The (musical) difference between your youth band and Hillsong

I cut my musical teeth leading worship for my youth group. One day my youth pastor came to me and said, “We need someone to lead worship. Can you learn to play some songs?” I did my best, and so began my love for leading others in worship to God.

Over the years, two of the churches I’ve been a part of have most profoundly affected the way I think about worship music – North Point Community Church (Alpharetta, GA) and Christ Baptist Church (Raleigh, NC). In most ways, these two churches could not be more different; yet there is one striking similarity between them.

Have you ever heard a song by NPCC’s InsideOut or Hillsong United on the radio as you’re driving to church and then heard the same song played by your youth band after arriving? What’s the difference?

Now, I’m not picking on the skill level of the players and singers. I’m also not talking about the quality of the instruments or the abilities of the sound guy (though all of these matter). The significant difference is that local church bands often turn every instrument into a rhythm instrument, whereas Hillsong treats every instrument as  small a piece of a larger whole. 

I used to laugh: “Hillsong has 5 guitarists, 2 drummers, and 3 keyboardists!” Then one day it clicked. My home church has 4 violinists, 2 percussionists, 2 flutists, 3 trumpet players, and more. With both Hillsong and my home church, each instrument has a relatively minor role to play, but they all join together to create a dynamic and (catch this!) interesting whole. A synth may act as a canvas on which one of the guitars plays a memorable hook, or the trumpets may sit back until the moment of a great crescendo, where they then add “The umph!”

The point is that great musical groups don’t have five or six instruments simply pounding out the beat with some chords. So, if you want your band to grow to create more interest, start encouraging your players to not simply learn the chord progression but to learn the part their instrument actually plays – just like an orchestra would.

Challenges: Serve the Church

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.

Not long after reaching that low point I mentioned earlier, I found myself standing on the quad at the seminary looking up at the chapel steeple and pleading with God: “Please let me stay. I came here because you called me to. Please provide a way for me to stay.”

And He did…blessing me far beyond what I asked for or deserved.
He provided a job to meet our needs…and not just a job…a family…a church.

I plan to write more about my church in the coming days, but in this post I want to emphasize just how important the church is to a seminary education. I am absolutely convinced that the only way to rightly navigate your time in seminary is to be an active member of a local church. 

One of the great challenges in seminary is retaining all that you are learning. Information is flying at you so quickly that it’s difficult to file everything away for future use. That’s why you need to use the knowledge God is giving you in the context for which it was created – the local church.

My seminary “exists to glorify God by equipping students to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission.” The knowledge we gain is not for knowledge’s sake. It’s not to pat ourselves on the back. It’s not to win arguments or brag about how much we know. It’s to “serve the church” and “fulfill the Great Commission.”

But so many seminary students are content to simply attend church.

They might object, “My church is so big. It’s hard to find a place to plug in.” But many times this is simply a cover for a misunderstanding of the value of the local church. The local church is given that we might be sanctified and grow together into the image of Christ. 

You won’t learn how to teach or preach until you do it.
You won’t learn how to deal with difficult people and situations until you do it.
You won’t learn how to dream up, plan, and execute programs until you do it.
You won’t learn how to share the gospel or disciple someone until you do it.

And the local church has been given to all of us (not just seminarians!) that we might develop our gifts for the benefit of Christ’s kingdom. In this context, so far as you are open to the wisdom and correction of others, you will discover your strengths and your weaknesses – both personally and ministerially. And, seminarians, you will be able to (humbly!) pass along some of the great things you are learning to those who may never have a chance to sit in a seminary classroom – reinforcing these truths.

Challenges: In What Sense?

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.

I’ve spoken briefly about the textual and theological consistency of the Bible, but there is another helpful trick I learned when reading and interpreting. It’s pretty simple. When you come to a passage, ask yourself, “In what sense is the author using this ________________ (word, phrase, metaphor, illustration, etc.)?”

Let me give several examples.

1. I remember a time a few years back when I was studying 1 Cor. 9 in the seminary library. I came across Paul’s phrase, “…lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (v. 27). This worried me. Other NT uses of the word “disqualified” clearly referred to lost people.

Was Paul saying that he could lose his salvation?

I don’t think so. Throughout chapter 9, Paul explains that he has given up some of his rights as a minister of the gospel with an eye toward eternal rewards. So, in what sense is Paul using the word “disqualified?” I think he knows that he will forfeit at least some of his “imperishable” (v. 25) rewards if his godly character is marred and he is no longer able to fulfill his calling.

2. James and Paul give us another classic example. It’s easy to get tripped up when we hear Paul say in Ephesians 2:8-9 that salvation is “not a result of works,” then turn over to James 2:24 and read, “…a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Is Paul speaking out against James’ teaching? Are they unintentionally contradicting one another? Or, is something else going on?

In what sense are they using their language?

When you read the context of Ephesians 2 and James 2, you see that each author has a specific purpose in mind. Paul is expounding God’s gracious acts in saving human beings, while James is addressing those who claim to have faith but have not been changed by it.

In other words, each author shows us a crucial facet of saving faith. Paul wants us to know that, if we’ve been saved, God did it. We didn’t work our way into it. But then James jumps in and adds, “And that gracious act of God saving you will change you! You’ll give generously to those in need because you’re now a different person!”

3. The word “salvation” itself carries a variety of meanings in the NT. It does not always mean eternal salvation from sin and death. Sometimes it simply refers to physical healing (e.g. Mark 5:28). Context will reveal the sense intended.

4. In Luke 9:59, a man wants to bury his father before becoming a disciple of Jesus, and the Master replies, “‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead.'” Conversely, Paul tells us in 1 Tim. 5:8, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” We’ve all heard explanations that harmonize these passages, but again I want to ask, “In what sense is Jesus telling one man to leave his father; and in what sense is Paul telling believers to care for their families?”

Jesus demands total allegiance from a half-hearted would-be follower, while Paul reminds those who are already believers to not shirk their responsibility to family. (Actually, Jesus says the same thing in Mark 7:11-13.) The Bible proclaims what each heart needs to hear.

Asking “In what sense does the author say _________________?” does not mean we can interpret a text to mean whatever we want it to mean. There are definite limits to the semantic and contextual ranges of words and phrases. When we ask “In what sense?” we need to acknowledge that context is king. A little work to understand the context of a passage can save us a whole lot confusion and frustration.

Challenges: Balance

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.

In the fall of 2014, I took what proved to be my most challenging class in seminary (It was also one of the most rewarding, by the way!). In it we examined multiple “hermeneutical grids” – ways of approaching biblical interpretation (e.g. Dispensationalism, Lutheran Law-Gospel, Allegory, and all other manner of nerdy goodness!).

But, as some of you may know, as much as I love to read, I have always struggled with comprehension. This makes me terribly slow at it; and unfortunately, for this class, slow reading was not an option. As much as I enjoyed the content of the class, I began to despair that I wouldn’t be able to complete the coursework.

At the same time, I was at war inside over several biblical doctrines that I couldn’t figure out. The result was a perfect storm wherein I worked hard at church…I worked hard at school…and every remaining moment, I worked hard at resolving these doctrinal challenges.

All I did was work.
Don’t pat me on the back.
This was sin.
There was absolutely no balance in my life.
And I burnt out.

I got through the class, but I never wanted to take another one again. I ended up taking the next semester off to regain my sanity…and, in God’s providence, this was the best thing I could have done.

One day, in the midst of all of this, I had a thought: “I bet I could remember how to tie a hook on a fishing line.” It had been years since I’d been fishing, but in my search for a break from constant work, I decided to pick it back up. I went to Walmart, bought a rig and some bait, and headed to the lake.

A few months later, I bought a kayak…upping that fishing game.
Then I started exercising at the gym with a friend.
Then I started taking a day off each week.
Then another friend and I discovered backpacking, which has become one of the great joys in my life.
I know…having fun…taking a break…novel concepts!

But in all of this, I was finally able to give myself permission to turn the work off and enjoy other aspects of what it meant to be human. And the irony is that doing this actually cleared my mind in such a way that I could think more clearly when I was working.

Funny how God’s commands (Ex. 20:9-11) really are for our good.

I still struggle weekly to love and disciple my family well, prepare biblical and helpful sermons for my youth, complete my coursework faithfully, and play and rest. But one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned in seminary is that the fight for this balance is worth it.


Challenges: Theological Consistency

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.

In my previous post, I talked about how we can trust the Bible not just in spite of but because of textual variants. But the other challenge I faced regarding the trustworthiness of the Bible had to do with its theological consistency.

What I mean is: Does God contradict Himself? Does the Bible at any point present two versions of God that are incompatible? Or…does it ever make contradictory claims about what is real and true?

These questions ultimately led me to a field of study known as biblical theology, which has been my most enjoyable area of study in seminary.

To do biblical theology is to track a theme or topic as it progresses through the Bible. There’s actually been a resurgence of interest in this subject in recent years through the search for Jesus in the Old Testament. There are even children’s books getting in on the action (The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Biggest Story), but my ah-ha moment came when I heard this sermon by Tim Keller.

And while the question of theological consistency is even more complex than that of textual variants, time and time again I’ve discovered gifted preachers and writers who’ve helped me see that God never contradicts Himself, even when it might look like it at first.

Let me give just one example.

Some claim that God basically doesn’t give a hoot about the Gentiles in the OT but then suddenly loves all people in the New.

Sure…God did work almost exclusively through one nation (Israel) in the OT to advance His plan of redemption; but if this leads us to conclude that He only cared about Israel, we’ve missed one of the most amazing themes in the Bible.

Israel’s charter began with, “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3), and God doubles down on this promise many times in the OT. He exalted Himself over Pharaoh and Sihon and Og “that (his) name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Ex. 9:16); and it was (Josh. 2:10-11)! Israel was called to be “a light to the nations” (Isa. 49:5-6), reflecting God’s goodness and glory to them. It has always been God’s plan to “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy” (Psa. 67:4). And how was this to be accomplished? The psalmist prays, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us [Israel], that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among the nations” (Ps. 67:1-2). God didn’t change. He has always desired to bless His people that they might bless the world!

When we arrive in the New Testament, it becomes clear that Jesus is the true and better Israelite who will finally fulfill God’s desire to bless the nations: “God so loved the world that He sent His Son” (John 3:16). And now, He sends His New Covenant people (composed of Jews and Gentiles!) to preach the gospel to the whole world (Matt. 24:14)  making new disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). And what is the result of this? “A great multitude…from every nation…crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10).

Yes, the Bible is consistent theologically.

I don’t yet see all of the connections and ways in which God’s plan develops from Genesis to Revelation, but that’s the fun of it! I get to spend the rest of my life discovering the vastness of God’s wisdom in piecing together a beautiful theological tapestry over time. 


If you’d like to delve a little more into biblical theology, I highly recommend the Bible Project. Here’s where you can find them on YouTube. And here’s my favorite video (so far!) that they’ve produced:

Also, here’s a sermon I preached on Psalm 67, trying to tie as many theological pieces together as I could:

Finally, here are some books to check out if you are interested in the subject.


Challenges: Can the Bible Be Trusted?

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.

Can I trust the Bible enough to bear the weight of my tough questions? If you know me, you know that I didn’t drop out of seminary or leave the ministry or deny the faith. So, you can guess how I answer that question.

So, my purpose in this post is not to give a full-scale apologetic for the reliability of the New and Old Testaments. There are plenty of great books out there that do a better job at this than I could. To me, the external evidence in favor of the reliability of Scripture was overwhelming; therefore, my questions were: “Is the Bible internally consistent? Does it contradict itself?” and “Can I trust a Bible that contains thousands of textual variants?”

To answer these, I decided that I needed to examine my point of reference (see my last post) in its most pure form I could access. This led me to sign up for as many biblical language and interpretation classes I could squeeze into my schedule. Over time, I began to develop the tools I needed.

Let me just address the textual variant question for now. After personally studying several of the most problematic textual variants – along with a host of other less-troubling ones, I am more amazed than ever by the internal consistency of the Bible.

By and large, Christians didn’t discard manuscripts with variant readings (unlike other religions) so as to present a semblance of divine consistency. Sure, there have been failed attempts in Christian history to claim the primacy of supposedly uniform texts, but the real miracle is that God used incredibly human means – textual variants – to actually preserve for us a trustworthy Bible. We can compare texts from all over the world and throughout early church history and feel quite confident that we hold in our hands what God wanted to communicate to us.

In fact, I have encountered no textual variant which substantial alters the content of Christian doctrine or our understanding of the historical events recounted in the Bible. Even when we are unsure of which manuscript reading to go with, the basic content often remains unaltered. To quote Dan Wallace, one the world’s leading New Testament text critics, “For more than two centuries, most biblical scholars have declared that no essential affirmation has been affected by the variants.”1

I’d also like to quote Greg Gilbert at length, because his words may help someone:

“First…the vast majority of the textual variants in the manuscript copies we have are just utterly uninteresting and undramatic. They have to do with plural versus singular pronouns, inverted word order, subjunctive versus indicative mood, aorist versus perfect tense, and on and on…Second, Christian scholars have been exceedingly careful to document…the most significant variants along with an analysis of each one…But the point is that…there’s no conspiracy to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes…we believe that those variants…can help us determine to a remarkably high degree of probability what the original documents of the New Testament actually said. Finally…it turns out that not a single doctrine of orthodox Christianity depends solely on a questioned portion of the biblical text. Either the questioned portions don’t involved anything truly interesting, or if they do, the very same doctrines expressed in those locations are taught elsewhere in unquestioned portions of the Bible” (Why Trust the Bible, 56-57, bold mine).

I am grateful for scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of these issues, but when I embarked on my investigation, I wasn’t willing to simply take their word for it. I wanted to see things for myself. And what I discovered through personal experience was that Wallace’s and Gilbert’s claims are true. We need not doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible because of the presence of textual variants. 

If you want to read a little more about this issue, see this article.
If you wanna get really nerdy with textual variants, check out this debate between Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace or the website of the CSNTM.

  • Have you had an experience similar to mine? Please share in the comments!
  • Is there a textual variant that you’ve wrestled with or have a question about? Share your story or ask your question in the comments!
  • Are there any books that you would add to my Amazon list on the reliability of the Bible? Please share these with me in the comments!


Challenges: Point of Reference

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.

Not long after arriving at seminary, I hit one of the lowest points in my life. I found myself kneeling on a cold, hard floor in the back room of the hotel lobby where I was working the night shift. I spoke into what felt like nothingness: “God, I’m just not sure that I can believe in You anymore.”

Since the China mission trip mentioned in a previous post, questions and doubts had been piling to the ceiling of my mind. Some were big questions, like: “Why do You allow evil in the world?” and “How could You create a place like Hell?” But on that night, the questions were much more basic and practical: “Why would you call me to go to seminary and not provide a way for my family to be taken care of?” (I had only found a part-time job up to that point) and “Am I even cut out to be a minister?”

Eight and a half years later, I find it ironic – almost humorous – that I was tempted to abandon faith in the very God to whom I was addressing my questions and doubts. Whether I liked it or not, my point of reference was: there is a God.

I’ve since realized that we all start from some point of reference. It’s unavoidable. No one looks on from the outside and examines the nature of reality from an objective point of view. The question is whether or not we are willing to honestly assess the validity of our assumptions. Yes, my assumption was: there is a God, but not just that. I believed: there is a God…and He has spoken through the Bible…and, if I’m honest, some of the things He has said confuse or frustrate me. That was (and still is!) my point of reference.

The other two most common points of reference I see in the world around me are: feelings and niceness. Let me explain…

Some assert that the answers to life’s questions can only be known by means of personal experience. “It’s not real if I don’t feel it,” they insist. This is why skeptics doubt and atheist deny the existence of God. They think that they haven’t experienced God – that they haven’t “felt” Him with their five senses. And, given this point of reference, their conclusion makes perfect sense.

But how someone feels about a truth claim can’t affect its validity. It’s either true, or it’s false: God either exists or He doesn’t. The Bible is either God’s word, or it isn’t. How I feel doesn’t affect reality.

Others borrow loads of moral capital from monotheistic religions, customize that point of reference to their liking, and end up with a philosophy of niceness. “We all just need to love each other,” the mantra goes. And I don’t disagree. However, I know that sometimes the most loving thing you can do for a person is confront them about the self-destructive lifestyle they are living. But this practice is only partially acceptable to the philosophy of niceness. It’s okay to have an intervention with an alcoholic or a hoarder, but don’t dare confront a couple who is living together before marriage, and don’t even consider questioning today’s popular consensus on social issues. Again… Borrowed morality + customization = niceness.

To be clear, I think we should be nice to each other, and I affirm that no one truly believes anything until they experience it. But these ideas are only two parts to a larger whole, and I find them far too subjective to hold the weight of being my ultimate point of reference.

There are so many other points of reference I could examine here, and I could do a much better job at treating these two, but I need to get to the point.

If there is a God…and if He has spoken through the Bible…and if how I feel about what He said doesn’t affect its validity…but if I still need to experience this God (by some means!) in order to believe in Him…and if I am willing to examine the validity of my point of reference…then the next important challenge I need to address is: “Can the Bible be trusted?”