Archive for July 2015

SEVEN TRAITS OF WORSHIP SINGING IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH

July 27, 2015

Singing Worship What a profound privilege it is to join in singing worship with fellow believers! After several events where congregational song and singing were the focus of discussions, teaching, sermons, research, and small group consideration, I am reminded of the simple and yet astounding miracle of joining mind and spirit with other Christians in singing worship! I think and write about these things often, but the proverbial “proof is in the pudding.” That is to say, the spiritual engagement with the living God in Three Persons shared in the fellowship of saints forgiven by His grace and gathered in His Name through singing is almost beyond description, much less definition. Consider with me some of the dynamics of what is happening during such singing when such worship is genuinely “in spirit and truth:”

  • Walls of division are crumbled as the Gospel of Jesus Christ demonstrates its power to overcome divisions of race, gender, wealth, social status, intellect, talent, athleticism, or physical beauty. In genuine worship singing the church demonstrates an answer to Jesus’ High Priestly prayer in John 17 that we would be one, and is answering that prayer in real time and space.
  • God’s story is retold, and worshipers are invited in to find their place in the story. Biblical songs root worshipers in the stream of God’s praise, His deliverance, and His character. Poetic inferences of scriptural truth “strum the slumbering chords again” to bring worshipers to recount the acts of God and respond in celebration, or confession, or prayer, renewed covenant. In worship we remember “great things He has done,” and respond with “Praise the Lord!”
  • Mutual ministry is engaged as every singing worshiper edifies every other singing worshiper at the same time that the other worshiper edifies the first singer. That dynamic is multiplied across the room of singing worshipers exponentially as every one is ministering to every other one, and vice versa. Plus the composite ministry of the singing congregation ministers as a collective entity to every worshiper and to any outsiders who happen to hear.
  • Moments of significance are embraced and embedded in a congregation’s memory. Whether times of deep sadness and longing sorrow, or the most joyous of joys in times of happiness, those moments are stamped through the attachment of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that accompany and express the church’s response, whether praise, prayer, or sympathetic concern. Through these times a hymn or worship song becomes a signature of the congregation’s shared experience of faith, and when it is sung it serves not only in its intended meaning, but also as a reminder of its new significance. Often re-singing of the hymn or song will bring association with the emotions and ministry present in its previous singing. Indeed a hymn or worship song may become something of an Ebenezer (1 Samuel 7:12-13) reminding worshipers of the Lord’s help, provision, or other character trait. With such songs a congregation may find that each time it is sung the church reaches a more profound Alleluia!
  • The body of Christ is formed and strengthened as individual worshipers give themselves over to the corporate fellowship of saints, and love one another with brotherly affection, and try to outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:10) In singing the many members are one body joining to sing one song of praise, walking together by faith and not by sight.
  • Faithful saints are sent out to make disciples, baptize believers, teaching and preaching the Word. The song and its singing inspire, encourage, and embolden the faithful to “take up their cross and follow Christ.” Empowerment may not occur in the singing itself, but certainly it is echoed and declared with fresh fire when sung invoking the Name of Jesus to Whom all authority in heaven and earth is given. It is in His Name we are sent because we have “a story to tell to the nations.”
  • A triumphant tone is sounded and flavors all Christian worship in light of the truth of the Gospel that “hails a new creation” and harkens us to sing the sweet song of salvation in full assurance of faith, knowing Christ is ultimate Victor and that our singing accompanies our “marching to Zion” right up to the day we join the sacred throng in the very presence of Jesus and fall at His feet to “crown Him Lord of all” and join the song we have been singing all along,

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!

We will join with every creature in heaven and on earth in singing,

To Him Who sits on the throne and to the Lamb Be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! Amen  (Revelation 5:9-13)

Just in these past few days I have been part of singing that reveals these traits that are characteristic of worship in spirit and truth. It cannot help but fill the heart to overflowing. In familiar yet fresh ways it stirs the soul. Oh that we all might “join in a song with sweet accord.”

HOW CAN I KEEP SINGING? HAS SOMEONE CHANGED THE SONG?

July 21, 2015

Singer struggling  I find deeply meaningful the traditional hymn, How Can I Keep from Singing?, also known by its first line, “My life flows on in endless song.” Likewise meaningful is the newer worship song that borrows much from the 1868 hymn accredited by some to an unknown “Pauline T.” and by many hymnals to Baptist minister/teacher/hymnwriter, Robert Lowry. Whether singing the old hymn or the Chris Tomlin/Ed Cash/Matt Redman version, either expression carries a sentiment of a passionate spirit of praise and heartfelt worship such that testifies the singer simply cannot help but sing. Both worship song and hymn express that even in the struggle of life’s storms there is “an endless song,” though it may be a “far-off hymn,” still “it finds an echo in my soul.” The hymn and worship song reflect a sentiment that I fear has been lost in many settings that are called worship. Of course, I am not just speaking in relation to these two songs, but rather to worship singing itself. I wonder if many can no longer hear that “far-off hymn,” the “endless song,” or if it cannot echo in their soul because their soul has no ear to hear.  I wonder if their sentiment would instead be “How can I keep singing?”  or just “How can I sing since I have nothing to sing about?”

Much has been written about stylistic and musical jockeying that has been done with worship singing over the last fifty or sixty years that has morphed “worship music” into little more than listening to the loud band, the polished choir, the grand organ, the orchestra, the virtuoso soloist, etc. In recent days more and more leaders seem to be awakening to the fact of this distortion of the congregational worship environment. I am thrilled to read blogposts and musings from some who have engineered and trumpeted a performance environment before, but who have had an epiphany that something needs to change. It is as though someone looked up one Sunday and realized, “Hey! Ain’t nobody singing out there!” Yes, folks, it hardly seems like “admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” if everyone is standing around watching the leader(s) do their thing and then offering up a holy golf clap after the song ends, or when the leader tries to jack up the applause meter a bit more by hollering into a microphone, “let’s give the Lord a hand!” Really? Sorry, but it just seems grotesquely disingenuous. I fear that we have changed the disposition of the worshiper from “How can I keep from singing?” to “How can I keep singing?”

Undoubtedly, mechanics and fundamental musical components are at play in discouraging full participation in worship singing, but that is not my purpose in this post. I fear a much more severe problem that will never be fixed by changing the mechanics. I am deeply concerned that what may well be keeping many would-be worshipers from singing is that there is not a genuine connection to “the endless song,” the “far-off hymn.” I am fearful that we may have pews and chairs of people that have not truly been born again. I am reluctant to even write such a thing because it certainly is not for me to judge anyone ever, and those who sometimes use the statistics to build up a kind of salvation numbers game generally repulse me. Only God truly transforms a life. He alone knows what is in the heart. There is reason, however, that estimates by the George Barna group, Billy Graham association, and others estimate that anywhere from 65% to 90% of those who attend church are unsaved. We could discuss soteriology at this point, but rather I would ask leaders to at least consider whether we have piled so much fluff in our worship environments so as to presumably make people feel like they are worshiping, but have instead simply drowned out the discoverability of the truth that many are generally disengaged. Regardless of your particular theological understanding of salvation it speaks volumes (pun intended) when music leaders crank the volume to levels that are harmful to the human ear in order to cover the fact that so few are actually singing in worship. The same can be true of a blaring pipe organ. It is certainly fair to say there is a place for a so-called Christian concert, whether rock ‘n roll or sacred classical. These kinds of events may well minister and contribute to the development of maturing worshipers, but they do not take the place of admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Nowhere does the scripture say, “Listen to a new song unto the Lord.” Rather, we know it directs emphatically to “Sing a new song to the Lord!” Over and again it says, “Sing!” But I wonder if oft-heard excuses like “I just don’t sing,” or “nobody wants to hear me sing” are really just cover up for “sorry, but there is no song here.”

The song we see in scripture is the song of deliverance, the sweet song of salvation. From the Song of Moses sung by Israelites after crossing the Red Sea to the Great Hallel in the Psalms to the hymns of the New Testament that announce the coming Savior, declare the saving power of His death on the cross and resurrection, and promise His return, the theme is God’s glorious acts of saving grace. We are still singing that song today, whether Victory in Jesus, A Mighty Fortress, or Glorious Day, and there is no need to try and change over to an over-romanticized song in order to try to get people to “feel their love for God” as I heard one leader describe it. The miracle is His love for us even while we were yet sinners. Instead of trying to manipulate feelings surely we are better served praying and studying to hide God’s Word in our heart. Could we pray that He might “stir the slumbering chords again?” Oh, would that the Spirit send fresh wind, fresh fire that we might be regenerated or reminded according to our need, and be able to sing with authentic ferver:

Wonderful, wonderful Jesus

In the heart He implanteth a song:

A song of deliverance, of courage, of strength

In the heart He implanteth a song[1]

 

[1] Anna B Russell Wonderful, Wonderful Jesus in Baptist Hymnal 2008, #567

THE JOY OF SERVING IN HARMONY

July 13, 2015

Roberts Family Last Friday I was meeting with a group of worship music ministers and pastors discussing the state of congregational singing in churches and more specifically its relation to revitalizing worship. Like all of us who are slave to the smartphone, at each breaktime through the day I would try to check my phone for messages. One that came through right at the end of the day was word of the passing of Nancy Roberts, wife of Roger Roberts, one of the former senior pastors with whom I served in Kansas. The news was sad and at once relief, as I knew Nancy’s mind and body had been riddled by Alzheimer’s disease. As I drove the 80 miles to my next stop I wept some, prayed some wordless prayers and sang prayers as well, and along the way my mind flooded with memories of the time our families served together in one of the most harmonious ministries of my years of service. Roger and Nancy and their children were like family. We loved spending time together with them. We benefited from watching Roger and Nancy parent, and loved the privilege of being in their home often, a place filled with love, laughter, and music. Nancy Roberts at piano with grand

One of the dynamics that benefited our relationship with the Roberts was their love for music. We shared many common interests (theology, sports, humor, and family), but the appreciation for musical expression was high on the list. It did not hurt that Nancy had a master’s degree in piano performance and was often working on compositions herself. Plus Roger played some trombone and actually enjoyed going to the symphony.  Knowing their appreciation of music and observing their enthusiastic participation in the church’s worship through music gave me all the more inspiration to do my best work, to strive to encourage the best from others, and to find even richer joy in the making of music that I fervently prayed was serving the worship of our Lord and brought Him appropriate praise and thanksgiving. It was as though the love of the art, the love of all persons involved, from my pastor to the choirs and instrumentalists to congregation, all worked together to bring about a harmonious music that served the Kingdom. We did some good music, and were not afraid to attempt great things. The longer term benefit, however, was not in the music itself, except perhaps inasmuch as it lent meaningful expression to our moments of joining eternal praise, or as it attached melodious significance to ministering Gospel during times of proclamation or lament. I would also have to say, however, that a lasting value of our harmonious shared ministry in this church as in others is the depth of love which is brilliantly reflected and symbolized in the music itself. Lives lived together in common purpose, demonstrating deference to one another in order to serve the Kingdom above self, lending our part to the larger symphony of praise that Christian life is surely intended to be, can be richly symbolized in the rhythms, melodies, dynamics, and harmonies of music and music-making. I believe it is in these settings when we have allowed the Spirit to set aside the tyranny of our preferences, and have embraced fully the larger joy to “join in a song with sweet accord and thus surround the throne” that we will begin to hear the voice of Jesus singing “in the great congregation.” (Hebrews 2:12)

Our brother and mentor, Reggie Kidd ends his inspiring book quoting the text of Edmund P. Clowney, and credits Clowney “for the way he pointed many of us to Christ who sings his love to his bride.”[1] Here are the last stanzas of Clowney’s lyric:

Then sing, ascending King of kings; lift up your heads, you gates;

The King of Glory triumph sings, the Lord that heav’n awaits.

O sing, you Son of God’s right hand, our Prophet, Priest, and King;

The saints that on Mount Zion stand, with tongues once dumb, now sing

 

O sing, Lord Christ, among the choir in robes with blood made white,

And satisfy your heart’s desire to lead the sons of light.

O Chief Musician, Lord of praise, from you our song is found;

O Ancient of eternal days, to you the trumpets sound.

 

Rejoicing Savior, sing today within our upper room;

Among your brothers lift the lay of triumph from the tomb.

Sing now, O Lamb, that we may sing the glory of your shame,

The anthem of your suffering, to sanctify your Name![2]

[1] Reggie Kidd, With One Voice: Discovering Christ’s Song in Our Worship (Baker Books 2005) 182.

[2] Edmund P Clowney, The Singing Servant in With One Voice pg.183.

WORSHIP IN AN AGE OF CONFUSION

July 5, 2015

confused-face2 Christian worship is suppose to be about Word and Table, engaging the faithful in singing, proclaiming, praying, fellowshipping, and sending out to baptize and make disciples. The pattern is ancient and contemporary, practiced in churches of different faith traditions, and of varying ethos through the years. Just think about all the surrounding circumstances of all those years; war, pestilence, death, birth, decline and renewal, dismay and elation. The steady repetition of worship and the accompanying song has been sung through seasons of greatest jubilation as well as deepest lament. In our own country we have experienced seasons of cultural acceptance and even meshing of church and culture whereby “going to church” was the right thing to do – the accepted norm. Then again there have been times when those who sought to worship faithfully have been culturally suspicioned either as “holy rollers” or as “cold ritualists.” Viewed as such, the faithful are dismissed as irrelevant. The wrestling match with cultural acceptance, rejection, or adaptation has always confronted the Church. In present day America churches are reacting to recent civil and cultural events in varying ways. Plenty has been and is being said about the SCOTUS decision in their redefinition of legal marriage, and the fallout as it effects various faith traditions. My address here is not about that decision or fallout directly, but rather regarding our direction in worship gatherings, and the need of the Church as it worships with fissures in the convictions of the faithful, either spoken or silent. How do we worship in an environment of confusion? Some of you may say, “What confusion?” as you are convinced beyond a doubt that your convictions are right, and thus you might desire the spirit of singing to be somewhat militant in reflecting your convictions. Certainly, within my own Southern Baptist denomination, there is little dissent from the traditionalist position. Likewise, however, within the ranks of other faith traditions there is a libertarian position with equal force of sentiment. Both sides use biblical reference as proof of correctness. What are you singing, worship leaders?

Worship sentiment varies widely anyway among the churches, especially in evangelical communities where week to week liturgy is not prescribed, and sentiment may largely follow the reaction that leaders have to real time happenings. If Facebook is any indicator last Sunday’s worship in many churches was dominated by reaction to the SCOTUS ruling. As I read on church websites and Facebook pages, post after post announcing, “Come to hear Pastor ________’s response to the SCOTUS ruling,” I could not help but wonder, “What songs will worship leaders ask their people to sing in those settings?” “What will be the spirit of the singing?” Divisions in the faith family seem accentuated in light of such strong opinions and the feelings that drive them. So what is the spirit of our singing in these seasons? Militant? Defiant? Forgiving? Loving? Confessional? Priestly?

I continue to be convinced that worship music can serve as an effective instrument (pun intended) of expression amidst the tensions inherent to Christian worship. There are many such tensions; transcendence and immanence, humility and boldness, cerebral and emotional, vertical and horizontal, traditional and contextual, already and not yet, to name a few. There is just something about music that helps us rise above the human logic of the tensions to simply sing the tensions with proper embrace of either side of such tensions. In other words, we can sing Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise and sing I Am a Friend of God in the same service and fully embrace the truth of each as well as the tensions inherent. Likewise, in light of recent developments in our country, I might propose singing of bold reminders of God’s sovereignty, His unfailing mercy, His command to love one another. Our singing of timeless texts with boldness that reaches beyond ourselves can aid our escape from the entrapment of how I see something (or feel about something) to Who God is, what He has done, is doing, and will do. Worship’s song must surely ever include the tone of ultimate triumphant of Christus Victor! Meanwhile, living in the not yet we must also sing so as to spur one another on to love and good deeds that our light will shine before men and point them to the Father. We are far too often given to stray from loving neighbor as self, building walls around us and our children instead. Let us be renewed as the faithful

My faith is built on nothing less

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness

I dare not trust the sweetest frame

But wholly lean on Jesus’ Name

 

On Christ the solid rock I stand

All other ground is sinking sand

All other ground is sinking sand

                        –Edward Mote (1834)


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