Hymns in a Contemporary Church: Bury them or Resurrect them?

Several years ago I attended an old fashioned Gospel sing at a church near our home. It was out of my comfort zone because the last 30 plus years I’ve served in churches that primarily used contemporary worship music in their services. Yet, from toddler age through college I attended churches that primarily used hymns. When the seeker movement became widespread, I and many other like-minded pastors classified traditional hymns as barriers to church growth. As a result, I seldom used them in the churches I served except for the occasional Amazing Grace. Here’s what I learned that night about hymns and their influence on my spiritual formation.

As I sat through the Gospel sing, something stirred deep within me. Had I neglected an important part of my Christian heritage by not incorporating them in the churh services? Should I reconsider them going into the future?

The Gospel sing worked like this. The song leader invited those who attended (a couple hundred) to pick a hymn from the hymn book. They then raised their hands and he’d pick someone. They’d call out the hymnal page number. We’d turn to that page. The pianist would start playing. We’d sing. After 30 minutes of suggestions and singing, probably 20 songs, we’d take a short break from singing. The pianist then played a medley of hymns and a duet sung a couple hymns. Then we sung another 30 minute, prayed, and dismissed for ice cream sundaes in the gym.

I thought I’d be bored and planned to surreptitiously follow NFL games on ESPN’s Gametracker on my iPhone. Was I surprised. Here are several lessons I learned that night.

  1. The majority who attended were clearly over 65, many in their 70’s and 80’s. As I watched these seniors sing, their faces glowed with a deep love for Jesus. God reminded me that preferred music styles don’t indicate a person’s love for Him. The builder generation, which is quickly declining, has shown incredible commitment and sacrifice to the cause of Christ the last several decades. Just because they prefer a different music style than my preference doesn’t mean I’m any closer to Jesus than they.
  2. I was surprised at how well I recalled these songs that I hadn’t sung in over 20 years. I seldom even needed to look at the hymnal for the words. I realized how grateful I was to my parents for the rich Christian heritage they gave me. Those many years they took me to Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night services and to revivals and vacation bible schools. Those experiences had left an indelible imprint on my soul. Hymns had deeply imbedded the truth of God’s Word into my heart that I’d never forgotten.
  3. I marveled at the magnificence of how God created our brains. Music increases our ability to recall truth because it enhances long-term memory. Even after decades of not reading the words or singing the hymns, my mind easily recalled them. This thought reminded me how important music should play in our services to imbed theology into the hearts of believers.
  4. I felt sad as I watched my youngest daughter who sat next to me. As my wife and I sang, she followed along as best as she could, yet she hardly knew a single hymn. Either my naivety or my pride (or both) had caused me to neglect this powerful medium to teach the essence of the Faith. My kids had become the losers.
  5. Finally, I resolved to bring hymns back into the churches I serve. While updating their tempo and style a bit, I want those young and old in the faith to encounter the living Christ through the power of God’s word hitched to the medium of hymn music.

That experience was a profound one for me that I will never forget.

What are your thoughts on hymns? Do you believe we have neglected them? If so, how have you incorporated them into your services.

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Do You Problem Solve too Much as a Leader?

Good leaders help team members solve their own problems with their own insight. Average leaders tend to solve their team members’ problems, thus truncating their opportunity to grow themselves. So, how do we help our team members learn to problem solve on their own? In this post I begin with a story and then suggest ways to problem solve in a balanced way.

Archimedes was a brilliant Greek scientist. He lived 250 years before Christ and is best known for inventing a method to determine an object’s volume. A goldsmith had forged a crown of gold for the Greek king, King Hiero II. The king was concerned, however, that the goldsmith has substituted the cheaper metal silver for some of the gold. He asked Archimedes to find the truth without melting the crown.

This stumped Archimedes until a flash of insight hit him. One day as he took a bath he noticed the water level rise as he stepped into the tub. Suddenly he realized that by making a few mathematical calculations he could use water volume displacement from the crown to determine if it were made of pure gold. In his excitement, so the story goes, he ran into the streets naked crying, “Eureka, Eureka!” which means in Greek, “I have found it.”

Thus, we use the word “eureka”  for personal insight. Through this insight he discovered that the goldsmith had indeed substituted silver for some of the crown’s gold, a not-so-good discovery for the goldsmith.

Leaders tend to be tellers.

  • We cast vision by telling.
  • We communicate goals and strategies by telling.
  • We recruit leaders by telling.
  • We manage staff by telling.
  • We teach by telling.
  • And we tend to solve our team’s problems by telling.

When a team member comes to us with a problem, it’s often expedient to give a quick answer if we see the solution. We tend to be more experienced so it can be easy to see the solution. But when we solve their problems too quickly, we can create other problems.

  1. We can inadvertently foster dependency on us to solve their problems and diminish their motivation to follow through because people are less likely to act on somebody else’s ideas.
  2. We can rob them from learning how to problem solve, an important leadership quality.
  3. We can diminish opportunities for them to experience the joy of those ‘eureka’ moments.

I believe this is the key to helping your team learn to solve their own problems: ask questions.

Jesus often asked questions when he wanted to teach important concepts. The Gospels include 135 questions Jesus asked. He asked questions to create readiness to learn and to get his listeners to think for themselves.

Consider five compelling reasons to ask your team more questions.

  1. Questions help your team see reality more clearly. One more well-placed question may surface an important issue about their problem they are trying to solve that they otherwise might have missed.
  2. They help foster innovation. Questions can spur new ideas and solutions to problems.
  3. They help your team self reflect. Telling someone an answer may stifle her need to thoroughly think through the answer for herself.
  4. They provide perspective. A good question can open up a fresh perspective to a perplexing dilemma.
  5. They help your team focus on the real issue.

Asking good questions can become a potent team development tool to put into your leadership toolbox. 

An interesting brain process occurs when we get a eureka insight.

Several different brain waves course through our brains every day. During sleep, your brain produces delta and theta waves. When we’re awake and our brains are at rest (i.e., during daydreaming), alpha waves occur. When we are awake, alert, and focused on something, the beta wave is most prominent. But the fastest wave is called a gamma wave that sweeps through our entire brains over 40 times per second through a process called synchrony. Similar to what happens to an orchestra when a conductor raises his baton and brings the whole orchestra to attention, the gamma wave sweeps through our brains and brings it to attention when we experience a eureka insight. Several benefits occur from the gamma wave.

  • New brain maps get formed in the eureka moment.
  • The brain’s right hemisphere which processes information intuitively and holistically increases its activity by making subtle connections. This fosters insight by connecting disparate bits of information which otherwise may have seemed inconsequential.
  • The brain produces the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine. As a result, a eureka insight actually feels good which makes us want more insight experiences.
  • The solution to the problem, the eureka insight, gets stamped deeper into our brains creating greater ownership to the solution and more motivation to follow through on it.

So what can you do to ask more and better questions to foster eureka insights in your team. Consider three suggestions.

  1. Practice the art of the W.A.I.T.
    • WAIT is an acronym for this question. “Why Am I Talking?” In meetings and conversations with others when you sense you may be dominating, mentally ask yourself this question. It has helped me listen more carefully and talk less.
  1. Ask the question, “What do you think?”
    • This handy question helps when you sense a team member wants you to solve his problem. You may immediately know the answer, but if you answer it too quickly you may foster unhealthy dependency on you that you want to avoid. So when a team member asks you to solve his problem, first respond with, “What do you think?” Remember, self generated insights create better buy-in than quick answers.
  1. Use the AWE question.
    • Michael Stanier suggests this question in his great book, The Coaching Habit. AWE stands for, “And What Else?” He suggests we use this question 3-5 times in a coaching or problem solving conversation. He calls it the best coaching question in the world. It helps pull out insight from a team member that might be missed if you end the conversation too soon.

Try one or more of these suggestions when a team member wants you to solve his or her problem.

What kinds of questions have helped you develop your team?

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8 Ways to Maximize Christmas Outreach at your Church

I’m an American serving as a lead pastor at a great church in Canada after serving over 30 years in the U.S. Canada is a great place to live and minister and I’m learning how to leverage key outreach events. Christmas Eve is by far the most attended service of the year, even surpassing Easter. This year Christmas Eve falls on Saturday which means Christmas Day falls on Sunday. As a staff we’ve spent considerable time planning how to maximize Christmas outreach. You might want to consider some of these ideas.

How to Maximize Christmas Outreach at your Church

  1. Provide multiple services.
    • Our church is one church with three unique language services. In addition to English, we offer a Spanish service and a Mandarin service, all at the same time on Sundays. We’ve tried doing a Christmas Eve multi-lingual service. We found, however, that some English speakers opted out of coming on Christmas Eve. This year we are offering four different services, three at 5 pm (English, Chinese, and Spanish) and one at 7 pm (English only). Although we probably could cram all the English speakers into one service (our auditorium seats 800 and we have space for the Spanish and and Mandarin service in other areas), parking would be an issue. And, multiple services provides options for families with special family gatherings on Christmas Eve.
  2. Pay special attention to families with kids.
    • This year for the first time we are providing a kids program through grade 2 during the 5 pm service. We usually include all kids in the service but during the last two years we’ve had some screamers and runners which made it difficult to keep people’s attention. We are also providing two options for families on Christmas Day. We will hold our regular 10.30 am service, although shorter and with no childcare. We also will provide packets of materials for parents who may want to have a family service at home on Christmas Day instead of coming to the church facility. We will make those available the Sunday before Christmas and at our Christmas Eve service.
  3. Distribute invite cards.
    • The past several years we’ve designed an attractive card that we mail to our community and put into the hands of our attenders two weeks prior. We encourage everyone to invite one to three friends using the invite card.
  4. Do a live nativity.
    • Our children’s ministry holds a live nativity in front of our building on Christmas Eve. That may sound old school, but people from the community actually come just for that. They and their kids visually see the Christmas story. We hire a company that provides live animals. The company also brings some smaller animals kids can pet. The highlight last year was a baby kangaroo. We even provide a petting zoo on Easter which is a huge draw. Kids (and adults) love animals.
  5. Design a special bulletin.
    • Each Sunday we hand out a standard format bulletin which highlights events at the church. But for Christmas Eve we design a bulletin targeted to the unchurched attender. We highlight programs and ministries that might interest them.
  6. Promote a felt-need sermon series.
    • In the U.S. I never saw many returnees to our felt-need series after Christmas Eve. However, some pastors in Canada say that they’ve seen unchurched people return to such a series. We’re going to try that this year.
  7. Recruit a special greeter team.
    • We use regular greeters and ushers each Sunday. Those greeters and ushers will be on duty Christmas Eve as well. But this year we are recruiting a special team of greeters who will wear a shirt that says, “Ask Me” on it. Their sole purpose is to mingle in the atrium to meet new people and to be available for questions new folks may have about our church.
  8. Begin Christmas planning in September.
    • If you are just now planning Christmas, you may not have enough time to implement some of these suggestions. In the past couple of years it seemed that Christmas simply slipped up on us. Now, however, we have visually scheduled onto our staff wall calendar to begin planning for Christmas each September. We are in great shape for this year.

What innovative things are you doing this year as you prepare to reach out this Christmas?

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Generosity and the Brain

I believe my leadership calling is to bring insight about the incredible gift from God called the brain into conversations about Christian leadership. So, many of my blog posts reflect this bent from my current learning. Since we’re to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6.20) and the brain is part of our body, we need to honor God with our brains. In this post I explain two significant processes in our brains that influence generosity: the sense of reward we personally experience when we give and the empathy we feel toward the recipient of our gifts.

I grew up in the church and I tithed even before I was a Christian. I go beyond a tithe because the bible says I’m supposed to be generous. We certainly must preach and teach about generosity, but we also must recognize how people make decisions. Emotions are a vital part of our decision making. In fact, neuroscientists are discovering that people whose emotional centers of their brains are damaged (called lesions) can’t make wise decisions. Often they lack discretion because they can’t emotionally connect that a decision could bring a bad outcome. So, it makes sense that we pastors have some sense of how the brain works.

I’d like to think that Christians give solely from obedience, not on the basis of a reward they will get. They don’t. People give partially because it makes them feel good and gives them a sense of satisfaction. I believe that in many cases, such giving is biblically justified because the bible often speaks about serving God for reward. In fact, when people give, it increases a neurotransmitter in their brains, dopamine, that makes them feel good.

Secondly, neuroscientists have discovered that a key component that increases giving lies in the degree the giver empathizes with the recipient of the gift. If their hearts are touched and they feel empathetically drawn to the need, they usually give more frequently and more generously.

So, in light of what we know about the brain and generosity, I suggest four simple ideas to incorporate into your stewardship plans.

  1. Put a tangible face on giving to increase empathy. Certainly provide budgets, but translate those dollar figures into tangible, heartfelt needs. For example, I’ve sometimes explained that giving helps us do even the small things like buying pampers for the nursery.
  2. Tell stories to connect with people’s hearts (empathy). When I’ve promoted giving we’ve often told stories how their giving has changed someone’s life.
  3. Regularly report financial status to build trust. Trust builds favor and connects with the brain’s sense of fairness. Use clear, concise, and frequent reporting to keep people in the know.
  4. Appeal to personal satisfaction to connect with the reward motivation. Share biblical stories that model how when bible characters gave sacrificially, they experienced personal pleasure and the pleasure of God.

God gave us the incredible gift of our brains. He’s also given us smart people who sit around in laboratories peering into people’s brains with brain scanners to explain how they work. We need to stay teachable and to learn more about his magnificent creation called the brain. If you are a geek, you can read the report I’ve referenced below.

How about you? What insights have you learned that have encouraged people to give more generously?


Hare, T., Camerer, C., Knoepfle, D., O’Doherty, J. & Rangel, A. (2012) Value Computations in Ventral Medial PFC during Charitable Decision Making Incorporate Input from Regions Involved in Social Cognition. The Journal of Neuroscience, 30 (2), pp.583-590.


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Pastors Who Make $25 a Month: What I Learned about Leadership from them

I just returned from a trip to Cuba with a team of 8 from our church. We spent 7 days serving pastors and serving a local church there. It was an incredibly profitable trip on multiple levels. Although we came to serve them, I believe I learned more from them. Cuba is a very poor country with wages averaging about $25 US,  including pastoral salaries. Here’s what I learned about leadership.

First, a bit about what we did. The pastors there tell us that their greatest need is leadership development. So, we focused on working with their leadership and providing leadership development for them.

  • Working alongside a local church’s children’s leadership team to carry out a community VBS. We didn’t lead it. We simply helped train and resource them so they could lead it. This experience gave them ideas about how they could lead one themselves in the future without our help.
  • Visiting churches for three half-day training sessions for local pastors. To reach one church, we actually walked up a mountain for three miles after our truck got stuck in a river. 30 pastors and church leaders were waiting for us to encourage and train them. At the other two locations 30-40 pastors eagerly awaited our time with them.
  • Training a group of about 80 pastors and leaders in an intensive 3-day training session focusing on leadership skills.
  • Working with the men’s leadership at a local church to carry out a men’s retreat that included 25 believers and 25 unbelievers. 23 of those man came to faith during the retreat. Amazing.

By focusing on leadership development, we leveraged our short time there by pouring into the pastors themselves. All together, we served about 150 pastors that represented conservatively over 8,000 people in their churches.

Here’s what I learned.

  • Where there is a will there is a way.
    • You won’t find Wal-marts or Christian bookstores in Cuba. Neither do Cubans enjoy the convenience of Amazon.com. Few stores are available for simple supplies that we often take for granted (like crayons for the kid’s ministry). But the pastors there find ways to make do with what they have and God has blessed them. The churches are rapidly growing and they have a vision to plant a new church for every 1000 people.
    • Question  for reflection: Do you let obstacles hinder your vision or do you find a way?
  • Limited resources made them appreciate even the small things.
    • As part of the intense 3-day training, the pastors took a final exam and created a 90-day action plan where they recorded what they would apply during the next 90 days. I brought a few extra single sheet paper copies that I offered to them if they wanted them. They quickly snatched them up because even finding paper is difficult in Cuba. A simple piece of paper, even with copy already on it would get used in some way.
    • Question for reflection: Have you lost appreciation for the small things God has provided for your ministry (like internet access, bible resources, and paper)?
  • Ministry success really does rise and fall on leadership.
    • The church in Cuba has dramatically grown the last decade or so. The denomination we worked with has prioritized a well-organized leadership development plan that includes a seminary, extension sites, in-church computer labs with bible software, and on-going training through intense seminars like the one I taught. They recognize that leadership is a powerful lever to move Kingdom purposes forward.
    • Question for reflection: Do you have a leadership development plan at your church?
  • I’m not sure I really know what sacrifice is.
    • This is my second trip serving pastors in Cuba. I used to think that since I’m an American serving in Canada I was making a great sacrifice for the Kingdom. After spending time with Cuban pastors, however, my ‘sacrifice’ pales into insignificance. The pastors at the 3-day intensive slept in non-airconditioned rooms with little air flow. Yet, they were alert and hungry to learn each day.
    • Question for reflection: Do you ever feel sorry for yourself that ministry is a ‘sacrifice’ rather than a privilege?

As our church considers making ministry to Cuba a permanent part of our focus, I look forward to continuing to learn from a passionate group of leaders who love Jesus in difficult circumstances.

If you have experienced cross-cultural ministry, what have you learned?

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