Archive for May 2011

Pointing the Right Way

May 24, 2011

    Saturday I completed my first season as a sports grandparent.  Our not quite four year old grandson finished his soccer season in Upward soccer, a league made possible by the gracious folks at First Baptist Church Hendersonville.

One of the great things about Upward Soccer (and other Upward sports leagues) is that the intent of games and practices is not just “to win,” but rather to teach these kids sportsmanship and other life skills and to teach the rudiments of the game, in this case soccer.  Organized soccer for three, four, and five-year-olds most of the time could hardly be called “organized.”  It is a swarming process whereby a ball is out there on the field somewhere and children in two different colored outfits hover around that sphere in varying degrees of entanglement.  It really is pretty funny and lots of fun.  Every now and then a parent has to be reminded to keep their cool, and that reminder usually comes via “the look” from their spouse.  Grandparents, on the other hand, are quite content just to see their grandchild on the field and active.  It provides golden opportunities to yell affirmations to your grandchild.  I love it.  After all, whatever a grandchild does is great!  Or in the case of my wife’s description, “cute!”  As in.”oh, that’s soooo cute.”  In my book that is an in appropriate exclamation at a sporting event, but I digress.

At one of the last games our grandson’s team’s coaches caught on to the fact that the children may need some ongoing reminders to help them grasp the basics of this game.  That may have come just after our grandson scored a goal in the opposing team’s net, or when one of the little boys mowed over two other kids on his own team when chasing a ball that was already out of bounds.  Anyway, whatever the prompting, the coaches began an effective coaching technique.  Before a ball was put into play, they gathered the children and had them first point to the ball, then they had them point to the net that was the goal for which they were striving.  It was amazing!  The kids actually kicked the ball in the right direction.  Great coach work which made for happy parents and grandparents (for the most part).  It was important to be sure the basics were in place before these children could start progressing with more complicated skills (like passing the ball to someone on their own team instead of the other team or their grandma).

I began to muse that there was a metaphor here for the church in worship, and for worship leaders.  So often we enter a service presuming that everyone has a sense of what the objective is and where the proverbial goal lies.  The fact may well be that there are numerous goals represented by a roomful of church goers.  Perhaps like the children at the soccer game, when action begins that looks like worship, we engage in lots of busy-ness and action without a clear understanding of the true objective or the direction of this thing we call worship.  Our terminology can be as misleading as our motivations.  I have a conviction that people tend to know when we have mixed motives, and I have a deeper conviction that the Lord knows every thought and is looking into our heart continuously.

For a worship leader to be pointing the way to the object and the goal of worship, he or she must know it themselves.  We misunderstand such a concept at times to think this means we are to know what the intended outcome is to be.  One of the reasons I am not fond of some of our worship leader terms is that they imply a subtle arrogance.  A disturbing truth as stated by Frances Chan among others is that, “The fact is that without making a conscious choice to depend on the Holy Spirit, we can do a lot.”  He further states that “a growing and energetic gathering is not necessarily evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work.”  Musicians and theologians are faced with temptations to place their talents and mental abilities on display.  In doing so there may be a positive response by those so inspired.  We may have expended lots of energy and resource on assuring man’s applause or general good will, only to find that we have been moving toward the wrong goal.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. (Gal 5:16-17)

 

Lord, without your word we have nothing to say, and without your Spirit we are helpless.  Give us the Holy Spirit, so that we may lead your people in prayer, proclaim the good news, and gratefully praise your name.  Startle us with your truth, and open our minds to your Spirit; that we may be one with your Son our Lord, and serve as disciples, through Jesus Christ. Amen

– prayer for ministers’ worship preparation in The Worshipbook

In Christ alone,

Paul

Heart Revolution

May 16, 2011

Author Dallas Willard reminds us, “the revolution of Jesus is in the first place and continuously a revolution of the human heart or spirit.”  The people that enter our worship services have their hearts dragged in many directions by the world that they live in and too often find themselves powerless to resist the pull.  As a result  the Jesus direction lifted up in gathered worship is thrown off course.  A collision course is set for real “worship wars” whereby sin and unchristian attitudes clash with  the presence of a holy righteous God.  The battle is waged as the Holy Spirit convicts on one hand and the father of lies distorts or dismisses truth on the other.  The hope we find in confession, forgiveness, and proclamation of faith are rooted in Christ.  A true change of heart made possible only through His work brings His people to take the presence of His Kingdom into the places where they live.  Christian worship reorients us to the Christ-following path.  The ongoing heart transformation is needed such that Christ is formed in us (Gal 4:19).  Songs, psalms, prayers, sermons, testimonies, baptisms, and sharing communion all participate in the revelation-response rhythm of worship that glorifies Him.

Distractions to Christ-centered worship abound, and far too often distractions begin with those called to serve by leading, either in preaching or music.  It makes sense that this would be a Hell-birthed tactic to circumvent worship. After all, if the leaders are distracted or worse yet, derailed, surely the followers will plummet as well.  Distractions come in many forms – feuds over music styles, infatuation with dramatic or technical prowess, obsession with artistic expression for its own sake, manipulative egotistical maneuvers, infidelity in relationships, etc.  In recent weeks I have been made aware of a flurry of worship leaders either dismissed from their positions, or placed on notice to move on.  In other situations church battles that have been bubbling under the surface for some time have erupted to full blown disunity.  Each of these scenarios has its own story, and I am certainly not privy to all information by any means, but I know enough to know that somewhere in each saga there is a common theme; distraction from Christ-centeredness.  Whether laymen or vocational ministers, absence of Christ-like attitudes among church leaders cries out for correction.  Biblical orthodoxy and grace-filled orthopraxy are basic to Christian leadership.  Lord help us.

I often make reference to a book title by  G.K. Beale.  The book itself is a deeply convicting study of idolatry entitled We Become What We Worship. When I work with churches in studies of worship renewal I often muse that an expansion of this book title’s logic could lead one to conclude that we might be able to tell what or who a church (or person for that matter) worships by who or what they are becoming. Churches, as institutional organizations, so often get caught up in building buildings, promoting themselves through marketing schemes, and many other distracting endeavors, that they give evidence of worshiping themselves.  Even gathered worship can become a self-gratifying effort toward an experience, usually cloaked in worship-speak.

Let us keep our eyes fixed on Christ.  Worship centered in Him will surely lead us to become more Christ-like, exemplified in the way we treat one another and others.  Worship Leaders, we depend on you to help us.

In Christ,

Paul

Worship Without Faith

May 10, 2011

“Worship experience.”  It is the announced objective of churches, concerts, youth and college group gatherings in all kinds of settings.  In most of the popular worship leadership and music producing publications it is highlighted as if it were the ultimate purpose of the same gatherings.  Indeed, in many, it is.  In the most misguided (one could even say blasphemous) overreach it is even announced as the foundational purpose of life itself.  People seeking out a worship experience are actually just consumers shopping for their chosen experience du jour.  As market driven church leaders adapt church lingo and programs to scratch this proverbial itch to find a satisfying worship experience I fear many have unintentionally led people far astray from the biblical foundation of worshiping in “spirit and truth,” (John 4:23-25)  Worship in spirit and truth calls for faith without which there is no spiritual life, and without which God cannot be pleased (Heb 11:6). There is no such thing as genuine Christian worship without faith. The miraculous truth is that Christ has become our High Priest and provided atonement (Heb 9).  Our faith is in Him completely.  Only in Him and through His provision can we rest that our worship will be acceptable.

Some may wonder why I am addressing this to the readers of my weekly epistles, which are mostly worship pastors and music leaders.  Two reasons: #1 – you are probably most tempted, or sadly in many cases expected (by pastor and people) to provide this experience-oriented direction.  After all, we musicians have been trained in capturing people’s attention, conveying art and aiming intensely at “the audience’s” emotions.  (Please do not stop reading here for this word of caution needs fuller explanation.)  #2 – I would hope you might be able to help your senior pastor and other church leaders to grasp a more sound practice, you are possibly in the best position (though uncomfortable) to help worshipers move from this culture-contrived line of selfish thinking. 

Let me hasten to say, worship IS life!  Worship IS our ultimate priority and intended eternal destiny.  Worship in the biblical sense, however, is a far cry from an inspiration buzz or moment of self-aggrandizement that is so often what is being sought out when looking for a worship experience.  At its root one (worship experience) emphasizes self and the other (true worship) is rooted in the Triune God Himself.  The best I can decipher is that our point of departure has been a slowly developed emphasis on personal experience, yea…on self, and such emphasis has resulted in a deflated posture of Christ in the “worship experience.”  God forbid.

Let me also hasten to say that resting faith wholly in Jesus Christ, and trusting Him to make our engagement/communion/worship with God worthy to be received by Him, often results in a glorious experience characterized sometimes by exuberant joy, sometimes by convicting tears, and always by humbling awe.  Whatever experience comes to us is secondary, his glory is primary.  The root problem is exacerbated when we chase after the experience rather than the exaltation of the Lord.

As we guide others in worship gatherings we take on the overwhelming challenge of lifting up Christ above all else.  We are dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit.  As we select materials to be used in gathered worship we submit ourselves to the arresting discipline of biblical integrity.  We are bound and at once freed by faithful adherence to the Word.  Fellow leaders of gathered worship, join me in confronting the cultural spirit of division and offer the victorious power of the Gospel that overcomes sin and self. Style preferences disappear in the blazing radiance of Jesus. 

            Be still my soul! The Lord is on thy side

            Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.

            Leave to thy God to order and provide

            In every change He faithful will remain

            Be still my soul! They best, thy heavenly Friend

            Thro stormy ways leads to a joyful end.

                                                – Katherine von Schlegel

In Christ alone,

Paul

____

Celebrating Death?

May 2, 2011

  Pastors and worship leaders will likely find yourselves in challenging territory this week as you plan Sunday worship in a week that has begun with the late Sunday night announcement that America’s public enemy #1 has been killed.  This on the heals of devastating tornados and the aftermath of sadness at loss of life, loss of property, and loss of livelihood.  I was riding home with my sons and son in law from a weekend fun trip when we got the news, first from a facebook post (I was not reading it and driving, it was my oldest son via i-phone).  We then turned on the radio to get tuned in to hear if it was true.  Confirmed – the ten year hunt for Osama bin Laden was complete.  News of this magnitude cannot go unmentioned when the church body gathers for their next engagement of shared worship.  To the contrary, our opportunity to speak into our present context is perhaps strongest during such moments.  As with the response to last week’s horrible tornados, media outlets may even care to know how believers respond in such landmark moments.  Our worship services may once again draw inquisitive attenders who want to hear someone offer a “thus saith the Lord” in response to life events of these recent days.  Our witness will include what we do in our liturgy (work of worship by the people) in the current context.

I have written in blog and book form previously to address tensions of worship.  I have particular appreciation that our hymnody and worship singing offer aid to help us express either aspect of any such given sense of tension.  No doubt God’s holiness and wrath seem to us in tension with His grace, mercy, and everlasting love.  Our righteous indignation is most always raised at someone else’s sin, not our own.  At the same time our inquisition as to how a good God who is sovereign could allow things to happen like the 9-11 tragedy or the tornado events of last week, runs smack dab into a sense of triumph when everybody’s “bad guy” is not just captured, but mowed down like the villain in a scene from a Bruce Willis movie.  We seem to breathe a collective victory sigh sensing justice has been served.  Yet, just days ago we presumably were called to “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

 I believe words of caution for us may be appropriate lest we slip into too close a correlation between our citizenship as fellow countrymen with our citizenship in a Kingdom not of this world.  I have turned this morning to a few people important in my own life’s journey for some perspective.  I re-read portions of an early copy of friend and respected educator, Rob Hewell’s dissertation on the politics of worship in the United States.  He sounds important cautions about confusing the message of Gospel with a message of nationalistic triumph.  The story of worship is God’s story, and His alone. Of course that same reminder of God’s metanarrative is a central message of Robert Webber.  More recently David Platt’s books have challenged our faith as Christ followers in direct relationship to our cultural context and its temptations.  A former pastor’s son and now professor of systematic theology and Christian thought at Bethel Seminary posted a convicting reminder this morning focusing on Ezekiel 18:23.

Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? – Ezekiel 18:23

For a challenging read see: http://kylearoberts.com/wordpress/?p=430

We just celebrated Resurrection Sunday and Christ’s conquering of death.  I believe it is crucial that we be certain as Christ-followers that we do not now turn around and glorify death.  Worship leaders will set the tone of gathered worship through the songs we select and the timbre of the tone of worship.

I went to bed last night a bit disturbed by the news video clips of what appears to be mindless celebration of death.  Put turbans and more meager street clothes on the people in some of the pictures, change the colors on the flags and it looked a bit like news video from the streets of Tehran on September 12, 2001.  Judging by the age group of those clips and the current climate I think some of that was no doubt political theater.  I woke up this morning to calls for photographs that would satisfy an appetite for proving death.  I understand we will get our wish for such gore later.

These scenes are significantly different from the somber reflection of some of the families of loved ones actually killed in the World Trade Center attacks. I can only imagine that they have been reminded of the painful stench of death.  No singing of Ding Dong the Witch is Dead will bring their loved ones back. Equally sobering is the fact of effect on those brave soldiers who carried out this mission and other attempts like it.  I am quickly reminded as well of our own music ministers who have sons and daughters serving their country in such dangerous times.

I pray you will find the Lord’s wisdom in preparing for Sunday worship.  As Rob Hewell again reminds us, “The Church’s faithful worship describes a new reality represented by the reign of God in Christ.”  May we sing, pray, preach, respond, and especially GO in light of this new reality!

 Faithfully,          

Paul


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