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GOD = NICE + SCARY (HAPPY FATHER’S DAY)

Awhile back I read an article about Billy Graham. He was talking to a football team and somebody asked him how to maintain a close relationship with God. He said, “read the Bible and pray every day.” I hated how simple that is. I really wanted it to be more complex and interesting and something I felt good about figuring out. But I figured if it worked for Billy Graham, it might work for me too. So I started reading the Bible and talking to God every day, and listening to see if He has anything important to say. I think I’ve learned more about God in the last few months than the rest of my adult life. You know what I’ve learned?

God is really nice.

Like, really nice. He keeps telling me that he loves me, and that he likes me even. And honestly, as a dude it makes me feel sort of uncomfortable sometimes how much he says he loves me.

Another thing I’ve learned, and it’s probably equally important.

God is really scary.

Not in the horror movie or prison showers kind of way. More in the “giant grizzly bear that could crush you in a heartbeat but decides not to” sort of way.

It reminds me of my dad when I was a kid actually. My dad is super nice. Anybody who knows him knows how nice he is. When I was little, he always spent a lot of his free time helping people move and cleaning old ladies’ houses and counseling messed-up people on the phone late at night. And he was nice to me and my brothers. He came to all our basketball games and taught us how to work hard and took us out to eat on our lunch breaks at school.

Nice dad + Hammer pants circa '94

Nice dad + Hammer pants circa ’94

But he was also really scary in a way. Anyone whose dad took the idea of discipline seriously knows about this. My mom would “wait until my dad got home” to decide on our punishments. And if you had to wait until dad got home, that pretty much guaranteed a spanking with the wooden spoon. When you’re little, this is confusing because you have this super nice guy who is really calm but also whooping you at the same time. And as soon as he was done spanking us he would always give us a hug, sometimes with tears in his eyes, and tell us he loved us.

In a lot of ways, I think that’s what God is like. I admit it can be confusing, especially when you’re young. Some people paint this weird picture of God, like He gets off on torturing people that don’t bow down to him. I disagree. I think it’s more like a really good dad who spanks his kid with tears in his eyes because it hurts to punish your kid, but if you don’t he’ll destroy his life and turn into a bratty adult with no friends.

Nobody wants a cop that looks the other way when someone’s getting mugged. Nobody wants a teacher that gives all her students an “A+” no matter how they actually perform. Nobody wants parents who let their kids run the household. Even Adam Sandler learned that lesson in “Big Daddy.” If we’re honest with ourselves, I’m pretty sure we don’t want a God who doesn’t discipline either.

I guess that’s why the term “Father” is used to describe God so much. God, in a lot of ways, is like the picture of the ideal father. Really nice because he likes you and understands you more than you do yourself. And really scary because you know that if you disobey him, he’s not going to overlook it. He knows that’s not good for you, and he likes you too much to see you wreck your life.

Thanks dad, for helping me to understand and relate to God.

To Mike Morrow and to God, and to all the nice + scary dads out there:

Happy Father’s Day.

THE TRICK OF STARTING A CRICKET LEAGUE: “MAKING CONVERTS” VERSUS “MAKING DISCIPLES”

The following is an excerpt from a teaching I did a few weeks ago titled “Jesus Is Teacher.”

Suppose you visit England and fall in love with the sport of cricket. You’re so intrigued that you set out to start a cricket league in your hometown. So you gather a few friends who are willing to play with you. You hype the cricket league, spend money on advertising, and get the word out to as many people as possible. A dozen or so more people show up. So then you and your friends cast the vision to the newbies, and they also start helping your raise awareness and sign up people for the league. This goes on and on and snowballs, and after a few weeks you’ve got hundreds of new cricket players and dozens of teams.

vintage street cricket

Notice that up to this point, everyone involved still has no idea how to play cricket.

You’ve made a boat-load of converts. But until you start learning and practicing the fundamentals of the game, it’s gonna’ to be a hot mess. Sometimes I’m afraid modern Christianity operates in a similar way.

Jesus said to go and make “disciples.” I feel like we sell this awfully short sometimes, and just aim to make “converts.” Sometimes people get really hyped on being converted and go out and try to convert as many people as they can. Some people do this their whole lives. The problem is, you can become a “convert” and never enter the rough task of being a “disciple.” And then you miss all the really good, deep stuff like feeding the poor or loving your enemy or learning how to forgive even when it sucks.

We aren’t doing ourselves any favors by making thousands of converts without discipling people. People that don’t go to church have a name for that. (Hint: it starts with an “h” and rhymes with “zip-a-crits.”) I think the global church would do well to return to the task of disciple-making, and the “conversions” will take care of themselves.

So let’s go learn some cricket, eh?

Thoughts?

TANGAWIZI AND THE CARROT SEED

After being asked by several people, I realized that I’m long overdue for a Tangawizi update. Unfortunately, there is not much to tell beyond the closing prayer requests of my last update.

The recent rains in Kenya have made it impossible to travel (safely) from Nairobi to Keekorok. Gloria said in a recent email that her friend in Keekorok is poised to call her as soon as the rain waters recede and it’s safe to travel. In the meantime, she’s sent pictures of both the photographer Gabriele Galiberti and Tangawizi ahead, hoping to get a lead on where to find the boy and his family. carrot seedBecause of the timing of the trip being delayed, Jennifer may or may not be able to join Gloria in searching for Tangawizi.

On this side of the pond, Lincoln talks about Tangawizi often. Once a week or so, he matter-of-factly reminds me that we still need to take a bed to Tangawizi. When I tell him that it’s too far to travel for us, he offers the simple solution: we should just take a submarine. It reminds me of one Lincoln’s favorite stories, The Carrot Seed:

A little boy planted a carrot seed.

His mother said, “I’m afraid it won’t come up.”

His father said, “I’m afraid it won’t come up.”

And his big brother said, “It won’t come up.”

Every day the little boy pulled the weeds around the seed and sprinkled the ground with water.

But nothing came up.

And nothing came up.

Everyone kept saying it wouldn’t come up.

But he still pulled up the weeds around it every day and sprinkled the ground with water.

And then, one day,

a carrot came up

just as the little boy had known it would.

Honestly, it feels like we’ve lost steam, and a lot of hope. Fortunately I have my three year old and “The Carrot Seed” as good reminders.

THE ANTIDOTE TO INSECURITY

I had the pleasure of writing a new article at forworshipleaders.com. It’s a (hopefully) funny tale about some of the insecurities I’ve battled as an artist, and the answers I’ve come up with in dealing with them. Here’s a snippet:

American Idol judge Simon Cowell

American Idol judge Simon Cowell

“I was scrambling for reasons that I’m better than these other guys to make me feel better about my own abilities and boost my confidence. I’d told myself I was just being a music critic. I was actually just being a jerk. The sudden realization of my insecurities was horrifying…Judging ourselves against the performance of others is a common temptation. Even in Christian circles, it’s easy to be jealous of someone else’s gifts or opportunities. As worship leaders, we need to be honest with God and confess our insecurities.”

You can read the entire article here. Big thanks to Steven Potaczek for the opportunity to share a few thoughts. Feel free to share thoughts (or your own triumphs over insecurity) on Steven’s blog or in the comments below.

“AND THEN THE END WILL COME” – AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR BRANDON ANDRESS

The other day I saw a friend post on Facebook that the Boston Marathon bombing was a “government conspiracy.” Confused by (a) how that could have been a conspiracy and (b) why anyone would post something like that, I checked out his Facebook profile. Not surprisingly, everything is a conspiracy to this guy. Burger King and KFC are conspiracies. Television is a conspiracy. Gum is a conspiracy.

brandonSo when my buddy Brandon said he was writing a book on the “End Times,” I was a little wary. After all, the “Left Behind” video game and the end-of-the-world blitz of 2012 was probably enough apocalyptic zaniness for a few decades.

As it turns out, this was just Brandon’s point in his new book “And Then The End Will Come.” Brandon talks about how we sometimes get so obsessed with the “ends” that we forget to live in the “means” as Christians. We get so pumped about End Times minutia that we forget to live as students of Jesus in the here-and-now.

I asked Brandon if I could share about his new book and ask him a few questions about it. After reading the interview below, I hope you’ll be as psyched as I was to check the book out. You can get the book on Amazon in a variety of formats (paper, hardback, Kindle, etc) and stay in touch at Brandon’s blog.

Here’s the full interview.

The book opens with talking about our culture’s obsession with the “end times.” Did you ever have a weird Christian phase where you got sucked into end-times conspiracy theories yourself?

I love conspiracy theories!  And yes, I was neck deep in “End Times” conspiracies for about a decade of my life.  I never missed a History Channel special that discussed Armageddon, Nostradamus, or the identity of the Anti-Christ!  I’m not so sure that I was wrapped up in it for it’s religious appeal, as much as I was just curious about anything esoteric.  And that is where my book begins- and where I thought a great diving in point would be- with our natural tendency toward curiosity about the unknown.  We are all curious at some level.  We have a desire and hunger to “want to know.”  And that makes this book incredibly relatable to everyone.

Yeah, that hunger seems to have its pros and cons maybe? On one hand, it drives us toward the mysteries of God, and on the other, it drives us toward wanting to know Snookie’s baby’s middle name. How do you find the balance, or the right channels for that curiosity?

That is exactly the point I am driving at in the book.  Engrained in each of us is a deep, innate sense of “wanting to know,” of longing for something more. And you are right, this can be directed in healthy, life-giving ways or in ways that are shallow and less-than-life-giving.  But you really get a sense from Jesus and his parables that a life defined by curiosity is a really good thing.  In regards to finding “life” Jesus uses terms like asking, seeking, and knocking.  He also uses parables about searching for treasure in a field and looking for a prized piece of jewelry in a jewelry store.  So Jesus is all about the path of curiosity in pursuit of something greater, in this case the Kingdom of God or that which gives eternal life.  The interesting thing is that even when his disciples’ curiosity of the “End Times” was directed the wrong way, toward “when is this going to happen” and “how is this going to go down,” Jesus didn’t punish their curiosity.  Instead, he lovingly and patiently re-framed and reoriented them toward who they (and we) should be right now in anticipation of what is to come.  It is a beautiful thing.  Hopefully I have done the same thing within my book.

and then the end

Was there a specific moment that caused you to say, “I need to write this book…”? What was the importance for you- at this time- to write “And Then the End Will Come”?

Not to be too freaky, but I had a very bizarre dream about a year ago.  It really affected me after I woke up because I never dream, and it was so real and vivid and spooky. Because of the political nature of the dream I didn’t tell anyone about it. I was afraid people would try to use it for their own political agenda.  And being that I am so apolitical, I just couldn’t stand the thought of that happening.  As a result, I just let it go.  But about six months ago it came back to me again. And man, it just sat on me like an elephant.  The burden of it would not leave me alone.  So I reached out to an amazingly Spirit-led person who I really trust and respect, and who also interprets dreams, and gave her the low down and all the specifics.  After a couple of weeks she wrote back to me.  Her interpretation of my dream was completely opposite of what I expected… but it really pushed me in the direction I took with this book.  Sorry to be so general and vague about  the dream.  I am not sure if it is the right time to share it.

Wow….I had no idea. So this isn’t the first time that you’ve sensed God speaking to you in a big way. You shared a little about your “Nehemiah” story in your first book “Unearthed.” Not to get too off topic, but…I’m a big believer in hearing directly from God. I think that’s the idea behind of the Holy Spirit. Care to share any wisdom you’ve learned about how to process those times when you feel God speaking to you directly?

I am very reluctant to ascribe every single thing that happens in my life to “God speaking to me.”  That has been abused and mishandled in too many instances and has caused quite a bit of damage for Church and for Christianity, in general.  I do believe, however, that God speaks in a variety of ways to a variety of people, if we are willing to listen.  In my life, more times than not, I know God is speaking to me when it is completely opposite from what I want to do myself.  And specific to the conversation we are having about my book and the “End Times,” the last thing I wanted to do was write a book about this topic.  But in a split second I went from not having any idea for a book to write to having the entire content of this book “downloaded” into my head chapter by chapter.  It is a very strange, but amazing thing.

So how has your perception of the “end times” changed in recent years? It seems like your focus on it isn’t less important, but just from a different angle?

Well that is the real irony of me writing this book- While there was a time long ago that I was really wrapped up in the stuff. I have suffered from “Armageddon fatigue” and “Rapture unreadiness” for much of the last decade or more.  When I told people close to me that I was writing an “End Times” book, they were like “WHAT? YOU?”  It has just not been my cup of tea.  But my thinking on the subject, influenced by many of the words and parables of Jesus, is that we should all keep a watchful eye to the future, but not to the neglect of the present.  This is where I believe a great synergy can take place: between those who have become increasingly cynical, negative, or skeptical about anything “End Times” and those who have become so zealous and fixated on the future that they have missed the beauty and opportunity to extend the Kingdom today.

It seems like there is sort of a shift with the younger, Millenial generation to not care about what happens in the future. Its seems that post-modern relativity and cynicism has sort of brought with it a relaxed attitude about Christ’s return. This sort of, “I don’t care what happens in the future, I know God is with me now” attitude. How can the iPod generation regain our sense of hope and mystery in the return of Christ?

There are million things to say, and a million directions we could go, specific to the topic of Millenials and the Church. But I want to focus specifically on the idea of narrative and how our lack of narrative within the Church has distanced a generation.

In my book I discuss how, in many ways, we in the Church have set our focus so much toward resolution, or the end of the story that we have neglected the middle part of the story.  Or, that Jesus is good for us to “get to heaven,” but he is of really little use, or of very little consequence, for us in our daily lives.

But here we are, right now, in the middle part of the story, living and breathing and thinking and contemplating… dealing with immense conflict all around us… and we want to know about TODAY.

So a narrative narrowly telling us that we have to endure the hell around us and wait for heaven one day for things to be right, seems irrelevant and pointless to many because it neglects today.

However, if our hope for the future is tied directly to our present identity and purpose, then that becomes incredibly relevant and life-giving right now. If we have our eyes set toward how things will be one day when God restores all things, then we can actually, presently begin to participate in that kind of life right now.  And it looks like loving everyone and serving our fellow man and being those who bring peace around the world and those who work for reconciliation presently in all things.  And people, especially the Millennials, are hungry for something with meaning and substance and purpose and life.

That kind of narrative embraces the middle two-thirds of the book we have neglected by focusing too specifically on the end.  Being able to articulate and embody this will re-engage those who have dismissed Christianity as being out of touch with present reality.  Younger generations are cynical and skeptical for a good reason- there isn’t a lot of substance in our world.  I believe that my book addresses this head on- Christians have to be a people of substance presently, even when the world seems to be coming apart at the hinges.

So I haven’t read the end of the book yet, but I’m guessing it ends with “The Walking Dead” right? Some sort of zombie apocalypse anyway?

I admit that I watch The Walking Dead. And while there are a great many theological discussions that could arise from The Walking Dead, I would say that my book ends quite a bit differently than that show. In fact, my last chapter is the antithesis of The Walking Dead.  It’s more like The Walking Alive! It is a hope for the future that is not abandoned to death and decay, but one of resurrection, healing, and restoration. It is exquisite and beautiful.  And I think people will be excited about, not just with how God is working to redeem things in the future, but how we can join and participate in that life and hope presently.

RESTORING OUR HYMNS – (ANOTHER) NEW VERSION OF “IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL”

A few weeks back, I released a new version of “It Is Well With My Soul” and retold the horrific story of songwriter Horatio Spafford. Today I’ve released the alternate take.

Like most artists, I tend to avoid trying to replicating something that’s already been done. I can’t stand the idea of being unoriginal. But I also believe the church has a certain responsibility to preserve our canon of hymns. Every few decades, we revise the language of the Bible. Our scholars take a fresh look at the meaning of the original texts, and translate the Scriptures for a modern context. I think we owe our hymns a similar recycling process.

I recently heard the story of the restoration process of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling contain arguably the most iconic art of the Christian tradition, but the plaster was chipping and the colors had faded drastically. So in the late 70’s, a team of professionals began the twenty year restoration process. They had a rigorous set of guidelines, and took almost five times as long to restore the paintings as it took to actually paint them.

Like the restorers of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, I’m just trying to bring the color out for a new generation. I can’t claim to have written anything nearly as beautiful as “It Is Well With My Soul”,” but I think it’s important to preserve. (And thankfully, this process was more like 20 hours, not 20 years!) I’ll admit part of me gets anxious when I spend precious recording hours refining something that’s already been done seventy-three thousand times by every Christian recording artist and their grandmother. But if the hours of “restoration” work give my community a chance to see these lyrics with fresh eyes, it will have been worth it.

A few notes about this particular “restoration”:

I have a well-documented obsession with the ukulele. When my wife suggested I record a new version of “It Is Well…” I thought the instrument was a natural fit. While I wouldn’t suggest worship leaders turn to the ukulele often, I think it works particularly well here. The beautiful chord progression is pretty simple on the uke, and you can download my chart for it here.

I updated a few notable phrases, in hopes that the lyrics would be more understandable to the average listener. I have a friend who hates when I take the “thee’s” and “thou’s” out of worship songs. But if a “thee” or a “thou” creates a barrier to the gospel, I say slash it and don’t think twice.

I only recorded two verses for this version. I feel like these two verses (if we’re in 1975, “…verses 1 and 3 in your hymnal”) maintain the main theme (verse 1) as well as the gospel-centrality (verse 3) of the hymn. I was actually pumped to find some beautiful “forgotten verses” of this song.

I’ll be anxious to hear your thoughts on which version of “It Is Well…” you prefer- this one or the full-band version I released a couple weeks ago. Feel free to post thoughts in the comments.

May the God of all real peace be with you, and may you recognize His presence.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

-the apostle Paul (Phillipians 4:4-7)

TOILET BOWL WORSHIP

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the “anti-rock star worship leader” idea. The more I’ve wrestled with the topic, the more I realize what a struggle it is for me personally. In the days of super accessible self-promotion (social media, mega-churches, etc) I think it’s wise for worship leaders to reflect on how they’re presenting themselves. How we engage with the culture of modern marketing has everything to do with how we view ourselves. Are we servants or are we rock stars?

townshend-smash-guitar

I recently revised and rewrote the original article for WorshipLeader.com. You can read the entire new article at their site, but here’s my favorite bit:

“…our culture loves rock stars. And if most of us were being honest, we’d kind of like to be one ourselves…Seeking the warmth of the spotlight is a real temptation for many worship leaders, and I’m no exception. For most of us who lead from the stage, there’s a strong desire to be popular, widely recognized, and successful. In the days of giant music festivals and mega-churches, it’s really tempting to use our platform to exalt ourselves in place of Jesus. Most times without even realizing it. That doesn’t make us the devil, that just makes us human…I’m convinced that the worship leaders that will make the biggest difference are not necessarily the one with the most Twitter followers. They’re the ones that look most like Jesus.”

Huge thanks to Worship Leader and to Jeremy Armstrong for wicked editing skills, and for giving me the opportunity to reflect more on the topic.

I also collaborated on the article “Are You a Worship Janitor?” with Steven Potaczek at ForWorshipLeaders.com. You might remember Steven from the interview I did earlier this year. Steven’s been a great encouragement to me, and I give him ten thousand bonus points for the phrase “toilet bowl worship.” Again, you can read the entire blog here, but here’s some of the juice:

“By far the most common Greek word (ie: the New Testament) rendered worship in our Bibles is proskuneo which expresses the notion of ‘kneeling and kissing the hand of a superior (like a dog licking the hand of its master).’ To me, this imagery clearly connotes surrender, humility, and yes, servant-hood…Maybe I’m way off base, but I really wonder what it would do for the heart to scrub a urinal before the lights come up on the stage? What if you got your worship team to come and help too?”

 

THE JOURNEY TO KEEKOROK

A couple weeks back, I introduced you to our friends Jennifer and Gloria who agreed to help my son Lincoln with his “Buy Tangawizi a Bed” project. Since then we’ve been in touch, crunched the numbers, and I’m excited to tell you that the trip to find Tangawizi has been scheduled! Here are the details:

May 7th. Jennifer and Gloria have already booked a taxi to leave for Keekorok. They should arrive by evening, where Gloria’s friend (a tracker in the Mara) will greet them. They’ve already sent photos ahead of both Tangawizi and the photographer, hoping for a lead.

May 8th-10th. The ladies, with some help from Gloria’s friend, will search in the area for Tangawizi. Unlike searching for someone in the United States, this might be tricky. They plan to start with the schools- traveling from one to another asking children if they know Tangawizi. Granted, “Little T” (or as I like to call him, “Young ‘Weezy”) is probably not old enough for school. But between siblings and friends, we’re hoping this will be the quickest way to find him.

mara schooledited

Once they’ve found Tangawizi, Gloria and Jennifer will buy the bed locally. This will not only save them from carrying a bed all over the Serengheti, but also ensure that the bed is adaptable for Tangawizi’s family. Beyond the bed, we’re still hoping that the token of goodwill can be a means of connecting with Tangawizi’s family and community, and supporting them in the long-term. If there are immediate needs that Jennifer and Gloria can identify, we hope to take care of them promptly, as Lincoln has already raised more than enough to get Tangawizi a bed (see below.)

May 11th. The ladies will return to Nairobi. Lord willing, they’ll have been successful in the search.

Gloria gave us a break down of expenses for the trip:

“Prices are for Jennifer and myself together for a total of five days, travel there, travel back, and three days search. Based on the exchange rate of 85…

  • Car rental from Nairobi to Trans Mara and back and all the traveling while there: 17,500/= ($205.88)
  • Fuel: 18,000/= ($211.76)
  • Lodging: 8,000/= ($94)
  • Food: 5000/= ($58.82)
  • Interpreter from Swahili to Maa (mother tongue of the Masai): 3000/= ($35.29) – We will hire a Masai when we get there.

Total: 51,500= ($605.75)

And because I couldn’t resist: “Finding Tangawizi, getting him a bed, documenting the trip, and connecting two little boys from across the world: priceless!”

Lincoln has already raised $833.84 to buy Tangawizi a bed. Out of the extra funds raised, we want to (1) take care of any additional resources Tangawizi’s family might need, and (2) of course, pay our extremely generous couriers for offering to spend five days seeing this through. It’s worth mentioning that neither Jennifer or Gloria has asked us to pay them for their time. But for as kind as they’ve been, we want to offset costs they might incur for not being home for five days. If you’d like to connect with Jennifer and Gloria and help them reach the sick and poor of Kenya, you can help fund them at Project Agape Love and New Territory Ministries.

In twenty days these ladies will set out for Keekorok. That is exciting to type. We plan to have Lincoln draw a picture for Tangawizi and write him a letter. I’ll be sure to post both of them before the trip. Stay tuned!

We have more people to thank than we can even remember at this point. For everyone who’s donated, prayer, and spread the word…we thank you deeply. The more people have gotten involved, the more fun the story becomes. If you’d still like to get involved, you can do that in one of a few ways: (1) Sign up for updates in the “words & music” field to the right. I promise I won’t spam or send pics of naked Japanese people, and you can unsubscribe at any time; (2) Donate via PayPal at morrow_nick@hotmail.com. All extra funds will go to pay Jennifer and Gloria and buy essential resources for Tangawizi’s community; (3) Spread the word; (4) Pray. The truth is, finding Tangawizi in three days might be very, very difficult. The current rains in Kenya could also delay the trip. There are plenty of things that could go wrong. But I hold on to hope that God has something up His sleeve, and I’m confident our prayers will make a difference. All honor and glory and praise to God.

EASY BREEZY BEAUTIFUL COVER SONGS…OR HOW TO EMBRACE THE ART OF THE COVER

Cover bands catch a lot of crap from songwriters and artists. In his podcast “The Accidental Creative,” Todd Henry concludes every podcast with the tagline “Cover bands don’t change the world.” I’ve given cover bands plenty of grief myself. I used to be the guy shamelessly rocking original songs in the battle of the bands amidst droves of bands covering Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dave Matthews and Chumbawamba and getting way more girls than I did. I used to think covers were the devil.

But now I’m not so convinced.

Want to know the name of the most famous cover band of all time? Their name was “Johnny and the Silver Beatles,” which quickly changed to just “The Silver Beatles,” who eventually became just…The Beatles. Yep, believe it or not the Fab Four started playing mostly covers. Lennon and McCartney started writing songs early in their career, but the majority of their early set lists and albums were filled with rehashed covers of popular songs.

Silver Beatles

the young Silver Beatles

When I realized this, I was a bit humbled about the whole “covering songs” idea. Like the Beatles, I think we can gain some things from covering songs:

Covering songs helps you understand songwriting on a more comprehensive level. I recently played with a brilliant sax player, who said he transcribes several famous solos every week so he can understand the style of great jazz players better. I read an interview with Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo who claimed he did the same with Kurt Cobain’s songs. Learning or performing covers gives songwriters a small glimpse through the lens of a great writer. It’s like learning to draw by tracing first. When covering a hymn or a classic, songwriters can learn a lot about crafting lyrics, arranging, and chord structures.

Learning covers can kick-start your creativity. Once I learned a new song every week by an artist I admired. My songwriting and chord vocabulary matured more in that six month period than any other. I learned new chords, alternate guitar tunings, and creative song structures. I started experimenting with them immediately- the new tools were like creative crack. The new chords led to still more chords and voicings, and new melodies followed soon after. Ironically, learning cover songs led to my most prolific songwriting streak to date.

Covering songs gives your audience a way to ease into your original material. I don’t know many people who will sit through an unknown songwriter’s set of all-original material. By nature people gravitate toward the familiar, and drift away from the unfamiliar. Face it- crowds are tough, especially when you are showcasing original material. But peppering in covers into your set helps people get down with the originals.

The Beatles’ first audiences were not adoring fans. They weren’t even serious music fans for that matter. The Beatles’ first long-standing gig was for a rowdy bar in Hamburg, Germany. They did hundreds of gigs in less than a year playing 8 hour sets every night. The ruffian crowds were restless and sometimes violent, and demanded to be entertained.

Covering songs helps you gauge the strength of your original songs. I can’t tell you how much I learned from studying the songwriting of the Beatles. Their chord structures were complex compared to my cowboy chord songs. They loaded their songs full of melodies- my songs only had a melody or two. The Beatles had a wide, whacky variety of styles within their albums- all my earliest songs all sounded the same.

Covering songs can teach us humility, and reveal how much we have to learn. You have to be careful, as Seth Godin says, not to “compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.” If you are mopey because you are a creative genius and nobody “gets” you, be careful here. But if you can detach yourself from the songs you write, an objective approach to critiquing your own music can become a healthy habit.

Covering songs enables new generations to breathe life into outdated arrangements or lyrics. Have you ever heard Jeff Buckley’s version of “Corpus Christi Carol”? Mind-blowing. You’ll cry like a little baby. And Wyclef’s adaptation of the disco hit “Stayin’ Alive” was remarkably cool. Re-imagining cover songs within your own creative context gives listeners a fresh perspective without demanding too much out of them.

There is a creative movement going on within the modern church to update old hymns. Who still talks in “thee’s” and “thou’s”? No one. Who still sings hymns strictly to a pipe organ? No one (except congregations that could be mistaken for senior centers.) Thankfully, this hymn-update movement is revitalizing old classics in a context that makes sense for modern ears. You can do the same thing with cover songs. glen_ledited

You gotta’ crawl before you can walk. And if the Beatles had to pay their songwriting dues, so do you and I. Take a note from Glen Hansard’s character from the film “Once”:

“During the daytime people would want to hear songs that they know, just songs that they recognize. I play (original) songs at night or I wouldn’t make any money. People wouldn’t listen.”

Do yourself- and your audience- a few favors. Work up a few unforgettable covers , and you’ll be a cover-song convert. Promise.

 

INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN POTACZEK

Several weeks ago I posted about worship leaders becoming “anti rock stars.” I wanted to get to the root of the question, “How do we resist the temptation to make celebrities out of our Christian leaders?” As a worship leader who grew up playing music on stages, the question has been a powerful theme and a constant tension for my life. I’ll admit it’s been hard for me to reconcile being a Christian with being in the spotlight.

As I learn what real servant-focused leadership looks like, I’ve had the opportunity to ask a few influential worship leaders if they might share their thoughts on the issue. Jamie Barnes and David Santistevan shared some great wisdom. Today I want to introduce you to Steven Potaczek.

Steven and his wife Amanda spent several years touring with the piano-pop worship band “1,000 Generations.” After landing back in Indianapolis, Steven now serves as the senior worship director at Grace Church. Steven also teaches production and songwriting at Anderson University, and produces records in his “spare” time.

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Steven’s a legit songwriter, too. Among plenty of other more prestigious accolades, he’s had a song on my current favorite show, “Parks & Recreation.” (But to my knowledge, Steven is not to blame for any of Tom Haverford’s R&B slow jams.)

A few months back I saw that Steven had started a blog, forworshipleaders.com, which quickly jumped on the short list of blogs that I follow regularly. Steven writes with a refreshing depth, musically and spiritually. His blogs range from “embracing suffering” to “why it’s important to tune your church drums regularly.”

I connected with Steven through his blog, and asked if he might share a few thoughts. Steven gets ten bonus points for scrubbing toilets as a part of his first church gig. Here’s the full interview:

Nick: You and your wife met in college and started leading worship together and then gained popularity in the CCM market. Now are back to leading worship on a local level. Was there any amount of culture shock you faced, transitioning back and forth between local worship leading and the CMM market?

Steven: Holy cow was there ever. When operating properly, the church’s primary gauge of success is fruit. Without demonizing the entire CCM industry, the reality is that no matter how you cut it, it’s still an “industry.” It’s a business, a market. In business, the primary gauge of success often is financial return. So you’re going to often see a discrepancy between what the Church’s main priorities are and what the music business’ priorities are.

Steven onstage with 1,000 Generations

Steven onstage with 1,000 Generations

To be frank, the more success we starting having as a band, the less I enjoyed things. It’s not that the CCM industry is bad or wrong or anything; in fact, there’s a number of AMAZING believers there. It’s just that I started to realize that I wasn’t liking where our priorities were heading: we were getting more and more pressure to write “radio hits” and go to all these radio and retail conventions, do interviews, etc… That just wasn’t where our hearts were. Again, these aren’t inherently bad things, just something we weren’t sold out on!

Nick: You guys played a fair amount of big venues. How do you reconcile being on stage with loads of lights and sound and remaining a humble servant? Is there a tension there, even within the Christian music industry?

Steven: Yes, there is a tension there no doubt. Some people handle it really well, and others don’t. Since my wife and I were playing large shows on Friday night, and scrubbing toilets (we were janitors at our local church in addition to being worship leaders for a good number of years), it was hard to get too big of an ego! That said, large stages and lights aren’t problems, they’re solutions! When God is moving through an artist or worship leader, many are attracted. How we handle that attention makes all the difference though.

Nick: You’ve led worship in a real variety of places- more than most worship leaders. That must take some degree of flexibility? What advice would you give to worship leaders going into a new place for the first time?

Steven: The best advice I would worship leaders is that it’s not about them. People aren’t (primarily) coming to hear them, but to engage with God. Whenever I’m helping another ministry by leading worship, I’m always wanting to “partner” with them, asking questions like “how can we best come alongside what God is already doing in our congregation.” Flexibility, sure. The big key though is partnership.

Nick: What specific things get in the way of worshiping and leading well? Any stories you’d care to share about a particular worship-fail that you wish you could go back and do differently?

Steven: Let me first say this: there really are two kinds of “Christian” music: that which is regarding Christian lifestyle, and worship. Worship is a totally different beast than performance. Worship leading is about leading the people of God into the presence of God. It’s not about selling albums, garnering more fans, or anything like that. Those things can come as a by-product, but the focus as worship leaders is to lead the people of God into engagement with Him.

On my worship blog (www.forworshipleaders.com), I write a lot about what gets in the way of leading worship well (for instance, see the article “The #1 Worst Thing To Do When Leading Worship”). In terms of my own worship-fails, I’ve had countless! I’m on a journey just like everyone else! I’m constantly growing as a worship leader and need to be fed good information from other leaders. That’s the whole purpose of me creating forworshipleaders.com.

EV_Artist_Steven-Potaczek_EA5621111155_2taf1tl5xezt_PROXYedited

Specifically though if you want some “juice:” I’m awful at remembering lyrics. I’ve botched them more times than I can count. On “Your Love Oh Lord,” I’ve sang “your faithlessness” and had to stop the song because everyone started laughing at me, and on “I Will Worship,” I’ve sang “I will lick” you (a mashup of “I will love you” and “I will seek you”). Yep, me and lyrics…

Nick: What books, blogs, or resources do you recommend for worship leaders?

Steven: Of course! Be sure to visit www.forworshipleaders.com. The topics range from practical spiritual growth to to leadership tips to using Ableton Live in worship. Additionally, a subscription to Worship Leader magazine is fantastic (pass on the monthly CD program though). As far as great books on the subject of worship, I’m reading an incredible book on worship right now by Dick Eastman called “Intercessory Worship.” Matt Redman’s “The Unquenchable Worshiper” is also terrific.

 

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