Archive for the ‘Singing Worship’ category

Thankfulness Does a Worshiper Good

November 15, 2015

gratitudeWhat do you do when worship is not up to your expectations? Songs prove uninspiring, preaching lacks application for you, and maybe you just feel unwelcome for some reason. May I suggest a strong dose of thankfulness? You probably do not need to look very far to find it, and it can turn your spirit toward worship mighty quick. Happened to me the other night while checking email at home.

I almost never do this, but I clicked on one of those quizzes that you see on the internet. It came as a link in an email I received from WebMD so I figured it was ok, and besides, the title caught my attention so I thought, “What the heck? Give it a look.” It was called a Happiness Quiz. Once sucked in I started to answer the questions and then I got to the one that read something like this:

What does more to boost your own sense of happiness? Pleasure or Gratitude?

I knew my answer right off, but didn’t click the response just yet. Instead I just mused on the question. I will spare you the details of what all crossed my mind on the pleasure side of the equation, but as I contemplated gratitude it triggered a 30-minute reflection that morphed from remembrance to heart-filled worship. First thing I knew my eyes grew misty, and then the tears started to flow as I thought about people, places, and things that have meant so much over the course of my life. Gratitude fostered remembrance of so much grace. I started out thinking how grateful I am for family, immediate and extended. Then there was the spinoff considerations of how we have been blessed by church family when needs have so often been met in all sorts of circumstances. I thought of how much wise council I have gotten from pastors, deacons, and friends at just the right times. So many directions for this thinking to go, it is almost endless because everything for which I am thankful brings to mind people, places, things that unleash another flurry of reasons for unbridled gratitude. Even thoughts of times when finances were stark, or when health scares had us on our knees brought waves of thankfulness as I recalled all the ways God provided and faith was strengthened. Of course reflection of this nature brings to mind loved ones who have been so much a part of life’s journey who are now separated from us by death. Again, another wave of heart-stuffing thankfulness to know we will see them again. When I looked back at the computer screen to try and finish the quiz I went back to thinking about pleasures to remake my comparison. That brought to mind how every pleasure, from planning and enjoying our first ever cruise to the smell of bacon and coffee on a Saturday morning to the running embrace of a grandchild to the telling of funny stories at bedtime to those same grandkids and the sound of their incessant giggling. It struck me that even in recalling the pleasures I was basking in gratitude. My answer would be correct. My answer was Gratitude. Click. Yep! The screen said my answer was right. And so right it was and is.

In this month of November, when a day of thanksgiving is officially scheduled, for which I am grateful by the way, I am reminded that for Christian worshipers thanksgiving should be a basic condition of life. It is certainly a prerequisite spirit for worship. The Apostle Paul is especially instructive about this attitude which I believe to be foundational to a true worshiper’s heart condition. Paul reflects the attitude as he thinks of his brothers and sisters in Christ, as he considers all that God has done, and as he considers how he wants to lead those under his influence.

I thank my God every time I remember you. Philippians 1:3

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? 1 Thessalonians 3:9

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:15-16

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe. Hebrews 12:28

Worshipers in the Old Testament were admonished toward a grateful disposition as well. Their worship songbook was loaded with exhortation to praise in a spirit of thankfulness, and the prophets kept them looking toward everlasting thanks.

Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. Psalm 95:2

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. Psalm 100:4

The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing. Isaiah 51:3

From them will come songs of thanksgiving and the sound of rejoicing. I will add to their numbers, and they will not be decreased; I will bring them honor, and they will not be disdained. Jeremiah 30:19

I may not be happy all the days of my life, but by God’s grace I pray to be ever thankful, and one day to enter heaven’s gates as a worshiper full of gratitude for His unmerited favor!

YOU DIDN’T BUILD THAT WORSHIP – OR DID YOU?

October 26, 2015

obamas-you-didnt-build-that-spin-destroyed-in-1-5-minutes-620x451 In July of 2012, President and then also candidate Barak Obama began a political firestorm when he rather inartfully tried to make a point about all that goes together to help make a business, and more broadly the American economic system, successful. Taken out of context, but still on point he said, “look, if you’ve been successful you didn’t get there on your own.” And later in the same speech, “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Well, we Americans pride ourselves in being independent, self-made, pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of folks. Obama’s adversaries made political hay out of the statements. Likewise, the candidate’s allies not to be outdone pointed their nanny-boo-boo fingers back at his adversaries and called them “one percenters” who were filthy rich and born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Don’t you just love politics?

Well, for goodness sake let’s get off politics, but there is a correlation when we think we can pull off “great worship” in our own power. We need a heart check in relation to our worship life and attitudes to see if a “we did it ourselves” spirit is not at the center of some of our worship environment issues. In his just released and much needed book, True Worshipers, Bob Kauflin writes of our inability on our own to worship God. There is perhaps no point so pertinent in our day in Christian worship than this central tenant. Through healthy biblical reflection Kauflin reminds us of the absolute dependency upon God’s own provision for our worship. Though created with perfect orientation toward our Creator, having no need for exhortation to worship since that was initially our very nature, the temptation to be little “g” gods ourselves was overwhelming, and thus the Fall and resultant sin nature that stands at the heart of every problem and issue we have to this day. God’s faithfulness, though, is never failing. He is Jehovah Jireh! He provides. From Cain’s unacceptable offering to the Tower of Babel to golden calves to glitzy light shows and American Idol-esque “worship leaders,” we tend to depend on our own designs in worship. It will never suffice. All the while, God has continued to provide. There is one provision for our access to the Father. He is THE WAY, THE TRUTH, and THE LIFE! It is Jesus! “Through Jesus we bring the sacrifice of praise.” (Hebrews 13:15) We have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, and spur one another on to love and good deeds in our faithful gatherings, all because of our high priest, Jesus. (Hebrews 10:19-25)

So why do we tend to pattern our worship after entertainment models? Why do worship planners tend to plan and pattern using an entertainment rubric for everything from scripting, to timing, to music. Consumerist lifestyles have become our means of interpreting what is taking place in church. We are certainly capable of assessing whether we enjoy the service, if we like the preacher, or if we agree with the style of music, etc., etc. But so what? The same can be said about a movie or a club. After all, those events are centered around pleasing us. But look to Colossians 3:12-17 and consider the ecclesial lifestyle encouraged. Here is a spirit pleasing to God, on Whom we say worship is focused and in Whom worship is centered.

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do,whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

I am afraid I agree with Paul Tripp who says for many if not most church members, “church is a place that they attend thankfully but that constitutes no essential aspect of their living.”[1] God does not ask us to check in on worship now and then to see how we like it. Through the apostle He says offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God – this is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)

[1] Paul David Tripp Awe: Why It Matters for Everything We Think, Say, and Do (Crossway Books 2015)

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.

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)

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


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