Archive for January 2013


January 29, 2013

map and compass It is said of theological research that where you start out strongly influences where you end up.  The same is true of so-called worship leading.  Someone who is focused on an experiential goal as the point of worship will likely end up either elated with the thrill of dramatic moments in the course of a worship service, or frustrated that worshipers under his or her direction somehow miss the mark of the experience he or she has in mind, which, not incidentally, robs him or her of their own thrill as a worship leader, and of a sense of “success.”  So, lest I slide too far and fast down the  slope of cynicism, let me get back to the point of the question that I want to pose to you, especially if you have responsibility for planning and guiding in Christian worship environments.  The question is, “Where do we expect to end up in worship?”  I am primarily addressing corporate worship here, though the truth applies to any grouping for worship; congregational, festival, small group, or personal.  (for more about these worship groupings see my book, Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace)

As a Baptist I am very familiar with experiential terminology.  Indeed, our trust and faith in Christ, and our encounters with God in worship are peppered with experiential realities.  We are, after all, human, and we humans feel things.  Some encounters are easily articulated, while others seem beyond description.  What’s more, a group of individuals is likely to experience God’s presence in different ways.  Our emotions may run the gamut during times of Christian worship, from elation to deep sadness.  From one time of gathered worship to another there may be very different emotional responses, even to the same or similar elements or acts of worship.

As worship ministry leaders, we must honestly ask ourselves to evaluate what we are expecting and aiming for in gathered worship.  Do we allow our intention in gathered worship to be formed more by a desired mood or feeling than by a faith-rooted hunger to see the exalted Christ through Word and sacrament, and to seek His praise and glory through our response?  Here are some questions to consider:

  • Are we seeking to engender outward emotional response as an indicator of spiritual engagement?
  • Do we elevate one type of emotional response over another, implying that those who respond differently than our intention are less spiritually engaged than others?
  • Do we plan worship so as to prompt an emotional ride, crafting musical peaks and valleys based upon emotions in hopes that this will mimic interaction with a spiritual being?
  • Do we plan out any components that might leave responsibility for spiritual engagement to the real entities involved, the Holy Spirit and the worshipers? (silence, Word read in public without comment, ordinance observance without augmentation)
  • Is our singing rooted in the story of God or the feelings of humans?

Those who plan for worship must determine where our services of worship are headed by more clearly focusing on the true purpose of worship; “an engagement with the living God on the terms He proposes and in a way that only He can provide.”[1]  Rooting our worship in God’s story and His design for history (aka “His story”) places us on a trajectory to reflect something of His character and person in His triune manifestation.

Engaging with God will always be relevant, because God in Christ is always relevant, not only to us in the here and now, but to all the ages and for eternity.  Planners and leaders must remain faithful to exalt Christ crucified and resurrected, to make the WORD central to any worship plan, and allow opportunity for response to what has been perceived as God’s revelation by the power of His Holy Spirit with an ultimate objective of His glory and praise.  If we start out headed in this direction it is likely that we will end up there.

[1] David G. Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (IVP 2002)



January 14, 2013

variety of people  Have you ever wished you just had a different group of people in your worship services?  Though most pastors and worship music leaders would never say such a thing (at least not outloud), some certainly indicate that such is the case.  Most all of us understand that it is hard to lead worship when the people gathered do not seem to respond to what the leaders are asking them to do.  So, leaders, when this is the case what shall we do?  Where and how can we get different people?

Here are a few common approaches that I have observed being enacted by church leadership:

  • Leaders change the worship service style of music, hoping to attract different people to populate the pews for worship
  • Leaders offer worship in different time frames hoping to discover new people meeting at different times
  • Leaders initiate different worship venues in addition to the current one, with a hope of attracting different people

In each of these scenarios the engineering that is taking place has to do with the physical, social, or stylistic environment in the worship service.  No doubt, these issues can and should be addressed regularly by leaders in relation to the context and mission of the church involved.  Ultimately, however, they seem fundamentally rooted in an external focus, which is tentative at best, and quite possibly misguided in the long term.

Perhaps the way we have different people in worship has less to do with attracting new people into the church, and more to do with transformation of the people who are with us at present.  Working toward having different people in worship is not only advisable, it is actually what happens when genuine spiritual worship occurs.  We must, however, not get the proverbial cart before the horse.  You see it is likely that before we add different individuals to our faith community’s body of worshipers, we need people who become different.  I know, I know….you are thinking, “oh, you just don’t know our folks. They are not going to change and be different.”

Well, brothers and sisters, perhaps we are looking at “different” all wrong.  Maybe we focus too much on change that is surface, and not enough on the transformation of life that only occurs in worship that is done “in spirit and truth.”   Perhaps we need to focus less on whether these people will learn “a fresh, new song,” and instead help worshipers know the fresh breath of the Spirit, allowing that to be reflected in familiar as well as new expressions of spiritual worship and praise.

I admit growing weary of attempts to change the wrappings of worship, when there is strong biblical evidence that, as Bryan Chapell says, “the gospel shapes its own container.”[1]  Nevertheless, this article is not just another moss-laiden attempt at reviving the old songs, or so-called “traditional worship.”  Uh…it is all traditional, and it is at once all brand-spankin’ new.  And, truth is that churches whose people experience spiritual renewal will also likely find their way through the stylistic and environmental maze of issues related to how we can gather people in a spiritually united fashion to both remain open to continual reformation, while likewise remaining true and respectful to our heritage of faith practice in community worship, all the while reaching and engaging those outside our fellowship with the hospitality of the Gospel itself, in all its attractiveness.

I write from a passionate desire to encourage trust in Gospel-shaped, Christ-centered, Spirit-inspired worship.  I hunger for the conversation of worship planners and leaders to center on how we can lift up Christ in worship in a biblically faithful, theologically sound, yet culturally sensitive manner.

[1] Bryan Chapell Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2009), pg. 111.

Worshiping a Mysterious Triune God

January 7, 2013

Rublev Trinity  Sunday I had the privilege of worshiping with two of my children and their families at First Baptist Church in Nashville.  It is always a joy to worship with family, and I so deeply appreciate the ministry of this great church and its pastoral leadership.  Sitting next to a grandchild and hearing strains of “Holy, Holy, Holy” coming from the lips of a five-year-old with his mom (my daughter) guiding his participation as well as beautifully joining the song herself resonates an unspeakable joy in my spirit for rather obvious reasons.

The sermon by Pastor Frank Lewis at First Baptist Sunday began a series in which he will be answering questions posed by youth students of the church.  One of Sunday’s questions had to do with understanding the Trinity.  Pastor Frank stated the question posed, then accentuated its nature with a humorous pause, which really implied the appropriate response which he then articulated very well, “This is mystery.”  He addressed appropriately some popular attempts at “explanation” and demonstrated the theological fallacies of each, including a high alarm related to modalism.  The message sought to engage the congregation in the point of our gathering, namely, worship of the living Triune God, Who is holy other, yet Who desires relationship to Who reaches toward us in the events of the Gospel from before the world began to this very day.

Needless to say, I am grateful for the fact that my children and grandchildren are being nurtured in such an atmosphere where worship centers in He Who is “merciful and mighty; God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity.”  Singing the text of great hymns and knowing my grandchildren are growing into these truths is a rich blessing.

Interestingly, Sunday’s worship experience coincided with a Facebook posting I saw the day before by a dear friend, Dr. Rob Hewell of Ouachita Baptist University.  It was the Andrei Rublev rendering of  the Three visitors of Abraham (Gen 18) that are largely accepted as the 15th Century artists representation of the Trinity.  As I posted on Rob’s facebook page, I never look upon this work but what it speaks to me of the mystery of One God in Three Persons.  I first really began contemplating the work when attending the Institute for Worship Studies and encountered it in both class and worship settings.

Pardon my personal musings here connecting family, faith, friends, and art, but actually this is my whole point for writing about these events; worship is all of life.  Our hearts are not only thankful when we are partaking of Lord’s Supper, or watching a friend act upon a spiritual decision.  As Worship Leaders we have opportunity to assist worshipers to open eyes, ears, and spirits to God at work in the world all around us.  Certainly, the Spirit is alive in the engagement with those things closest to us like family, friends, artistic sentiment, and daily disciplines.  Let’s help others recognize the mysterious joy of knowing the Holy, and why “all the saints adore Thee,” even “though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see.”

Les Miserables reflects Gospel Message

January 1, 2013

Les-miserables-movie-poster1 I finally got to see Les Miserables at the movie theater.  I have seen the musical stage presentation seven times; twice in New York on Broadway, in London, and in four regional presentations, one in Memphis, St. Louis, Atlanta, and of course in Nashville at Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC).  I think the emotional impact for me has never been as potent with any of the stage presentations as it was in the movie rendition with Hugh Jackman, Ann Hathaway and others.  More importantly, the reflections of the Gospel for those with sensitivity to see and celebrate it, are numerous and powerful.  My adult children certainly responded to the potency and spiritual overtones of the movie.  My wife and I found it necessary to sit an extra minute or two during the running of the credits so that we (aka “I”) could wipe the tears and dry up the runny nose before stepping into the lighted hallway of the theater.  It is a rare movie that draws instantaneous applause at movie’s end, but Les Miserables was an exception.  Again, my grown children reported the same response in the theaters where they viewed the blockbuster’s debut.

You may wonder what this has to do with worship, just as some may be thinking of how they can conscript video clips from the Les Mis movie to use in their Sunday worship gathering to gen up an inspirational buzz.  The application I would call to mind is really not Sunday morning specific at all in the sense of how Les Mis might be brought into Sunday worship.  I will leave that to preachers looking for sermon illustrations.  Instead, I would ask that we consider how Sunday worship might influence our sensitivity to shades of Gospel wherever found, especially in public presentations of art forms.  It seems to me we evangelicals may have been so concerned with preventing fellow believers’ exposure to that which we deem inappropriate in the arts that we may have missed the power of Gospel message that is sure to be present wherever good collides with evil.   My experience at the movies has me reflecting on a section of doctoral study that dealt with the arts, and a book I discovered during that section of study.  The book was Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Engaging Culture) by Robert K. Johnston.   I recall meaningful discussion with colleagues regarding ways that Jesus figures show up in the arts.  Whether a protagonist in a movie or play, a color hue in a painting, or a pastoral music motif in a symphonic work, sensitivity to good news can serve the believer through expanded appreciation of the struggle represented in the art form.  Participation in such art also gives potential witness platform to believers.

Of course a Christian message is much more overt in some artistic expressions than others.  Works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien reflect the Christian faith of the authors themselves.  Les Miserables author, Victor Hugo, on the other hand, eventually became something of a Rational Deist, though the Catholic faith of his youth is surely reflected in characters of his stories.  Indeed, the final song in Les Mis seems rather openly indicative of a faith expression with which Christians can surely identify:

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

–       lyrics by Herbert Ketzmer (based on novel by Victor Hugo)

While exercising caution against an indiscriminate brand of spirituality in our culture and culture’s artistic expressions, it seems that disciples of Jesus who are students of the Word and sensitive to Spirit discernment, have opportunity to participate in culture through art.  Indeed, in the case of Les Miserables, for example, engagement in interpretive discussions would surely yield openings to testify to Heaven’s true fruits.

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