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Too much Bono in the church?

Filed under: church,Discipleship,music,worship — 9:30 am

About ten years ago, I wrote a piece called “Everything I Know about Worship Leading I Learned from an Irish Rock Star“.  But after seeing U2 last week in Chicago, I no longer agree with what I wrote. Let me explain…

The concert was incredible. I’ve seen U2 over a dozen times, and the first half of last week’s show was one of my favorite performances yet. (The second half felt a little tired.)  Bono’s voice was in top form, and the journey they took us on was powerfully stunning. I loved it and am already looking forward to their next tour.

U2 Chicago 07.02.15

U2 – Chicago 07.02.15

But as I marveled at Bono’s ability to create such an epic worship experience, it occurred to me that this anthemic, euphoric, cathartic, euphoria is the perfect model for a traveling rock show, but a potentially unhelpful model for weekly church. And yet so many worship leaders–myself included–have been trying to emulate this mountaintop experience every Sunday morning for years: “Did people lift their hands in the air? Did they sing loudly? Did they have a deeply authentic emotional experience?”  These questions, learned from traveling rock stars, have come to define so much of the current Christian worship culture.

Why might this be a problem?

Disney World is a wonderful place to visit, but would be a strange place to live. And an extravagant, 12 course meal is great for an anniversary celebration, but would be impossible to replicate every night.
In the same way, I’m becoming convinced that the rock concert worship event is wonderful in small doses, but dangerous when it becomes normative. A few reflections…

First, mountaintop experiences are not the entirety of the Christian life. And if our worship mis-communicates that this is what everyone should be feeling all the time, we do a huge disservice to people who are currently in the valley or will be in the valley…which is everyone. There’s a reason the Psalms include celebration, lament, anger, joy, dancing, and doubt.

Second, a steady diet of rock concert worship doesn’t teach us how to engage 99.9% of real life, which is not spectacular or very entertaining, and often involves quiet, awkwardness, and less-than-spectacular people. Reality is gloriously diverse. A worship culture that doesn’t equip and propel us to find God in every moment of life is not a gift…and much too narrow to form well-balanced people.

Third, a pressure to be spectacular can be crushing to worship leaders, pastors, and everyone involved. Every Sunday can’t be the Super Bowl. And trying to create epic experiences every week often leads to burnout (everything needs to be bigger and better than last week) and eventual disappointment (no church has the resources of U2).  Check out Ian Cron’s words about this.

Fourth, if left unchecked, this form of worship can form shallow worshipers–because always getting what we want, like, and enjoy has unintended consequences that can keep us from certain depths. We often learn best when outside of our comfort zone. Furthermore, God often speaks in a whisper, and constant over-stimulation can actually distract us from what God is trying to say and do in the moment. Sometimes a simple and quiet space is the biggest gift we can offer.

U2 live

U2 live

So can worship leaders learn from Bono? Absolutely! We have SO much to learn from him that will benefit the church and world. But let’s also learn from poets and parish priests, therapists and theologians, praying grandparents and passionate 2nd grade teachers, spiritual directors and singers of the old spirituals. The Kingdom of God is infinitely high and wide and near and deep and mysterious and closer than the air we breathe. May our worship help us to humbly embrace it all.

Grace and peace,


The Beatles (part 2)

Filed under: creativity,music — 10:18 am
The Beatles

The Beatles

After re-immersing myself in The Beatles’ music, I’m feeling really inspired.  Continuing from last week’s The Beatles (part 1) post, and here are a few more random reflections…

(6) Everything I know about creating vocal harmonies is from The Beatles. First, they often added subtle, simple, gradually building harmony parts. Listen to Paul’s background singing on “The Ballad of John and Yoko“. He doesn’t even sing until half way through the song (the bridge)…adds only a couple words on verse 5…and then sings the whole verse 6. And it’s exactly what the song needs!  Second, the Beatles would often sing odd counter-melodies rather than the traditional harmony part. For example, listen to the chorus of “Yellow Submarine”. What a strange and wonderful harmony.  Finally, they often followed the “less is more principle”. Paul sang one single harmony line on “I’m So Tired”, and it was perfect.

(7) If I had to guess Enneagram types, I’d guess that John is a 1 (or 4), Paul is a classic 3, George is a 4 (or 9), and Ringo is a 7.

(8) As fruity as Paul could be, he did give us “Helter Skelter”, which is one of the most brutal Beatles songs ever. It doesn’t make up for the schmaltz of “Martha My Dear” or “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, but it is really heavy and quite awesome.

(9) Similarly, Lennon spent so much time keeping people arms length with humor and wordplay, but his moments of sincerity were devastatingly beautiful.  The tender and heartbreaking “Julia” (about his mom who died when he was young) will make you cry.

(10) Let me end with a controversial one.  Ready?  The Beatles songwriting is a bit overrated. This pains me to write. To be clear, I believe that Lennon/McCartney are one of the greatest songwriting teams in history, and many of their songs are absolutely, brilliantly, game-changing: “In My Life”, “Strawberry Fields”, “Something”, “Yesterday”, “I Am the Walrus”, etc.  The Beatles are why I wanted to be a songwriter!  HOWEVER, when you really look at it, even a superfan must admit that they had a ton of stinkers also. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, “Good Morning”, “Your Mother Should Know”, “Doctor Robert”. And the White Album is a clear example of one brilliant album spread over two records.

This is actually really encouraging to me. Whenever I think of the mythic Beatles, they become an almost fictional, inaccessible fairytale that has nothing to teach mere mortals like the rest of us. But when I remember that they were actually just four guys (extraordinarily talented, of course) who were capable of writing bad songs AND brilliant songs, then there is hope for the rest of us!

So friends, may we each each create something today. In whatever you do, find a way to breathe new life into it. Take a risk…reimagine the process…use a new tool…approach it from a new angle…or simply toss out the old and begin with a new, clean sheet of infinite possibility.  And let’s see what happens.

You may end up creating a stinker like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, of course. And it sure will be fruity. But who knows, you may stumble upon a “Hey Jude”…


The Beatles (part 1)

Filed under: creativity,music — 12:07 pm
The Beatles

The Beatles

The Beatles are my all-time favorite band who have influenced everything I write, sing, and play.  And recently, after a bit of a hiatus, I’ve been listening back through their albums and feel SO INSPIRED by the Beatles again.  Here a few random observations…

(1) McCartney’s bass makes a lot of good Lennon songs into great Beatles songs.  Whether it’s “Dear Prudence”, “Come Together”, or most of Sgt Pepper, Paul’s melodic, inventive bass parts carry many otherwise so-so songs.  (Really, take a moment to listen to “Dear Prudence” and imagine it with simple bass line.)

(2) Lennon sure loves tempo and time signature changes.  He jumps tempos in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “Bungalo Bill”, “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, etc…and he loved to flip time signatures to drop/add a beat in “Good Morning”, “All You Need is Love”, “Don’t Let me Down”, etc.  Because John Lennon was both a creative genius and musically untrained, he was able to make these complicated changes seem deceptively simple.  My guess is that he was never thinking about tempo or time signatures at all…but simply following the muse.

(3) Ringo is wildly underrated.

(4) Everything is better with the clash of opposites. Like hot air meeting cold air creates tornados, Lennon’s cynical angst meeting McCartney’s cheery pop created the most important rock band of all time. Lennon (alone) gives you the rarely accessible art-rock-noise of “The Plastic Ono Band”, and McCartney (only) gives you cheesy, fruity, bubble gum like “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime” and “The Girl is Mine”. But the tension of BOTH changed the music world. One of my favorite examples is Paul’s line “It’s getting better all the time”, followed by Lennon’s line “It couldn’t get much worse”. So great.

(5) The Beatles never got too big to keep risking.  This is extremely rare and one of the keys to their musical revolution.  Many bands “discover their sound” and then spend the rest of their career re-hashing that same formula over and over…with diminishing returns.  But it’s a rare band that becomes wildly successful…AND KEEPS EXPLORING!  (U2 is another obvious example).  It reminds me of these brilliant words…

“It is common history of enterprises (band, companies, churches, etc) to begin in a state
of naive groping, stumble onto success, milk that success with a vengence and, in the process,
generate systems that arrogantly turn away from the source of their original success:  groping.”
<MacKenzie, Hairball>


Curious to hear your thoughts and reflections.  Where do you agree/disagree?  What would you add?

Part two (and probably Part three!) coming soon…


A Conversation about Creativity, The Beatles, and Creating Art During my Crisis of Faith

Filed under: creativity,God's movement,music — 9:09 am

My friend and filmmaker Kurt Larson recently invited me onto his Bad Headshots podcast.  We had a fascinating conversation about the creative process, growing up in the Midwest, and even making art during my own crisis of faith.  (He tricked me into going to some deep places! Ha.)  I think the world of Kurt, and am really honored to be a part of this.  Please give it a listen and let me know what you think!


Bad Headshots Podcast:  Musician Aaron Niequist


Bad Headshots Podcast

Bad Headshots Podcast



Robin Williams and The Liturgy

Filed under: God's movement,music,worship — 10:32 am
It's not your fault (1)

It’s not your fault

The death of Robin Williams has really messed with me.  It’s just so profoundly sad and heartbreaking.  But while re-watching many of his interviews and movies, one scene keeps playing in my mind, reminding me of the power of slowly repeating the Truth in love.  Remember the famous “It’s not your fault” scene from Good Will Hunting?  (Watch it here)

This brilliant scene is profound at a number of levels, but lately it’s been reminding me that we all need to hear the Truth more than once.  Slowly, firmly, and with great compassion.  Over and over.  Reality takes time to seep through our defenses and distractions, and we can’t always hear the beauty of Grace when she first begins whispering.

So as a worship leader, this raises a number of questions…

(1) If most of us need to hear the gentle truth repeated over and over, why do I spend so much time pursing innovation in worship and creative ways to reimagine our liturgy? Why are we so quick to add video content, moving lights, and production value to keep things fresh?

(2) If God often speaks in an easily missed, gentle whisper, why are many of my worship sets so loud? It’s pretty hard to hear a whisper at 110 dbs.

(3) Am I more afraid that people will be bored, or more afraid that I will add to the distraction?

(4) Do my worship liturgies create space for people to hear God whispering over and over, or do I give people one more entertaining opportunity to miss God’s voice?

(5) At the core, is my faith in God or in my ability to lead people to God?

These are easy questions to ask and impossible questions to perfectly answer.  But we need to wrestle with them.  I certainly do!

Which is why the Liturgy continues to capture and mess with me.  We gather together to tell the Big Story…over and over, over and over, over and over…until it finally begins to sink in.  Slowly and deeply.  And in these holy moments, the beautiful Truth God has been graciously whispering to us since the beginning of eternity sneaks past our defenses and into the cracks of our aching hearts.  Hallelujah.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

May we all learn to have ears to hear what God keeps whispering.


Let’s help an amazing artist create amazing art!

Filed under: creativity,music,willow — 10:11 am


For the last five years, I’ve had the privilege of leading worship, singing, and creating art with Sharon Irving.  She is sincerely one of the most talented people I know…a pure artist who never stops imagining and exploring and pushing.

If you’ve been around Willow, you know her well.

Whether singing, rapping, writing songs, or doing spoken word, Sharon brings a prophetic power and possibility to everything she touches.

And she is recording her debut album!

The story…

Like most independent artists, she needs our help to make this happen.  So let’s join her!  Might you be willing to help support her Kickstarter Campaign?  Even 5 or 10 bucks?  Or more?  Here is the link to all the info and a way to give…

Sharon Irving’s Kickstarter. 




God Our Mother (part 2)

Filed under: God's movement,music — 6:59 am
God Our Mother


Our friends from The Liturgists just released an incredible EP called “God Our Mother”.

I love every part of it.

The music is beautiful, the performances are incredible, the theology is expansive (moving us beyond our overly-masculine view of God), and above all, the reading was written and performed by the cutest girl in the world.

Highly recommended…

“God Our Mother” by The Liturgists



The moment when you realize that a song you wrote is being performed WAY better than you will ever perform it…

Filed under: music,worship — 5:52 pm

I love this!  So great…


My favorite music documentary in a long time

Filed under: creativity,music — 7:15 pm

In the last year or so, I’ve loved a number of music documentaries – “Sound City”, “Beware Mr Baker”, and “Searching for Sugar Man”, and “Muscle Shoals” – but none of them held a candle to “Mistaken for Strangers“. It’s incredibly fun and complicated and touching and strange and hilarious. If you’re a fan of The National or music or funny family stuff, check this out…

There’s so much to love about this film – the music is incredible and I laughed at all the incredibly awkward moments – but honestly, I found the brothers’ relationship really touching.  To watch one of the coolest rock stars on the planet love and stand by his painfully awkward little brother, over and over, is beautiful. A smaller person would try to distance himself from the “messy” parts of his life, but this film feels like a bear hug in the opposite direction. Well done, guys.


Live in Bethlehem!

Filed under: music,Palestine / Israel — 2:37 pm

Hey friends.  Last summer a couple friends and I had the thrilling opportunity to perform at Bet Lehem Live in Palestine.  It was a profoundly beautiful and intense experience.  Check out my posts reflecting on it here, here, and here.

Well they are doing the festival again June 19-24, 2014, and just posted last year’s video.  Our little band even made the cut!

If you are interested in learning more about this, please let me know and I can help you get connected.

Shalom and Salaam.



Filed under: creativity,music — 8:01 pm

It’s not very original to talk about how great Lorde is.  But we don’t care…  Her performance last night was mesmerizing and entirely unlike anything else.  It blew me away.  The last Grammy performance I loved like this was Mumford and Son’s “The Cave” in 2011.  So fresh and raw at the time…

What did you think?


Stu G at Willow

Filed under: church,God's movement,music — 10:57 am

Last weekend, we had the joy of getting to lead worship with Stu G at Willow.  Stu is the guitar player who largely created the modern worship band sound with Delirious?, but way more importantly, he is the real deal. After spending a week in the Middle East with him this June, I found him to be one of the most thoughtful, humble, gentle, funny, deep people around.  And so he came to share not just his music, but a few stories of what he’s learning about life and God.  It was a great weekend.  Here’s a clip of his introduction and performance of his haunting new song “King of the Stars”…

I’m sharing this for two main reasons…

First, if you haven’t heard Stu’s new EP – “Of Burdens, Birds, and Stars” – definitely check it out today.  The songs are honest and raw and musical and really fresh.  I bet I’ve listened to “King of the Stars” 100 times so far.  So good!

Second, if you are involved in planning the worship for your church or conference, invite Stu to join you.  But don’t just bring him in as a guitar rock star…bring him in as a pastor.  Ask him to share what God is doing inside him, his thoughts about the Beattitudes, what God can do in a human heart through disappointment, and anything else.

And then let him blow the roof off with his guitar.


the heartache and exhilaration of creating stuff…

Filed under: creativity,music — 1:44 pm

Anyone who has every tried to create something knows the excitement, terror, difficulty, and thrill of the process…especially when going out on a limb and trying something new.

I LOVE this video.

Trent Reznor could easily be on cruise control – just rehashing his greatest hits and cashing in.  But instead, he’s trying to dream it all up again.  And this amazing behind-the-scenes video gives a glimpse into the chaos…


Holy music for this season

Filed under: God's movement,music,worship — 11:42 am

If your December is as crazy as mine usually is, then we both need some help to create holy space along the way.  A few of my friends have been creating incredible Advent/Christmas/worship music these days, and here are four highlights…


(1) The Advent Project.  Last year, all the worship leaders from around Willow Creek (S Barrington) came together to create a four part Advent liturgy. Each recording is meant to lead you on a 20 minute journey of music, prayer, scripture, and preparation for Christmas.  And the best part is that it is FREE! Download all four at and read the story behind The Advent Project.

(2) The Brilliance:  Advent (part 1, 2, and B-sides).  Of all the spiritual music being created today, The Brilliance is my favorite.  The beauty and depth of their albums move me deeply and will probably be the primary soundtrack in our home this Advent.  Download from iTunes/theBrilliance or bandcamp/theBrilliance.

(3) Page CXVI: Advent to Christmas.  For a couple years, Page CXVI has been releasing absolutely stunning recordings of old hymns, and their new release is no exception.  Haunting and gorgeous and holy and artistic.  Find it at

(4) Eastlake VII: Heavy Hearts, Heavy Love.  This is not a Christmas or Advent album, but it’s new and amazing and I had to include it!  Their last album – Eastlake VI – was one of my favorite modern rock worship albums of the year, and this new one is equally great.  The raw honesty in their lyrics is rare and inspiring. Check it out at bandcamp/EastlakeCC.


Is there anything I missed?  What albums help you create holy space in this season?

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