Jay Phelan: “In the Covenant we have a chance to offer to the world a grown up faith, a faith that can handle ambiguity, a faith that can handle hard questions, a faith that can accept people even when they are wrong, a faith that permits disagreements and encourages discussions, a faith that is able to say, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I love you,’ a faith that looks out for the suffering and the marginalized and shares with them the love of Jesus. A faith that is mature because the word and will of God are internalized.” (1998)
Jesus… demonstrates the soul of worship. When we envision worship, chances are we think of celebratory singing or of people gathering to hear the Word of God proclaimed. To be sure, celebration and preaching are vital elements of worship. But they are not the soul, the center, the heart of worship. Rather, when you peel back the various expressions of worship to get to the core, you find surrender and submission.
Psalm 96 begins with a simple imperative: “Sing a new song to the LORD!” If you look up all of the Hebrew words that underlie this command, you find that they really mean “Sing a new song to the LORD!”
Fine. But here’s the problem: We don’t like to sing new songs to the Lord, at least not for the most part. Oh, I suppose we don’t mind a new song every now and then. But, by and large, people like to sing to the Lord the songs they know already.
I confess to being one of these people. Recently, I found myself worshiping in a church I hadn’t attended before. I knew about half of the hymns and songs used in the worship service. The others were new to me. I found myself feeling uncomfortable. I was critical of some of the words of the songs. Mostly, I wished that I could just sing to the Lord rather than trying to figure out the unfamiliar tunes and rhythms. I felt rather cranky. Then I felt guilty for turning worship into a matter of my preferences rather than God’s glory.
Commentators on Psalm 96:1 will sometimes point out that “a new song” could be a familiar song sung with new meaning and vigor. I expect that’s true. But, when God’s people experience God’s goodness in fresh ways, the more poetic and musically inclined among us tend to write new songs. If we’re open to these songs and hymns and spiritual songs, they can help us to be renewed in our relationship with the Lord and to express our worship in new ways.
I’m not saying that every new song is a good one. But I am saying that I need to learn to be more open to new ways of worshiping the Lord, even as I continue to use the songs and hymns I love. In the end, I must remember that worship is not about me. It’s about God and the people of God offering themselves to him. Surely I can do this sometimes with a new song.
“we are what we sing. Music helps us learn our theology. Whole movements have begun with this concept; the Wesleyan and Methodist movements began with a pair of brothers who adapted bar songs to teach theology – now we call them “hymns,” songs that used the poetry of music to teach that which is mysterious. Music helps us remember our theology; we remember what we sing, often, better than we remember what we study. Music helps us to express our theology; there is something special about poetry and lyrics that can make sense of paradoxes and contradictions, that helps us lament in times of sorry, express our joy in times of plenty. Music inspires us to use our theology; a good song will move us beyond what we sing, beyond the walls of our building and into our community to serve. We are what we sing.”—Sing | Worship Connect
Psalm 77 models for us exceptional honesty in prayer. It shows us that God cares more about our openness with him than that we get all of our theology right when we talk with him. Oh, to be sure, orthodoxy matters a great deal. But sometimes our efforts to say all the right things in prayer compromise our genuineness. The Psalms in general, and Psalm 77 in particular, encourage us to pray with “no holds barred.” We don’t have to be afraid of asking God tough questions or even of challenging his goodness. What God wants from us is not all the right words, but us…our full, true selves. God wants relationship, not with some whitewashed image of ourselves, but with us.
When we pray honestly, holding nothing back, we enter into a deeper and truer relationship with the living God. In the context of this relationship, we will discover, again and again, that God has not forgotten to be gracious. Yes, sometimes his grace seems strangely hidden. But we who know God through Christ can always be sure that nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love and grace.
We can observe two things. Firstly, discussion among leaders in worship are largely driven by pragmatism. Notwithstanding notable exceptions like the annual Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship, the big worship conferences across the United States are usually skimming across the surface of the ocean of theology in order to playfully skip in the shallow pools of pragmatics, from breakout sessions on lighting to corporate presentations on the latest calendaring and music-distribution sites and software.
Secondly, compared to days of old, it seems today that theological discussions, less and less, weave worship into the dialogue. We worship leaders are not the only ones to blame for this bifurcation. The ivory tower, too, has done its part. Colloquia on theology (e.g. the Evangelical Theological Society) seldom process issues of worship and liturgy. “That’s practical theology,” or “That’s liturgics,” they might say.
When was the last time theologians gathered to process the salient issues of worship in their day, not only to process but to effect change? Well, that seems impossible to the evangelical mind, because the theologians neither are the ones calling the liturgical shots, nor are they in dialogue with the ones who do call the shots—the worship leaders. The theologians might certainly be talking, but it is monological. Worship leaders aren’t reading them. And, even if they are reading them, they’re probably not reading them with much eye toward application to their own practice.
We’re kind of in a bind, here. What’s the solution? I’m not sure, but I believe that the restoration of the worship leader-pastor model (built into the Levitical priesthood, present in the medieval Church, strong in the Reformation, and alive and well at Westminster) will be part of it. Worship leaders as (formally or informally) trained theologians…imagine that! These days it seems so novel and fresh, but in actuality, it is an old, well-worn path of the Christian faith.
“In 1 Chronicles, David, in an act of worship, says these words: “I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing.” Worship, it seems, is not about what we want at the expense of others. Instead, worship throughout the scriptures is about sacrifice, about giving of ourselves, at our own expense. It’s an orientation of our attitudes, of our choices, of our hearts and minds towards God, where God is the subject of the story rather than ourselves. Our gatherings, then, are less about what music we find to be exciting, tasteful, and preferable, and more about a weekly rhythm of growing as a corporate community into the character and principles of Jesus.”—Sacrifice | Worship Connect
“I don’t take lightly the craft of congregational songwriting. We’re putting words into people’s mouths, and therefore their hearts and minds. So in a good (or bad) way, we are actually at times shaping the way someone thinks about God or approaches him. That’s an awesome task. You have to become more than just a musician writing some nice tunes to make Sundays more jolly.
When you start presenting songs in your local church, you are in effect a pastor, a teacher—maybe even a prophet or evangelist.”—Redman’s Reasons | Music | Christianity Today
“If I have one concern it’s that we make room for one another. Obviously we all have preferences as to what we enjoy and don’t enjoy, and that gets involved with questions of quality. I have tried not to listen first critically, but to listen sympathetically, and try to find the authenticities in other people. Inevitably when you do that there is something that will bless you.”—
Sir Peter Hall, legendary Theatre Director and founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I rather suspect that for many church musicians, rehearsal is practice… and so we find ourselves content with lesser art, and just ‘playing the notes’.
Sir Peter is reminding us that we should privately practice our art, and then bring it to a rehearsal ready to discover the true meaning and power in the expression.
we love you… so we are going to teach you how to pray. we love you… so we are going to teach you how to read the scriptures. we love you… so we are going to teach you how to give.
(from Christ Church, East Greenwich RI)
The Tree of Life in Revelation 2:7 is remarkable because the Greek word “dendron” (meaning tree) is not present; instead the word “xulon” (wood, club, pole, cross) is used. The message is that the wood is dead, yet it’s being called the Tree of Life . This is a reference to Jesus being the source of life. This metaphor of dead wood being the Tree of Life becomes even clearer when reading Isaiah 11. The prophet foretells, “A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse.” God is proclaiming the fulfillment of that prophecy. In the midst of a world that finds false life in many things, the message of Jesus is life through the cross.
keeping the old stuff while taking in some of the new stuff
Another friend comments…
There is a wonderful old hymn whose first line says “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.” Old hymns, prayers and liturgies are some of the ways in which Christians are bound together in love over time. The old hymns and liturgies aren’t the only way to bind people together, but they are part of the stream of wisdom and faith that is shared with us. Being part of that stream of saints and those streams of thought that have come before me wherever I find myself is very reassuring. I think many contemporary hymns will stand the test of time (after all, how many of the old hymns weren’t particularly good and got tossed into the waste basket after a while?) - they will offer their wisdom to many and be cherished for generations to come. But, giving up the “old stuff” unilaterally takes us out of the larger context of Christian history and thought; it deprives us of beautiful music and poetry that express a love of God and neighbor, and that is truly a loss for us.
I recently got interested congregants together to discuss hymns: what they mean to people and how to do them well. I wanted to gather a multigenerational group to hear from each other and succeeded. Everyone likes hymns to some extent, some more than others. What no one can argue with is the high quality of poetry involved. I pushed back on some of the comments regarding more theological sophistication, which is true to some extent, but many of the hymns written in the 18th and 19th centuries (which seem to be most of the hymns people like) are more individualistic and focused on heaven. NT Wright brings this out in “Surprised by Hope.” People also need to know what’s good about contemporary songs. Often they don’t have bad theology because there’s not much there, but many do get a little more fleshed out about concerns people have nowadays, about hope for justice and a this-worldly salvation, about community and commitment to God.
In the summer of 2010 I led a workshop called “What about all the old stuff?” It was part of a lovely day on Rhode Island, with all sorts of people from the North East. When I got talking to the people in this particular session, however, I was struck by how distressed they were about losing the ‘old stuff’.
It seemed that, in their home churches, they were surrounded by people who had no use for hymns, traditional or published liturgies and songs that were older than about twenty or thirty years. I found that I was called to speak a word of Hope, to say that such things are valuable; and they looked on me as a lonely voice in the wilderness, but they also longed to see a future where the resources they loved were cherished again. I agree with them. I love singing good new stuff too, of course; and an intelligent extemporized prayer can be as satisfying as any other form of liturgy; but like the people in the workshop, I fear that we’re abandoning received material for the wrong reasons…
Many people who love hymns, prayer book liturgies and prayers are convinced that it’s a generational thing. They fear that, for younger people, that such music and lyrics are no longer relevant. It is true that we’ve allowed our families, friends and neighbors to ignore anything they find hard to sing or to understand, anything that might be an ‘acquired taste’. We’ve listened while our peers criticize the hymns and prayers as unfashionable or difficult language. I want, with great respect, to disagree and admit that when I allowed people to use such excuses in the past, I have been failing to stand up for the art and liturgy I hold dear, and which I think is truly an important part of our Christian heritage.
Hymns and old, liturgical prayers may not be relevant to current society but they are deeply relevant to my relationship with God. Worship services (in my view) are about maintaining and deepening my devotional life. I need those hymns, poems and prayers as part of my love language to God; and I need to hear my Grandfather and my daughter saying them, too.
In singing those great, nourishing lyrics from Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby or Isaac Watts, I’m not only ‘fed’ by the doctrinal content. In singing a great Lutheran hymn or a lyric from the Welsh Revival, I’m also assured that I stand in a long line of believers across the centuries, that my faith has historical integrity and a long-term balanced perspective.
I’m serious about the balance. Contemporary songs and subjects tend towards our favorite pre-occupations. We sing a lot of songs about Christ glorified and reigning,fewer about the incarnation; lots more celebration than lament and there are very few good songs about repentance (just for instance…).
One last thing… in upholding and teaching good songwriting, I want to be able to refer to the great hymnwriters. The lyrical quality in contemporary Christian songs is slipping below acceptable standards, and many of us are forgiving it or ‘letting it pass’. That’s just more collateral damage from losing the material the church has handed down to us…
Your role as worship leader changes. Once your were the moderator, the one who stood on a stage, preventing chaos and keeping the service progressing at an even pace to its conclusion. Now the stage is either gone or it is one of many focal points. The inspiration for worship is now coming from the people themselves who have given you their art to be utilized for the service. You are now the curator, the servant of the people, installer of art and creator of an environment that is conducive to experiencing God.
Stage to Station
If you create a culture of participation, your people will start coming to church with their fresh art as well as creating it during the service. You will find yourself creating “stations” that decentralize the worship and allow for multiple media and environments. Church buildings, like other buildings from the beginning of the modern period, were designed to have a large number of spectators watching a man on center stage tell his big story.
Interactive worship will always be in disagreement with chairs and a stage and will look to alternative venues. But if you have to use your church building, you can make use of the many rooms. Some of the best places for setting up stations are the foyer, hallways, stairways and outside the building. Why not let the artists set up a sidewalk labyrinth of art that leads to the service?
While you are setting up stations to display art, you may want to set up stations for creating art. Setting out paper and paints or chunks of clay. If you create a station for the kids then you may want to display their pieces at the end of the service and let God speak to everyone through the children’s art.
Linking to Layering
We could say that postmodern worship is increasingly vertical rather than horizontal. Rather than being a series of events that are linked together in a chronologically progressive fashion, the elements of worship are curated in a multi-layered, collection of moments that embrace all the senses, all at the same time. Your postmodern worship service will probably look more like a stack of pancakes than a string of pearls. Postmodern minds get bored with single progressive media. The problem is not that their attention span is short but rather that it is broad and responds best when challenged with multi-tasking. They learn from the interplay of the various media. Don’t think longer: think deeper and higher. Go vertical rather than horizontal. Ask the question, “What other media could we run simultaneously that would enhance the worship experience?” The various combinations of juxtaposed media will speak volumes. Random connections will arise organically and prophetically. It’s riskier, but people are finding that it’s worth a step of faith.
I mentioned this poem during my Midwinter Workshop this week in Chicago, and several people asked to see it. I’m sure it’s in the public domain… but if you really want to honor those who invest in such things, buy yourself a book of poetry by John Donne or George Herbert. It’ll bless you…
AN HYMN TO GOD, MY GOD, IN MY SICKNESS.
March 23, 1630.
Since I am coming to that holy room, Where, with thy Choir of Saints, for evermore I shall be made thy music, as I come I tune my instrument here at the door, And, what I must do then, think here before.
Since my Physicians by their loves are grown Cosmographers; and I their map, who lye Flat on this bed –
So, in his purple wrapt, receive my Lord! By these his thorns, give me his other Crown; And, as to other souls I preach’d thy word, Be this my text, my sermon to mine own, “That he may raise; therefore the Lord throws down.”
…as I work I am worshiping God—living gratefully, practicing his presence, praying without ceasing, enjoying the task at hand, and giving him glory.
My calling… is for God and his glory. But when it is offered to him in worship each day, it also engenders marvelous meaning and purpose.
Our callings are connected to our worship. As Charlie Drew says, we don’t “simply praise God that the math homework is done, or that we got a good grade in math. We worship in the work itself.”
This is true not just for math students but for every calling and area of life. What brings meaning to the everyday stuff of life is realizing that as I work I am worshiping God—living gratefully, practicing his presence, praying without ceasing, enjoying the task at hand, and giving him glory.
My calling is not for myself and my own satisfaction, though it often brings me tremendous joy. Rather, my calling is for God and his glory. But when it is offered to him in worship each day, it also engenders marvelous meaning and purpose.
"When sin entered the picture, it was as if all compasses lost their ability to identify true north, or as if gravity suddenly lost its power, and all matter floated wherever it would go. The connection between the Spirit of life and the human heart was severed, and we became worship devices gone haywire. We’ve invested our praise in unworthy things." Chris Tiegreen in “The Worship the King Devotional”, a Walk Thru the Bible publication from Tyndale House. Thoroughly recommended.
Thirty years ago I thought I was on the cutting edge of what God was doing. I had grown up in a church that used formal liturgies, but was now part of a church experiencing the active presence of God’s Spirit during worship. Who needed 2,000 years of church history? We were finally getting it right, blazing a trail for those who would risk all to follow the Spirit. I was blazing a trail, all right. But it was through the forest of arrogance and presumption. I was forgetting the long line of saints who walked this road before, usually with greater wisdom, humility, and faithfulness to Scripture. My appreciation for patterns of the past was deepened one summer when I sang through a hymnal. As much as I enjoyed current worship songs, I realized certain hymn writers had a knowledge of God and a way of expressing it that far surpassed most current offerings. So I began to rework some of the hymns and incorporate them in our worship.
worship is for God, to God and of God. Worship is offering all of ourselves to all God has revealed himself to be, but it’s all about the Lord of heaven and earth before it’s about us.
Worship is the means by which we interupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to God. We’re endlessly absorbed and fascinated with ourselves, our image and appeal. Worship is the great corrective to all this.
“we must determine—corporately as well as individually—to become in a true sense, people of the book… people of the book in the Christian sense; people who are being remade, judged and remolded by the Spirit through scripture. It seems to me that evangelical tradition has often become in bondage to a sort of lip-service scripture principle…
Instead, I suggest that our task is to seize this privilege with both hands, and use it to the glory of God and the redemption of the world.”—
This is a brilliant and honest look at the Bible’s comprehensive focus… Christ. Why do we always orient things around us and what we want? I can see the argument for cultural adaption of liturgy and church meeting style’s so as not to distract people with the abruptness of differences that are purely human, but if there was a way to have a meeting organised solely around a pure ‘heavenly worship style’ then I suppose we could not find fault with it (save in our sinfulness). I think most of people’s issues with style do come where human cultures and backgrounds clash, however, not necessarily with the idea that we dont want God’s style… but that we are uncomfortable with someone elses…
A thought from John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, London AN HYMN TO GOD, MY GOD, IN MY SICKNESS. March 23, 1630. “Since I am coming to that holy room, Where, with Thy Choir of Saints, for evermore I shall be made Thy music, as I come I tune my instrument here at the door, And, what I must do then, think here before.”
Is a form of Sunday morning evangelism distracting us from God?
I’m increasingly aware that many churches now approach designing worship from the perspective of who attends - or doesn’t attend - and what would suit them. In fact, this seems to be the normal way of thinking in the evangelical streams where I (mostly) swim.
So tell me: when my liturgical design and language are modified by a consideration of who might be attracted (or repelled) - so called ‘seeker- oriented’ or ‘seeker-sensitive’ worship - am I really putting God first?
No, this is not a thoughtless or vacuous argument. I’m personally happy to evangelize the other 167 hours in the week, but I think the worship hour on Sunday is to be directed towards and designed for God and Him alone. The churches many of us serve often decide to create an act of worship that is ‘missional’; and as a man under authority it is my pleasure to design such a service to the best of my ability. Churches generally have many attendees who express a preference for their own taste in music and liturgy in contrast to other styles or cultures.
We should, of course approach God with an attitude of grace, preferring the needs and choices of our children or our elders and appreciating those expressions of faith and praise. Instead, we hear people all around us demanding the small repertoire of songs, hymns or prayers that resonate with their personal testimony. What on earth taught us to be ‘worship consumers’?
Maybe what we’re doing here is (1) sensing our own preferences and then (2) denying ourselves? If so, we’re following a strangely unselfish logic. Admirable, in its way. Except, of course, worship isn’t about us; it’s about God. His priorities and His initiatives. He is, as it’s been said elsewhere, the ‘Audience of One’ for whom we meet and express our devotion.
We think we’re attracting people with the culturally-modified language and CCM-style music. Let’s think about that one a little more…