Archive for August 2015

WHAT’S GOING ON OUT THERE? WORSHIP VIEWED FROM THE PLATFORM

August 24, 2015

hands-worshiping2 I have spent many Sundays on the platform of a church sanctuary looking out over a congregation that has presumably gathered for worship. Some Sundays as the people sang, as love for one another was verbalized, as Word was preached and response was made openly I thought the ceiling would surely open and heaven’s glory itself would fill the room. Other Sundays I have wondered if attendees had undergone some kind of hypnosis that robbed them of all enthusiasm and just left body shells to stand in the pews. From the platform perspective I often think I have a sense of what is or is not happening in worship. Perhaps this is the case from a strictly performative, participative, or evident enthusiasm standpoint. In other words, sure, I can evaluate whether people appear to be singing, praying, listening, lifting hands, or responding to invited actions or not. The truth is, however, that such actions in themselves do not guarantee worship of the heart or engagement of the spirit. Nor do such actions necessarily indicate that the participant is acting in response to the presence of God. All the same, I personally prefer to see some evidence of enthusiasm in the open responses persons make in the worship environment.

I have spent many Sundays on the platform of a church sanctuary looking out over a congregation that has presumably gathered for worship. Some Sundays as the people sang, as love for one another was verbalized, as Word was preached and response was made openly I thought the ceiling would surely open and heaven’s glory itself would fill the room. Other Sundays I have wondered if attendees had undergone some kind of hypnosis that robbed them of all enthusiasm and just left body shells to stand in the pews. From the platform perspective I often think I have a sense of what is or is not happening in worship. Perhaps this is the case from a strictly performative, participative, or evident enthusiasm standpoint. In other words, sure, I can evaluate whether people appear to be singing, praying, listening, lifting hands, or responding to invited actions or not. The truth is, however, that such actions in themselves do not guarantee worship of the heart or engagement of the spirit. Nor do such actions necessarily indicate that the participant is acting in response to the presence of God. All the same, I personally prefer to see some evidence of enthusiasm in the open responses persons make in the worship environment.

Our subjective worship evaluations based on enthusiasm as we experience it fall woefully short of an encompassing sense of the Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise. Our long-relished glut of emphasis on intimacy without proper perspective has left us with little sense of the magnitude of Him with Whom we claim such intimacy. I fear such excesses, certainly including my own, have too often been simply based in a small view of God. What if it were otherwise? As Will Willimon points out,

When we come in contact with the Divine, we experience ambiguous feelings of wanting to face the mystery and also of wishing to flee from it……Even the incessant clearing of throats, whispering, coughing, rattling of gum wrapper, and aimless activity that usually goes on in a congregation on Sunday morning may be a direct, if unconscious, attempt to avoid getting too close to the mystery. Protestant clergy have been accused, somewhat ungraciously, of being infected with “diarrhea of the mouth” because of the constant chatter and irrelevant commentary with which they fill all empty spaces during Sunday morning worship. Perhaps their chatter shows their nervousness during times of quiet or unplanned breaks in the action of the service—times when the “numinous” has a way of intruding.[1]

Not that silence is the only means of encouraging contemplation of transcendence, but it does seem to imply “other worldly” to simply remain quiet in our fast-paced, fill every second with sound and stimulation world. Basking in the mystery of a transcendent sense of Holy Other might well prove uncomfortable, especially for those of us on the platform. We might be left looking at a room full of people wondering, “Why don’t they do something?” Indeed, this is our inclination. As one who has tried merely a moment’s silence inserted in a service of worship in a Baptist context before, I can testify the impulse to move is a heavy burden. Perhaps we need to think differently as to what worship looks like, as if we could really know for certain. What’s more, perhaps we need to more deeply and prayerfully consider our expectations in worship, and know that the true work of holy worship occurs in the hearts of those worshiping in spirit and truth.

The churches’ worship provides opportunities for us to enjoy God’s presence in corporate ways that takes us out of time and into the eternal purposes of God’s kingdom. As a result, we shall be changed – but not because of anything we do. God, on whom we are centered and to whom we submit, will transform us by his Revelation of himself.[2]

[1] Will Willimon Worship as Pastoral Care (Abingdon Press 1979) 79

[2] Marva Dawn A Royal Waste of Time (Eerdmans 1999) 1-2.

MANAGING WORSHIP

August 17, 2015

planning This is not a “how to manage your worship” article. Rather, it is a “if you are controlling it then is it really Christian worship?” article. One of the most fundamental issues at stake in Christian worship is the question of control. Our problem is that we want to manage worship when our need and the need of the whole world is for the essence of worship to manage us, and by extension bring us to recognize that God the Creator has ultimate control of the world. I am afraid that we who offer guidance for worshipers in the church far too often lose sight of our role in the process. What’s worse we may cause confusion and distract from the intended purposes of worship, particularly the intention to see God for Who He is. A central tenant of Christian worship is the reordering of our lives to God’s designs. This is why we rehearse His story, remember His works, celebrate and praise His characteristics, and express our faith in His promises. Worship repositions us to what the Lord requires, as we read in Micah 6:8, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.” Genuine worship reorders our reality to live in keeping with Jesus’ High Priestly prayer that we would be one (John 17), His Greatest Commandment that we love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength and neighbor as self, and His Great Commission that we make and baptize disciples in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So where have we strayed? How did we start managing worship rather than looking to worship to manage us? Did we lose our wonder by trying to create it? What is our only hope to come back to the heart of worship?

A Few Thoughts on How We May Have Strayed and How We Might Find the Way Back

Lost the wonder of worship. There is an appropriate tension in worship between the grandness of God and the intimacy of God. Seems to me we lose something of the awe and wonder of God when we begin to make it all manageable. The nature of awe in God’s presence is overpowering, overwhelming on its own. We do not have to manufacture anything, but rather seek to display God for Who He is. Biblical revelation, natural revelation, artistry that takes no credit save the true grace gift that comes from God in Christ – let our worship point with these along with a vibrant fellowship of believers who serve one another and the world to the Blessed Trinity. When our efforts in worship leadership become about engineering experience we are likely drifting. Strip away anything that clouds the reflection of the Lord Himself and the scandal of the Gospel. “Sir, we would see Jesus!” (John 12:21)

Made our songs too much about us. The tendency to sing too much about ourselves is not new. If you review hymns of the 19th Century you see many songs in the same trajectory. In the case of any era it is not that these songs are all bad, except where poor theology abounds, but it becomes a matter of balance and health. Singing our salvation is a powerful part of worship, but most important is the God-focused singing of Father, Creator, Almighty, and lifting up Christ in a biblical view of His finished work, as well as the wonder-working power of the Holy Spirit. Singing worship develops us as worshipers to live out our worship in a world run amuck from God’s intentions with injustices, hunger, slavery, killing of the most innocent, and looking to false gods for answers. Prayerful song selection with counsel can help. Sing “that the light of Christ might be seen today” (Speak, O Lord)

Made worship into a performance that entertains or inspires worshipers rather than an engagement with God that repositions us to please Him and reflect His glory. In a lecture earlier this Summer at the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies pastor/author Mark Labberton noted that giving glory to God is not just standing with arms open saying, “glory, glory, glory, glory.” He likened such to pointing at the sky and saying, “blue, blue, blue, blue.” Giving God glory means reflecting His likeness that others see Him. I have often said that to know we have truly worshiped Jesus means we become more like Him.

Thinking of performance in the worship setting as the point of worship rather than how we “perform” as Christians living in the world as a result of worship. This is closely related to the previous point. Worship is not about the Sunday “show” but instead, Sunday worship points us to how we live for God’s glory. “If we are coming to worship the Lord of all creation, the Savior of the world, then while we are setting up and checking the sound system or pondering prayers or sermons, we have to hold on to a wider vision of God’s love, a set of very different circumstances and an outcome of our worship that is meant to land us in places of need.”[1]

Seizing our position as worship leaders and pastors as a position of power rather than understanding our role as servants to the bride of Christ. While no church leader would admit to wanting notoriety, fame, or favor rooted in status, our methods too often bely a different trend. Celebrity envy is far too obvious in far too many settings. The accouterments are far too exposed for false humility to be believable in so many cases, and the detriment of the attitudes of those who fashion themselves to have arrived at celebrity status within their own locale is far too costly, namely a deaf ear by many to the gospel. The arresting of power for personal benefit, whether financial, emotional, or social smacks of insincerity that is usually plain for all to see. “Faithful worship helps us clarify and limit human power in our hearts and minds.”[2]

We got too good at the wrong things like high powered speaking, high powered music and media rather than investing deeply in prayer, confessional relationship, and disciple-making. As the organized church compartmentalized ministry, specialization trumped holistic discipleship and efficiency supplanted depth. No surprise that mass marketing techniques, scaled down scheduling for convenience sake, and dumbed down worship for popular appeal were in the mix. Author Frances Chan among others warns us of the danger that the church can conduct business as usual without Holy Spirit power. That should strike fear in our hearts.

Our answer? Surrender. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” (Psalm 127:1) Coming back to the heart of worship is not just about making Sundays a great experience, it is about yielding our lives to Christ to live for His glory as we await His return. Singing, praying, preaching, hearing, confessing, communing, sending are all aspects of our joyful obedience.

[1] Mark Labberton The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (InterVarsity Press 2007) 33.

[2] Ibid. 36

LET’S BLOW UP WORSHIP

August 11, 2015

all-creation-sings2 Striving to give worship consumers what they want the American church has far too often continued down the pointless road of making worship more and more about us and less and less about God. Oh, no one would ever admit such a thing of course, but there are signs within the way we “do worship” and the materials we choose that I fear imply just that. Sensationalizing platform personalities is common and revealing. Careful assessment of many song lyrics reveals a telling tendency to circle the sentiment back to our self. Just because it is our worshiping self does not change the ethos that routinely wants the music that makes me feel the way I want to feel. So what do we need if not to draw attention to our selves? What is our proclamation if not to give people that which will make them feel great, find happiness, and just generally be better? Granted, some of these may be byproducts of regular worship, but they cannot overtake the primary point of Trinitarian worship. The desperate need in Christian worship is to see the Lord, high and lifted up. When we make worship about us we make it smaller. When we join the worship of heaven and pray “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” our worship is made bigger. The awe and wonder of the Holy Other is not always the ooh and ah of a beautiful blue sky with white puffy clouds that gives me goose bumps. It may well be the overwhelming, frightening storm that serves to display the power and character of God. And it is God that we need as revealed through His Word and illuminated by His Holy Spirit. We need the Triune God revealed in His splendor as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. May our songs, prayers, readings, and actions of worship reveal, praise, honor, and glorify Him. He is the essence of worship, the subject and the object of worship. By His provision we are able to come before Him, but it is not about us.

Let’s face it! Everything around us in popular culture tells us, “It’s all about you!” Have what you want. Do what you want. Make yourself happy. Let others serve you. Is there any stronger evidence that our self-obsession has slipped over the edge than the selfie? And now we even have the selfie stick to get a more flattering angle as if someone else is . We have perfected the ability for self promotion, and we can choose what self it is we want to present. This is what we do in current culture. It is who we have become. So, shall we just succumb? Shall we give in and just agree? Is it really all about me?

Masquerading as a means of reaching our culture we have become self obsessed in worship. Some have said we worship our worship. Boil it down and isn’t that really just another way of saying we are worshiping ourselves? If Ralph Waldo Emerson is right when he says “what we are worshiping we are becoming” then doesn’t it follow that if we are worshiping ourselves, we are just becoming ourselves? Resultant attitudes toward marriage, divorce, race, and other issues would indicate we are just becoming more of ourselves. One of our most pronounced tendencies in worship is to bring it down to our size. When our primary objective is to bring worship down to our level, even with the best of intentions such as to reach others, we are nevertheless shrinking worship to a place where we have control. Have we so used the Old Testament as proof text that we have missed the prophetic message of its overarching story? Almighty God is always in control. He is working out His plan. The story is His story and He has graciously allowed us to be a part, even calling us His children, sons of Light.

So how can those who facilitate worship help to present worship as larger than the “all about me” method would dictate? As worship music ministry leaders we have opportunity to select songs that place larger and deeper thoughts about God on the lips of the people. Singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs is a great place to start. Here we expose worshipers to historic praise in psalmnody (whatever the style), hymns that declare grand theological truth and reveal character of God, and spiritual songs that confess our need and His work in our lives in real time. What a challenge! Everything around us reinforces the lie that “it’s all about you.” Worship of the living God says instead, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22:36-40) The Greatest Commandment leads to the Great Commission which reminds us that all power in heaven and on earth is given to Jesus, therefore we are to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them all things I have commanded you, and I am with you always.” (Matt 28:18-20)

The culture points us toward ourself, and worship points us outward. Genuine Christian worship results in us looking and acting more like Jesus. No wonder the whole creation groans in waiting as we see in Romans 8. Jesus said if we are silent the very rocks would cry out. Friend and composer/arranger, Mary McDonald recently noted regarding churches where the song seems to be muted, “I did not hear the rocks cry out, but I heard them clear their throats.”

Robert Webber summarized the act of worship as prayer in this way,

God, we are here to remember your story and to pray that the whole world, the entire cosmos, will be gathered in your Son and brought to the fulfillment of your purposes in Him!”[1]

[1] Robert Webber Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Baker Books 2008) 150.

THE VOLUME OF WORSHIP – WHATEVER HAPPENED TO HUMAN VOICES?

August 4, 2015

man yellingI am attending a conference headlined by popular Christian speaking personalities and worship bands. Speakers are on message in keeping with books they have written and positions they have taken with passion over the stretch of their years in ministry. Worship moments have been rich with readings from the Word including congregational reading, a welcome though unusual practice in the arena atmosphere housing the conference. Along with other conferees I have been inspired and encouraged at points during the sessions. I have to admit, however, that the usual internal conflict arises at the point of the arena environment music that seems to me an antithesis of admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, since even an arena full of people are little competition for the volume level that consistently rides in the 90 – 98 decibel level (sufficient to cause hearing loss over minimally extended time exposure) and peaks well over the century mark at 102 and peaked on my iphone meter at 105. Used by all save one group, the formulaic manipulation of loud to less loud spectrum that allows participants to actually hear one another only a couple of times for a brief refrain during each set is not only predictable, but insulting, and worse yet, seems quite contradictory to the message seeking to engage the gifts God has given each person. Rockstar environments foster consumer mentality and the value systems that come with the same.

Some will argue that volume and atmosphere are a cultural, even generational issue. Such defense seems to me to ignore the consistent instruction of scripture to sing unto the Lord, to come into His presence with singing, to speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and so forth. How can we admonish each other when the band is playing at 101 db? What are we doing? My friend and colleague from North Carolina, Kenny Lamm, presented the following thoughtful blogpost relating to why people are not singing anymore in worship. In it he makes critical points I believe are directly applicable to where I am today, and especially so in the local church setting. Here is Nine Reasons People Aren’t Singing in Worship.

Worship leaders around the world are sadly changing their church’s worship (often unintentionally) into a spectator event, and people are not singing any more.

Before discussing our present situation, let’s look back into history. Prior to the Reformation, worship was largely done for the people. The music was performed by professional musicians and sung in an unfamiliar language (Latin). The Reformation gave worship back to the people, including congregational singing which employed simple, attainable tunes with solid, scriptural lyrics in the language of the people. Worship once again became participatory.

The evolution of the printed hymnal brought with it an explosion of congregational singing and the church’s love for singing increased.

With the advent of new video technologies, churches began to project the lyrics of their songs on a screen, and the number of songs at a church’s disposal increased exponentially. [1]

At first, this advance in technology led to more powerful congregational singing, but soon, a shift in worship leadership began to move the congregation back to pre-Reformation pew potatoes (spectators).

What has occurred could be summed up as the re-professionalization of church music and the loss of a key goal of worship leading – enabling the people to sing their praises to God. Simply put, we are breeding a culture of spectators in our churches, changing what should be a participative worship environment to a concert event. Worship is moving to its pre-Reformation mess.

I see nine reasons congregations aren’t singing anymore:

  1. They don’t know the songs. With the release of new songs weekly and the increased birthing of locally-written songs, worship leaders are providing a steady diet of the latest, greatest worship songs. Indeed, we should be singing new songs, but too high a rate of new song inclusion in worship can kill our participation rate and turn the congregation into spectators. I see this all the time. I advocate doing no more than one new song in a worship service, and then repeating the song on and off for several weeks until it becomes known by the congregation. People worship best with songs they know, so we need to teach and reinforce the new expressions of worship.
  2. We are singing songs not suitable for congregational singing. There are lots of great, new worship songs today, but in the vast pool of new songs, many are not suitable for congregational singing by virtue of their rhythms (too difficult for the average singer) or too wide of a range (consider the average singer—not the vocal superstar on stage).
  3. We are singing in keys too high for the average singer.The people we are leading in worship generally have a limited range and do not have a high range. When we pitch songs in keys that are too high, the congregation will stop singing, tire out, and eventually quit, becoming spectators. Remember that our responsibility is to enable the congregation to sing their praises, not to showcase our great platform voices by pitching songs in our power ranges. The basic range of the average singer is an octave and a fourth from A to D.
  4. The congregation can’t hear people around them singing.  If our music is too loud for people to hear each other singing, it is too loud. Conversely, if the music is too quiet, generally, the congregation will fail to sing out with power. Find the right balance—strong, but not over-bearing.
  5. We have created worship services which are spectator events, building a performance environment. I am a strong advocate of setting a great environment for worship including lighting, visuals, inclusion of the arts, and much more. However when our environments take things to a level that calls undue attention to those on stage or distracts from our worship of God, we have gone too far. Excellence – yes. Highly professional performance – no.
  6. The congregation feels they are not expected to sing. As worship leaders, we often get so involved in our professional production of worship that we fail to be authentic, invite the congregation into the journey of worship, and then do all we can to facilitate that experience in singing familiar songs, new songs introduced properly, and all sung in the proper congregational range.
  7. We fail to have a common body of hymnody. With the availability of so many new songs, we often become haphazard in our worship planning, pulling songs from so many sources without reinforcing the songs and helping the congregation to take them on as a regular expression of their worship. In the old days, the hymnal was that repository. Today, we need to create song lists to use in planning our times of worship.
  8. Worship leaders ad lib too much.Keep the melody clear and strong. The congregation is made up of sheep with limited ranges and limited musical ability. When we stray from the melody to ad lib, the sheep try to follow us and end up frustrated and quit singing. Some ad lib is nice and can enhance worship, but don’t let it lead your sheep astray.
  9. Worship leaders are not connecting with the congregation.We often get caught up in our world of amazing music production and lose sight of our purpose of helping the congregation to voice their worship. Let them know you expect them to sing. Quote the Bible to promote their expressions of worship. Stay alert to how well the congregation is tracking with you and alter course as needed.

Once worship leaders regain the vision of enabling the congregation to be participants in the journey of corporate worship, I believe we can return worship to the people once again.   (read Kenny’s blog and find other helpful posts here)


Rob Moll, Author

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