Rethink: Serving & Burnout

In this series, we will take a closer look at sayings and doctrines that are common place in streams of the church and talk about the truth and error of these sayings and doctrines.

The issue.

I have been serving in my local church for roughly fifteen years straight, most of the time in the same two ministries that I originally started with (youth and worship). There have been many mountains and valleys in those fifteen years. There have been times where I’ve been full of vision and passion and there have been times where I’ve been full of bitterness and complaining. During these fifteen years, the subject of serving and burnout have consistently come up, both from me and from others that I have served with.

The argument that I’ve heard and have said typically goes like this: burnout happens to servants either because (1) the volunteers can’t say no to leaders who are asking for help and therefore are over-worked or (2) the church is abusive to its volunteer workers. In the last fifteen years, I have argued both sides. But it wasn’t till recently that I realized a consistent truth in all my years of serving (easy or hard). Here is that truth:

The only constant was me. I’ve had different leaders and served in different roles/functions, but I was stll getting burnt-out. I started looking back on my burnt-out times and realizing that I was always expecting something (that I didn’t get) from my leadership during those times.

Why does this matter?

The first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that there is a problem, but the second step is to find out where the root of the problem is. If we think the root of the problem is the church (either by them asking for too much, or by them being abusive in the way they handle their volunteers), then all that grows is offense and bitterness. If someone stays at a church that they’re serving at with that attitude, they end up defiling many (Hebrews 12:15). Even if that person decides that the solution is to leave and go to another church, they will (eventually) have the same issue there as well. Why? Because the issue is with the heart, not with the leaders.

Another solution burnt-out servants may look at is serving less. If you think the root of the problem is that you serve too much (and can’t say “no” when leaders ask for help) then the practical solution would be to serve less. Sadly, I have watched this thinking lead people to stop serving altogether, and (in my personal experience) those who don’t serve the church in some fashion rarely keep their passion (particularly generosity) for the Lord. Jesus designed the Christian life to model His earthly life, where we serve more and more to our own death (of our sinful flesh and selfishness). This is what Paul allude to in Phillipians 2:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:1-8 ESV)

In the passage above, Paul combines service with humility and selflessness. In my own experience, the times I’ve been burnt-out are the same times that I feel I should be getting something I didn’t have, whether it be a position, more influence, a reply, a gift, a “thank you”, etc. This is the definition of “selfish ambition” that Paul talks about: what we deserve and our rights. People who decide to stop serving (or start serving way less) are many times looking “only to his own interests” and not “to the interests of others.” That’s not to say that there isn’t wisdom we should have regarding serving. Our families should come first before the ministry. If we’re serving the church and not seeing our wives and children, then something is off and we should serve less at church so that we can serve more at home. Yet overall, it’s not less service, it’s more. Serve at church. Serve at home. Serve at our job. Serve, serve, serve.

So what is our solution if the problem with burnout is us and not leaders or the church? Paul says it’s humility. Jesus gives us some really good words we ought to remember as we serve:

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-11 ESV)

I think the #1 cause of burnout revolves around that we think more highly of ourselves then we ought (Romans 12:3). When we serve, many times we can think of ourselves as worthy servants. Yet Jesus is clear. There is no worthy servants except one, Jesus, and He came to serve, not to be served (Matthew 20:28). Most of our burnout issues come from our desire to be served. We need to remember who we are serving and who our model for serving is.

It’s Jesus, meek and lowly. In reality, He’s doing all the work, so why should we get any of the praise for it?

Should We Use “Oh Oh Oh” in Worship Songs?

While the trend has been growing for years now, I’ve been noticing that more and more songs (particularly fast songs) have entire sections where the singer just sings “oh, oh, oh” (and to a lesser extent “la, la, la”). I’ve been thinking as a leader whether this is beneficial for our congregation to sing and whether it is good for the global church as a whole. I’ve had leaders and friends in my life who have argued for them and against them. Let me lay out the argument the way I see it.

Why this is an issue

Before we look at the pros and cons of it, some may wonder why we even need to talk about it. There should be no part of a worship song that isn’t looked at. None. When we look at worship songs, we are looking at the tools that enable a congregation to corporately worship God in unity. Worship is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) purpose of the church and we should take the songs we sing very seriously. Every song teaches us something, even if it’s subconsciously. We need to look and ask “what are songs with lots of “oh, oh, ohs” teaching us and our congregation?” and “Is it helpful or harmful?”

Examples

Not every song with an “oh” in it am I dealing with. I think singing it here or there is fine. I am particularly dealing with songs that make entire second choruses of them. Here are some of the songs I’m talking about:

All of these songs feature (if not start out with) long “oh, oh, oh” choruses. Let’s look at the pros and cons of such songs. We’ll start off looking at the cons so that I can better argue both sides.

Cons

  1. Laziness in songwriting.
    I find (for the most part) that entire choruses built on “oh oh ohs” to be extremely lazy songwriting. As a popular satire video said, “all you have to do is sing ‘oh, oh, oh’ and you have a hit song.” Since songwriters put words in the mouths of worshippers, they should be carefully pondering every word of their song. Many times, what results from lazy songwriting is the congregation engaging in spiritual gibberish.
  2. Polarizing.
    The younger generation loves songs with “oh, oh, ohs”. Turn on any radio station (Christian or not) and you’ll be hard-pressed not to hear a song that doesn’t contain any of them. Many songs written by younger artists includes ohs. At the same time, many older artists do not. It was a rare thing to have a song that had a long extended “oh, oh, oh” section in it fifty-or-more years ago (Hey Jude from The Beatles were one of those songs). Many older worshippers don’t understand singing “oh, oh, ohs” to God. This is important. Since corporate worship is about everyone joining together and worshiping God, anything that would hinder an entire section of people from worshiping must be looked into. It is better not to do any “oh, oh, oh” songs than to hinder people from worshiping God.
  3. Untheological.
    I’m not saying that “oh, oh, ohs” are bad theology, but rather that they carry no theology. They are neither true or false. They are sugar. They are just a condiment in a meal. Depending on the “meal” (worship song/set), they may add to it, or they may take away from it. Relish is great on a hot dog, but not so great in chicken pot pie.
  4. Redundant
    I’m not sure is this is a terrible thing, but if “oh, oh, ohs” aren’t done well musically and melodically, they can be quite redundant. This only adds to the polarizing effect.

Pros

  1. Unity
    The greatest strength I see with “oh, oh, ohs” in songs is, if the entire congregation is engaged together, the incredible unity that happens due to the utter simplicity of the words. Sometimes, either due to a song being newer or too wordy, many in the congregation can’t sing along well enough to “sing in one voice” with the rest of the people. If sung with a deeply worshipful heart, I feel the ohs can add to the unity of a song.
  2. Heartfelt and heart-engaging
    Someone once argued to me that “oh, oh, ohs” in worship songs were pointless. I was quick to point out to them that if the heart is truly the thing worshipping, then it can worship by singing random syllables. In fact, I see it (possibly) in the same way as “singing in the Spirit” (also called “singing in tongues”). I’ve mentioned elsewhere:

    “I have yet to be able to sing in tongues and not engage my heart. Since speaking (and therefore singing) in tongues is a muscle of the will, usually my hardest fight is to start singing in tongues, but once I do, my heart immediately becomes engaged. It’s just another reason why I believe the gift of tongues are still active today.”

    While singing “oh, oh, ohs” is not the same thing as singing in tongues, due to the simplicity bypassing the stumbling part of our brain, I believe singing ohs can produce close to the same effects.

  3. Rejoiceful
    I was going to say that singing “oh, oh, ohs” can be fun (and they are when done right), but that didn’t seem like a good justification to use them. However, since we are commanded to rejoice, I see them helping us engage with that command. Laughter and joy are a part of worship, yet they have no distinct words, just sounds. If you are singing a celebration song, it may be good to allow the congregation to “take it up a notch” with some ohs.

Conclusion

So, now that we have looked at the pros and cons of songs with extended refrains of “oh, oh, ohs”, we can now ask: should churches sing songs with lots of ohs in them?

My personal opinion? It depends on your church and the song.

If the majority of a church is mostly older believers (let’s say >50 years old), I would advise against it. However, if the church has a good blend of ages (like mine does) then singing some songs like mentioned above are fine when used sparingly.

If the greatest part of the song is the “oh, oh, ohs” (meaning its the main purpose the band is wanting to do the song), I would advise against doing it, even if the church’s demographics are fine with ohs. We want to make sure that we don’t cause people to yearn and seek the sugary things or “condiments” instead of the main meal. Train them to yearn for songs with theology, songs that are built on the gospel.

If you sing deep, “full-meal” type of songs, a little sugar or “condiments” are fine to use here and there.

Help To Better Learn Theology

I find many people who want to learn more about what they believe and also how to think rightly of God. They just don’t know how. They think of seminary and shudder. They think of massive books that are completely boring and they lose all desire to pursue a greater knowledge of God. I wanted to share some simple pointers of how I’ve learned and have grown in doctrine.

Understand what theology is.

Remember, “theology” simply means the study of God. We’re not talking about timelines or pointless facts and arguments. We’re talking about knowing Him more. I used to find it easy to excuse myself from learning theology when I thought it was just useless trivia. Everything changed when I realized it was simply the process of knowing a person, Jesus, and who He is, what He is like, and what that means for me in response of Him. It also helped to know that it was His desire that I pursue knowing Him, and therefore growing in doctrine and theology. I knew He would help me understand all that I was studying.

Read the Bible without filters.

I find the greatest cause of wrong doctrine is reading the Bible with a filter, either our own or someone else’s. It is critically important that the start of our theological education (and the core of it) centers around the Bible. Just as important is to read the Bible without preconceived ideas/doctrines of our own or from others. For example, when reading Revelation, I never understood it till I (chose to) forget all that I had been taught about it (I was taught pre-tribulation rapture, so Revelation was quite confusing). Once I did, the Spirit opened the book to me and I saw it clearly.

It’s also important that we read the Bible with our heart continually ready to love the Lord as the scriptures reveal Him to be. I missed out on a lot of good and passionate theology growing up because I formed a theory of God with my own mind, a god that that was easily lovable. When a tough theological subject such as hell or election comes up, I often hear people say “I don’t know if I could love a God like that.” Abraham Joshua Heschel says:

To retain the holy, to perpetuate the presence of god, his image is fashioned. Yet a god who can be fashioned, a god who can be confined, is but a shadow of man.

Read the Bible to see God for who He truly is, and be ready to struggle against some of the things that make Him altogether different than us (like how He defines love). Choose to love Him regardless of how unpleasing you may find Romans 9 or other passages.

Read the Bible with commentary.

While we should read the Bible without filters, it is good after reading it ourselves, to read what others have thought about it. We call these collection of thoughts about the Bible “commentaries.” Instead of going and buying a bunch of new expensive commentaries that you might not know if they are good or not, let me encourage you to read commentaries from some of the old preachers and fathers of our faith. Many of them are free. You can read commentaries from Martin Luther, John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon, and others. After you read a portion of scripture and pray about it, look up the portion in these commentaries. Just be careful not to read/listen to only one person. Reading commentaries from multiple authors keep us from erring easily.

Follow theologians on Twitter (or Facebook).

This is my favorite. Thanks to the age of the internet and social media that we live in, there are many theologians that are posting short theological truths and teaching on Twitter and Facebook. I follow several of such people and I’ve been amazed at my spiritual growth just by reading some of their thoughts. Many of them also have blogs where they write out some of their thoughts in a slightly longer form. This is a quick and easy way to learn theological truths randomly throughout the day.

Here are a few I personally follow on Twitter:

All of these people are serious (yet still fun) about theology. Whoever you follow, if you listen to their theological remarks, make sure they are serious about theology, that they appreciate it and are trying to see God rightly, truly, and in a way that’s consistent with Christian history. There are many who are part of an anti-intellectual/relativist movement. These people are constantly dogging general (and widely-accepted through time) doctrines. They are trying to re-invent Christianity into something more palatable, but in the end, unbiblical. They don’t believe in any set standard of truth. Beware of such people and their candy-tasting social media accounts. Find preachers and teachers who are in line with church history who are passionate about Jesus expressed through the Bible.

Read theological books.

Finally, start reading (light) theological books. I’m not talking about reading a Systematic Theology book or something like Kingdom Through Covenant, a crazy deep 828 page book on the biblical covenant of salvation. I’m talking about reading easier yet potent material that focuses on knowing God more, through scripture and doctrine.

Some examples are:

Fiction series like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy are also great to learn doctrine and theology from. I should mention that many fiction books don’t have accurate theology in them, particularly for those trying to, so be careful (I’m looking at you, The Shack). Sometimes it’s better to read someone who is choosing clarity rather than allegory.

Also, if you get a Kindle, you can find many theological books for free or cheap. They are often on sale on Amazon.

If America Was A Land of Wisdom

Due to the ongoing issues of gun control, abortion, gay marriage, and other things, I’ve been thinking about the principle our nation was founded on.

People debate whether this nation was founded on Christianity or Christian principals, but the one thing no one argues is the principals that started our nation and what ties everything together.

Freedom. 

The word “freedom” (or “liberty”) is found in most American speeches, historical documents, and at the center of most judicial decisions. For better or worse, it the central tenet of the American life. No matter what the issue is, it always comes back around to freedom. In the name of freedom, we have some great things in America: the ability to personally succeed, to worship, to assemble, to debate and argue, to choose how to raise our children, etc. Yet in the name of freedom, we have done some terrible things in America such as kill over 50 millions babies in the name of convenience.

We believe freedom is the state of being completely unbound and unfettered, from all law and responsibility. That is not the scriptural stance of freedom. Christians understand that biblical freedom isn’t be unbound from everything, but being fully bound to Jesus. Since He made us, submitting to Him fully is the only way to experience true freedom. Yet, America wants nothing to do with this.

Our elections are currently about which candidate is going to protect our freedoms the best and give us “new freedoms.” In the next two elections, I’m sure we’ll see candidates promise freedoms to particular people groups, current illegal activities, and leisure activities. They will win because of this. Freedom is the center of everything we do in America.

But what if it wasn’t?

What if America was founded with wisdom at its center, not freedom?

I know that we wouldn’t enjoy some of the things we enjoy now (possibly like capitalism), and I’m not foolish enough to believe America would be a “moral” nation if we were centered around wisdom, but wouldn’t it be slightly better? Our arguments wouldn’t be centered around our selfish desires (what we currently call “rights”), but around what is the wisest thing, what is best for all parties.

The gun control debate wouldn’t be about rights over safety but the wisest way for prevent violence and implement safety.

We wouldn’t base our elections on the candidate who promises the most freedoms but the smartest and wisest. Maybe our country wouldn’t be in as much debt as it is now.

I’m not sure the abortion argument would of even came up (same with the gay marriage debate) since we wouldn’t be fighting for rights, but how to live wisely.

At the same time, James says there’s a carnal wisdom that’s “worldly, fleshly, and demonic” (James 3:15). It promises that wherever this wisdom is, “there will be disorder and every sort of vile practice.” So maybe America wouldn’t be any better if it was founded on wisdom instead of freedom.

What we really need is Jesus to return. He’ll lead the world (including America) in all righteousness.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.