Book Review: The Heart of Technical Excellence

51yf1hzis4l-_sy346_“The Heart of Technical Excellence: How to Start, Train, and Operate a Technical Support Ministry with Excellence” by Curt Taipale

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 17: A book with 100 pages or less

One of my favorite descriptions of an ideal approach to the technical aspects of Worship Ministry comes from a supplement to a message series preached by John Piper about two decades ago. Here is his explanation of his great term “undistracting excellence”:

“We will try to sing and play and pray and preach in such a way that people’s attention will not be diverted from the substance by shoddy ministry nor by excessive finesse, elegance, or refinement. Natural, undistracting excellence will let the truth and beauty of God shine through. We will invest in equipment good enough to be undistracting in transmitting heartfelt truth.”

I love this concept, and the heart behind it. As a worship pastor, I want to guide our church to avoid the opposite errors of overemphasis on technical excellence—many churches put on such an elaborate production that the gospel can get lost in all the “show”—and lack of emphasis that produces what Piper calls “shoddy ministry”… which, sadly, describes far more churches than those guilty of “excessive finesse.”

But how to accomplish this? How do we get the idea of undistracting excellence from philosophy to practice? There are plenty of technical manuals which focus on the “how to” of technical production, and most books on worship philosophy include some token reference to the importance of media ministries, but there aren’t a lot of resources out there which “connect the dots” between technical excellence and heartfelt worship in a way that is useful and appealing both to technically-minded media workers and to artistically-minded worship musicians.

Enter Curt Taipale.

This small book has proved to be a great resource for me, as I seek to give leadership in an area of worship ministry in which my skills and experience lag far behind my musical expertise.  Taipale’s writing style and obvious heart for worship make it easy for a guy like me to absorb the necessary technical jargon that will help be better communicate my vision for our church’s worship ministry with those who work in the audio, video, and lighting areas. And his decades of expertise working with churches of all sizes and levels of media production give him a unique perspective to communicate a pastoral vision of media ministry to those workers in a way that no technical manual can.

The best parts of the book are his chapters on the relationship between the Worship Leader and the Sound Guy. I’m grateful to have Ray Stephens, our church’s Director of Media Ministries, as my “wingman,” and am glad we were both able to read this book recently. I pray this book will help us strengthen our relationship, and, in turn, to strengthen the overall media ministry at FBC Powell in a way that leads us toward undistracting excellence week in and week out.

If you’re a pastor, worship leader, or church media technician, I highly recommend grabbing a copy of this book. Print copies are apparently rare, but the Kindle version is under $4 here.

Who Is Like Yahweh? Encountering God in the Songs of Moses

The first song recorded in Scripture is the Song of Moses in Exodus 15, written after the crossing of the Red Sea by the people of Israel. Moses also wrote a second song—this one dictated by God himself—just before the crossing of the Jordan into the promised land. These songs give fascinating insight into the character and attributes of God, and have an enduring relevance to the people of God. So enduring, in fact, that Revelation 15 depicts the redeemed singing the Song of Moses in heaven!

I chose these songs as the topic of a paper for my Old Testament survey class. I realize that posting seminary papers is a little out-of-the-ordinary for a blog, but I enjoyed writing this one and thought it might benefit others who have a similar interest in Old Testament worship. If you’d like to check it out, here it is: Who Is Like Yahweh? The God of the Old and New Testaments Revealed in the Songs of Moses. No word yet on what my grade is…

Three of the books I referenced in the paper are particularly excellent, so if you’re interested in learning more about the Old Testament in general or Old Testament songs in particular, these are a great place to start:

Now that this paper (and the rest of my homework for this semester’s classes) is out of the way, I should finally be able to get back to blogging consistently… at least until my next round of classes starts up in June!

Messiah Blog: Day 17

Note: This is part of a series which began on December 10. To start at the beginning of the series, or to access the Table of Contents, click here.

At long last, we reach the climactic and most famous movement in Messiah: The Hallelujah Chorus. This is one of the most recognized and performed pieces of music ever composed. With text from the Book of Revelation, and with orchestration featuring trumpets and timpani, the Hallelujah Chorus is the quintessential “big ending”, both textually and musically.

Only it isn’t the end! This movement merely brings Part II of the oratorio to a close; the final section yet remains. While many have argued that this piece should be at the end of the oratorio, I think Handel and Jennings have put it precisely where it ought to be. As Christians, we have seen the end of the Story. We know that ultimately, Jesus Christ will triumph over death, and will reign forever and ever as King of kings and Lord of lords. This knowledge is not the end of our faith, however. It is knowledge that demands a response of worship and thanksgiving, which is exactly what we will find in Part III!

#42: Chorus
Revelation 19:6 — Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
Revelation 11:15 — The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever.
Revelation 17:14 & 19:16 — King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.

Professor Block offers quite a bit of commentary on this movement from his essay:

Unlike the previous segments of Part II, segment D consists of a single text (#42). But this is the most famous piece in the entire oratorio – the Hallelujah Chorus. If sentimental rhapsodists have imagined every note of Messiah to have been divinely inspired, nowhere is this more true than with reference to the Hallelujah chorus. Drawn into this romantic view of Handel is the story (which is incapable of confirmation) that while he was composing this piece he imagined seeing heaven before his very eyes and “the great God Himself” enthroned in glory. And whatever the origin of the custom, the piece has such emotional power that to this day in the English speaking world audiences rise as if in prayer as soon as the opening notes are struck. At the risk of pretending to know anything about the history of music, from what I know about their respective works, here, more than anywhere in the composition and anywhere in Bach, with Italian operatic flair Handel appears to have written for the applause of the audience. Not only does this piece have the climactic flourish that one expects at the end of an oratorio; even the text, a conflation of Revelation 19:6 and 11:15, drawn from the end of the Bible, and from God’s climactic act in history, leads one who hears this oratorio for the first time to expect the end of the performance. In fact, on both textual and logical grounds, one could wish that this chorus was transposed with “Worthy is the Lamb” in #51. Jennens’ insertion of this piece here was undoubtedly driven by a concern to declare the dissolution of the hostility that the kings of the earth had expressed in #38-41. There is no sentimentality in God and his Messiah who laugh the rebellious nations to scorn and who will break them with a rod of iron and smash them like a potter’s vessel. For those who have spurned his grace there is no hope. No wonder then that Jennens and Handel wanted to end this Part on a triumphant note: “Hallelujah! The Lord God omnipotent reigns! The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of the Lord and of his Messiah, and he shall reign forever and ever. He is indeed ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’” These last phrases are drawn, not from either of these texts but from Revelation 17:14 and 19:16.

With so much debate over interpretation of the Book of Revelation, it is easy to get lost in the minutiae of the differences of opinion expressed by various scholars and authors. Our bookstores are filled with pop-prophecy nonsense which turn debatable interpretations of difficult passages into major points of doctrine which can begin to affect other more important aspects of faith. While I firmly believe that it is important for Christians to know where (and why) we stand on our views of eschatology, the type of over-emphasis on the End Times that is prevalent in our churches today can be dangerous. When we concentrate on things which we expect in the future without placing Biblical prophecy within the context of the overarching Story of redemption, our response tends to focus on ourselves and the world around us, rather than on worship and thanksgiving toward a faithful, covenant-keeping God. We risk missing the whole point… just ask a 1st century Jew!

This is why I feel that the Hallelujah Chorus represents Handel’s best work. He has captured perfectly the sense of magnificent and reverent worship that is the major theme of John’s Revelation. All throughout the final book of Scripture we encounter images of worshipers surrounding the Throne of God. He is worshiped by angels, the four living creatures, the 24 elders, every creature in heaven and on earth, a great multitude, 144,000 redeemed from the earth, and those who had conquered the beast. This echoes the picture of the worship in Heaven which was seen by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Elsewhere we learn in Scripture that, ultimately, everyone who has ever lived will bow in worship to God.

No matter one’s particular understanding of who or what are the elders, the 144,000, or any of the other representations of worshipers in Revelation, the theme of worship is absolutely apparent. While much of what is written in Revelation is admittedly confusing and open to scholarly debate, when our focus is on the clear and unmistakable Truths presented in this book, our response will be the proper one: Worship of Almighty God.

Despite our differences, those who ascribe to any of the eschatological views which fall under the realm of Christian orthodoxy will agree wholeheartedly on these teachings from the book of Revelation:

  • Jesus is God’s Son, and as part of the trinity, is God Himself
  • Jesus is Lord over — and Head of — His Church
  • God is Holy and worthy of worship
  • Man is sinful and in need of a savior
  • Jesus Christ is the savior of mankind, the only One who was able to conquer sin and death
  • Jesus came to die in our place to offer us the hope of salvation
  • Jesus rose again to reign with the Father forever
  • Jesus is coming again, in the flesh and in power, to complete the final overthrow of Satan’s reign of evil
  • All people will be resurrected to face the righteous judgment of God
  • Those who have placed their faith in Christ have His righteousness imputed to them. They will be raised in glory to reign with Him for eternity
  • Those who have not believed in Jesus will be found guilty, and will be cast into the lake of fire: The second death
  • Christ’s eternal kingdom will be a restoration of the perfection that existed at Creation, before the Fall
  • Eternity will be marked by everlasting praise of our Creator and Redeemer, Christ the Lord

Hallelujah! Glory be to God on high, and to His Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords! Only He is worthy to be praised for all eternity! He is holy, holy holy, and His kingdom is forever! Hallelujah, Amen!

On to Day 18

Praise, Worship, & Pimento Cheese

Over the weekend I had the privilege of attending the Music Ministry Leadership Conference at Brentwood Baptist Church. The thirty minutes or so that guest worship leaders Keith & Kristyn Getty (the very best hymn writers alive today, in my opinion) spent talking about the process of hymnwriting was worth the trip by itself, but I also picked up some other practical and philosophical tips about worship and worship leading. Here are some brief highlights:

  • “When working in ‘Music Ministry’, never forget that ‘music’ is the adjective and ‘ministry’ is the noun. We are to be excellent musicians, but the music must never be a higher priority than the ministry.” ~ Terry McNatt, worship pastor at Wallace Memorial Baptist Church, who taught the Instrumental Track sessions
  • McNatt also gave some very practical suggestions to make alto saxes sound like french horns and tenor saxes sound like trombones, since so much church orchestration has no sax parts.
  • “Savor every second that you have together with God’s people. Be intentional about every moment of a worship service. If there is going to be silence, it must be intentional, reverent silence, not awkward silence.” ~ Daniel Doss, in his great session on planning worship services
  • I am now in love with the hymn, “Still, My Soul Be Still” from Keith & Kristyn Getty’s new album Awaken the Dawn. I’ll see what I can do about getting the audio added to this post…
  • Keith Getty’s talk about the importance of combining theologically accurate lyrics with artistic excellence in music was about the best thing I’ve ever heard. He particularly stressed avoiding the contemporary tendency to “dumb down” the Gospel. Some day I need to drive up to Ohio and get him to let me pick his brain for a while.

There were, as always, a few minor disappointments. Such things must be expected. They certainly do not overshadow the great things I took away, though. In many ways, I learn as much or more from negative experiences as positive, so I’ll attempt to keep a positive perspective as I share these:

  • There was supposed to have been a session on creating and developing a church-based music conservatory during the Instrumental Track led by Terry McNatt, the guru behind the creation of the very successful Germantown Baptist Church Conservatory of Music. This was one of the programs on which we based our School of Performing Arts, so I’d been very much looking forward to it. Unfortunately, the folks who showed up for the Instrumental sessions were primarily not actually leaders in their ministry, but orchestra members sent by their music leaders to learn more practical things like how to get an orchestra started. McNatt altered his approach to address the needs of the vast majority of the people present, which is exactly what he should have done in that situation… I’m probably the only one disappointed that he skipped the stuff about music schools, but it’s my own fault for having such high expectations. On the flip side, I’ll hopefully be getting to go to Knoxville to meet with him personally, which is going to be MUCH better than anything I’d have gotten in a one-hour conference session!
  • I’m not a picky eater, but I think every food that I don’t like was in that boxed lunch at the conference! Potato salad, olives, and pimento cheese sandwiches. I’m thankful for free (or at least included in the conference fee) lunch, but that was pretty unfortunate.
  • I was surprised that in a conference highlighted by a session on the importance of theology in lyrics the closing song was a doctrinally shady hymn called “Here I Am, Lord“. It’s a beautiful melody, and a very popular hymn (particularly among Catholics and Methodists, though it appears in the new Baptist Hymnal as well). The problem is that the lyrics are just not theologically sound. The first stanza includes the line (sung from God’s perspective) “All who dwell in dark and sin / my hand will save”. Despite what writers like Brian McLaren and Wm. Paul Young may say, this is simply not true. Unfortunately, that doesn’t keep many churches from preaching a feel-good “gospel” that everybody goes to Heaven. As the hundreds of worship leaders gathered around me (nearly) all joined in singing along with the conference leader, I couldn’t help but imagine Keith Getty sitting backstage with his head in his hands, wondering if anybody had even paid attention.

Despite the disappointing ending, I’m still very grateful to have had the opportunity to attend this year’s MMLC. It is my prayer that my time there will have equipped me to better serve the Lord, and those whom I am called to shepherd through my ministry.

Transforming Worship

I’ll admit it: I’ve been going through blog withdrawal.

Thankfully, I’m not actually withdrawing from my blog, though it may seem that way given my lack of posting this last month. Having a baby does tend to change one’s priorities/schedule/sleep patterns…

You should know that I haven’t completely forsaken my writing. I have been taking notes and working on outlines for things I’d like to write when the time presents itself, and I’m sure that before long I’ll be back to writing frequently. Typically, my writing time has always been in the wee hours of the morning, but those hours have lately been spent squeezing out every last precious second of sleep that I can!

In the meantime, I think I’ll start posting some videos that may be of interest to my readers. Today’s is a sermon by Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Driscoll is often considered controversial due to his confrontational demeanor and the urban culture and atmosphere of his church. Whatever objections anyone may have to the manner in which he delivers his messages, his theology is absolutely sound.

This sermon is the 11th installment in a doctrine series he presented last year. During the series, he goes in-depth into all of the major and essential doctrines of the faith, outlining exactly what it means to be a Christian. Interestingly, Mars Hill Church requires anyone who desires to become a member of their church to go through this entire series first, which I think is a pretty cool idea.

The reason I’m posting this is that I think it is one of the best expositions of the doctrine of worship I’ve ever heard. It is one of many sermons/lectures/books that I’ve been going over and over as I study to write some of my own thoughts on worship, and in preparation for our upcoming Worship Ministry retreat in September. I’ll warn you, though, it is over an hour long (though it won’t seem like it; he’s a VERY engaging speaker), so you’ll want to make sure you have ample time to dedicate to it. You won’t be sorry!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Note: You can skip about the first 8 minutes of the video, as that is just some announcements for their local church. Also, if you’d like to see this on a larger video player, go here.