Not too long ago I had the privilege and joy of leading the singing as 7000 people, mostly pastors, gathered in Louisville, KY for the Together for the Gospel conference. I’ve posted on why we picked the music we did and how I had a few more limitations this year.
One limitation I didn’t expect was finding out four days before the conference that I had had strep throat for two weeks. Didn’t seem to affect my voice too much (not sure anyone would have noticed the difference anyway), but I was definitely operating at less than full capacity.
All the messages were excellent, but I particularly appreciated Mark Dever’s (The Church is the Gospel Made Visible), John Piper’s (Did Jesus Preach Paul’s Gospel?), and CJ Mahaney’s (Preparing Your Church for Suffering and Ordinary Pastors). You can download or view all the messages at the T4G site.
Every time I lead, I learn something new or have previous thoughts confirmed. Two years ago I shared what I learned from leading at Together for the Gospel 2008. Here are some of thoughts I came away with this year.
One of the best ways to free your mind to engage with God while you’re leading is to practice more in advance.
For the most part this year I tried to stick with the 4 part harmony of each song, which we had printed in the T4G program. It’s not something I’m used to doing. Before the conference I had planned to play through each hymn a number of times to figure out how I could supplement the written harmonies. As it turned out, I was only able to run through a few songs beforehand. That meant I didn’t feel as comfortable leading as I normally do. For the most part I was still able to think about what we were singing, but I wish I had spent more time practicing.
Leading people to magnify Christ through song isn’t dependent on my creative musical harmonies or arrangements.
God so designed music that it often has a powerful emotional impact on those who are listening. But being affected emotionally is not the same thing as being changed morally. Enjoying a creative chord progression isn’t the same thing as delighting in the glory of Christ. God in his mercy can use music to amplify and complement our delight in Christ, but they aren’t the same thing. I may have felt limited, but God wasn’t.
Hymns are great. God’s Word is even better.
I’m not setting up a false dichotomy here. Just pointing out what I hope is the obvious. For three of the four sessions I led, I read and commented on a passage of Scripture (Titus 3:3-7; Eph. 2:4-7; 1 Pet. 1:3-7) to root our singing in eternal truth. Singing with 7000 people can be a moving experience regardless of what you’re singing, so I tried to focus our attention on the glorious realities of the gospel that we were singing about.
Leading songs is an opportunity to pastor people’s souls.
With guys like John Piper, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, R.C. Sproul, and C.J. Mahaney preaching, the music guy really doesn’t really need to say anything. But on the other hand, hearing truth and applying it are two different things. So I took the opportunity in different sessions to address distractions, condemnation, and suffering. Hopefully it helped us sing with greater understanding and faith.
New words can breathe new life into a familiar tune.
At the conference we taught “I Asked the Lord,” by John Newton. In seven verses it describes how God often uses trials and griefs to answer our requests for growth. We sang it to the familiar tune “Appalachia,” aka “The Water is Wide.” A number of people told me how affected they were by the hymn. But it wasn’t just the tune. It was the truth. The slow pace of the melody enabled us to meditate on the words we were singing. I didn’t think it was going to work that well, but Mark Dever assured me it would. He was right.
The Holy Spirit leads our planning even when we aren’t aware of it.
On the evening John Piper spoke I had planned to introduce my son’s song “All I Have is Christ” as the final song before John came up. Little did I know that at dinner he had asked if we could sing that specific song after his message. During his message he referred to the chorus a number of times: “Hallelujah! All I have is Christ. Hallelujah! Jesus is my life.” It was almost as if God had planned the whole thing.
No matter how carefully you plan, you always need to be open to doing things differently.
Not a new thought for me, but I wasn’t expecting any changes at the conference. On the final morning we had planned to sing “It Is Well” twice. Once to open the meeting, and then once after Matt Chandler and CJ Mahaney addressed the topic of suffering (Matt is currently diagnosed with stage 3 brain cancer). CJ asked if we could sing a different song to start, so we moved the song we were going to end with to the beginning. But what hymn to finish with? The obvious choice seemed to be “All I Have is Christ” which is a wonderful truth to take home after a conference centered around the gospel.
Singing is a powerful way to express and deepen our unity in the gospel.
While I’m sure that differences in opinion, perspective, and doctrine existed among the 7000+ attendees at T4G, hearing our voices as one declaring our dependence on and gratefulness for the person and work of Jesus Christ highlighted the fact that we were there to celebrate HIS greatness and faithfulness, not ours.
The gospel of God redeeming us in Christ will always be glorious.
Great melodies can get tiresome. The thrill of conferences can wear off. We can grow weary of crowds. But the good news that Jesus became like us to redeem us from God’s just wrath, make us one people, and reconcile us to the Father never gets old. Never.
Tomorrow I’ll post the songs we sang at the conference.