Let's Sing the Beauty of Confession

When I sit down to write a song, it’s often a solitary exercise. I tend to write both music and lyrics at once, fitting them together closely. But I also enjoy shaping melodies around existing texts or poetry. It helps when the poem I’m working with already has a rhythm to it. I’ve practiced this over the years with 18th-century English hymn texts, especially the gems you can find in old poetry books or hymnals that just have the words in metered form. Occasionally, I’ll co-write with a friend in present-day collaboration where I just add music to a poem, or a story, or journal entry they’ve written.

Last year, Don Carson sent me a poem to see if it might be a good candidate for congregational singing. I sat down with the words at the piano and sent a voice memo version to get some feedback from Don. After a few small edits, I recorded a final version with a friend and producer, Lucas Morton, whom I met while working on an Indelible Grace project a few years ago.  

I was compelled by Don’s text because it’s a confessional and Psalm-like subject, and because confession isn’t en vogue in our contemporary church songs. I wonder if we often resist this subject in our corporate songs because, like our first parents in the Garden of Eden, we’re swamped with a low hum of guilt as we go about our everyday life. We hide out in fig leaves of blaming and resenting and counting up our losses. When we cover ourselves with anything but Jesus, we get stuck in the shadows of our own hearts and feel powerless in our broken relationships.

If you’re living in community, don’t be surprised when you experience these lurking shadows within your own heart and the hearts of those you love. When we hide out, we miss out. We miss out on the community of love we were made for. Rather than covering and shifting to nurture our bitterness and loss, the way to abundant life is to let God turn on the lights. He summons out of hiding. He calls things what they are.

Confession is even more challenging when we encounter unsafe people; especially those who’ve wounded and attacked us. But there’s good news! When we go deeper into honest confession, God himself proves to be our defender. He is our true safe place. We can trust him with all things. When we confess, the Spirit brings the gospel’s cleansing power to bear on our guilty souls. And when we confess, he both purifies and heals, shedding his resurrection light into every dark shadow.

The more deeply and specifically we confess, the more the gospel is specifically applied to bring forgiveness and wholeness to our hearts and minds and relationships. Confession is the threshold we cross to become unburdened from guilt. Forgiveness mends our relationships, seven times seventy-seven, or as long as it takes. And that’s something to sing about.  

‘I Am Ashamed’

Lyrics by Don Carson; music by Sandra McCracken

I used to nurture bitterness,
To count up every slight.
The world’s a moral wilderness,
And I have felt its blight.
     Self-pity ruled, resentment reigned;
     No one understood my pain.
I spiraled down in murky night,
Insisting that I had the right
To hate and hate again.

I am ashamed;
O, my Lord, forgive.

But then the gospel taught me how
To contemplate the cross.
For there Christ died for me—and now
I’ve glimpsed the bitter cost.
     He bore abuse, and blows, and hate;
     He did not retaliate.
Triumphant malice sneered and tossed
Blind rage at him—he never lost
The love that conquers hate.

I am ashamed;
O, my Lord, forgive.

To make no threat, to smile, forgive,
To love—and not because I must,
For Jesus showed me how to live
And trust the One who’s just;
     To suffer wrong and feel the pain,
     Certain that the loss is gain—
O God, I want so much to trust,
To follow Jesus on the cross,
To love and love again.

Originally on August 2, 2016. You can find the posting here.
Used with Permission.

Sandra McCracken is a gifted singer and songwriter who has contributed to the church's worship language by combining her soulful, folk-gospel sound with her stirring lyrics. Her music is regularly used by congregations in corporate worship. Learn out more about Sandra McCracken and buy her music on her website here.

Worshiping in the Dark

I am not usually an advocate of worship services where the congregational lighting is very dim. In a dark congregational worship area, it is easy for individuals to feel they are worshiping alone. Singing in worship services is a corporate activity; something brothers and sisters in Christ do together.

Although not a normal congregational gathering, a spontaneous worship service occurred in a Philippian jail in Acts 16. Here we see Paul and Silas praying and singing in the dark at midnight. The overarching emphasis of this passage demonstrates how the Gospel message is unstoppable even when the messengers are imprisoned. In the midst of this great truth we see another principle that speaks of the hope and trust these men placed in God when faced with trial and jail.

In that dark prison they held an informal worship service.

Paul and Silas were in Philippi for several days sharing the gospel story. They were troubled by a certain slave girl who, on a number of occasions, called out to the crowd saying that Paul and Silas were servants of God proclaiming salvation. This slave girl was a fortuneteller and through her fortune telling she provided income for her owner. One day Paul commanded the evil spirit working in this slave girl to come out and immediately she lost her ability to fortune tell. As a result, the slave owner stirred up a great commotion which eventually led to Paul and Silas being brought before the magistrates in Philippi. They were accused, stripped, beaten with rods and put into the inner prison with their feet fastened in stocks.

Acts 16 says that “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison was shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved.” And they said believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:25-31).

The Lord was in the midst of all this and used this seemingly difficult and possibly deadly event to do something miraculous – bring the jailer and his household to faith in Christ.

I have often wondered what my response would be if placed in a similar position as Paul and Silas in this dark jail. Would I be praying and singing hymns to God?  I think there are several implications that we can glean from this passage.

1.   Christians have a reason to sing no matter the circumstances. Despite the conditions in which we find ourselves, our worst problem in life has been solved – we were dead in our sins but have been brought to new life in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-9). For the believer there is always the hope we have in Christ. Despite being in stocks in a dark prison Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns.

2.   When we sing it reminds us of the greatness of our God and the wonder of the Gospel. Worshiping in the midst of life’s difficult times encourages us and keeps our focus on Christ.

3.   We sing with eternity in view despite the outward circumstances of our lives. In this life we may have family conflicts, health issues, job stress or the sorrow of the loss of a loved one. These may seem like real chains but we need to be reminded that in Christ we are freed from the chains of sin and death. In John 16:33 Jesus says “in this world we will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”  We need to keep our eyes on Christ.

4.   Our worship is a witness to a lost world showing the salvation and hope we have in Christ. In Acts 16:25 we observe the other prisoners listening to Paul and Silas praying and singing. It also seems that the jailer knew enough about what Paul and Silas were sharing that he immediately asked them how he could be saved.

5.   Worship is especially appropriate in difficult situations. Our worries and anxieties need to give way to worship. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts (Colossians 3:15-16).

These verses give us a wonderful picture of believers who trusted God’s sovereignty in their lives so much that they could worship in a dark prison at midnight. As Christians, we are not promised that an earthquake will occur and break our chains freeing us from all difficulties, but we are promised that Christ will never leave us or forsake us (John 14:18, Romans 8:31-38). This assurance should cause us to keep our focus on Christ and worship Him in the midst of trials. Lord, let us worship like Paul and Silas. Amen.

Dr. Greg Brewton is a professor and chair of the Department of Biblical Worship at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.

"Your Gear Can Wait." Wisdom from an Ordination Council

Last week I sat on an ordination council for a worship student who has faithfully served his rural Baptist church in Indiana while attending Southern Seminary. His church is one of many around the seminary that views itself as a “sending” church. They take young greenhorn worship musicians and shape them into more mature spiritual shepherds. Nothing substitutes for the opportunities students have when they apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to real-time, real-life church work.

Prior to the interview, the young worship leader submitted written answers to 50 questions ranging from specific theological perspectives to philosophy of ministry and worship service methodology. The following questions were asked during the in-person council:

*Explain justification by faith.

*Explain your view of sanctification. What are the various means God uses to sanctify the believer?

*Can a person have Christ as his Savior without submitting to Him as Lord? Explain.

*What is your position on inerrancy?

*How does the Bible relate the sovereignty of God to salvation?

*What does the Bible teach about the extent of man’s depravity?

*What does Christ’s atonement accomplish?

*What is the proper use of the Old Testament Law?

*Do you believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin? What is the significance of your belief?

*What is your interpretation of the biblical teaching on Hell?

*Do you believe that the events described in Genesis 1-11 are factual or symbolic?

*What is the church?

By the end of our meeting the ordination council had covered these questions and more—from congregational worship languages and cultures to dealing with cantankerous church members. I could not have been more proud of our Department of Biblical Worship student who will graduate this week with his M.Div. from Southern Seminary. 

I’m recounting my experience on the ordination council because I’m overwhelmed with gratefulness. As I listened to the young worship leader answer the questions with confident humility, evidence of his rigorous study at the seminary in tandem with the shepherding experience he had developed at the church became wonderfully obvious. The Apostle Peter’s charge was beautifully displayed during the council meeting: “…make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-9)

I left the rural Indiana church that day encouraged by so many things, but three stand out in my mind: 

1. The pastor and the church take ordination very, very seriously.

2. Our student was incredibly well-prepared for the ordination interview. He worked hard during his time in Louisville, both in his studies at school and as a worship leader at the church. He grew theologically, musically, spiritually, and pastorally.  

3. The ordination council never lost sight of the vital role of an ordained man: being a pastor/shepherd.

While I was both thrilled and grateful to be a part of a council that explored so many vital areas of ministry, I was also reminded that pastoral ministry is primarily about shepherding and caring for people. In fact, people are the ministry. 

One of the pastors looked at my student and said, “I remember watching you work at putting all of your music and gear away at the end of the service the first few weeks of your ministry here. Do you remember what I said to you about three weeks after you started?” “Yes sir,” replied my student, “Quit messing with your gear and go shake hands with the people.” 

That’s a good word for all of us.


Dr. Crider is the Executive Director of the Institute for Biblical Worship and a professor of Church Music and Worship in the Department of Biblical Worship at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He also serves as Worship Pastor at LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, KY.

Challenges to Think Through as a Worship Pastor

In today’s ever-changing culture, the worship ministry finds itself facing new challenges almost daily. Worship pastors are tasked with planning and executing worship services that speak the unchanging Word of God to a fluid culture. This challenge exemplifies the growing need for intentionality in ministry, since the culture seems to pivot on a dime week-by-week. Not only that, but worship pastors must be ahead of the game in thinking through issues that can and will arise in many of our situations so that they might answer their people's inevitable questions.

Here, we’ve provided a short list of questions for you to ponder to help you think through some of these issues. Our hope is that by engaging with these questions, you’ll be better equipped to serve the needs of your local congregation, whatever the context. Can you point to a biblical passage that speaks truth into each situation? Please note that many of these questions do not have concrete, neatly packaged answers and will often vary from church to church. Our goal is not to endorse one line of reasoning over another, but simply to help you think.

  1. If your church has multiple services, do band members take the Lord’s Supper each service, or just once? How would that affect their example of leadership?
  2. If your church has multiple services, do band members need to sit in the congregation and listen to the sermon every time, or just once? Is it alright for them to sit backstage during one of the service for a bit of reprieve?
  3. If your church has multiple services, do you sing the same “spontaneous” song in each service? Is the song even spontaneous at that point? If you don’t sing it, is this shorting out the other congregants from a powerful time of worship experienced by another portion of the church?
  4. Do you need hard guidelines for what makes a good song, or are you laxer in certain areas if you are desperate and looking for songs to round out your repertoire? How far will you compromise, if you do?
  5. What do you do with songs that you teach your congregation over a few weeks only to begin to realize that its not clicking with them at all? Do you keep singing it, or simply throw it out?
  6. What place do solos have in your service? What makes a solo or small ensemble performance different from a choral anthem? (Related to that, what place, if any, do instrumental solos have during the middle of congregational song?)
  7. How does social media play into your expectations for worship team members? If they post something questionable, do you sideline them? But, nobody’s perfect, right? Do you hold the nursery worker or greeter to the same standard?
  8. Are you okay with singing songs from churches with questionable theology, even if the song itself is gospel-centered and/or theologically sound?
  9. Should you use only the musicians your church has available, or are digital music production programs acceptable? Does Ableton and other looping programs ultimately create an inauthentic atmosphere, or can they meaningfully enhance worship?
  10. Is it inauthentic or culturally dishonest to recontextualize music specifically written for one style and rearrange it to another? For example, changing a black gospel song to a country-bluegrass style? Or adding a funk beat to “Come, Christians Join to Sing?” What’s the line that can’t be crossed between stylistic differences, if there is one?
  11. Is it appropriate to sing in another language if only a subsection of the congregation can speak it? Is there a way to teach non-speakers what the words mean? Can you have the congregation sing in two languages at once?

As you think through some of these questions, what are some other topics and dilemmas that come to mind? Let us know in the comments section. We’d love to hear from you so that we can think through these issues together.

Austin Collins serves as the research assistant at the Institute for Biblical Worship. He and his wife Liz currently lead worship at Harrison Hills Baptist Church in Lanesville, IN, while he pursues his Master of Divinity in Worship Leadership at Southern Seminary.

New Christmas Album Released!

"Christmas at Southern" featuring fresh arrangements of Christmas carols from Norton Hall Band, Lexington Road Band, Boyce Vocal Band, Cannons Lane Collective, and Doxology is now available! You can find this first volume of Christmas carols from the IBW on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Google Play Music, and other major music providers.

Click to head over to the album page to listen to previews of each track!

Click to head over to the album page to listen to previews of each track!

Click the links below to download lead sheets of these new arrangements!

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus - Lexington Road Band
O Come, All Ye Faithful - Norton Hall Band
What Child is This? - Doxology
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Christ is Born) - Boyce Vocal Band