are you doing any solos?”

“Yes!” I finally meet his gaze. “I have two solos.” I had been listening to the rehearsal tape for weeks and had been diligently practicing.

“Why don’t you bring those in next week? I’d like to hear them.”

I break into a big smile. Anything to get away from the Nymphs and Shepherds song I had been trudging through for weeks with no breakthrough.

The following week I bring the music. My accompanist plays the intro (we had practiced earlier in the week and she had complimented me!) and I launch into it. I finish to the sound of no applause. I was getting used to that around this school.

He made a slight nod of approval. “Your voice certainly blossoms with a song you connect with.”

See! I think to myself. I knew I didn’t totally suck.

Then he frowns.

Uh oh.

“What bothers me is how churches are performing this mediocre music.”

My heart falls. Mediocre music? What?

I don’t remember his exact quote, but it was something pretty close to that. And at the time, I totally didn’t understand him. I was just offended that my singing was not being praised. I thought he was being super harsh and critical.

Now I get it. Now I agree with him.

In his world filled with Bach cantatas and Mozart requiems, this cheesy little church cantata I was bringing to him didn’t even come close. And it couldn’t. It’s really kind of unfair to compare the two.

I cannot recall the name of the cantata or the title of my solos. The melodies have since left my brain. I’m sure the composer worked very hard on that cantata and I honestly couldn’t come close to putting together a work of that magnitude. But my voice teacher’s question lingers in my brain.

Why are churches performing mediocre music?

In a world where four chord songs reign, it’s hard to find worship music that contains real musical depth. And as a worship leader working with volunteer musicians (and being a pretty mediocre guitar player myself), I understand the need for those easy to pick up four chord songs. But does this have to be all we’re doing?

As much as I never thought I would admit it, sometimes I miss those difficult, sacred pieces I used to perform in music school. Those demanding melodies that required hours of practice and work. I spent hours upon hours perfecting pitch and getting tone just right. I can’t say I’ve ever done that for any worship song.

If worship is all about giving God our best, then why aren’t we doing that?

Serving to worship

This is Lori.

Lori is in my family of choice. My husband and I have lunch with our family of choice every Sunday. Last year, Lori was diagnosed with breast cancer. She bravely underwent surgery and chemo and the hair loss that came with it. When her hair began falling out, she decided to shave her head. In January, we had a “coming out” party as friends gathered around her to cheer her on. Several guys shaved their head in support of her (one even leaving a mohawk in for a week on a dare). The girls and I weren’t willing to do that, so we opted for the reverse.

We grew our hair out to donate it in honor of her.

My hair had already been growing out, so with an extra year added on, it got pretty long.

One of my co-workers began calling me Rapunzel.

Three of us met one Saturday to chop it, and Lori joined us for the fun.

We got our hair sectioned…

…then it was time to cut!

I felt five pounds lighter!

Between the three of us, we had a lot of hair to donate.

I’ve grown out, cut off, and donated my hair three other times. It’s one of those things that I enjoy doing. God has gifted me with a thick head of hair that grows fairly quickly. If it can be used to help people, then I’m happy to donate it.

In my worship struggle, I am looking for other ways to connect with God and worship Him. I know that worship is more than inspirational words on a powerpoint and catchy melodies, but sometimes I forget to look beyond that. Serving is one way I’m finding that is a real way to worship. We’re told to be the hands and feet of Jesus… why not the hair too? (Okay, that was cheesy…)

I was more than happy to grow my hair out in honor of my brave friend Lori. She was blessed by it, and some woman struggling through chemo will now be blessed by it too. And I believe God was blessed in the process too.

And I got a cute new do out of it.

Thanks, Lori, for being such inspiration!

(Good news: Lori is now cancer free and doing awesome!)

Reserving judgement

Last week I shared about my Christmas Eve tradition: quiet communion with my husband. On Christmas Eve, we packed up after an evening spent playing Apples to Apples with my family and went on our way to church, anticipating our moment of stillness and quiet.

We arrived to find the lights on and janitors vacuuming the sanctuary. Confused, we wandered around the church grounds, wondering if it had ended early and we had just missed it. It seemed that communion had not happened at all this year. For whatever reason, my church decided to not do it, and we had not paid close enough attention to church bulletins to realize this.

I can’t completely blame them. To do communion required our senior pastor to stay at church until midnight, and I know he must have been exhausted and probably a bit burnt out after a very busy month and three different Christmas Eve services.

If I’m completely honest though, I was upset and a little hurt. And this thought drifted through my mind.

“Let down by the church yet again.”

My one need this Christmas season was not met by my church. It was easy to walk away feeling bitter and jaded. My husband was disappointed as well, but he made a really good comment on the way home.

“There’s something to be said for putting too much stock in something.”

We put off quiet and solitude the entire season and continued in our busyness because we were counting on that quiet communion.

In the rest of my faith life, I put off my quiet time and prayer life and wait on church to fill me. When it doesn’t, I become upset and judgmental.

I think I’m beginning to see where the problem lies.

Christmas Eve tradition

Christmas Eve is my favorite day of the year. I much prefer it over Christmas Day. The sacredness of Christmas gets lost in scraps of wrapping paper and tangles of ribbons. The excitement of the morning and family time is glorious, but sometimes I get discouraged by the materialism of it all.

Christmas Eve is different. It seems like when the sun sets and darkness swallows the busy day of finishing touches, peace comes upon the earth. It’s like everyone can take a communal deep breath. Preparation is done and we can finally focus on that sweet baby in the manger.

I have many memories of Christmas Eve traditions from growing up.

  • Holding a lit candle with wax dripping down my arm while singing Silent Night.
  • Driving around admiring Christmas light displays.
  • Cheese and crackers with the family.

When I got married, I looked forward to the traditions I would begin with my husband. There is one that I wasn’t expecting, but it is the one I am most looking forward to.


Every year, after the Christmas Eve services come to a close, my church opens the sanctuary for communion. They bless the sacraments, then leave them on the altar for people to come and take in their time. There is a note on the door to be silent, and the building is completely quiet. No music playing. Lights are low, with one small light aimed on the porcelain manger set and the Christmas tree softly lit in the corner.

My husband and I walk in, find a quiet spot (usually by the Christmas tree, given my love of them), and sit for as long as we feel the need to. Sometimes I gaze at the lights on the tree, sometimes at the manger. Often I pick up a pew Bible and read through the Christmas story (It’s sad that I usually find myself so consumed during the Christmas season that I don’t take time to meditate on these Scriptures.) Sometimes we hold hands and just quietly sit.

It’s wonderful. With the exception of the year that some people decided to come in and whisper LOUDLY to each other for five minutes, every year has been blissful. (My husband tried to give them a friendly note to let them know that we could hear them, and to gently tell them they were disturbing our moment of quiet. They became very offended and gave him a very rude note back and left in a huff. So annoying. And discouraging. We tried to be nice.)

It’s the Christmas Eve tradition that I never expected to create. I never realized how much I long for silence and stillness in my life until recently. When my husband and I began talking about upcoming Christmas plans, that was the one definite thing we both mentioned. We could take or leave most anything else, but that silent Christmas Eve communion seems to be a given now.

Is there a Christmas Eve tradition you are looking forward to?

Children’s Choirs

The director straightens my robe and the red tie around my neck. It’s choking me a little, and I fidget, trying in vain to loosen it. The other children are even wigglier, as I stand quietly and obediently, awaiting instruction. The frazzled choir director lines us up, pleading with us to stay still and in our places. She is mostly successful, as only the most rowdy children begin to move again. Although we are only vaguely aware of what we are about to do, we sense that it is important. And big.

We parade out of the back room and onto the stage. I can hear people clapping and “Awwwws” throughout the crowd. We line up in three rows and our director shuffles the stragglers back into place. She takes her place in front of the choir, and with a big grin on her face, reminds us with her big hand motions to keep our eyes on her. The piano plays the intro, and we launch into the song that we have rehearsed over and over for months.

Standing next to the lit up Christmas tree filled with white crocheted angel ornaments, we sing Away in a Manger in our sweet little off key voices. I am not scared standing in front of so many people. I feel safe nestled amongst all the other children. We sing loud, miss a few cues, smile our cute toothy grins, and the boy next to me waves to mom. The people applaud loudly when we finish.

Many of my early childhood memories are vague and fuzzy at best. Even this one is a tad fuzzy (after years of directing children’s choirs, I filled in a few details.) I do vividly remember standing in front of my Methodist congregation one December Sunday, no more than four or five. I remember those white robes and little red ties (I think they may have been made out of gift wrapping ribbon.) I can see the crocheted ornaments on the tree. For months, the song Away in a Manger was drilled into our heads until we were singing it in our sleep. To this day, when I hear that song, this memory niggles at the back of my brain.

Last year, my sister invited me to their church’s hanging of the greens, where the entire church participated in decorating the sanctuary for Christmas. My five year old nephew was singing with his choir. I was pleased to discover that he shared his debut performance song with me. The kids were absolutely adorable as they sang those sweet verses.

There is something about children’s choirs that is just precious. Having worked with children’s choirs over the years, I have a high respect for anyone that can wrangle those little guys together and get them to sing in unison. It can seem like an impossible feat.

What is it about children’s choirs that seems so special? For me, I think it’s because they’re so unassuming. Their presentation of musical talents is not all about them. They’re excited to perform and show off their hard work, but it’s not in a prideful way. With adult music ministry, sometimes it feels like a talent competition. It’s not like that with kids. They just want to sing. They don’t need to get caught up in church politics or worship styles.

When I stood up in front of that congregation so many years ago, I wasn’t thinking about impressing people. I wasn’t thinking about the style of worship. I had simply learned a song and was proud to share it with those who cared to hear it. And though I was barely beginning to understand this great God, I grasped in a small way that we were singing for a bigger purpose.

Something missing

In the bustle of the Christmas season, my husband and I received several invites for Christmas parties and get togethers. We turned down all but one and attended on Saturday evening. It was filled with much “merriment” and we did not return home until almost 1:00 a.m. After winding down, we did not fall asleep until after 2. We decided to skip church the next morning and get some needed sleep.

This is nothing new. I must confess; I use any and every possible excuse to sleep in on Sunday. Many of our excuses are completely valid. In the past month, both my husband and I have been sick, and totally exhausted. My hectic schedule as of late has left me with little to offer on the weekend and I usually want nothing more than to hole away at home.

But I must confess again; often I just want to skip church because I really don’t have much desire to be there. I know that more times than not, I will stand there lost in the crowd, wishing desperately that the music will speak to me while it just becomes nothing more than noise. It’s easier to avoid it than attempt to deal with the problem.

Before anyone tries to tell me how important it is to be a part of the body of Christ, let me clarify that I have not completely walked away. I attend a Friday night service at my church. I fellowship and connect with the body of Christ. This service has become more like church to me than typical Sunday morning services. A lot of Sunday mornings, I really don’t feel the need for church, because I’ve already had my church for the week.

Yet, I still feel that I’m running away from my worship issues rather than facing them head on. It’s easier to turn the alarm off on Sunday morning and roll over than walk into church, asking God to meet me there and help me through this mess. Most mornings I wake up with absolutely no desire to go.

Except yesterday morning. I knew we weren’t, but I woke up with a strong desire to go to church. I realized why. Because it is Advent and I miss all the elements of the Advent service. I miss the Advent candle and the carols and the Christmas story read from Matthew and Luke and holly hung throughout the church.

I told my husband that I would like to go to church next week. A few years ago, we decided to attend a different church the week before Christmas; an older church downtown with a huge pipe organ. We’re usually not big organ fans, but there is something about hearing the classic Christmas carols done on organ that just feels more Christmassy. I told my husband that I would like to do that again this year.

It was relieving to wake up with that empty feeling inside me, like something was missing. Sometimes I just feel like a complacent mess, because I can feel nothing more than apathy. Something is missing, and I am glad that I am feeling that.

Labor of Love

This week, someone commented about how he loves most all Christmas music; then he clarified to say that he loves OLD Christmas music. The classics. I tend to agree. Though Christmas Shoes was sort of cute and endearing the first couple times I’ve heard it, I can’t say it’s on my Christmas playlist.

I do agree… the old classics are where it’s at.

But as much as I love the old classics, I still love when musicians write fresh music to capture the Christmas story, and do it well. One of my recent favorites is written by Andrew Peterson and sung by Jill Phillips.

I love that this song captures what was likely the reality of the first Christmas. As much as I love the snow covered hills and cute little nativity set in my happy little barn, this is so far from the truth. It was dirty, it was hard, it was painful. I mean, the story involves a woman in labor. Nothing much peaceful about that.

I am also a sucker for songs that tell a story. Stories draw people in. I think this song tells the Christmas story in a beautiful, dramatic way. I hope you enjoy it.

Christmas music

I am old enough to remember records being played in my house while growing up. Tapes made their appearance during my childhood, but in my household, records were played on our big family stereo. I remember every December, my parents would pull out the special box of Christmas music. I vaguely remember a cartoon-like snowman across the cover of one and maybe a nutcracker emblazoned across another. The album art may not be set in my memory, but the songs that played certainly were.

I love Christmas music. My husband is not fond of the fact that I could listen to it 24/7 once Thanksgiving is over, but I spare him and try to do it when he’s not around. I could probably sing you any and every Christmas song ever written. Even the obscure verses that most people don’t know. It’s a gift, really.

Sacred Christmas songs never get old and have always seemed worshipful. I don’t know if it’s the timeless melodies or the stories behind them. I think a lot has to do with those old records that my parents pulled out and dusted off every year. They were special, sacred, and saved for once a year. I have fond memories of the fuzzy, clicking tracks on the records as they played throughout the final month of the year. I remember being intrigued by songs like Old King Wenceslas and Good Christian Men Rejoice. (I also remember being surprised in middle school to discover that Sleigh Ride had words. For years, the only version I heard was the instrumental as my sister and I galloped across the living room on our imaginary horses.)

Whatever the reason, if I hear O Little Town of Bethlehem or O Holy Night, I feel at peace. The words have depth, mystery, and they pull me in every time (well, unless it’s Mariah Carey singing them. Then I can’t change the channel fast enough.)

During Christmas, I love to hear pipe organs and orchestras pounding out the melodies and chords of these familiar songs. I do love rock bands, but during Christmas, the classical music snob in me comes out. It feels more sacred and “holy” for some reason.

I love the story of Christmas and how it’s been captured by so many songwriters throughout the years. It’s priceless.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I’m thankful that something that has been so special to me for so many years is still special. I’ve become jaded about a lot, but I don’t feel overly cynical or judgmental when I hear Christmas songs. That’s really refreshing for me. They simply make me smile, and for that I’m grateful.

Question: Is there a special song (Christmas or not) that has remained special to you throughout the years?