gail song bantum

blog on identity, leadership, worship

a culture of COMPLAINING!

listen friends, i promise that i tried….i tried for several days now to keep my mouth shut in response to these blogs and articles about the assertion that NO ONE sings (worships) in church anymore. and, guess why?

well, according to Why They Don’t Sing Anymoreand this one called Are We Headed For A Crash?it’s because the worship leader and the worship ministry are too performative/showy/up-front/rock-star-ish/and whatever other distractive adjective you can think of. 

for whatever reason, in my 20 years of leading worship in various different contexts – mainline churches, pentecostal and charismatic churches, evangelical churches, university chapel services, black churches, rural white churches, asian american churches, affluent white suburban churches, mega churches, multi-ethnic/cultural churches, worship conferences, funeral services, wedding ceremonies – i’ve found that people tend to feel the freedom and power to lay claim over the musical elements more readily than other aspects of the service. we all feel a particular ownership, authority, and confidence as to what music we believe resonates with the soul, and thus with everyone else. i guess as someone who has the opportunity to both preach/speak and lead worship on a regular basis, i’m particularly keen to the imbalance of “feedback” worship pastors/leaders receive from sunday to sunday versus the preacher or “word-bearer.” as someone who has served in so many different contexts, reading these broad stroked critiques on a topic as huge as musical worship, but offered through such a narrow and particular ethnic/traditional lens are hard to receive and take seriously. 

so, here are my quick thoughts on how we can move forward (on a topic of conversation i could’ve sworn was SO 2003), but i digress:

1) i’d love to read more blogs and thoughts on the failings of musical worship from folks who actually serve and lead churches and teams in this capacity on a week to week basis. 

2) i’d love to read disclaimers on the front end of these blogs/articles that begin with something like: *these observations are meant for ______church and _____church, of which i have personally attended. i also acknowledge that the lens from which i make these critiques come through a particular ethnic, socio-economic, ecclesial tradition, and cultural lens. in other words, just state the obvious. and, don’t generalize. 

3) there are thousands of churches. thank the lord?? i mean….THOUSANDS. there are many traditions that represent those churches as well. if classical hymns, or organs, or string quartets, or chorales, or rock bands, or indy/folky groups, or shouting, or dancing, or gospel choirs are what enable and move you to worship, then GO FIND THAT! you need to worship. we were all created to worship. there’s nothing worse than staying unhappy where we’re at and murmuring about how we can’t seem to open our mouths to utter a sound of praise. perhaps, even more importantly, we need to sincerely ask ourselves these questions: could the act of redirecting my inability to participate onto someone else or some ideal have anything to do with me? is it really someone else’s fault as to why i can’t offer god some praise?

4) most worship leaders work hard. being creatively wired by nature, worship leaders are usually also sensitive people who don’t try to annoy or distract the congregation on purpose or intentionally. have you ever gone up to them and said “thank you” as you would to the preacher? did you know that many worship leaders don’t get paid as much as other pastors or staff? did you know that there’s a required class on homiletics (preaching/public speaking/oration) in seminary that basically teach the substantive and the performative elements of preaching, but there’s usually no classes on leading musical worship? did you know that most churches hire worship leaders for their musical skill more than their pastoral skill? did you know that in many churches, the worship leader is not considered a pastor? did you know that most worship leader positions don’t require a seminary degree or ministerial credentialing? 

we sure do expect a lot out of them given this reality…

and finally,

5) worship ought to be your response to who god is and all that god has done in your life DESPITE your circumstances and who’s in front of you or behind you, who’s chasing you down or who’s affirming you, in death and in life, in fullness and in the margins! the psalms are a great example of this. when we become a people who know what it is to be desperate for the presence, the hand and the face of God, no amount of distraction will keep us from praising and opening our mouths to sing! worshipers know this – it’s in spirit and in truth!

in the end, i wonder if we’re too comfortable. we have too many options. many of us aren’t desperate enough in life to know that the culmination of our worship doesn’t happen on sundays…it can’t just happen on sundays, because life happens everyday.

i thank god for the people who offer their time and lives to this ministry of music, in every context – who serve week after week, put themselves out there, mess up their lyrics, play a wrong note, voice cracking, serving while sick – all while hoping and praying that god will touch somebody through their offering and gift of music. for the naysayers, critique all you want, but know that for the worshiper, those words will fall on deaf ears unless you bear that burden week after week alongside us. ~ selah

the fast from hell – a lenten reflection

i don’t know about you, but i think fasting make-up for lent this year has been one of the most difficult fasts i’ve ever experienced, and i’ve done a LOT of fasts over the course of my faith journey. no food fasts are hard no doubt, having done a few water only fasts for several days at a time myself. it’s definitely hard on the body, mind, and spirit.

but, make-up…it’s been messing with my identity! scraping at the very core of who i am. i’m on day 6 today and i’ve found myself feeling all of these emotions at various moments over the course of the past several days: anxious, self-conscious, unkept, not cute, not confident, embarrassed, liberated, free, angry, and sad.

first of all, i want to acknowledge that it’s taken me 39 years to even fathom fasting make-up as an option, which is a huge step forward in general. for some women, you might be reading this and thinking, “what’s the big deal?” know that i celebrate that space of freedom with you 100% and wish i could be there with you.

over the past 6 days, in addition to the everyday outings like trips to the store and the kids schools, i’ve had to be in front of large groups of people – 2 ash wednesday services, and 2 sunday morning services. it was my first time EVER going to church without make-up. like, ever. and, of course, yesterday was mega baby dedication sunday at church which means there were cameras galore snapping eternal pictures of my face!! (i mean, the babies)

but honestly, why is this such a big deal for me? why has it been so difficult? why do i see men now and get kinda angry that their standard of beauty doesn’t have to involve facial enhancements on a day to day basis?! why have i been told that i look better with make-up on? why do my kids tell me i look more asian without make-up and i question what that means? why did i think twice about saying yes to preaching on good friday when i realized i would be preaching make-upless and video recorded at the same time? why do i even care what people think about how i look? why am i even writing this post? WHY?!!

though it’s only been 6 days, i think i know why…

my identity has been so wrapped up in how i look, based on the particular things that people have affirmed or not affirmed in me over the course of my life – even from a young age. i remember adults always talking about my looks before they ever spoke of my talents. even as adults, women in general have the tendency to greet one another with affirmations of how each other appears/looks? why do we do that?! as well, i remember my mother always telling me to present myself respectably, aka “look your best. if make-up helps, then use it.” as an adult, i still lean that way and often hear those words reverberating when i stand in front of the mirror. it’s been a part of my formation in various ways: from my mother’s words, to performing in concerts/competitions in front of hundreds of people since i was 7, to the african american church culture, and to being a ministry leader from a young age. i know what it means to present myself respectably. but i realize now that until recently, it’s rarely ever been a choice. a “respectable presentation” is who i’ve become. selah.

all of that said, without spending any time on my face except some lotion and some vaseline on my lips the past week, i feel rather unkept. so much so that on days 1-3 of this fast, i think i spent more time on my hair to somehow counter balance the lack of attention i was giving my face. after my husband pointed this behavior out, i was embarrassed. but more truthfully, i was sad. sad that i couldn’t just be. sad at the realization that my identity is so rooted in this facade instead of what god sees in me. sad that i’d fallen into the same lie of the devil that i thought i was so far beyond and resisted so passionately, while for many years having encouraged other young women to embrace their identities. sad that so many women have to battle this mess in general – whether it’s make-up or body image or whatever!

needless to say, it has been a journey and we’re only on day 6. i’ve been reading many scriptures on identity these days…it’s been a tough road for sure. but at times, i sense a liberating power emerging within me each new day. as i walk the journey of lent toward resurrection sunday, and as i celebrate national women’s history month, i’m grateful for women whose strength was/is known by their talents and in their relentless pursuit of overcoming seeming impossibilities. and, more than anything, i’m grateful for the gift and promise of freedom/liberation that’s found in the person of jesus christ.

god is, therefore i am. i want to rest in that.

real talk#4 -being a woman in ministry

over the past few months, i have been particularly struck by the ways i’ve been subtly and not so subtly formed in the church…. no, i’m not talking about spiritually but a formation of how i’ve performed and continue to perform into a kind of gendered role of both assertion and passivity.

all growing up and even well into my ministry career, the culture within many of the churches i’ve been a part of have predominantly been under some sort of strong alpha male presence and leadership. and when i say “alpha,” i mean it in such a way that is not meant to be judgmental but rather, an indication of a larger cultural reality -a reality that suggests or even demands a particular way of being for what it means to be masculine, which inevitably requires a counter balance of femininity…in other words, dominant and submissive ways of relating. and we all know that it is usually the “masculine” or “dominant” trait that pushes ahead when it comes to our understandings of success and influence. we see this operating not only in the business world and in politics, but also in the church.

for me, entering into vocational ministry at the age of 21, as a female/asian worship leader in the mid to late 90’s, i must admit, it was a battle of sorts -not so much to have the opportunity to do what i do but to be heard. all kinds of folks will hire and use your gifts for their benefit but what does it mean to be heard? to be respected? this is the gap that i have sensed for the past 13 years until perhaps just recently.

i have the wonderful privilege of serving as one of the pastors on staff here at quest church in seattle. from what i’ve gathered, a lot of people here in seattle don’t seem to want to abide by the typically set norm for the most part compared to other places i’ve lived – bikes ride the street like it’s theirs, indie artists and local bands are celebrated more so than what tends to be “popular” in the larger culture, local food and coffee shops are heralded over and against your usual chain restaurants and coffee joints, and so on. i know, i know, these are gross generalizations but coming from living 10 years in the south, these differences are quite stark to me. which makes me wonder if this way of imagining and negotiating the culture we’re so influenced by rubs off on the way we imagine ourselves and our participation within it?

all this to say, since i’ve moved to seattle just over a year ago, anytime i’ve had to teach, speak, preach in a ministry setting, i’ve begun to notice that a certain kind of persona arises out of me. i don’t really want to say that i feel “masculine” per se, but my demeanor definitely rings with a kind of assertive/authoritative confidence that suggests you better not mess with me! well, maybe it is an alpha rising out of me! i know, crazy right? there’s actually a running joke with some of my friends here that tell me i have a definite and particular booming “prayer voice” …..prayer voice?? i didn’t even realize there was such a thing! i think and believe that a lot of it has to do with the ways i’ve been formed. formation in this sense, arising out of a lack -lack of women leaders in the church as role models, lack of trust for women in ministry, lack of faith that women actually have something to contribute in addition to meeting the gender balance requirement on any given staff, lack of respect that because we’re women, we’re only concerned with and gifted for children’s ministry and fluffy women’s ministry tea gatherings. in this way, in order to counter such ill-formed images and perceptions of women in ministry, i’ve had to assert myself much more to have a place at the proverbial table so to speak -to be heard, to be respected for more than my looks and my “sensitive/motherly” gifts.

it’s formation that has arisen out of a need to be like one of the boys.

strangely, a lot of the men around me here, in my particular circles of relationships and ministry, are by no means the kind of image of the machismo-grunting-flexing-jocky males that i’m used to in ministry. it’s weird….but refreshing in such a good way! i’m just finding myself feeling, at times, out of place. i feel like i’m too assertive and perhaps a bit overwhelming to some. i find myself constantly conscious and aware of how i speak in certain contexts but when i pray and preach, i just can’t seem to pull it back! formation takes time. it’s taken me 14 years of being this way and, dare i say, performing in a particular way that has translated into who i am now in ministry.

it’s been a learning process, more about myself than anything else, i guess.

my prayer for ministry now is not so much how well or competently i perform tasks given me but rather, a lifelong promise to myself and the many young women whom i will encounter for years to come. a promise of hope that prayerfully, through the witness of my life, many young women will see and know that they too have something significant to offer this world.

multi-ethnic worship: 3 issues facing worship leaders

so often, pastors and worship leaders find it very difficult to capture and speak to the many challenges that arise within our respective congregations, especially when it comes to meeting musical and/or worship styles across multi-ethnic lines. whether you’re in a church that hopes and longs to be more diverse in this area or already in the thick of it trying to wade through the many voices, concerns and requests, we must all be mindful of our own need for transformation.

i recently wrote a very brief article for unity in christ magazine on the topic, “3 issues worship leaders face in multi-ethnic congregations.”  it’s part of a 5 voice forum on this particular topic and for me, I have found that the three foremost issues many worship leaders/pastors are confronted with are the notions of preference, purity and participation.

you can read the full article here.

what are 3 issues you think are challenging for worship leaders as they/you prayerfully and faithfully lead their/your congregations within a multi-ethnic context?

multi-ethnic worship: YOUR thoughts

so, i’ve been asked to write an article due out in july on the top 3 issues that worship leaders of multi-ethnic worship face on a macro and micro level. as i have my thoughts pretty set on this topic, primarily from years of experience in both homogenous congregations and in communities who are faithfully trying to live into racial reconciliation, i think it would be nice to hear from YOU as well.

i am no fool to think that my experiences alone or my interest/study/research on this topic makes me an authority by any means. however, i am thrilled to have the opportunity to share my thoughts on it and will post it here once the publication is out at the end of july.

in the meantime, whether you’re a pastor, worship leader, former worship leader, have an innate sense of what your worship leader is dealing with, whatever…i’d LOVE to hear your thoughts/experiences/insights on what YOUR top 3 issues for worship leaders of multi-ethnic worship are.

lenten reflection: death does not have the last word

i always feel an enormous tension when it comes to the tradition and practices of lent, holy week and good friday/holy saturday. it is a tension that lies within the notion that this season must be marked by a certain posture of somberness in reflection of our own sinful state and in anticipation and remembrance of christ’s death. i often struggle with the idea that our mortality and christ’s death on the cross are somehow the focus of the entire 40 days and lived out in ways that make me believe that the resurrection is merely the “after effect.” beginning on ash wednesday as we are crossed with ash on our foreheads and reminded that “from dust we’ve come and to dust we shall return,” we begin a ritual of mourning -mourning our sinfulness and the burden that christ bore on our behalf.

why do we receive such words spoken over us? yes, we all do return to dust but is there not a redemption that specifically marks our faith in christ? an ashen state of being is not the final word. the death of this body is not the period at the end of our sentence.

i believe that our redemption happened not only when christ took our sin upon his own body, becoming sin on our behalf and died (it would be tragic if that were the culmination and seal of our redemption), but i believe that it is only in the resurrection of that death, the rising of our lives in christ’s body rising that we can know our redemption. this is a glorious event, a miraculous event. as i anticipate and ponder the magnitude of  christ’s death on good friday, i also take great joy in that death as the precursor to my resurrection and the resurrection of the saints. it is a time of recognizing what i am not in the realization of who god is. it is also a recognizing of who I am in the realization of who god says that i am –a joint heir, a daughter and beloved -forgiven and redeemed.

thus, as we now enter into this most somber season of lent taking a posture of humility and in anticipation of christ’s suffering and death on our behalf, i also choose to take great joy in the realization that christ did not have to, yet christ did. i take joy in christ’s death as it holds within it, the promise of resurrection, the promise of hope. for me, it will never be a season of mourning for i mourn those who have been separated from me, but in christ’s death, i have been brought near.

the greatest of these is LOVE

1 corinthians 13:1-8

if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, i am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. if i have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if i have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, i am nothing. if i give all i possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, i gain nothing. love is patient, love is kind. it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. it is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. love never fails.

wow! i’ve probably read this passage a million times but today, i am struck with something quite convicting inside of these words. i have heard this message about loving others preached or taught within the context of marriage, relationships, within the scope of extending the depth of our desires, realms of possibility…basically, loving those whom we can comprehend ourselves loving -friends, family, those in the margins, etc. after all, we have a foundation of love for these people, or our love toward them is centered on human compassion. we leave the message reminded that we should stop harboring resentments, petty grudges and that we should begin coming out of ourselves enough to help those less fortunate, right?

however, i was challenged when i thought about a love shown through obedience….because doing something out of obedience is often more challenging than doing it out of desire or willingness. that all so famous phrase we like to quote, “love your enemies” is strangely more than a simple charge to make ammends. though it could mean that as well, i think this kind of love calls for a real and honest engagement of who we consider our enemy. for example, what about those people who are absolutely unlovable in our minds? perhaps those who have harmed us or those who have harmed others -murderers, traffickers, the unmentionables. to love such people is unimaginable! however, should love be a respecter of persons?

as valentine’s day (our culture’s dedicated day of love) approaches, as well as the first day of lent a few days following, i think about this word: love. as christian’s, we believe that christ came and bore all things upon himself on the cross because god loved, loves and will continue to love that which god created. the reality is that love means nothing unless there is a cost involved. this is what i believe 1 corinthians 13 is trying to convey. what is profound in loving something or someone that is already lovable? god did not send his only begotten son to suffer and die for those without stains, those who were blameless and without sin. no, christ died for the wretched, those deserving of eternal separation. christ died for all -you, me, child traffickers, and the murderer on death row…. yes, christ died for ALL.

the thought of this makes me cringe, if i’m being honest. in my mind, i am SO different than my enemy. yet, to know that christ loves the same. this is a truly difficult passage to swallow. somehow though, it challenges me that my faith has to be something more than talk and to continually remember that christ died for me just as much as anyone else. may my heart toward greater love begin with confession and repentance. if i cannot love the small offenders in my life, how can i possibly extend love to those that seem tragically unlovable?

i pray that as we ponder and prepare our hearts for the lenten season, may we be continuously reminded of the infinite and immeasurable love of our god and may our lives emanate with a costly love that the world would think incomprehensible.

faith, hope, love. but the greatest of these is LOVE.


be still and know

in the wake of what seems to be at this point an utter devastation of an already impoverished nation, i find myself restless and always checking fb and the various news feeds that are streaming in. though i know that the little i have donated to relief efforts makes a difference, i feel helpless.

i find myself praying constantly yet know that so many have already died and will continue to die. i pray for those who are worried about loved ones that were visiting or temporarily located in haiti, that they would soon hear a word of hope at the other end of the line yet know that so many natives of the land have lost generations of their entire family. it is a restlessness that is rooted in the realities of this world – pain, suffering and death that we all endure as human beings. it is also a restlessness in the realization of knowing that though i am not haitian nor do i have close relationships to anyone that has been impacted, i feel the common bond of what it means to be human – to hope in something, the need to love and be loved, to be overcome with compassion for those who suffer, and to help those who are in need. but i realize that this restlessness must be tempered with a stillness of faith in a god that sees and hears the cries of the people. it is a restlessness that cries out in desperation on behalf of those who are suffering and a stillness in knowing that god is present in their midst.

we are called to be witnesses of this god to those who are in need, called to be the feet, the hands, the words of hope. to those who are tirelessly giving of their lives for others in haiti and elsewhere, may you have strength in your well-doing and may god continue to sustain and undergird you and make fruitful the works of your labor. grateful.

if you are looking for a place to donate financially with the relief efforts, OneDay’sWages is supporting an already ongoing org called world concern who have offices and personnel already in haiti. 100% of all donations will go toward these efforts.

more than anything, please continually be in prayer. do not lose heart but let your restlessness stir an even greater desire to desperately seek after god on behalf of others.

the burning bush -a life of being and pursuing

the burning bush

by artist He Qi

so often in our lives when we face difficult situations or trials, we look and seek after signs of some sort -signs that tell us that someone knows us, signs that someone hears our cry and actually cares. we wait for that definitive voice from on high or a strike of lightening, etc…. kind of like an “in-your-face-can’t-deny-the-truth” moment. a burning bush moment.

in the old testament, in exodus 3, we are given a story of a man named moses and a mysterious burning bush through which god speaks and makes god’s self known to him. it is a bush that is raging with fire but never consumed, it is alluring to the one who comes upon it yet is too great to take full on, it offers words of hope but a hope that is marked with a call to action. a bush that, upon it’s presence, acknowledges that the battles we face are not ours alone but that god is and will continue to be with us.

though we say and we know that christ has come and has sent the spirit of god to each of us, to dwell within us, we find ourselves still looking around for that bush. waiting for a sign, looking and hoping in things external when god in god’s love has come to dwell within us through the holy spirit. the same spirit that ignited a bush is the same spirit that abides in us. in this way,  i like to think that our lives are like flaming bushes, which burn but are not consumed. the very god that is in us purges the death on our branches in order that we may bring forth new life. as we are continually made new, we manifest and speak forth a light and a hope to those who encounter us. and in such lives of givenness, we are not found depleted but renewed.

the burning bush is a call to faith, a call to hear and a call to action. believe that god actually hears your cry as he heard the cries of the israelites in captivity. silence the clammering noises of fear and uncertainty and rather choose to hear the voice of hope and love as god is continually speaking to us and through us. know that a life of faith is never a life of comfort or a stagnant reality but a call to put feet to that which we claim as just and right, feet to that which we believe love is. faith is active and always in pursuit of the other. it is in our pursuit of the other that god promises to be with us as he was with moses and the people of israel. god does not call us to something just to abandon us later but calls us in order that god’s faithfulness may be witnessed more fully.

friends, i pray that we do not remain satisfied in our own well-being but the flame of the holy spirit would forever ignite a passion and a fervant desire for those around us.

anticipation: a hope for the present

as we ponder and enter into what is now the final week of advent, let us be reminded that our rejoicing and anticipation comes from knowing that christ has already come. here is a short blog entitled, anticipation: a hope for the present that i wrote recently for duke divinity school’s office of black church studies.

many blessings to you, my friends, during this advent and christmas season. live fully and love deeply as christ has first loved us!

much love, xx g

Post Navigation


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 26 other followers