Archive for January 2010

Considering Music’s Functions in Worship

January 26, 2010

Do you ever contemplate music’s function in worship.  I don’t mean this song, or that song, but the bigger picture of how music works in worship.  If you have read these columns at all you know that I am one to encourage reflections on all aspects of worship to deepen understanding, and to discover valuable gems that may lay beneath the surface.  When I discover something I have not seen before, or look at something in a new way I like to call others’ attention to it, especially if I find it particularly enriching in my own experience.  Contemplating the function of music in worship holds potential to unearth some discoveries for you and me regarding worship’s mystery and its effect on life and faith.  It also seems critical that we do so from time to time as those who have responsibility for selecting, preparing, and leading music in the worship life of our congregations.

In her article on Music in Worship Kathryn Nichols notes the dichotomy between words and music that causes us to consider them separately when contemplating music’s role in worship.  Along that same line another author cautions that we sometimes assume that because we have considered words we assume we have considered the music as well.  It seems important to think about each of them separately as well as together.  Nichols continues to reflect that “music in combination with text sung to God’s glory becomes an event.” (Kathryn Nichols, “Church Music as Event” in The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Vol IV).  Thinking about this event is important as we leaders think through how song will be prepared, presented, and reflected upon in the flow of worship.  This is far more than providing for a satisfactory key relationship and segue that seems to “fit.”  Consider this; projected on the screen is a set of words.  Played by the instruments, music floats around the room addressing the ears of worshipers.  Married together for corporate expression both words and music take wings and become the expression of our corporate and individual response, confession, or praise to God.  We may sing our proclamation, or demonstrate outwardly what we sense internally, and this proclamation bears witness to His grace and our faith.

Nichols goes on to recognize that an aspect of repetitive singing is that we begin to believe what we sing.  The music of the church has been powerful to instruct our faith and worship.  Spiritual formation is an easily recognizable function of music.  It helps us discover, but it also helps us remember; not only in the moment of the singing event, but later when the tune continues to escort the lyric through our mind’s eye and into our conscience in times of need, or celebration.  We need to evaluate music not only by its “hook” that keeps it in our heads, but also by its suitability to carry a sense of the character of the words to which it is wed.

Singing binds us together and forms community.  This is a powerful reality that is far too easy to miss if we become enamored with our own performance, or preoccupied with the excellence of the music for its own sake.  In this action music can give us a vision of what it means to be one in Christ.  Music that fosters a bold unison in proclaiming Christ can drown out discord and aid in the rally of our hearts.

Music offers opportunity to serve one another through our singing, and even our listening, and reflection on the moment.  I have recently written in our state Baptist paper on the subject of intergenerational worship.  I’ll not repeat that information from the “Church Health Matters,” but will reiterate how important it is that we recognize our need to serve one another through our singing and music, which includes serving generations other than our own. (Phil 2:3)  What a privileged opportunity to be Christ-like in our singing!

Praise, Prayer, Proclamation, Story, Grace Gift, and Offering are all perhaps the most obvious functions of music in our gathered worship.  It is the careful responsibility of the worship music leaders to study the material to be slected


Worship that Disturbs

January 18, 2010

Efforts to “sell our worship” in some of the church growth strategies of recent years have led many church leaders down a wrong path of providing worship that unveils what might be called a partial gospel.  I can remember a conversation I had with one of the early popular Christian artists who told me of being asked to sing for a very popular church that was broadcast regularly on nationwide television.  She said she was excited about the opportunity until she turned in her songlist and was instructed that no “blood songs” would be appropriate for worship.  The exchange that ensued unveiled an attitude that disallowed the gore of the gospel story, opting to focus solely on what might be called the happy side of life.

While most worship music leaders and pastors I know would be as appalled as I was about such an attitude, I wonder sometimes if we review our own worship material enough to know just how well we are presenting the full Gospel over an extended period of time.  Since most of us in Baptist life do not use the lectionary or any other prescribed form for planning our preaching or worship material selection, we are left to our own designs.  Of course, we seek to remain sensitive to the Spirit, and may follow other forms to guide us in worship planning, such as expository preaching through books of the Bible, or seasonal emphases for our church.  It seems important, however, to back up occasionally to view what occurs over a number of years, over a number of worship services to evaluate whether or not we are presenting the full Gospel on a regular basis, and not distorting our church’s view of the character of God.

Tensions are a part of worship.  Transcendence and Immanence of God are not at odds, yet do create a certain tension for us as we worship Him.  Many worship songs focus only on one side of this tension, which may not be a problem in itself unless we begin to string together only songs that present one side of the tension over an extended period of time, thus distorting the view of God.  Presenting the tension may be somewhat disturbing for a culture that wants to be able to either have everything explained rationally, or who want to feel the experiential warm fuzzy of resolution.  The full Gospel necessitates our presenting the whole truth that God is wholly other-holy Other – and at once “closer than a brother” in Christ Jesus.  It is important to express these truths along with their appropriate tensions in our worship singing as well as having them proclaimed through the preached Word, where they are revealed from God Himself.

Presenting the resolution of the cross without the horror of its cost is to misrepresent the glory, and in fact, presents no resolution or glory at all.  The cross is disturbing.  The “blood songs” are disturbing.  There is tension inherent in a “suffering Savior,” yet this tension is at the heart of our worship, and it is in presenting the fullness of the cross’s glory that we can proclaim salvation.  There is tension in a wrathful, jealous, holy God who is at once the One whose love endures forever; the One who forgives, and forgives and frees us to truly live.  These tensions are disturbing, yet powerful and at the center of worship.  We must be certain as worship leaders that over time we guide our people to not only allow, but embrace the disturbance as integral to our worship, centering our proclamation “in Christ alone,” as presented in the whole of Scripture.

            “This gift of love and righteousness

              Scorned by the ones He came to save

              ‘Til on that cross as Jesus died

              The wrath of God was satisfied;

              For every sin on Him was laid

              Here in the death of Christ I live.”

                                    –Keith Getty & Stuart Townend ©2002

How great is our God!


Reflecting God’s Beauty and Glory

January 12, 2010

Having returned last weekend from a Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies alumni seminar on “Grounding Worship in the Doctrine of God” led by Dr. John Witvliet of Calvin Institute for Worship, I would like to simply pass along to you some important quotes from the seminar.  I will attempt to site these appropriately as indicated on printed material and/or my sketchy notes from the enriching sessions with Dr. Witvliet.  I was joined by fellow Tennesseeans Jonathan and Glenda Nelms along with 15 or 18 fellow alumni for this conference.  Before offering those quotes, let me just share an impression on my present state of mind following these sessions:

I find it strangely appropriate that I am speechless at the overwhelming nature of our discussions at this conference.  I am struck with awe at the mere thought of the beauty of God.  I am deafened by the volume of ways and means that God has revealed His beauty, most perfectly in the Christ.  Indeed, like Simeon “we have seen His salvation.”  “We have seen His glory.” (Luke 2:29; John 1:14)  I am deeply convicted at the proclivity we have to make idols for our worship; to attempt to construct a god of our own liking.  When speaking or singing of God’s “glory” we tend to project puffy clouds, peaceful oceans, and trickling rivers, and avoid the “consuming fire,” (Ex 24:17) and the “weightiness of His glory.” (2 Cor 4:17)  John Witvliet spoke of considering a biblical definition of glory as “a recipe,” which included

  • One part weightiness
  • One part luminosity
  • One part benevolence or goodness
  • One part transparency


An aspect of worship’s reach for me is this point that I come to when I run short of words to articulate the sense of God.  It is the point of faith for me, where I am truly speechless, yet conceive of the Lord who has spoken that He is “the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)  As you read these, I pray your spirit will be stirred and your mind’s imagination engaged as you consider God’s glory.  Perhaps, like me, you will find the need to bow down, and recommit to presenting a fully biblical view of Him in your church’s worship.

“What idea of God do we carry around with us?  Is that idea a source of comfort?  Fear?  Guilt?  Philip Yancey tells of the experience of George Buttrick, former chaplain at Harvard. Frequently students came in his office and announced ‘I don’t believe in God anymore.’  His reply?  ‘Tell me what kind of God you don’t believe in.  I probably don’t believe in that God either’ (The Jesus I Never Knew, 264).  Often, our deepest spiritual problems have less to do with God than with our less-than-perfect ideas of God.”

“The Psalms often invite us to meditate on God’s mighty deeds: ;I will meditate on your deeds in the watches of the night.;  The idea is to take some time to have our distorted ideas of God chiseled away.  The genius of that practice is to rid us of the subtle little idolatries that crust over our soul.  This is also the point of the singing we do in church.  When we sing in worship, we’re not only practicing our pivot away from the false gods of the world, to the true God.  We’re also getting straight the kind of God we worship (which is why the words of our songs are so important, and why a balanced diet is so important.”    (John Witvliet, excerpt from sermon on Is. 41-42)

His glory manifest in both creation (Psalm 8, 19:1; Isaiah 6:3) and in redemption


“Thus in worship we will rightly resist any way of talking about this that pits the glory of Christ as being overagainst that of creation.  The glory of Christ may be even more luminous than the Canadian Rockies, but it is not opposed to it and only heightens our gratitude for it. . . . And we will come to realize that divine glory is partly studied by pastors and theologians, partly by nurses, biologists, and chemists.”

2Cor. 3:18:  And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Blessings as you contemplate His glory and reflect His glory!

And God showed up

January 4, 2010

“…and God showed up.”  I have heard this phrase used by many who want to indicate a special sense of the Lord’s presence among worshipers at a given service, at a revival, a concert, or at some other special event planned with spiritual refreshment in mind.  To my knowledge I have not used those words myself, but I can certainly relate to the spirit of that terminology, even though it gives me pause to evaluate the total picture that the phrase may communicate.  I am a bit concerned that saying “God showed up” brings up questions I probably do not really want to create in the minds of worshipers, much less unbelievers.  For instance, Does that mean we sometimes have worship and God doesn’t “show up?”   What did we do differently if that is the case?  And how is it we claim to know one way or the other whether He is or is not present?

The point I would like to make in this week’s newsletter and blog is that when we gather to worship God is present.  He is not present because we gathered to worship; rather He is present because He is God. The psalmist says that God “does what he pleases.” (Ps 115:3) Scripture reveals His nature, His character, and His power.  That is why it is crucial that we center our worship in the Word of God, and make it our heart’s desire to offer Him what He desires of us, rather than always seeking what He can do for us.  I am writing about this now, because we have crossed the threshold of another new year, in fact a new decade.  We need to lead worship of a God Who is present.  We made it to 2010, and it seems despite many problems, concerns and challenges, life goes on.  The Lord is still on His throne.  I have a song to sing and a Word to declare.  “I will sing praise as long as I have breath.” (Ps 104:33)  I did not feel the change from ’09 to ’10, it just happened.  In our worship gatherings our need is not so much to try to “feel God” and thus be able to proclaim he “showed up,” as it is to faith God, and to proclaim He is!  We need to pronounce His presence, His sufficiency, and the Truth of His Gospel in our worship, both gathered and beyond.  The issue in our worship gatherings is not a question of whether God shows up nearly as much as it is one of whether we show up!  God is completely true to His promises, His Word, His covenant made through the shed blood of Christ.  We are given to break our promises as sheep who have turned their own way, and fallen quite short of the glory of God.

Our faith is in Christ.  As we faith God’s presence in Christ through the Holy Spirit in our worship, we will more effectively proclaim the Truth of His presence.  When we “show up” week after week, year after year, we follow the admonition to “forsake not the assembling of yourselves as the manner of some is.” (Heb 10:24)  As ministers who proclaim the Gospel in song we need to have a certainty about our demeanor and spirit as we gather with brothers and sisters in Christ.  We need to be certain that when we are at worship, that we have really “shown up” ourselves.  That is to say that we are really present in the moment of worship with a confidence that God is with us. If we will allow it to, such a realization changes the way we sing, pray, listen, give, and respond.  The Lord’s presence among us in worship may not become apparent to us in an “aha” moment, or in a dramatic thrill that stirs our emotion.  It may be made known after the gathering has ended when we think differently about someone, or something than we did before.  We may realize the work of the Spirit long after the last note has sounded and we are recalling a pointed word of a sermon, or a deep lament of a prayer, or a resounding “Amen” of spirited singing.  We may come away from a worship gathering on a given week thinking it was “just another Sunday,” when actually we were joined by brothers and sisters in Christ, members of one body in a communion of love, united with Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

“May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.” (1 Thes 3:12-13)

The grace and peace of our Lord be with you,


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