The Lost Art of Being Real

Hello, my name is Bill, and I am an approval addict.

Every picture you see of me on here has been handpicked so you never have to see my bad side.  Hours in Photoshop means you won’t get to see my acne either.  Maybe you’ll like what you see.

That sour note I played in worship on Sunday?  I edited it out before the video hit YouTube.  Maybe no one will remember it wasn’t a perfect performance.

Not long ago, only movie stars got their photos airbrushed, and only the biggest recording artists could be forced to sing on key by a rack full of magic gear.  Now, all of us curate our lives to present “perfect” selves to each other.  It doesn’t even require Photoshop.  With a free iPhone app and the swipe of a finger, you can airbrush a photo.  Heck, I hear that Samsung phones even turn on a “beauty face” feature by default for selflies.  Enlarge eyes?  Check.  Slim face?  Check.  Smooth skin tone?  Check.  Real me?  Never has to be seen!

The number of people treated for depression continues to increase, and no wonder why!  We’re comparing our real lives to our friend’s fake lives — their carefully curated perfect social media selves.  To keep up with them, I airbrush my online life too, perpetuating the pattern.  It’s a vicious cycle as my friends now compare themselves to a fake me.

Here’s the funny thing:  People actually like it when you’re real.  Surprising, I know!  Sometimes life forces you to be real, and guess what, the world doesn’t stop spinning.  I found this out recently while on stage at church during the biggest service of the year, Easter Sunday.  It was a packed house, and I put pressure on myself to deliver a perfect performance.  Unfortunately, I cracked under the pressure.  We were playing with a video for “Happy Day,” and I started singing the first verse four bars too early.  None of the lyrics were going to line up with the song at all if I didn’t stop and start over.  Wow, talk about embarrassing!

But you know what?  My moment of humility and humanity and honesty was like a breath of fresh air through the church.  I said something along the lines of, “That was my bad.  I messed that up. You all are doing great.”  And we started the song over, as everyone in the crowd cheered.  It was the weirdest thing.  People clapping for a human moment and the reminder that no one is perfect.  In the end, God used it to remind people who hadn’t been to church in a long time that not even the people on stage are perfect.  Church isn’t for perfect people (because there are none).  It’s for people who realize they mess up and need forgiveness!

I’d like to say there’s a video where you can see all this go down, but true to form, I edited all of that out.  All that’s left is the thunderous applause of people cheering my screwup, edited to make it look like I did something good.  When will I learn?

The Lost Art of Focus

Focus

The Wall Street Journal recently broke the news that there will be no fabled Apple TV.  After years of research and development, apparently Apple has decided not to enter the television market.

Some are disappointed at this news, but I, for one, love it.  One of the reasons Apple has such a great reputation for quality products is that they don’t have that many of them.  When they choose to pursue something, they go all in.  Doing that means saying “no” to a lot of other ideas.

Apple is the master of focus.  Steve Jobs said focus “means saying ‘no’ to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

I know in my personal life, if I chase down too many “good” ideas at once, none of them have the opportunity to become great.  For example, right now I’m trying to learn about Logic software, singing technique and relative pitch (so far I know all my perfect fifths by heart and by ear), among other things.  I’m also pursing blogging, photography and audio businesses, songwriting, etc.  I classify all these as hobbies, which is why I’m not distraught that none are terribly lucrative right now.  But imagine if I had the disciple to just focus on one!

How about ministries?  Sometimes I wonder if there is some correlation between the success of a church and its ability to focus.  It’s so tough to say “no” to good ideas, but sometimes that’s what you have to do in order to have a few great ones!

The Church of Apple

MacBook

The Best Buy employee asked if he could help me.  I assume that was his polite way of saying that I needed to wipe the drool off the brand new MacBook in front of me.  “No, just looking,” I said, trying desperately to avoid his sales pitch.  If BestBuy employees are cheetahs, people like me are tasty wildebeests, so we have to work overtime not to trigger their prey instincts.

“No, I’m just looking,” was also my way of telling my own brain I didn’t need that impossibly thin and beautiful laptop.  “Walk away, Whitt, just walk away.”  But man, it was beautiful.  Apple founder Steve Jobs often talked about how important good design was to him.  As an example, he pointed to his father, Paul Jobs, who never used lower quality wood on the back of cabinets and painted the back of fences with as much gusto as the front.  “For you to sleep well at night,” Jobs said, “the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through” (NPR).  He even said the back of their machines was more beautiful than the front of their competitors’ machines.  And it worked — Apple’s Mac sales are up 10%, while the overall PC market is down 7%.

What Apple has mastered is attention to detail.  For example, try this!  With the MacBook sitting on the table, open the lid with just one finger.  The design team engineered a system whereby the resistance the lid offers changes over the course of the opening.  The result is that the base always stays in place on your desk and the lid always stays angled right where you leave it.  They make it look easy and intuitive, but someone spent a lot of time figuring that detail out!

Another secret to their success has been willingness to rock the boat.  Bulky VGA ports?  Optical drives?  SD card slots?  One by one, Apple has stripped away excess in the name of simplicity and, more importantly, has pushed technology forward.  Each time they did so, there was huge backlash, but look how far we’ve come!

Earlier, I wrote that church leaders should learn from the demise of Radio Shack; today I add that there are also lessons for churches in the success of Apple!  Do we paint the “back of the fence” of our ministries with as much care for quality as the front?  Do we give attention to detail?  Are we willing to fight for progress, even if it means rocking the boat?

Church leaders, let’s be proud of our work.  Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”  God deserves the very best, and because we’re working for him, we have even greater motivation than Apple to strive for excellence!

 

The Church of Radio Shack

Radio Shack Last Day

I’m standing in a post-apocalyptic scene.  Disheveled shelves.  A barren store.  No sign of life.  It’s the last day of Radio Shack’s existence, and it is sad.

For the man behind the counter, “mad” might better describe his attitude.  He greeted me with a snarky, “Welcome to what’s left of Radio Shack,” as well as many other much saltier comments I won’t repeat here.  Apparently, they had given him virtually no notice he would be out of a job, and they had even closed the store earlier than planned.

Today wasn’t supposed to be the last day, and yet here I was, sifting through antiquated computer accessories for 95% off.  It wasn’t always this way.  Radio Shack actually had a mission back in the day.  Electronics hobbyists loved this place.  They sold things like pagers and VHS tape rewinders back when people actually needed pagers and VHS tape rewinders.

The problem with Radio Shack is they didn’t evolve as the market evolved.  They were a tech company that didn’t stay on top of technology.  They were selling home answering machines when no one had a home phone anymore.  In hindsight, it’s easy to see why Radio Shack’s empire crumbled, but it’s also obvious they either didn’t see it coming or weren’t brave enough to make changes.  They decided to stay comfortable instead of press on.

I think there’s a lesson here for churches:  Churches that act like Radio Shacks will end up like Radio Shacks.  I know firsthand how hard it is to bring change to a church.  It feels like steering a cruise ship.  It takes time, energy, investment, visioncasting and a lot of love.  It’s not easy, but it can be done.  I remember fighting to get lyrics projected in a church decades ago.  There were some who viewed video projection as a violation of the second commandment.  I remember fighting to allow the guitar to have a place alongside the piano on a church stage.  Recently, I successfully navigated the process of adding haze and moving lights.  Progress is an uphill battle, and we shouldn’t expect it to be any different.

It gets intensely practical for me when I receive negative feedback.  I thought our church did an “A+” job on Easter of presenting ourselves to the community, and most people agreed.  But there’s always that one guy, that one email.  He began the email by complimenting how the church had doubled in size in the past few years.  Then he went on to list the things he would like changed — for example the length of the songs (which are 4 minutes on average, by the way).  It failed to dawn on him that the changes he opposed were precisely the reasons why we had grown.

Progress isn’t supposed to be easy.  If ministry is easy, you’re probably coasting.  You’re probably resting.  You’re probably comfortable.  Just remember, Radio Shack was comfortable too.

Let Radio Shack be a warning to us all.  Everyday, we must fight against fossilization in our churches.  The last thing we want to do is to look back in a few years on a post-apocalyptic scenes — empty parking lots, empty pews and abandoned buildings — and wonder what happened.

The Sound Booth – Church AV Design

Sound Booth 2014

About five months ago, my church, Sunlight Community Church, opened a 730-seat sanctuary in South Florida.  As the Associate Pastor of Worship and Media, it was my privilege to help design this space.  Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share some things we learned along the way, with the goal of helping out other churches who are considering doing the same.

I’m starting with the sound booth, in response to questions I received on the Church Technical Leaders forum at The City.  Here’s a little pictorial tour of why we did what we did:

Sound Booth 2015 12

The first decision you will have to make is where to place the sound booth in the room.  It is not ideal to place your sound person in the corner or against a wall (definitely not in another room or behind glass).  Why?  You want your sound person to hear and experience exactly what the crowd is hearing so that he can accurately mix.  That’s why we placed the sound booth where we did.

Imagine placing your sound person in an area where there is less bass.  He mixes the kick drum and bass guitar loud enough to make it sound right where he is but, in the process, blows everyone else’s eardrums out.  See what I’m getting at?  Location is important because the laws of physics are immutable.  Sound waves are sound waves, and there is no amount of processing that will alter how they behave in a physical space.  Don’t fight it.  Embrace it.

Sound Booth 2015 09

Given how prominent the sound booth was to be, we had to make it look nice.  We are pretty proud of how finished it looks.

Sound Booth 2015 03

One of our sound booth’s unique features is its slanted top.  I think I got this idea from the great Mike Sessler.  Do you have people who like to place drinks on the ledge right next to your super-expensive soundboard?  How do you stop that from happening?  I, for one, do not believe in signs.  You can print “DO NOT SET DRINKS HERE” on hot pink paper in 100 pt. Comic Papyrus, but people will still ignore it.  It would be much more effective to design a system that prevents behaviors you do not want.  Our system was to put a slanted ledge on our booth that makes it physically impossible for this area to get cluttered up.

Sound Booth 2015 07

To prevent unsightly cords from covering the walls, we designed a way to run them through the walls.  From inside the walls, they go under the raised floor and then come back up where they need to go.

Sound Booth 2015 04

If you peel back the carpet, you can see the we have a “computer flooring system.”  It’s designed for use in computer labs.  You can pull up sections of it and run wires anywhere.

Sound Booth 2015 05

Pulling up the squares is insanely easy, and look at all those wires we’re hiding!

Sound Booth 2015 11

We chose iMacs because, as they are all-in-ones, there are less wires.  They’re also powerful enough to run all our systems easily.  One, for instance, is running 64 channels of Waves Soundgrid Multirack and 64 channels of Logic for virtual soundcheck. Another is running four discreet HD video outputs from ProPresenter without missing a beat.  But that’s another post for another day.

Sound Booth 2014

Of course, it should go without saying that you need to take careful measurements before building.  We needed enough space for 4-5 people to easily move around without hitting each other.  We wanted all media volunteers to be in the same tech booth so that they could help each other (i.e., no separate booth for lyrics or lighting).  The depth of the Midas console determined the depth of the desk.  The combined width of all the components determined the width.  The height was determined by what our operators were comfortable running while standing.

All in all, we are very happy with the way our sound booth turned out, and it is helping us provide a top-notch experience for our guests each week, which is our highest priority.  If you have any questions, comment below, and I’ll try to answer them!

 

Just Do It!

Instagram

Our youth group’s Instagram account proves that you can create good designs today with just an iPhone and a few free or inexpensive apps.

I recently read a quote that really resonated with me:

The world is changing so fast that there are days when the person who says it can’t be done is interrupted by the person who is doing it.

Increasingly, the impossible is becoming possible, and this is great news for churches.  Case in point:  Our youth director and his team are churning out engaging videos at a really high rate.  They’re growing a nice following on social media.  And here’s the kicker:  They’re doing it all with only an iPhone and a few free or inexpensive apps.  In fact, they’re able to create in a few minutes what I could not create in few hours with a $3,000 computer and $1,000 of Adobe software.

This is really exciting!  It means that many churches don’t really need expensive cameras or software anymore*, and they don’t need to do a nationwide search for someone who knows how to use them*.  They just need to tap into the potential of their youth and young adults.  Instead of being threatened, why not enable and empower those people.  Mentor them with the experience you have and set them free to use their talents!

Watch out if you’re busy complaining about how something is not possible because you’re about to be interrupted by the person who’s not only doing it, but making it look easy!  People like me who love planning, budgeting, spreadsheets and perfectionism sometimes need to realize we’re going to get lapped if we keep overcomplicating things.  Sometimes you need to stop thinking so much and just do it!

P.S.  Check out our youth group’s new Website, sunlightyouth.org and their Instagram account.

  • I do believe that medium- to large-sized churches (350+ attendance) still need a trained media director who knows how to white balance a video camera, use aperture-priority mode on a still camera, set mic levels properly, etc.  This is a different post for a different day, though.

Worship with a Side of “Oops!”

This video is simply titled “Eddy Falls Leading Worship,” but I think that’s something of an understatement! I don’t think I’ve laughed this hard in a long time.

We’re all human, and we all make mistakes, even worship leaders! I’ve started a song with a capo in the position. Least week, I accidentally said, “twerk,” while talking to our daughter church’s tech team.  I once accidentally said “gay” in a prayer on stage, and then I couldn’t stop saying it, again and again and again in the same prayer. But at least I haven’t fallen though a cardboard Christmas set… yet.

What’s your funniest worship leading blooper?

Meet the Parents

Meet Roger and Zela. A civil engineer. A secretary. A deacon. A church volunteer. A photographer. A high school valedictorian. An audio enthusiast. My parents.

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and after looking at the list I just typed, I guess they’re right. I may not be a civil engineer, but other than that, I’m pretty much a carbon copy of these two, and it goes deeper than the fact that my dad and I both love cameras and audio equipment.

For better or worse (mainly better), I am what I am because of these two. All the hobbies I enjoy today and all the skills I use to make a living can be traced back to investments they made in me. Things like piano lessons, tennis lessons, video cameras, PTA meetings, class trips — one sacrifice after another.

They say they’re proud of the man I’ve become, but what would I have become without them… and so many others? What if I hadn’t gone to a school with teachers who loved me, saw a spark in me and fanned it to flame? What if I hadn’t had great mentors over the years who took me under their wings? Where would I be?

All this makes me think a few things: First, don’t delay saying, “Thank you.” Dad is turning 90 this year. Every time they come to Florida, they say it may be their last, as chronic illness and arthritis take their toll on him. As they left this time and headed back to snow-covered West Virginia, I made sure to thank them for all that they did for me. I told them I loved them, even though that doesn’t come natural for us introverted Whitts.

Second, investment in others pays the best dividends. Looking at my own life, I see a powerful direct correlation between what my parents sewed and what I’m reaping now. They got me started on a good trajectory, and I want to do the same for others. What if we all had that mindset?

Third, we need to have compassion on those who did not have the blessing of a good upbringing. It’s not their fault they went to a school with incompetent teachers who didn’t care about them. It’s not their fault their parents were strung out on drugs. It’s not their fault no one modeled responsibility for them or gave them the skills and tools they would need to be able to get a good job. Maybe we should stop judging them and instead offer a helping hand.

Who do you need to thank today? Who can you invest in today? Who needs compassion today?

In Memoriam

Cemetary

The first thing you notice is the stillness, the quiet that gently wraps around you, even in a place of death. I’m standing in a mausoleum just outside town, having just guided a man named Dario though the most difficult day of his life. He has said a final goodbye to his wife, kissed her on the cheek and watched through tears as workers took her casket away.

He and the others who loved Mary Lou so much have begun walking to their cars, but I stay behind. I find myself surrounded by walls of numbers and letters, names and dates, each one with a silent story to tell.

Mary Lou’s story was one of finding hope in a hopeless situation. She had been living under a medical death sentence handed down in 2004 when she learned she had a chronic, untreatable condition that would take her life — and yet she had joy.

She was confident her life would not end when she stopped breathing. Everyone who spoke at her memorial service commented on the peace she found in Christ. Every last person. Even people who didn’t believe what she believed!

She loved to tell the Good News, and even in her death, she was spreading the Gospel. She knew that Jesus paid the penalty for all the wrong she had done, bringing her into God’s family. There was a place for her in heaven! That was her story.

In the quiet of this mausoleum, I’m surrounded by thousands more names, each engraved into stone, each with a narrative to tell. And I can’t help but wonder what mine will be. Will every single person at my memorial service say just how much the Gospel impacted my life? Will even those who don’t believe in God remark on what peace I found in my faith? Or will it be a hodgepodge of, “He was a good guy,” and, “He did a lot of good things.”

I, for one, hope no one talks about how good I was. I wasn’t good. I was a sinner from my first day to my last, and if I was less sinful than I could have been, it was only by the grace of God. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Let’s not turn me into a caricature of myself to make people feel more comfortable at my memorial service. There’s no comfort in pretending the deceased were perfect. But there’s tremendous comfort in proclaiming that imperfect people who make a ton of mistakes can still be forgiven and go to heaven.

This is my story. This is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long.

What will your story be?

P.S. The Gospel seeds Mary Lou was sewing in her sickness and death are already germinating and growing. Her husband now attends our church, and her daughter in New York has begun reading the Bible and attending church as well. Thank you, God, for the privilege of being a part of her story. Rest in peace, Mary Lou.

Cemetary

The Gospel is for Everyone!

Sometimes we pastors tend to forget that the Good News is not just for those outside the walls of our church. It’s still good news for us too, and we desperately need it everyday. This quote from Paul Tripp explains why:

If you are in ministry and you are not reminding yourself again and again of the now-ism of the gospel, that is, the right-here, right-now benefits of the grace of Christ, you will be looking elsewhere to get what can be found only in Jesus. If you are not feeding your soul on the realities of the presence, promises, and provisions of Christ, you will ask the people, situations, and things around you to be the messiah that they can never be. If you are not attaching your identity to the unshakable love of your Savior, you will ask the things in your life to be your Savior, and it will never happen. If you are not requiring yourself to get your deepest sense of well-being vertically, you will shop for it horizontally, and you will always come up empty. If you are not resting in the one true gospel, preaching it to yourself over and over again, you will look to another gospel to meet the needs of your unsettled heart.