Archive for March 2015

SING THE DRAMA!

March 30, 2015

Tenebrae Candles I have a favorite saying when I am in my music leader/director mode, and it is simply this, “Music is drama!” Sometimes when church choirs have worked hard to master notes, rhythms, vocal technique, blend and balance, they forget the dramatic impact intended by the use of music. Thus my little saying. I sometimes follow it with a reminder that if the words were enough on their own we might just speak the message. All this is an attempt to prompt singers and players to connect to the drama of a song and its music. For music to express something, there is drama. The most fundamental aspects of the musical art, like tension and release, discord and consonance, suspension and resolution, soft and loud, rhythmic synchronization, and effective melodic line, all serve to highlight the drama that is music. This is all strong reason as to why music is such an effective tool in expressing the marvels of the Gospel. Like music itself, the Gospel message is characterized by drastic shift from discontinuity to resolution. Jesus has given to His disciples (us) the ministry of reconciliation.

Sunday evening I was able to slip in for our church’s Palm Sunday musical presentation that was titled, “Into the Darkness.” The theme helped to mark the beginning of Holy Week, although the musical service itself embraced many aspects of the whole story, including reflections on the cross, the resolution brought about by resurrection power, and even the anticipation of the Lord’s return. In fact, an emotional highlight, no doubt, was the final stanza of the last hymn sung in the service, Horatio Spafford’s It Is Well with My Soul, as we sang our heart’s desire,

And Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be made sight!

The clouds be rolled back as a scroll.

The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend

Even so, it is well with my soul.

This hymn seems to always pack a powerful punch for worshiping communities, but perhaps never more so than following a lengthy contemplation of the depth of human sin, the desperation of the human condition, and reflection on the cost of our salvation. In a service where each song is followed by the extinguishing of another candle there is a growing sense of that darkness, as well as a deepening hunger for light, for resolution. The hymn provides some sense of build up within its own verses, when “sea billows roll,” “Satan buffets,” and “my sin” provides the very need for Christ to regard my “helpless estate,” and to shed His own blood. This service of worship, however, went beyond the four verses of the hymn, drawing our penitence into focus over most of the service. Certainly beautiful music permeated the whole service, but without morbidity a strong sense of our need for salvation set the tone of much of the service, adding to the welcoming thought of our Lord’s return as sung by congregation in It Is Well.

I recall one of my first Tenebrae services that I led when serving as Music Minister. Most of that service was predominated by minor keys, and participants departed the dimly lit sanctuary in silence. I received complaint notes from a few church members. For a long time I kept one note scribbled on a bulletin that simply said, “I do not come to church to feel bad.” I guess the wait between that Good Friday service and the coming Resurrection Sunday was more delayed gratification than some were prepared to accept. We Baptists are less conditioned to such expectations than some of our more formal liturgy friends. Regardless, the season of Lent and Easter provides grand opportunity for worship to profoundly proclaim its central feature, the Gospel. Placing the truth of this gospel on the lips of worshipers provides opportunity for powerful worship that not only proclaims this good news to all who hear and expresses praise to the One we worship, but it also helps to form those worshipers into Gospel people. Effective corporate worship singing aids our fulfillments of Christian living, loving God, loving people, going and telling this good news in the power of the Christ Who is with us always. Sing the drama!

THE WONDER OF SUNDAY MORNING

March 24, 2015

Every Sunday, a deacon unlocks the door, an usher picks up a stack of bulletins, a pastor kneels in the study, and they wait. Soon, the parking lot fills, and people from all walks of life stream into the building for weekly worship.

They are not paid to be here. They are not forced to be here. Yet they come and serve in beautiful ways.

In the nursery, volunteers change diapers without complaint, step in to mediate the toddlers’ dispute over sippy cups, and dole out a weekly supply of animal crackers.

Down the hall, men and women open their Bibles and discuss the meaning and application of God’s inspired Word. A doctor with more than a decade of education in medicine takes notes as a construction worker who never went to college exercises his gift in teaching the Scriptures. The small groups then rearrange their classroom space in preparation for the homeless women they will shelter during the week.

The choir and praise team are warming up and running through the songs they will lead in the upcoming service. The hallways are buzzing. Greeters seek out newcomers, teenagers gather near the front of the sanctuary, and the anticipation builds: the worship is about to begin.

This is a place of music, where hundreds of voices soar to the ceilings and the echo of praise hovers over the people. A man who can’t carry a tune lifts his kid up on the pew in front of him and sings along anyway. Some raise their hands. Some kneel. Some close their eyes. Some look to heaven. Various postures, all united in worship.

Then they pray — for the lost, the sick, the hurting in their community. In this moment, the people’s concern for their city is like the ocean tide gathering up its waves of compassion into this place of prayer before rolling their acts of mercy into the city throughout the week.

The pastor opens the Bible. The sermon exalts the Savior and exhorts the saints. Yes, they are saints. All of them, even with their ongoing sins and struggles, their failures and flaws — they are washed in the blood of a spotless Lamb. Forgiven, adopted, and made new. This is not a crowd; it’s a church – a people who have been called out of the world and changed by grace.

From the feast of God’s Word to the feast of the Lord’s Table: now they eat and drink to the glory of God. Christ’s body broken for them. Christ’s blood shed for them. Time stands still, for in this moment, these people are carried back to their Savior’s cross and ushered forward to His return.

The dawn of resurrection morning has given way to the sunlight of noonday. Energized and equipped, the blood-bought saints go out. It may seem like the service is over, but the truth is, their service is just beginning.

WORSHIP AND HUNGER FOR THE BREAD OF HEAVEN

March 15, 2015

bread-of-life11 This year I gave up bread for Lent. Hang on, I will eventually bring this back around to consider our worship and worship singing.

As a lifelong Southern Baptist we often joked that for Baptists we thought Lent was residue from a cloth napkin that showed up on your dark trousers, or something that got stuck in your belly button that was hard to get out, and of course the joke was a play on the common sound of the words, “Lent” and “lint.” Jokes aside, I believe there is value in following the rhythms of the Christian year; if not as a church family, at least as a nuclear family and/or as an individual believer. It is good as a spiritual discipline that places us in concert with Christians around the globe who recognize the seasons that call our attention to events in the life of Jesus. This is certainly not to say we do not ponder these events in Jesus’ life and ministry at other times during the year, but similar to the sensitivity someone gains when visiting a physical location where reportedly acts of Jesus took place, so can be the impact when we set aside seasons like Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost for worshipful reflection on events associated with these seasons. As Robert Webber says, “the Christian year orders our personal spiritual life into the saving events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; it is not a mere ritual.”[1]

For several years I have been engaging in the practice of giving something up for Lent. Through readings and helpful instruction I have embraced the practice and found it to serve as a time of deep spiritual examination. Psalms resonate in my spirit through this season, especially Psalm 139, which begins “O Lord, You have searched me and known me!” Some may ask what this time of reflection has to do with giving up something during this season. The practice serves as a fast, and like any fast becomes a means of reminding us of our humanity, our dependence upon God, and urges our identification with Jesus. In self-examination under the all-knowing scrutiny of the Spirit’s revelation we become freshly mindful of Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection. Confronted with our “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” humanity, we are reminded that salvation is an ongoing spiritual reality in our lives, “I was saved, I am being saved, and I shall be saved.” (Doesn’t get much more Baptist than that). It is in that “I am being saved” phase in the present that I am also prompted to consider the hymnwriter’s lyrics, “Prone to wonder, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” My prayer joins Robert Robinson’s last phrase afresh, “Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it! Seal it for Thy courts above.”

So each year during the Lenten season I have found some spiritual association with the thing that I have set aside for these weeks. That is to say the Lord seems to draw my attention to spiritual truth through the pangs of yearning associated with whatever it is I have given up. This year I decided I would abstain from bread for Lent. With the exception of Sundays, when the fast is broken, I determined to resist bread all other days of the week. Early in Lent I attended a handbell festival (not on Sunday) in a church that was hosting a hospitality meal following a memorial service for a family. The hallways were filled with the luscious aroma of bread baking in the church kitchen. Everyone who walked through spoke about how good it smelled. I love bread, and found myself nearly drooling at this smell, but I was also moved by the connection this made for me of the goodness of the Lord. I think it not egoistic that for me it spoke of His presence in this season. As the season has progressed I have continued to take acute notice of how often bread is placed before me. Logan’s, O’Charley’s, Outback, and Longhorn all have warm bread served to the table first thing after drinks have come. In each instance I find my mind repeating, “Jesus, the Bread of Heaven, the Bread of Life.”

While Lent and worship are intrinsically connected, I recognize not all evangelicals are attuned to that kind of spirituality and practice. For those who facilitate gathered worship, however, I believe subjecting of ourselves to disciplined seasons of silence, prayer and fasting, and time in the Word, are crucial not only to our own spiritual health, but to the congregations we lead and serve. Themes and truths that the Spirit brings to our attention in God’s Word and in our surroundings through such times of self-examination, humbled submission, and renewed commitment yield good fruit for the work of ministry related to worship.

In a season of giving up bread I have been called anew to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” I sense an urgency and unction to aid churches in rediscovering their prayer song cried out to the Bread of Heaven, the Bread of Life. Some will find the cry through Fred Hammonds’ Bread of Life, others through John P. Kee’s Bread of Life, and others in the old Gospel testimony song, Fill My Cup as seen on Gaithers’ homecoming videos and sung thousands of times in services of revival and renewal calling out “Bread of Heaven, feed me ‘til I want no more. Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.” Perhaps the most sung, given its hymn lyrics composition in 1772, later joined to the great CWM RHONDDA tune composed around 1907, following the Welsh Revivals is Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah, and the line by which it is well known, “Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven, feed me ‘til I want no more. Feed me ‘til I want no more.” In John 6:35 Jesus told the crowd, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Just as He assured the woman at the well in John 4, He is all we need! As we journey to the cross in this season, may we help our congregations to make the connections of the Bread of Heaven, the Body of Christ broken for you, and thankful hearts engaged in offering praise in response at His Table.

[1] Robert Webber Webber on Worship: Volume 1

MAY I SERVE YOU? – HOSPITALITY IN WORSHIP

March 10, 2015

Church Greeters My wife and I visited a church last Summer where we walked in, were greeted by someone obviously assigned to the door who was sorta kinda semi-friendly (I’m being generous). We were given a bulletin that was loaded with a collage of ministry logos, a lot of verbiage that really only made sense because of our familiarity with church-dom. There was no service order or explanation of what or who worship was for or about. There was nothing to really help us know what the church was about except a motto phrase implying its mission. There was a typical “visitor welcome” voiced in the service itself in which members were encouraged to “welcome our guests.” Two little ladies in front of us turned around and shook our hands and grinned at us. The room was abuzz with people talking with one another, and we were standing there with that look….you know the “we do not know anybody here and so please hurry up and get this over with” look. My bride is a gentle and quiet person in public, but despises this activity common in many churches. She really does not like it – so much so that she sometimes will latch the death grip on my arm when someone even begins the “we want to welcome our visitors this morning” speech. Hospitality? Well….

Later last Summer we visited another church where our greeting at the door was similar, but had more pointed conversation finding out where we were from, the purpose of our travel, asking about our family, inquiring what brought us to the church, etc. You know….stuff we could actually talk about. Still, there lurked in my wife that fear of the pending welcome” ritual. Instead, however, as we were seated two or three people around us greeted us, asked if we were part of the church family, and upon hearing we were from out of town engaged in conversation about us, our visit, and as the service began we had a bit more of a sense of genuine welcome. When the service began only one of us had a printed bulletin and one of those who had spoken to us before noted that was the case, and got up to go retrieve an additional copy in case we wanted it. We did. In the worship bulletin were printed words and music for every song save a couple of newer worship songs that had only words. Not only was the order spelled out, but a description of the flow of worship’s conversation was given.

You might think discussion of these scenarios has more to do with training church greeters or ushers than it does with a blog about Christian worship, I would beg to differ. In fact, I would like to speak directly to the Worship Leaders. By this I mean not only the musical leadership, but also the senior pastor and those who offer leadership in any capacity for the worship environment, planning, and execution. You see understanding worship leadership to be something of a host in Christian worship offers us an appropriate model of what it means to help facilitate worship. As reference I turn yet again to a mentor, author, theologian, Constance Cherry. She reminds us that corporate worship is not a self-guided tour, but rather involves things we do together. An appropriate worship environment is best evaluated by the participation and engagement of those present. A critical distinction is made between participatory worship and programmatic worship. In the former persons are encourage toward active involvement and engagement, whereas in the latter they are expected to observe. In one they are expected to be actively involved as worshipers, in the other they are free to be passive onlookers. The latter is a seriously unbiblical view of worship. When worship is understood as a program the emphasis is on a design to instruct or entertain about something. God may be the topic of worship about whom we are instructed. We may sing about Him, even toward Him, or as we see more frequently in many environments singers sing about themselves worshiping.  In program worship evaluation comes based on the effectiveness of the speaker/preacher and the band/performers. As Constance says, “it is completely natural to respond to a program by evaluating what one liked and didn’t like, what one learned or didn’t learn, what was of excellent or poor standards. A performance begs our satisfaction.”[1]

In participatory worship God is understood more clearly as the source of worship. In this worship songs are addressed to God by name. We are reminded of Christ’s real presence in the gathered body, and God is recognized as the Audience. In this environment the Worship Leader(s) are hosting and their hospitable spirit is important as facilitators of the worship. They will avoid getting in the way, or distracting from the engagement between the worshipers and the worshiped, but rather will join as fellow worshipers. Leadership verbiage will foster an attitude of “we” whereby the gathered sense that something is taking place in which we are joined together in participatory activity, rather than being relegated to a passive “watch this!” or “listen to this” posture, which sidelines participation of fellow worshipers, and places them as spectators watching platform personalities “do their thing,” whether rockin’ and rollin’, engaging in classic choral splendor, or charismatic preaching. An atmosphere of worship where mutual hospitality is encouraged will likely promote healthy interaction from the time worshipers step foot on the property of the church right through until their departure. What’s more it will foster continued worship as servant in the world.

[1] Constance Cherry, The Worship Architect, 269.

JESUS CALLED – HE WANTS HIS BODY BACK

March 2, 2015

Body of Christ This may sound overly blunt, and some may think does not even need to be said, but under an unction to do so, I need to posit that the church’s worship is not a proving ground for trying out a song, seeing how people react to new lighting effects, a cool video clip illustration, or a hymn arrangement. I am certainly not proposing that none of these innovations be used in worship. I am cautioning that one of the many ways Christian worship is stolen away from its sacred purpose is when it becomes utility experiment with the means rather than unadulterated focus on the ends. We are not gathered to market a worship product to consumers we dub “worshipers.” We are engaged in eternal sacred practice with the Bride of Christ to the glory of God.

 

The church is a body. It is not just a compilation of individual worshipers, but rather, She is a local expression of Christ Himself. The picture is pretty clear in the New Testament. See Romans 12:3-8 where the church is identified as “many members, but one body, and individual members one of another.”(vs 6) We are the Body of Christ joined to Christ in salvation. (Ephesians 4:15-16) We are “one body for we all partake of one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:17) We are one body and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27) Shall I go on? There are plenty more where those came from. Just Google something like “the church as body of Christ,” or similar, and read awhile. What’s more, the Head of the Church is Jesus. She is His Bride in preparation for the Great Wedding Feast (Revelation 19:7-9, 21:1-2). And the Bible teaches that the Groom is divinely jealous (2 Corinthians 11:2).

So let’s think about the atmosphere of our worship environments. More pointedly, for those of us who design and lead in aspects of worship, let’s evaluate our theology and ecclesiology compared to our practice. Is it clear that what we are doing is in no way focused on platform personalities? Is there an understanding and fleshing out of our oneness as many members, one body? Are there ways we help to make Christ’s Presence known from the very beginning of worship, and continue through to the last note and beyond even to the sending out? How much of our worship genuinely engages persons, and invites participation of the whole person – mind, body, spirit? Are we careful not to over-associate body participation (clapping, raising hands) with those things that draw obvious acclaim for platform personalities? The atmosphere, attitudes, spirit of our songs, and attitudes of those who preach and lead in worship shape much (probably far too much) of the ethos of worship which shapes us into the kinds of believers we become. So let us think about how our worship prompting helps to shape our worshiping body into one faithful Bride adorned for Her Husband. Are we helping the many members – one body – to engage in a collective spirit of worship that will please our Lord?

In Music Making

I have been re-reading research on ways music-making affects us. Studies showing that music elicits response of the emotion and intellect are a plenty. Even further indication is given that those who make music are more affected than those who simply hear it. It is of little wonder as to why music and singing are addressed and commanded more in scripture by far than any other art form. Put simply, singing in worship is a big deal! The strongest encouragement for individual worshipers to participate is for others to be participating. In our corporate worship singing we must foster a culture of singing. Fostering such is not likely done by projecting 100+ decibels from the platform, but rather by methods that build an expectation that everyone in worship sings as integral part of worship engagement. Let the congregation hear the congregation! You know – admonish one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

Body Movements and Facial Expressions

The old adage of “monkey see monkey do” has some application here. Neurologists have discovered the process by which our brains recognize a person’s body language and facial expressions. It seems we have mirror neurons in our brains. Our brains see someone engaged in action and expression and we begin to sense the related emotions. We mentally imitate the muscle movements of others and sense the related emotions. “Some of our motor neurons mirror another’s actions, as well and prompt us to perform our own actions.” If, for example, we see someone raising hands as part of their worship and we sense genuine expression it is likely that we will sense the emotions that accompany that expression. The result may be either to encourage us to join in the raising of hands as expression, or to sense the emotions connected to that act. The same is true of facial expressions. Smiles elicit smiles. Sadness elicits sadness. Older theories implied that such reflection of others was rooted in rational, conscious processes. New research shows a more involuntary subconscious imitation that draws us toward mirrored response. As the many members-one body gathers to worship our individual body language affects one another, and thus the collective environment may well message an atmosphere of freedom and hospitality.

Marva Dawn reminds us, “We don’t go to church, we are the church and go to worship to learn how to be the church.”[1] Brian Wren says, “In the act of singing, the members not only support one another, but proclaim a community of faith reaching beyond the congregation that sings.[2] This is the body of Christ at worship.

[1] Marva Dawn, A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1999), 256-257.

[2] Brian Wren, Praying Twice, 93.


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