Archive for the ‘Congregational Singing’ category

IS WORSHIP REALLY ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE?

October 18, 2015

worship experienceHow often do you hear these two words used together, “worship” and “experience?” Churches consistently promote their Sunday gatherings using this terminology. Senior Pastors and search committees looking for a worship leader often give top consideration to someone who can “give us a great worship experience from week to week.” In fact, one of the largest conferences for worship leaders wears the very moniker, “Experience.” I have friends who have taught at that conference and many more who have attended. I get it. We are human after all, and who doesn’t want to have a great experience? Who doesn’t want to hear their favorite band or learn new songs? Plus most worship leaders are all too aware that their people prefer that they try to inspire them rather than be prophetic or try to confront them with convicting truth.  I mean, granted Old and New Testament use sacrificial terminology in relation to worship, but who is going kick off the Sunday morning gathering by stepping up to a microphone, playing a couple of power chords and yelling out “Are you ready to sacrifice?!?!?” Not a winning technique for an opener.

Robert Webber warned against worship practices influenced by the culture of narcissism. One example of deepest concern for this writer is the tendency for so many worship songs to focus on ourselves. Of equal concern is an entertainment-inspired approach to how worship music is presented. Seems obvious to me that worship that prioritizes my experience is worship that has become about me. We seem to have been fooled into thinking that if our songs are about how much I love Jesus, how much I want to serve him, and lift him up, how I will praise him and magnify him, then this is great worship. God is made the object of my affection and this becomes the measure of worship, how strongly I feel gratitude and express it to God. The same cultural influence that has fooled us into thinking that marriages are built on love measured by feelings has likewise placed the heart of worship in the feelings of the worshiper. But the heart of Christian worship is God’s story, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, His birth, death, and resurrection. Worship brings glory to God because “it recalls God’s saving deeds in the past and anticipates the culmination of his saving deeds in the new heavens and new earth.”[1] Worship centered in Jesus Christ calls us outside ourselves. John Piper says, “God created us for this: to live our lives in a way that makes him look more like the greatness and the beauty and the infinite worth that he really is. This is what it means to be created in the image of God.”

I hope you will not misunderstand the point I am trying to raise. Surely, our affections are stirred at the mere thought that the God of the universe desires relationship with us. That Jesus would die on a cross to make the way for relationship possible is overwhelming. To contemplate the power of His blessed resurrection and the resultant victory over sin and death is certainly reason for unbridled celebration on our part. The challenge of Christian worship is that it is spiritual by nature. Our participation is a spiritual act of faith. Again, our culture has sought to associate spirituality as something we feel, a sensation or group of sensations. Dating all the way back to the ancient church, however, the pattern for Christian worship has centered in Word and Sacrament through which God’s vision for the world is proclaimed and enacted. Modern culture, Enlightenment thinking, and fierce individualism seem to have moved us away from our roots. Renewed worship will surely return us to a faith-based practice of Word and Table trusting Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to reveal and enact God’s Word and His intention for the world. Inclusion in His work as citizens of the Kingdom will likely result in joyous expressions at times as well as deep lament and concern at times as we await His return and the completion of His re-creation. Meanwhile worship centered in Him will shape us as His disciples to be more like Jesus.

Worship transforms us from people who live for ourselves to people who live for him who died and was raised again.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

Worship transforms us from being the served to be the servants.

Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28)

Worship is to help us take our eyes off the temporal and remind us of the eternal

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)

[1] Robert Webber Ancient Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Baker Books 2008) 85.

WORSHIP FROM THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

October 11, 2015

blurred worship band shotImagine what it would be like if you had one of those out-of-body experiences, but over a worship service. Instead of hovering at the ceiling in an emergency room where you look down on your body laid out on a gurney being zapped with paddles from the crash cart, imagine you are floating above the church worship center on a given Sunday and you get to observe worship and worshipers, including yourself, only from the outside. Do you think you would be questioning what the people including yourself are feeling? What if your position outside the church looking in on worship placed you where if you looked one direction you saw the church at worship and the other direction you saw a bright reflection and a silhouette of Jesus, knowing the Father is there as well, although you could not see Him?

As you look down on worship what would you likely be thinking? Do you think our declarations like this one below would be convincing?

“Worship is all about God. It’s not about me.”

  • If we were looking in from the outside would our worship practice show us to be truly concerned with God’s glory? Would you see your church and you determined that God’s narrative be told and retold and that He would be the center of our activities in gathered worship?
  • Would the worshipers be answering Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17, that we would be one in unity?
  • Would worship show us honoring others above ourselves? (Rom 12:10)

If you were the one planning and guiding worship for your church and then were hovering above the sanctuary during worship would you be confident, knowing God is looking on? What do you think He might say about the amount of scripture being read in the worship?   How do you think He might respond to the songs and the singing? As you think in your own mind about floating around that room what do you see reflected on the faces of individual worshipers? What is the sense of hospitality being expressed to each other and to those who are visiting and know little about worship, or about God? Does the worship and the environment do much to make much of what God has done in the past? Is there a recapitulation of God’s story of the world in creation, calling to Himself a people, incarnation when Jesus was born, died and was raised from the dead? As you look upon the room of worshipers is there a sense of anticipation of Jesus’ return? Does the tone of the singing and the content of the songs as well as the spoken message include a sense of certain victory and triumph? Is there an atmosphere where response is expected and strongly encouraged? If you are observing a revivalist atmosphere what do you see in the time offered for public response? If you are observing a Eucharist is there a sense of covenant and thanksgiving in taking the bread and the cup?

Imagining the out-of-body experience may seem silly, but it could be helpful to give a notion of the important question for gathered worship, “What are we doing here?” I am fascinated to read about worship, whether it is the glimpses we have from the New Testament, or the description from the 2nd Century words of Justin Martyr’s First Apology where he was clearing up rumors that had even caused persecutions based on misunderstanding that in worship Christians sacrificed an infant and drank its blood and ate its flesh. I am convicted when reading the God-centeredness of liturgies recorded from Eastern or Western traditions through history, and prayerful as to how the Holy Spirit might lead us in our day toward a much clearer centralization in a Trinitarian worship shaped by holy scripture. I am strengthened reading of Reformation worship and seeing the pursuit of adherence to scripture. When I read about worship during periods of awakening or about the work of some gifted evangelists I am inspired to reflect on personal spiritual commitments made in church revival worship. Reading about movements under dynamic preachers like Spurgeon, Moody, and Billy Graham causes me to yearn for next generation evangelists. In a sense, these observations might be compared to the imagination exercise I mentioned before. Perhaps it would good for us to occasionally exercise our imagination in this way as one means of assessment as to our worship atmosphere, and the role we play in it. After all, God really is looking on, but more than that, worship is about and for Him, and He really is there with us.

NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN? WHAT ABOUT WORSHIP?

October 5, 2015

nothing-new-hereThere’s nothing new under the sun. If so then why do so many churches talk about their worship and worship leader using terms they seem to think will give onlookers the impression that what happens in their worship is all about new? Lots of churches promote their worship using words like fresh, innovative, creative, unique, trailblazing, and unconventional. When it comes to “youth worship” some push the atmosphere of their particular worship “experience” using words like edgy, slammin’, natty, and raw. And honestly, is it really all that unique? Kinda reminds me of the gag motivational poster I once saw displaying lots of snowflakes that says, “You’re unique! Just like everybody else.” All that newness gets a little tiring afterwhile. One might say, “It gets old.” (You see what I did there?)

Speaking of old, when considering our worship should we not think of all time, past, present, and future? Robert Webber, strongly emphasized worship “doing God’s story,” as the heart of the content of worship, which surely indicates that looking to the past would embrace not only biblical times, but give consideration to the faith community through all time. Seems to me it could serve us well to contemplate ways God has been at work in the worshiping church throughout history. What about in the Age of Enlightenment, when faith and reason first seemed at odds? Where did we see God at work in those days? How did His people respond? What can we say about times of great calamity like the plagues, wars, cultural and civil unrest, or periods of political oppression? What’s more, what about our own churches’ past? Could our own worship and mission be served by revisiting the early days of our congregation’s existence? A pastor friend recently decided to read church minutes to check out some of what his older deacon leadership kept trying to tell him. He found a proverbial goal mine in what he read as he realized the visionary passion of the church’s early leaders. He even began to intersperse quotes from these pages into his sermons to help the church find its way toward embracing a stronger missional presence in their community.

A few years ago I assisted a church celebrating its 100th anniversary as a congregation. Old photos made into a digital display were used to backdrop the worship environment. People came to church dressed in the fashion of the early 1900’s. Hymns of the day were sung in a manner reminiscent of the period. Children and youth were purposefully included in worship participation. Pictures of former pastors were placed in prominent display and their tenure was reviewed in the morning service, recognizing a couple of them who were still living and present. Through the planning process I recall ongoing caution by some of the church leadership wanting to be sure the church did not slip back into “glorifying the past,” as they feared “getting stuck again” as they felt the church had become before the church’s current pastor had come to save the day. Certainly “getting stuck” can be a problem for any of us in our spiritual lives, and as a church. We all could probably give examples. It seems equally or I would say even more dysfunctional, however, to ignore or disconnect from our own past, and more importantly, disrupt God’s people from remembering how His Spirit has worked in the past to bring them where they are at present. Our need to remember is to see what the Lord has done, not to just become nostalgic. Some nostalgia can be positive if it is tempered by biblical truth and stirs true spiritual sentiment, but it can also be toxic if it fosters just staring at an older version of the root problem of all unworthy worship, which is self focus. In other words if we end up worshiping our past selves even as we are wont to do in our current culture to worship our “best selves, thinking that is our goal, then we are surely offending God with our worship. There is only One worthy of our worship, and He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Amen. His story, His truth, His hand at work in all times must be themed in our worship. One of the many reasons I am a strong proponent of the use of hymns from all periods is that it holds prospect to bring to remembrance those tensions present in past times. Even through outdated imagery and language, guided by prudent leaders, hymns help speak the past into our present and provide hope for future certainties. Consider the tyranny of being slave to what I will call “nowness.” Worship songs selected only from a radio playlist, or created only by living artists in present day risks ignoring 1400 years of hymnody, which means neglecting centuries of God’s work among His people. Thankfully some modern songwriters like David Crowder are finding ways to integrate ancient hymns into their writing, and modern hymnwriters like Keith & Kristyn Getty and Stuart Townend are carrying forward hymnwriting with great integrity and popular appeal.

Worship that truly does God’s story brings together past, present, and future. All time is under His Lordship. Remembering the past, anamnesis, and looking to the future, prolepsis are central to worshiping the Lord of all time and space. In so doing we offer our hearts, our “living bodies” (Rom 12:1) as our spiritual act of worship, and trust Him for eternal resolution. By His Spirit He is alive in and among us as we sing, pray, listen, read, partake, fellowship, and enact ministry and mission. The ancient church taught us lex orandi; lex credenda; est, Latin for “the rule of prayer is the rule of faith.” Another way Webber states it is “show me the way you worship and I’ll show you what you believe.”[1] Now is the time to rejoin the song that proclaims the “old, old story of Jesus and His love,” that hails the “Gladsome Light” (Phos Hilaron) and looks to a day “every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ is Lord!” as we sing around the throne, “Worthy is the Lamb!”

[1] Robert Webber Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Baker Books 2008) 104.

SHUT UP AND WORSHIP

September 28, 2015

Monk Costume The world is noisy. Just as we are consumed with our incessant busy-ness, we seem likewise to be obsessed with filling every moment with sound. And frankly much of that sound is loud, even to the point of damaging our hearing, physically and spiritually. Rather ironic isn’t it? Some of the sound is just filler that seems aimed at simply avoiding silence. Certainly I have experienced that dynamic in public worship, and have even had pastors caution me about “dead time,” usually referring to what happens between songs, or other components of a worship service. Our fear of silence, however, may be more telling and even indicting than we are ready to admit. But rather than addressing the value, and frankly the need for silence in public worship at this point, I would encourage you to consider the role of silence, quiet, and solitude in our spiritual lives. I would especially want to raise alert to this need for pastors, worship pastors, and other spiritual leaders of the church. We need times of silence and solitude. Some might ask, “who cares?” The answer is we all should care. Those with responsibility to lead out in worship are inviting others into the most core activity of humanity. Worship is the very reason for which we have been created. We need seasons of silence to allow for transformation from our false self to the new self in Jesus Christ.

As we are swept up in the world’s cultic practices of busy-ness and noisiness our values begin to look like everyone else. The obsession is every bit as pronounced in ministry as it is in any other vocation. How often do we ministers feel the need to look busy. It’s not that we are not busy, because we certainly are, and we make certain that we cram every moment with busy-ness, regardless of the value of our activities. More meetings, more rehearsals, more phone calls and emails, more visits, more, more, more=high worth. That is what we tend to think. Likewise, more soundbites, more repetitions, more digital techniques=more emotive result. Since volume gives a sense of power, then in many instances more volume = more spiritual energy.

Cornelius Plantinga Jr says that sin is anything that disrupts shalom. Is it possible that we have cluttered our worship, our churches, and our own individual lives in a sinful way in that we have disrupted God’s shalom by our busyness and noise? We often replace Sabbath with more work. In those instances one has to ask “where is our trust?” Is it not being transferred away from faith in the Holy Spirit over to faith in our own efforts? In talking about the compulsive minister Henri Nouwen says “compulsive is the best adjective for the false self.”[1] Worship leaders and pastors often find ourselves in a revolving door of efforts to please people in order to prove our worth. The Worship Leader works hard and amps up the performance to draw attention to his or her worth in a manner reflective of celebrity personalities or entertainment productions. Pastors speak at every possible opportunity to make their presence (and popularity) known, attend every meeting to demonstrate their managing control, or make every ministry visit to keep their worth before their members. The activity becomes overwhelming.  Burnout is a likely and expected result. Our thinking may be that such burnout is justified because, after all, we were serving in the kingdom. We may have just been serving the image of our false self, the self we think others expect. How do we break the pattern? Time to turn to silence.

Nouwen calls solitude “the furnace of transformation.” Without it we remain victims of our culture as our false selves. It is in silence and solitude that our false self is often revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, and through confession and renewal we can discover our new self in Jesus Christ. Here we come to know anew what it is to take up our cross daily and follow Him. Jesus himself pulled away to pray. He spent time with the Father and reminded us in Matthew 6 to go to our closet and close the door. Solitude and silence protect our souls. The fire of genuine spiritual nurture is fueled in the quiet place where the false self is exposed for who and what he/she is. Here even the most righteous-looking minister confesses “prone to wonder, Lord I feel it.” He who knows the journey of solitude and silence returns to the noise of the world holding to the internal silence of peace and confidence in Jesus. Our best worship and ministry is led from this position of inner silence and strength.

[1] Henri Nouwen The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence (New York: Ballantine Books 1981) 13.

WORSHIP IN THE EVANGELICAL TRADITION – IT’S PERSONAL

September 15, 2015

Emily baptism I grew up the son of a Baptist Pastor. One of the things I learned early on was that Baptists believed in the necessity of a personal relationship with Jesus as Savior. At its core Christianity was personal. I grew up in the glory days of Baptist programming, and I am really glad that I did. We had programs for developing music skills and learning about God through what we sing, which eventually led to understanding that whatever talents we had were gifts from Him to be offered back to Him in worship, ministry, and mission. We had programs for learning the Bible and sharing our witness. We had a program teaching the most basic fundamentals of personal faith and doctrine. It was in this latter program that I learned much about God, Man, Sin, Church, Creation, and Last Things, and about personal disciplines. All of these programs contributed to programming me. The programs, however, in and of themselves were missing the most fundamental component of Christian living. Worship. Warren Wiesbe reminds us that many things the church does are good, but divorced from real worship they are powerless and will not yield fruit.[1]

When I mention the word worship some think of music. It is, of course, much more. Some think of preaching. Worship is more. Many people think of worship as only the hour on Sunday morning when the church gathers for a worship service. Worship is a life style of obedience. With our emphasis on personal relationship we evangelicals in general and Southern Baptists in particular sometimes miss the corporate understanding of worship as a body of believers covenanted together and gathered in a place and time to join the saints of all places and times in the eternal act of Christian worship. By the same token in our efforts to build our churches and draw large crowds I fear we have often lost our sense of the personal nature of worship even within the corporate setting. Although corporate worship is more than just the collected individual worship experiences of individual worshipers, in the evangelical tradition, even gathered or corporate worship serves to position individual hearts and minds to personally commune with the living God. Within the gathered body there are many individuals who are choosing to lend their hearts and lend their voices to corporate praise. Others may continue the struggle to yield to the heart of worship, and for them we pray.

Regardless of the size of a church it is imperative that neither sensitivity, corporate or personal, be lost. We are giving ourselves to the whole, many members one body. At once we are also in spiritual battle as individuals. Humbled before Him we trust His power, His Spirit. I could never fully explain it, but as our friends, our families, and particularly our children observe our humbled spirit yielded as spiritual response in worship the Lord’s presence is made known. Paul says others take notice and see. “So he will he fall down and worship God, exclaiming ‘God is really among you.” (1 Corinthians 14:25) Others around us, and I believe especially those who know us best, have some sense of the positioning of our heart and spirit as we sing, as we pray, as we listen, as we respond. Robert Wenz says “He has made us to live in a material world yet calls us to worship himself, the God who transcends the material world. He calls us to worship by faith, believing that the unseen kingdom and the unseen King are as real and more permanent than the sensory world we live in.”[2]

Imagine if we had a tattoo placed on our face when we committed to faith in Christ. Then surely church members, family and friends, and our children would know whose we were. Instead our identity mark is baptism as our first act of obedience, and we take a towel to our dripping selves following that ceremonial act. Where genuine faith takes hold that mark remains and serves as identity in our own hearts, in the minds eye of all those who observed our baptism, and in our response to other Christian acts as a worshiper. All these responses are personal. When we sing with head and heart, it’s personal. When we listen with open Bible prayerful to hear a word from heaven, personal. When we take the bread and cup and share it with our brother or sister affirming covenant, personal. And others see.

Sunday I had the glorious privilege of baptizing my second grandchild, my oldest granddaughter. Stepping with her into the warm baptismal pool was a joy that defies description. Entering those waters I felt in a sense I was once again entering into my own baptism. The Lord Who saved me has claimed the life of another grandchild. The moments of lowering her little body to stir the water emboldened my own faith and my prayer for her and for family yet to come. Hearing the congregation continue their songs of redemption while I dried and dressed in the dressing room stirred my own chords of song. Tears dripped from my eyes onto my shoes as I put them on my feet. These were tears of spiritual joy, a moment of emotional worship before I headed back to be seated with family. I had just baptized my granddaughter. It was sinking in. It was personal. It was worship. Lord, let me walk in your way that others will see only You.

[1] Warren Wiersbe Real Worship: Playground, Battleground, or Holy Ground? (Bake Books 2000) 8-16

[2] Robert Wenz Room for God? A Worship Challenge for a Church Growth and Marketing Era (Renewing Total Worship Ministries 1994) 161.

Labor Day Prayer Song

September 6, 2015

Though the roots of Labor Day are found in the organized labor movement, the holiday has come to serve a broader concept.  Labor Day is a time of celebrating the privilege we have to work.  I have found this prayer hymn to serve effectively in gathered worship and personally as a daily hymn to pray for the working day. As worshipers whose whole life is to be a “living sacrifice” as our spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1) it is important to fix our perspective of gratitude on life as a gift from God given to us that we might offer it back to Him.

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.


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