Archive for January 2012

Winning Worship

January 31, 2012

   This is not an article about worship on Superbowl Sunday.  To the contrary I want to invite you to a much larger view of worship not only on this coming Sunday but every Sunday, and ask you to consider the victorious tone that surely should characterize, or at the very least, underscore every service of Christian worship.   I think this is important especially as we approach the Lenten season.

I have written on this subject before and always find it challenging to address Triumphant worship insofar as today’s church culture too frequently confuses victorious tone with happy clappy escapism.  Robert Webber says, “The current crisis of the church is that many define it out of the world’s narrative.” In this setting the song of celebration is presumed to have the same tone as our favorite football team’s fight song.  The theme of winning, as we perceive it, is often steeped in our view of success.  Instead, I want to remind fellow worship planners and leaders of our responsibility to cast the victorious vision before worshipers where God wins.  We have the opportunity to engage them in triumphant worship expression to the praise of His glorious grace.  This tone of victory results from what God has done (past) and what He is doing (present), and what He will do (future hope).

Consider how you might convey a sense of Christ-victory even as you prepare for worship this coming Lord’s Day.  As you plan and prepare consider these themes:

  • Christian worship is timeless
    • As old as time itself – Ancient
    • As lasting as eternity – without end – Future
    • Worship reflects a battle that has already been won and that for all eternity
    • In worship we win by surrender
    • The Victor desires the worshiper
    • Our unity is in Christ, not our ability to bring uniformity

As you plan each segment of corporate worship for your church consider how a victorious tone might help to shape and characterize the worship gathering.  Whether you publish an ordered worship guide or not, consider within the flow of the acts of the worshiping community ways that Christ’s triumph (past, present, and future) is being demonstrated or even fleshed out through worship expression.  This tone may be expressed as much through spirit as specific material.  For instance, the song What Wondrous Love Is This, sung in its minor key (material), is still full of the hope and promise and deep faith expression (spirit), “to God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing” (from Revelation).  In this wondrous love that takes us aback, “O my soul! O my soul!” there is sweet and transforming victory.

  • Gathering – entering His courts with praise (singing praise that reflects His sovereignty and Lordship over all creation), greetings and hospitality that recognize our unity in Christ (songs of unity, spirit, and fellowship-if a time of fellowship is observed encourage robust expressions of sincere welcome and not just “how ya doin?’” speak)
  • Prayer of Invocation – pray or sing scripture that assures worshipers of His presence. Could there be greater victory than Incarnation in our worship?
  • Confession – wherever we place this act in our free church tradition, it is crucial that we engage in confessing our bent toward sinning and ask forgiveness.  The victorious tone of His promise will closely follow
  • Assurance of Pardon – scripture whether read or sung proclaims His triumph over our sinful selves, “Prone to wonder, Lord I feel it.”
  • Word – read, sung, and responded to, the Word is central and authoritative in our retelling of the God story.  The Biblical record is a book of complete victory.  This is not just in the end (Revelation), but rather throughout.  The same is true and applicable for our lives in the present.
  • Table – whether the actual Lord’s Table, or what Constance Cherry calls alternate thanksgiving, the song of victory raises to its apex of crescendo in our partaking and response to Who Christ is, what He has done, and our full hope to feast with Him forevermore.  Music must surely permeate this portion of our worship
  • Sending – singing, covenanting with one another and committing ourselves to remain faithful.  We can sing our way out, greet and bid Christ’s presence as we prepare to go, or depart to a resounding musical theme (postlude) of victory – just do not let this time slide into a sense of “we’re outta here” as has too often been the case.  We have marching orders to live victoriously as Christ-bearers marked by our faith and baptism.

Trusting God’s Revelation in Worship

January 16, 2012

   In the introduction to his book, Simply Jesus, N.T. Wright is talking about “Jesus’s way of running the world….” which he states is through his followers.  Then he says, “The heart of their life is Spirit-led worship, through which they are constituted and energized as ‘the body of Christ.”

When I think of half-empty pews, superbowl Sundays, and tepid singing in our worship services, I wonder if we have failed to help the body of Christ to comprehend that herein we are “constituted and energized.”  Let me hasten to say I am convicted there is a vast difference in disciplining (disciple-ing) the church to “not forsake the assembling” while waiting upon the Lord on the one hand and running countless (pun intended) attendance campaigns and/or even scolding believers to be faithful church members on the other.  Hints of egocentric emphasis, “be sure to come and hear me _____ (sing) (preach)” can so quickly distract from the true center of Christian worship, the Christ, whose chosen bride we have become, into Whose likeness we are being formed.

All students of worship know well that the rhythm of Christian worship as demonstrated in the biblical narrative and in classic historic practice is Revelation and Response.  That is, God reveals Himself and we the people respond.  Since “God is Spirit and his worshipers worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24), it is difficult to know what His revelation may look like specifically.  Our opportunity in gathered worship is to show what He has done in times past, and how He has revealed Himself, then to pray and remain sensitive to His revelation in worship.  For worship leaders it is incumbent upon us to trust the Lord for revelation, and to do our planning and preparation in a way that will lift up the things of God, the acts of God, the person of Jesus, and wait upon and pray fervently for the movement of the Holy Spirit.

The well-known and loved proverb says,

Trust the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make straight your   path.  (Prov 3:5)

Just because we are leading others in worship does not mean that following the psalm’s admonition will come easy.  To the contrary, it can be difficult to trust and obey in the throes of parishioner demands, whether for certain music styles, their pet interests for emphasis, personnel, or just generally trying to please people in public worship.

As pastors and worship leaders charged with maintaining the coffers and finding ways to keep the lights on (yes, even robo, L.E.D. lights), we feel pressure to allow organic Spirit-trusting worship to turn toward something that falls far short of incarnational feasting on Presence of our Head and body gathered, the Sacred Word, the Table, and the mission of being sent to do kingdom work.  Attempts at commandeering worship to make it an attraction event that will pack the pews with inspiration- consumers reminds us how easily we humans function in non-faith based ways.

Would that we might trust the Lord in all our ways that He would make straight our paths, and that He might refresh and renew our worship through His revelation of Himself.

Do You Suffer from Worship Fatigue?

January 10, 2012

    Do you ever get tired of worship? Those who serve in worship leadership roles have good reason to be tired given the workload that comes with weekly worship preparation, not to mention the mental and emotional strain of a kind of forced creativity for which we strive week in and week out. But I wonder, too, if there is a kind of weariness that sets in when we meet week after week with the same people and find our faith drifting into what Thomas Long calls “a jaded sense that nothing of real significance happens here.” I wonder if we even have a notion of what it is we want or need to happen that would indicate real significance in gathered worship, at least from our perspective. What are we looking for? We are all probably familiar with an exhaustion that comes from working hard at something that just never seems to materialize in a fashion that can be seen (or heard) and quantified. Frustration sets in and along with it we just get plum pooped. If we are in a weary state for long it becomes (or may already be) a kind of funk. People around us know something is not right. In a worst case scenario we can slip into a depressive state. We long for a kind of worship payoff to help us know it is all worthwhile. It is hard to sense, especially if we have mixed messages about what a “payoff” in worship might look and feel like.

Like me, some of you may think from time to time that what you need is a break from worship. Those who handle holy things week in and week out may begin to fantasize about Sundays on the beach, at the movies, staying home to read the Sunday paper in our pj’s, or just sleeping as late as we darn well please. Surely there is something wrong with us when we are listening to a so-so sermon and singing worship songs with a band whose artistic goal is to sound like Air Supply. If we were brutally honest, we suspicion that our neighbors are hearing more dynamic stories at the movies, and are listening to whatever music they please after they get back from their casual trip to Starbucks, and that they are somehow richer from it than we will be from our gathering with church people doing church things in church ways. What’s more, we wouldn’t dare let any of those private daydreams be known, lest we lose our position of prominence, or worse yet, our livelihood. Can I get a witness? There is nothing inherently unchristian about any of those activities. In fact they all seem like wholesome endeavors exercised at the right time as a part of a balanced Christian life. If they are more imaginative for us than worship, then perhaps our sense of worship has been restricted by an oppressive pastor, a suppressed imagination, or simply an undisciplined mind or heart.

Those who know much about my work and emphasis with fellow worship leaders and pastors know that I tend to accentuate foundational worship theology, and engagement of worshipers through active participation whether singing or listening. My journey of recent years through worship study, warm friendships, and spiritual walk has led me to a broader imagination and a view of a Triumphant Christ that speaks in alternating waves of whispered tones and flashes of blinding brilliance. One of the real challenges for me in my role relating to churches of so many shapes and sizes and stylistic environments is finding those basic issues that relate across the spectrum of churches. What is interesting is that in focusing on Christ as the center of worship with a relentless tethering to the Word, I find rich fuel for the kind of basic motivation that I think we all are hoping to find through inspiring worship.

A recent Out of Ur essay quoted Walter Brueggemann from his book, The Prophetic Imagination, “We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness [popular culture] that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.” So true! Oh that we can allow our imaginations (and that of those we lead in worship) to see a vision of our triumphant Lord! How can we be anxious for our presentation when the need of all time is to be at rest in what has been done for us in the great mystery of Christ?

Here are some worship fatigue busters for me:
• Realizing that our gathering on Sunday morning mirrors the worship of heaven
• Remembering the church is the bride of Christ
• Being humbled to know we are part of His Kingdom
• Christian fellowship and hospitality expressions whether handshakes, kind words, or hugs
• Biblical reminders of how worship in His presence is made possible, such as

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
-Hebrews 10:19-25
• Biblical reminders of heavenly worship such as in Revelation 4 and 5. Christ the Victor!

Looking again to Long’s commentary on Hebrews we are reminded that ”while we are in the beach chair filling out the crossword puzzle, the faithful in the sanctuary doing the best they can with their off-key voices to belt out, Holy, Holy, Holy, have been gathered by a mystery beyond their own seeing and knowing into the great choir of angels in festal garb and the saints singing ceaseless praise to God (Heb 12:22-23). Things are not what they seem. What looks like leisure turns out in the end to be exhausting, and what appears to be the labor of prayer leads to a ‘safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at last.”

Peace just as new life is in Christ

Where to Find “New” for Worship

January 4, 2012

     What shall we include in worship? We are often looking for something new.  The question of what to include in worship can plague evangelical worship leadership whose churches worship in the free church tradition.  As proud as we are of  our independence from any ecclesial hierarchy, the question can be haunting when it comes time to start putting some plans on paper for Sunday worship – choosing songs, placing dramas or readings.  In talking with worship music leaders in our state and beyond I find the vast majority of Baptist worship leaders work their weekly worship order from a sort of “blank page.”  I have spoken with pastors who indicate they try to get into series preaching, either working their way through exposition of a book of the Bible, or designing a thematic series to address perceived pastoral leadership needs within his congregation.  Many Worship Music Ministers are relieved when they have their pastor’s preaching series information as it allows them to select music and other material that will compliment the direction of the sermon theme.  Though relatively few and far between, there are those evangelical pastors and worship leaders who use a lectionary to guide sermon, song, and readings selections for weekly worship, or who in some other way follow a Christian calendar in planning worship.

I am always interested to know how worship planners get started in their worship planning process.  I like hearing from seasoned veterans and from newbies where they start to write out a worship plan and how they make decisions about what they will and won’t place as part of the worship liturgy.  I know some worship leaders are strongly driven by songs they hear and want to incorporate into the worship language of their church.  I know there are some pastors who demand a certain timbre in the worship environment, whether somber or celebrative.

In this new year there are likely some who stretch to find “new” in the novelty of new music material, or in dazzling digital graphics.  With all the newly published music packets music ministers receive, it may take hours to find that gem that somehow moves the emotions of the worship leader that he or she presumes will likewise be a surefire hit with the congregation.  Lost in the sonic world inside the headphones a worship planner can lose sight of the core of worship, much as a pastor might if he gets sidetracked into planning a sermon beginning with an illustration that he thinks is just too good to pass up.  Nothing wrong with a great new song, or an effective illustration, but it seems important to maintain equilibrium as to the heart of worship and the source of transformative power.  The best “new” we can possibly offer in our worship gatherings is the new that is the heart of the Gospel itself.

Spurgeon says it well:

We ought not, as men in Christ Jesus, to be carried away by a childish love of novelty, for we worship a God who is ever the same, and of whose years there is no end. In some matters “the old is better.” There are certain things which are already so truly new, that to change them for anything else would be to lose old gold for new dross.

The old, old gospel is the newest thing in the world; in its very essence it is for ever good news. In the things of God the old is ever new, and if any man brings forward that which seems to be new doctrine and new truth, it is soon perceived that the new dogma is only worn-out heresy dexterously repaired, and the discovery in theology is the digging up of a carcase of error which had better have been left to rot in oblivion.

-taken from Kingdom People blog by Trevin Wax

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