Posted tagged ‘worship environment’


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


July 5, 2015

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

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

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

My faith is built on nothing less

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness

I dare not trust the sweetest frame

But wholly lean on Jesus’ Name


On Christ the solid rock I stand

All other ground is sinking sand

All other ground is sinking sand

                        –Edward Mote (1834)


September 29, 2014

Split_Personality_by_Frider When she was in high school my older sister was a cheerleader. I grew up loving football, so when Teresa became a football cheerleader for Jackson High School I was excited that this might mean more inside scoop on the team and games. I remember one Friday when there was an away game and my parents had a schedule conflict and therefore we were at a church function rather than at the game. I waited up for my sister to get home so I could hear details about the game. Alas, when she got in she could tell me almost nothing about the ballgame and was even unsure whether the team had won or lost. Ugh! Really? You see, for her, cheerleading was its own activity, and for the most part the social interaction with friends was much more the focal point of what took place at the stadium than what was happening on the field. I suppose any activity of life has multiple layers of dynamics at any given time, but it does seem the Stephen Covey adage would be adhered to whereby we “keep the main thing the main thing.” When it comes to Christian worship, it I fear that church leaders have allowed, or even perpetrated worship being hijacked for other purposes.


In the last few blog posts we have explored Michael Walters’ observations concerning forces at work against authentic Christian worship. In this post we look at the subtle, but sinister tendency of realism, in which worship is divorced from worship itself. While the statement may sound like doublespeak, the fact is that worship is ultimately about worship, and there are forces that attempt to use worship to accomplish some other objective. Trying to make worship useful to some other purpose ignores its very nature as a spiritual engagement with the living God, and much worse ignores the Lord’s command to “have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Part of what makes this so challenging is that whatever worship is being stolen to attempt may well be a good and respectful thing in and of itself. Conflating the two makes it difficult to rebuke the process without sounding as if one is opposed to whatever worship is being robbed to accomplish. A prime example of such conflating is the regular attempts to use worship for evangelism. Evangelism may well be a natural result of that which takes place in worship, but worship itself is just that, worship. Marva Dawn calls it (worship) a “royal waste of time” in her book by the same name. Walters notes, “It has no purpose, no utility, no value other than as our response to God for His gracious acts of salvation. Attempts to use worship for some other end are at best futile, and at worst dangerous. Worship has value for its own sake, and nothing else.”[1]

Those who believe its purpose is to serve as a means to church growth often hijack worship to use it as marketing or entertainment. If worship is not bringing in the proverbial sheeves, then it must be time to exercise creative entrepreneurial surgery. It is this same mentality that becomes impatient with the tenured pastor or music leader, tending to prefer the younger, more attractive and charismatic version of either. In this environment attitudes toward worship can easily drift toward little more than a promotion scheme to serve the purposes of inflated egos, ageism, or other idolatrous arrogances. It is just such driving forces that perpetuate the consumerism mentalities so prevalent in church culture of our day. Rather than facing issues whereby either leaders have failed to develop mature disciples, or congregations have been unfaithful participants in their own spiritual development, it appears many churches have settled for whatever pragmatic measure it takes to do what Whoopi Goldberg said in the movie, Sister Act, and “put butts in the seats.” Brian McClaren asks if the problem of keeping people interested in worship is not the natural result of employing evangelistic programs that are designed to appeal to self-interests of people. He asks can such an introduction to the faith fail to produce self-centered, consumeristic worshipers?[2] Based on worship attendance trends of the past twenty-plus years I would say the answer is no, as it clearly seems we have produced more “have it my way” consumers than we have developed true disciples.

Worship is its own reward. The praise and worship of the Triune God Who has created all that is, claimed and called us as His people into relationship with Him, provided the extravagant means of salvation that we may have access to Him, and Who is among us by the Holy Spirit to comfort and convict and guide, is a grace-gift worth every moment of our lives. Worship as a “scandalously useless activity” is of highest value. Pastors and worship ministry leaders must guard against gearing worship to perceived desires and felt needs of people, as this feeds the idea that we come to worship to get something of value “to take back into the real world.”[3] Pragmatism easily becomes a driving force that roots out obedience and response to spiritual revelation. So easily the God-given capacity to love turns in upon itself, homo incurvatus in se. Such is the demand that calls for “worship music I like,” or “sermons that make me feel good.” It is a far cry from aligning life patterns and regulating attitudes and actions according to biblical norms, whereby love of God and love of neighbor are central to living out worship.

While pragmatism has dominated worship leadership thinking for many evangelicals since the Frontier days of Charles Finney and others, there are signs that some leaders have renewed hunger for worship that will shift us away from ourselves and toward God. Surely such is the worship Jesus spoke of as worship in Spirit and truth, for such are the worshipers the Father seeks.

Let the glory of Your name
Be the passion of the Church
Let the righteousness of God
Be a holy flame that burns
Let the saving love of Christ
Be the measure of our lives
We believe You’re all to us

© 2010 Matt Maher Designee (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing)

[1] Michael Walters Can’t Wait Til Sunday: Leading Congregations Toward Authentic Worship, 61.

[2] Brian McClaren A Generous Orthodoxy, 107.

[3] Walters, ibid.

Where to Find “New” for Worship

January 4, 2012

     What shall we include in worship? We are often looking for something new.  The question of what to include in worship can plague evangelical worship leadership whose churches worship in the free church tradition.  As proud as we are of  our independence from any ecclesial hierarchy, the question can be haunting when it comes time to start putting some plans on paper for Sunday worship – choosing songs, placing dramas or readings.  In talking with worship music leaders in our state and beyond I find the vast majority of Baptist worship leaders work their weekly worship order from a sort of “blank page.”  I have spoken with pastors who indicate they try to get into series preaching, either working their way through exposition of a book of the Bible, or designing a thematic series to address perceived pastoral leadership needs within his congregation.  Many Worship Music Ministers are relieved when they have their pastor’s preaching series information as it allows them to select music and other material that will compliment the direction of the sermon theme.  Though relatively few and far between, there are those evangelical pastors and worship leaders who use a lectionary to guide sermon, song, and readings selections for weekly worship, or who in some other way follow a Christian calendar in planning worship.

I am always interested to know how worship planners get started in their worship planning process.  I like hearing from seasoned veterans and from newbies where they start to write out a worship plan and how they make decisions about what they will and won’t place as part of the worship liturgy.  I know some worship leaders are strongly driven by songs they hear and want to incorporate into the worship language of their church.  I know there are some pastors who demand a certain timbre in the worship environment, whether somber or celebrative.

In this new year there are likely some who stretch to find “new” in the novelty of new music material, or in dazzling digital graphics.  With all the newly published music packets music ministers receive, it may take hours to find that gem that somehow moves the emotions of the worship leader that he or she presumes will likewise be a surefire hit with the congregation.  Lost in the sonic world inside the headphones a worship planner can lose sight of the core of worship, much as a pastor might if he gets sidetracked into planning a sermon beginning with an illustration that he thinks is just too good to pass up.  Nothing wrong with a great new song, or an effective illustration, but it seems important to maintain equilibrium as to the heart of worship and the source of transformative power.  The best “new” we can possibly offer in our worship gatherings is the new that is the heart of the Gospel itself.

Spurgeon says it well:

We ought not, as men in Christ Jesus, to be carried away by a childish love of novelty, for we worship a God who is ever the same, and of whose years there is no end. In some matters “the old is better.” There are certain things which are already so truly new, that to change them for anything else would be to lose old gold for new dross.

The old, old gospel is the newest thing in the world; in its very essence it is for ever good news. In the things of God the old is ever new, and if any man brings forward that which seems to be new doctrine and new truth, it is soon perceived that the new dogma is only worn-out heresy dexterously repaired, and the discovery in theology is the digging up of a carcase of error which had better have been left to rot in oblivion.

-taken from Kingdom People blog by Trevin Wax

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