Archive for September 2014

REALISM: WORSHIP DIVORCED FROM ITSELF

September 29, 2014

Split_Personality_by_Frider When she was in high school my older sister was a cheerleader. I grew up loving football, so when Teresa became a football cheerleader for Jackson High School I was excited that this might mean more inside scoop on the team and games. I remember one Friday when there was an away game and my parents had a schedule conflict and therefore we were at a church function rather than at the game. I waited up for my sister to get home so I could hear details about the game. Alas, when she got in she could tell me almost nothing about the ballgame and was even unsure whether the team had won or lost. Ugh! Really? You see, for her, cheerleading was its own activity, and for the most part the social interaction with friends was much more the focal point of what took place at the stadium than what was happening on the field. I suppose any activity of life has multiple layers of dynamics at any given time, but it does seem the Stephen Covey adage would be adhered to whereby we “keep the main thing the main thing.” When it comes to Christian worship, it I fear that church leaders have allowed, or even perpetrated worship being hijacked for other purposes.

REALISM: WORSHIP DIVORCED FROM ITSELF

In the last few blog posts we have explored Michael Walters’ observations concerning forces at work against authentic Christian worship. In this post we look at the subtle, but sinister tendency of realism, in which worship is divorced from worship itself. While the statement may sound like doublespeak, the fact is that worship is ultimately about worship, and there are forces that attempt to use worship to accomplish some other objective. Trying to make worship useful to some other purpose ignores its very nature as a spiritual engagement with the living God, and much worse ignores the Lord’s command to “have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Part of what makes this so challenging is that whatever worship is being stolen to attempt may well be a good and respectful thing in and of itself. Conflating the two makes it difficult to rebuke the process without sounding as if one is opposed to whatever worship is being robbed to accomplish. A prime example of such conflating is the regular attempts to use worship for evangelism. Evangelism may well be a natural result of that which takes place in worship, but worship itself is just that, worship. Marva Dawn calls it (worship) a “royal waste of time” in her book by the same name. Walters notes, “It has no purpose, no utility, no value other than as our response to God for His gracious acts of salvation. Attempts to use worship for some other end are at best futile, and at worst dangerous. Worship has value for its own sake, and nothing else.”[1]

Those who believe its purpose is to serve as a means to church growth often hijack worship to use it as marketing or entertainment. If worship is not bringing in the proverbial sheeves, then it must be time to exercise creative entrepreneurial surgery. It is this same mentality that becomes impatient with the tenured pastor or music leader, tending to prefer the younger, more attractive and charismatic version of either. In this environment attitudes toward worship can easily drift toward little more than a promotion scheme to serve the purposes of inflated egos, ageism, or other idolatrous arrogances. It is just such driving forces that perpetuate the consumerism mentalities so prevalent in church culture of our day. Rather than facing issues whereby either leaders have failed to develop mature disciples, or congregations have been unfaithful participants in their own spiritual development, it appears many churches have settled for whatever pragmatic measure it takes to do what Whoopi Goldberg said in the movie, Sister Act, and “put butts in the seats.” Brian McClaren asks if the problem of keeping people interested in worship is not the natural result of employing evangelistic programs that are designed to appeal to self-interests of people. He asks can such an introduction to the faith fail to produce self-centered, consumeristic worshipers?[2] Based on worship attendance trends of the past twenty-plus years I would say the answer is no, as it clearly seems we have produced more “have it my way” consumers than we have developed true disciples.

Worship is its own reward. The praise and worship of the Triune God Who has created all that is, claimed and called us as His people into relationship with Him, provided the extravagant means of salvation that we may have access to Him, and Who is among us by the Holy Spirit to comfort and convict and guide, is a grace-gift worth every moment of our lives. Worship as a “scandalously useless activity” is of highest value. Pastors and worship ministry leaders must guard against gearing worship to perceived desires and felt needs of people, as this feeds the idea that we come to worship to get something of value “to take back into the real world.”[3] Pragmatism easily becomes a driving force that roots out obedience and response to spiritual revelation. So easily the God-given capacity to love turns in upon itself, homo incurvatus in se. Such is the demand that calls for “worship music I like,” or “sermons that make me feel good.” It is a far cry from aligning life patterns and regulating attitudes and actions according to biblical norms, whereby love of God and love of neighbor are central to living out worship.

While pragmatism has dominated worship leadership thinking for many evangelicals since the Frontier days of Charles Finney and others, there are signs that some leaders have renewed hunger for worship that will shift us away from ourselves and toward God. Surely such is the worship Jesus spoke of as worship in Spirit and truth, for such are the worshipers the Father seeks.

Let the glory of Your name
Be the passion of the Church
Let the righteousness of God
Be a holy flame that burns
Let the saving love of Christ
Be the measure of our lives
We believe You’re all to us

© 2010 Matt Maher Designee (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing)

[1] Michael Walters Can’t Wait Til Sunday: Leading Congregations Toward Authentic Worship, 61.

[2] Brian McClaren A Generous Orthodoxy, 107.

[3] Walters, ibid.

WORSHIP DIVORCED FROM GOD

September 23, 2014

hugging-myself  You may have heard the old joke about the visiting preacher whose ego was as large as his boisterous personality. Following an evening preaching service the worship minister had the privilege (aka assignment) of taking the guest preacher out to eat. From the time the music guy picked him up at the door the preacher talked about himself non-stop. He went on and on about his sermon in that night’s service. He boasted about the evidence that everyone loved it, and how this was the response he received everywhere he preached. After the two had been seated at a table at the restaurant and had ordered their meal the music leader was hopeful the conversation might change directions. Sure enough, as soon as the waiter left the table the preacher looked at the musician and said, “well, enough about me. Let’s hear from you. How did you like my sermon tonight?”

The bloated egotism expressed by this preacher is easy for us to spot as self-absorption, and pretty easy to dismiss (although many of us have known characters similar to this one). We may be less able to identify some of the attitudes that creep into our own thinking as worshipers in search of a god that makes us feel good.

ROMANTICISM: WORSHIP DIVORCED FROM GOD

In thinking about worship we have often heard the reminder, “It’s not about you, or it’s not about me.” My observation is that even those of us who use this mantra may still struggle against the tendency to make worship very much about ourselves. Particularly in modern evangelical worship there is a strong inclination to elevate the subjective experience as the controlling factor in the approach to worship. We want to feel a certain way about God. Some popular worship music singers and songwriters use romantic terms to define relationship with God. Knowingly, or unknowingly, leaders of romanticized worship attempt to lead us toward “falling in love” with God, and experiencing worship in a certain way. “Worship guided by romanticism will eventually be divorced from its proper object, God, and become fixed on some subjective state of mind or heart.”[1]Thomas Long, among others, reminds us, ‘God does not always move us, and everything that moves us is not God.”[2] When we too closely associate spiritual worship of the living God with a particular feeling, then we naturally substitute searching out that feeling with seeking God. What’s more, we may attempt to hold others to a sort of feeling standard. We may expect others to either describe or express their worship with similar feeling terminology. Being in the presence of those who perceive worship in this way may leave us with a sense of condescension, as if that feeling is “real worship,” whereas an absence of such feeling means worship is somehow lacking. These implications may well lead us away from the biblical teaching of worship in spirit and truth.

We believe that in biblical worship our whole selves are engaged; mind, body, and spirit. We know that affections as well as thinking are to be engaged. It is for certain that worship may well stir our emotions. Yet even when emotions are stirred, the question remains – Is our worship about God or about us? What’s more, much of our contemporary worship music, as does some music of the Gospel genre, concerns itself only with worship at the level of individual self and God, seldom moving worship’s focal point to place worshipers as a unified body in worship, or joined with the Church universal. Lack of implication of Trinitarian activity in most modern worship music would bring into question the theological soundness and beg the question if the worship is centered in personal experience, even bringing participants to a point of worshiping worship.

Idolatrous worship takes on many forms, but perhaps no other controlling point for worship tempts us any more strongly than one which places us as the purpose for the worship. Biblical teaching is clear that nothing is to be enthroned in worship other than the living God. That certainly includes romanticism, which is worship where we have enthroned self.

Purer in heart, O God, help me to be;
May I devote my life wholly to Thee:
Watch Thou my wayward feet,
Guide me with counsel sweet;
Purer in heart, help me to be.

Purer in heart, O God, help me to be;
Teach me to do Thy will most lovingly;
Be Thou my Friend and Guide,
Let me with Thee abide;
Purer in heart, help me to be.

Purer in heart, O God, help me to be;
Until Thy holy face one day I see:
Keep me from secret sin,
Reign Thou my soul within;
Purer in heart, help me to be.

–PURER IN HEART by Fannie E. Davidson (1877)

_________________________________________________________________________

[1] Michael Walters Can’t Wait Til Sunday: Leading Your Congregation Toward Authentic Worship. 59.

[2] Thomas Long Beyond Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Congregations. 48

DO YOU HAVE WORSHIP FIGURED OUT?

September 15, 2014

thinking In 2008 I suffered a stroke following a medical procedure at a one of our major regional hospitals (if there is an ideal place to have a stroke, the hospital is probably it).   I do not recall any pain associated with the event. In fact, I had no idea I was in the midst of a stroke at the time, but my oldest son was visiting with me and noticed some strange behaviors and summonsed assistance. I am grateful to report that following weeks of in home therapy, rest, and prescribed medication I have had very little residual effect from that event and one other episode two years later. A permanent side effect, however, is that I have an insatiable curiosity to know more about how the mind works. I have read books on music’s effect on the brain, and have watched videos about brain damage and recovery. The neurologist gave me some reading material that heightened my interest about the brain and about ways we humans think, and I have continued that inquisitiveness ever since. Before all this took place I had no idea what a central role the brain plays in overall human well-being in every aspect of human life; physical, emotional, spiritual, as well as mental. It is one of those things I guess we take for granted perhaps other than conscious thought. As powerful as the brain and thinking can be, Michael Walters cautions us to guard against thinking that we have worship figured out or that we can design and control worship by rationalizing what we do or how we do it.

RATIONALISM: WORSHIP DIVORCED FROM SPIRIT

The Lord gave us a mind, and surely intends for us to use that great gift to think, including in our worship. It would seem impossible for us to grasp theological richness, or to embrace biblical truth without the use of our mental capacities. If rationality and reasonableness, however, are the final measure of what we will embrace in our spiritual worship, then we have likely divorced worship from the realm of the spirit. A tendency toward fierce dogmatism by virtue of logic and rationalized theological schemes may well reveal a leader’s hunger for power and control. Worship programmed to serve this ethos can make perfect sense, even be perfectly choreographed and aesthetically pleasing, but without spirit it is impotent. God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29) and the Holy Spirit like the wind, which blows where it wills (John 3:8). Authentic Christian worship is never under our control. Pastors and worship music leaders who take pride in slick presentations that come off without a proverbial hitch under their own control have received their reward, and it is temporal. Such worship that elevates human cleverness will “inevitably weaken the message of the Cross. Rationalistic worship is a feeble attempt to offer our ideas, our notions of spirituality, our conclusions about the world as a substitute for this God whose Spirit cannot be controlled in any way.”[1]

Precisely because our thinking is so central to life, there is a subtle tendency to use that thinking to follow the mantra of natural science’s supreme objective, to predict and control. A hallmark of industrialized society and modernism, organizational leadership styles rationalized a Chief Executive Officer mentality as rational model of efficiency. The inclination of many pastors to try and run their churches via this CEO mentality is as well documented, as it is obsolete in a postmodern culture. Sadly, the practice spills over into worship planning and practice.

Practices that may evidence rationalism: worship divorced from spirit

  1. Worship planning that is highly thematic to serve the rational ideas to be presented in sermon or in a particular theme itself.
  2. Where the Word is seldom read for its own contribution, apart from someone’s interpretive explanation
  3. Worship that is highly scripted as a means of maintaining leader control
  4. Avoidance of silence and spontaneity
  5. Overuse of technology as a means of control

In 1 Corinthians 14:15, the apostle Paul says that worship (praying and singing) engages mind and spirit. Jesus told us through His conversation with a woman at a well that God is spirit, and those that worship Him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). This is more than some kind of balancing act where spirit is on the one hand and truth on the other, rather spirit and truth are surely at their full employment in worship. So all-encompassing would be this engagement that it calls us to offer our whole bodies, our whole selves, as our spiritual act of worship (Rom 12:1). Submission is offered in spiritual worship as a spiritual act of surrender and response, and as such, relinquishes control to the One whom we worship. Romans 12 goes on to call us toward worship that transforms our thinking by renewing our mind, and thus the very way we think. Paul offers a good sample of this renewed way of looking at things in the remaining verses of Romans 12. These verses are powerful in their application to our corporate worship gatherings, as they address how we view one another, how we treat fellow worshipers, even how we handle our enemies. The implications go beyond rational thought, but rather reflect a spiritual dimension far beyond our prediction and control.

Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. –Romans 12:11-13

Thanks be to God for such uncommon yielding of minds and hearts to submit to the One Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit present among us in worship.  Help us to be worshipers who yield and follow Him Who is the way, the truth, and the life.

[1] Michael Walters Can’t Wait Til Sunday: Leading Your Congregation in Authentic Worship (Wesleyan Publishing House 2006) 57.

WORSHIP – IS THIS REAL LIFE?

September 8, 2014

Is this Real Life?  Who would have ever thought that a seven-year-old’s trip to the dentist for oral surgery to remove an extra tooth would end up an internet phenomenon? David Defore Jr.’s dad says he videotaped events surrounding his little boy’s first surgery because Mom was unable to be present. It was not until seven months later that he decided to post the now famous video on facebook and then on youtube, a decision that brought him both notoriety and criticism. At one point in the video the anesthetized child sluggishly asks, “Is this real life?” By 2013 this video had more than 120 million views, and was referenced often in popular culture, especially this one line, a recurring punch line in writing and speech, “Is this real life?”

As we consider current trends that work against genuine worship, in this article we want to contemplate another reason that author-theologian, Michael Walters notes that worship isn’t easy.

RITUALISM: WORSHIP DIVORCED FROM LIFE

Is worship real life? There is nothing wrong with ritual, which is a repeated series of acts (rites), as occurs in all forms of faith practice. Ritualism, on the other hand, is precisely what the prophets condemned in the Old Testament, whereby the people allowed the rites to become meaningless, and separated from life. When many of us think of ritualism we think of formal liturgies, or so-called high-church environments. It is quite possible for worship in any kind of stylistic environment to digress into ritualism. In such worship God has a place in our lives, and that place is “at church” and we expect Him to stay in His place, so to speak. When worship is relegated to something that happens during a one hour service on Sunday morning, worship is easily divorced from life itself. Whether in Latin mass worship, or rock & roll church with the latest technologies and a hot band, worship ritualism is displeasing to a righteous God according to scripture. How do we get into such a pattern? The trajectory is easy to follow, especially in middle class American culture. Since “time is money,” time is valued and protected more and more. It takes money to live, and it takes time to make money.   Busy-ness is valued because it represents “getting ahead,” “going above and beyond,” or if we want to sound less greedy about it, “we’re doing what it takes,” or even more noble, “we are providing for our own.” Somewhere along the way, it may occur to us that we are missing out on something. Given that our time is being gobbled up in our busy-ness, we determine we have earned time of leisure, time to do as we want. Segregating our lives into well-partitioned compartments allows us to assert our own self-interests. Christian worship is valued primarily for what good it might provide for my family and me. I will determine whether it is worth the time, and if so, we may go to worship or church to walk through the steps as prescribed in the one-hour routine as provided. Whether weekly, or occasionally, this approach sees worship as an event that occupies an hour of time each week, available to me. Walters says it is a “nod to God,” which takes place inside the church, and not to be confused with “real life,” which takes place every moment of every day. In reality the controlling point is still rested in us.

One of the greatest evidences of this compartmentalized mentality is borne out in polls that routinely report that people who attend church display approximately the same moral behavior as those who do not. We go to church, enter the prescribed worship routine, whatever it is, and check that off our list. Then we leave that compartment and go back to “real life” to live in our other compartments. If we have some moral sensibility we may react to the degradation of morality in the real world, and we may be concerned about moral decay. Even in response to that decay, our tendency is to feel we need to do something. We will organize to rail against homosexuality, promiscuity, drugs, or general moral decay, and before you know it, we have formulated yet another partitioned compartment. We are ill-equipped to deal with these complex issues. Our futile efforts are powerless to fend against the real powers of darkness at work in the world. What’s more, we begin to run into ourselves, as our time constraints demand that something must give. We bail on responsibilities “at church” to campaign in political lobbies, or other “Christian” involvements, confused by our inability to prioritize or to more holistically embrace how Christ integrates all of life.

It may be true that Christians struggle to battle misperceptions of sacred – secular dichotomies in the culture constructed or presumed by those who would like to dismiss faith from the public square, but worship divorced from life seems to reflect a much deeper problem since genuine worship by definition would seem to engender obedience in all of life. Genuine worship would surely result in believers whose very lives reflect and display Christ in every arena, regardless of cost or repercussions, and thus be empowered by the One Who is “with you always.”

Characteristics of ritualism: worship divorced from life:

  • Hyper-consciousness of a stylistic affinity, whether formal or casual
  • Worship singing more focused on feelings in the moment than either great eternal truths, praise and characteristics of God, or issues of real life
  • Either pomp and circumstance, or uses of technology and production techniques displace real presence of the congregation, and distract from physical presence of people
  • Overuse of presentational components (musical, oratorical, dramatic, technological) and thus less sense of incarnational presence
  • Lack of genuine hospitality in worship atmosphere
  • Lack of prophetic address to real life contextual issues in preaching with equivalent presentation of Gospel resolution
  • Response opportunities such as altar calls or invitations overly routine, overly restrictive, or disconnected from revealed Word and challenge
  • Absence of open commissioning of congregation to bold Christian living as means of continued worship

God is sovereign over all of life. Genuine corporate Christian worship is not a retreat from normal life but is rather a continuation of ongoing worship and praise, and humble submission to God’s intention for our lives, as well as a reminder of Jesus’ promise to be with us always.

Worship in Truth – Nobody Said It Would Be Easy

September 2, 2014

mr-bean-falls-asleep-in-church1 I recently re-discovered a book by Wesleyan pastor-theologian, Michael Walters entitled Can’t Wait for Sunday: Leading Your Congregation in Authentic Worship. I highly recommend the book for anyone responsible for planning worship. One chapter deals with “Current Trends,” and is subtitled, “Why Worship Isn’t Easy.” I won’t recapitulate the book, of course, but rather recommend its reading. I will, however attempt to draw attention to Walters’ premise, and then consider what and how we sing in worship, and how such singing can either serve to enhance our biblical worship, or can serve to fuel the very attitudes and piety that get in the way.  This first post deals more with the predominance of a falsehood, and is foundation for other coming posts.

Walters begins this chapter reminding us that we are made for worship. The ancient church understood lex orandi, lex credenda, the rule of prayer is the rule of faith. The world has always been turned away from God, and the gospel has always faced cultural challenges. There are cultural forces that affect our ability to lead people in authentic worship of the Creator. I want us to consider the first of these force in today’s post, and consider how our songs and singing engage or disengage us in authentic worship in this regard. We will consider other forces in coming posts.

Relativism: Worship Divorced from Truth

Walters rightly notes the dominance of relativism that saturates modern culture. The humanism that rests sovereignty in the individual self, rather than the sovereign God, is the predominant religion of our day. Any authoritative claims are only considered valid insofar as they are “true for me.” Such self-centered relativism flies in the face even of the idea of a holy other, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Walters skillfully reminds us that “Jesus claimed not only to know the truth but to be the truth.”[1] Polls and surveys reflect clearly that absolute truth and authority are not presumed givens as they once were among the general public. The fact of cultural resistance to absolute truth should come as no surprise to students of the Bible. In fact, such resistance highlights the most fundamental issue of life in Christ, which worship purports to address, namely Lordship of Christ.

I would draw attention back to what is for me a basic definition of worship as articulated by David K Peterson, “an engagement with the living God on the terms He proposes, and in a way only He can provide.” Jesus told the woman at the well that the Father is seeking worshipers who will worship Him in spirit and truth. That truth is absolute. It surely cannot be what is true for you, or what is true for me, where the controlling point lies within our individual selves. Rather the absolute nature rests in the living God who sets the terms of our relationship and, thanks be to God, has provided for us the means, the heart of the Gospel. The message permeates the entire scripture where He is our God, we are His people. Worship rehearses our rightful relationship to Him. New Covenant worship rejoices in the Gospel gift given in Jesus Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Worldly culture seeks to position us in opposition to God our Father, whereas authentic worship re-positions us to right standing where we are humbled before Him. He is Lord and Christ lives in us, and we have life in Him. We can come into His presence boldly because of the finished work of Jesus.

The conflict with culture is often overwhelming and baffling. Walters points out that the church can become caught up in attempts to win a culture war, which is significantly different than winning persons to Christ. Indeed, the Christian community may influence the culture, but surely it will not be by imitating the culture itself, a means that likely has little or no chance of displaying the power and grace of the Christian gospel. This is not to be misunderstood as ignoring our cultural surroundings, or worse yet actually being disinterested. The apostle Paul is an example of remaining sensitive, but he never crosses the line to surrender the truth of the Gospel. I have heard use of Paul’s commitment to become “all things to all men in order to save some,” as a polemic for changing worship. First, Paul is not referring to worship in the statement, and secondly, he never in any way watered down the truth in order to appease cultural norms.

So, where does worship singing fit in to this discussion? It seems the first attempts at updating worship have been with changes in music. Much of this process began by modernizing the beat and the language to be more understandable to the modern ear and mind. At first, it seems to me that most of this changing was with presentational or performance music for worship. Later the modernization became common in congregational music as well. Close behind these changes were lighting, video projection, and participatory practices that more closely resembled the theater and concert hall. As contested practices on either side of a worship music style dividing line, old vs. new, traditional vs contemporary, contemplative vs celebrative, became more entrenched we entered the “worship wars” era that has subsided in some arenas and continues in others. What must remain is a prayerful valuation guarding against relativism that ushers in worship divorced from truth. Song language that regularly values personal feelings above lordship has drawn worship away from truth. Overuse of nebulous pronouns and flowery adjectives as substitution for the names and attributes of God appear rooted more in relativistic blather than biblical certainty. Intended consequences of this worship seem rooted in feeling over obedience.  Consider stronger worship singing that involves faithful references to the name, character, and attributes of the triune God.  Consider the singing of proclaimed truth, and the clear declaration of the mystery of our faith, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!  In fact, let’s think about some of the considerations* that might help us plan worship rooted in truth:

  1. Biblical accuracy – Can we verify the veracity of the song’s message in the Bible?
  2. Doctrinal and Theological Considerations – is what we will sing in keeping with the doctrinal statements and theological teachings upon which we stand?
    • Is it true to your denomination or church’s doctrinal distinctives?
    • Do we sing attributes of God and His character regularly?
  3. Liturgical Considerations – what function does each song play in our shared communion of worship with God?
    • This seems particularly important for those who worship in the free church tradition where worship is less prescribed by lectionary or other pre-set plan, but rather set by pastoral leadership and sensitivity. A good question to ask at points through the service is “where are we in our communication with God at this point?”
    • Sensitivity to calendar and to existential factors – church calendar or season, tragedies and joys that effect members of the congregation, community occurrences effecting congregants
  4. Congregational Capability – can this congregation sing the song as authentic expression? Musical considerations as well as lyrical

*For a well-developed list of considerations for song selections by Theological, Lyrical and Musical considerations see Selecting Songs for Worship: A Guide for Leaders by Constance Cherry, Mary Brown, and Christopher Bounds, (Triangle Publishing 2011)

I also highly recommend Dr. Cherry’s seminal work, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Baker Academics 2010)

[1] Michael Walters Can’t Wait for Sunday: Leading Your Congregation in Authentic Worship (Wesleyan Publishing House 2006) 51.


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