Adjusting Your Worship Set in Light of a Local Tragedy


Last Friday morning, a disgruntled Aurora, Ill., manufacturing-company employee, after being told he had been terminated, opened fire with a gun he had brought with him, killing five and wounding six, before being shot and killed by police.  Most believers would agree that, at times like this, corporate worship has a vital role to play, but what kind of adjustments should worship leaders make to their worship sets in the immediate wake of a tragedy?  There are numerous things you might consider, but here are three things I recommend you not do the first weekend following an instance of unspeakable horror.

1) Don’t ignore the tragedy.  Terrible events like this happen so frequently that we risk becoming numb to them if we don’t fashion some kind of response.  To whatever degree that is true for individuals, it’s even more important for churches–especially when the tragedy hits close to home.  NYC houses of worship, we’re told, were flooded in the aftermath of 9/11.  At times of great communal calamity, the God-shaped void Pascal opined can be found in all unbelievers seems to prompt many to see what the Church has to offer vis-à-vis explanation and solace.  While we can’t address every single act of evil or every natural disaster in our worship services, we must confront the brutal manifestations of our fallen world when they happen in our backyard.  Barth’s exhortation for preachers to prepare with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other serves as great advice for worship leaders, too.

2) Don’t be afraid to go off script.  With the advent of worship-planning software (see next week’s blog), worship leaders construct worship-service orders further in advance than ever before.  While I generally applaud this preparation, we need to be willing to change directions pretty quickly when a tragedy happens in our community.  Almost exactly 11 years ago to the date of last week’s shooting, a gunman opened fire at Northern Illinois University (about a half hour from Aurora).  I led worship that weekend, and here’s a brief summary of what we did, taken from a look at the relationship between suffering and worship I wrote for Worship Leader magazine soon thereafter:

On the Sunday morning following the tragic shootings at Northern Illinois University earlier this year, I decided to abandon the typically peppy call to worship that I had planned.  This wasn’t a hard decision, by any means.  The daughter of one of my praise team members had been in the classroom when the gunman opened fire, and she, like hundreds of other students, had had to crawl to safety in the midst of the chaos.  The collective spirit among the assembled that morning was somber, questioning, even fearful—grieving with this family and with the other local families that had lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.

Like the displaced Israelites suffering in Babylonian captivity, we were, that morning, understandably tempted to ask, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord” in the “strange land” of our grief and confusion (Psalm 137:4)?  Was there any place at all for worship when every single one of us was “weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care”?  My theological training told me the answer was “yes,” but I didn’t have as quick an answer for how to translate that truth, how to make some sense of that which made no sense.

We began our worship with the songbook of all songbooks, for the Psalms not only give us permission to feel sad, but also to question, even to be angry.  Certainly our omniscient Father knows how we feel anyway. . . . The Incarnate Jesus—fully God and fully man—experienced similar kinds of feelings. . . . And the Holy Spirit would not be referred to as “the Comforter” . . . if there were never anything for us to be comforted about.

Our pastor still preached the sermon he had prepared, so we didn’t completely abandon all our preparation, but, at the top of the service, we changed gears in a manner that attempted to address the tragedy theologically.

3. Don’t sugarcoat the tough stuff; wrestle with it.  The Sunday after the loathsome synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh last fall, the worship leader of a church service I experienced online began the set with “The Lion and the Lamb.”  My initial fear, that he was going to ignore the shooting altogether, was alleviated when he transitioned into a prayer for the victims, but, in doing so, he missed a chance to wrestle with hard truth.  “Who can stop the Lord Almighty?” the congregation had just sung/asked together, and a worship leader more in tune with fostering congregational spiritual formation might have responded, before transitioning into the next song (or the prayer that followed, in this case), “Well, there are 11 families in Pittsburgh this morning that might suggest one deranged guy with an AR-15 can and did.”  That could have led into transitional comments about the difficult-to-grasp but real sovereignty of God, the problem of pain and suffering manifested in times like this, or a whole host of other things, but the juxtaposing of the triumphal “Lion and the Lamb” with the brutality of the Pittsburgh shooting—without putting both in context—was a missed opportunity.

The Lord be with you, worship leaders!  Your role, always important, is critical in the aftermath of tragedy.

Coming next week (Lord willing): Holy expectation (or the lack thereof) in contemporary worship.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Reflection #23 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 23 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #23: There is a slew of very good communicators pastoring churches large, small, and in between these days–men and women who really preach well.  Are we praying for them with any semblance of regularity?

Sometimes these kinds of things are wholly coincidence; then sometimes they’re holy coincidence.  To wit, I’m two days late with this post due to busyness.  And the next-in-line reflection, observed well over a year ago, concerns the general excellence of pulpit communication in the contemporary American church and the need for us to be praying for our pastors.  And my (trying-to-be) daily devotions found me in Proverbs 11 today: verse 2, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom”; verse 14, “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers.”

And then the news broke this morning that another famous Chicagoland pastor has finally fallen . . . after years of allegations by wounded former members intensified in recent months, culminating in a media outing that, if the details reported by several independent and reputable sources are accurate, defies the imagination.  And this came on the heels of the horrific report from the Houston Chronicle a few days back about 20 years’ worth of sexual abuse by ministers in the Southern Baptist Convention, actions elmer_gantry_burt_lancaster[1]brought to light enough times in other religious arenas that they don’t, distressingly enough, defy the imagination anymore.  A casual historian of the 22nd century, surveying the landscape of American Christendom of the current era, might conclude that our pulpits are filled with nothing but Elmer Gantrys.

In the year or so since the #ChurchToo movement gained national prominence, the blogosphere has exploded with socio-cultural examinations of how we got here–what mistakes, especially the lack of meaningful oversight, paved this road to destruction and what sins came to flourish in celebrity pastors’ incubators of isolation fostered by the absence of accountability.  These explorations will prove beneficial, no doubt, in the years to come, as elder boards craft better checks and balances for their ministry leaders.  What can we do to help in the meantime and well beyond?

We can pray, and a lot more than most of us (myself included) do, specifically for our pastors.  Although I never was a senior pastor, I worked closely and on staff with six, and I saw the toll–physical, emotional, and spiritual–it took on each.  Simply put, being a pastor can be, and often is, a brutal and thankless gig.  Even ministry among folks who are on track in their spiritual walks can be tough, given our human sin nature (“prone to wander, Lord, [we] feel it”), but how often are any congregations collectively clicking on all cylinders, en masse?  You don’t for a second have to condone any of the behavior alluded to above to recognize, also, that all our pastors face serious spiritual opposition.  The enemy hates the work of all Christian-ministry leaders, and his forces are strong.  So I am saddened but not surprised when pastors fall or leave the Church burned out beyond recognition; I am most saddened to recognize the woeful insufficiency of my prayers for my pastors over the years.

Worship leaders, all of this makes your role so much more critical than it might otherwise appear.  I close by reprising a thought I had a while ago in this space, like Bach, borrowing from myself when what you created before can be utilized equally well at the moment:

The thought comes from Andy Crouch, itinerant speaker and author of a slew of books, including Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.  My wife and I have of late found Crouch’s words to be prophetic for our times.  I commend his entire Q talk (Andy Crouch on power) to you, but the phrase that stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it was this:  “[Power], if left unchecked by worship, [will] destroy me, my marriage, and anything I have to give to the world.”

No one goes into Christian service of any kind assuming the allure of whatever power eventually accompanies the position will inevitably bring down the ministry . . . but to assume said allure won’t, at least, prove problematic and need to be brought into check at regular points in the process denies the reality of human nature.  May all of us in positions of leadership in the Church Universal align ourselves with wise counselors who can–graciously but forcefully–keep us rooted and, especially, humble.  And may we pursue authentic worship with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength . . . for all kinds of holy and righteous reasons, but, for the purposes of this topic, because doing so is our best defense against our abuse of power.

Church, let’s covenant to pray more effectively and fervently for our pastors.  Worship leaders, help keep us all in check with your prayerful and focused facilitation of our worship.  The Lord be with us all!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Holy expectation (or the lack thereof) in contemporary worship.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Reflection #22 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 22 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #22: Evangelical churches do a much better job of greeting incoming newcomers than when I was growing up, but what other things might be feasible where hospitality in worship is concerned?

Contemporary American evangelical churches, more often than not, do a fabulous job greeting folks as they enter the doors on Saturday night and Sunday morning.  As my wife and I have traveled Chicagoland the past two years, visiting churches where current and former students serve in worship ministry, rare has been the occasion when we weren’t welcomed warmly at the door by relaxed, smiling greeters whose sole responsibility is to offer a safe and pleasant entry for all, but especially guests.  Churches now have greeting committees, hospitality teams, and other groups designed to make the church-going experience as pleasant as can be at the onset.

ArendsAll this is great, but what else might make those who attend our services as visitors feel more welcomed?  Carolyn Arends gave some suggestions in an article for Christianity Today a few years ago entitled “Hospitality Sweet.”  I quote it at length because she captures the practical through the prism of the theological, always a good strategy.

Robert Webber was the first person I heard speak about hospitality in the context of worship.  He told a story about attending an unfamiliar church while traveling.  About half of the church members constituted the choir, sitting up front in the loft.  When it was time to sing, the choir director turned to the congregation and took the time to teach each parishioner his part, going over the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass lines until everyone knew what to do.  Webber claimed that in the course of the opening song, guided by a choir at the front, he went from being a stranger to someone who belonged.  He knew exactly how to enter into that community’s worship, because he had been taught his part in it.

“In the church,” Webber concluded, “singing is hospitality.”

I’ve been in churches where the singing (not to mention the praying and preaching) is impressive and professional, but not hospitable.  Those services have been more of a show than a family reunion, more a presentation than a meal together at a life-giving table.  They have been effective to a point, but they haven’t held a candle to hospitable churches that use every resource available (from the church’s architecture to its care in establishing and teaching its liturgies in any style) to make each person included and sure of her part.

Hospitality matters because every time we worship together, we are drawn not only into our particular community, but also into the community of angels and saints who are always praising God.  Even better, we are being reminded that we are included in the circle of fellowship between the Father, Son, and Spirit.  The Son is the true worship leader who helps us express our thanks to the Father, the phenomenally hospitable God who invites us to make ourselves at home with him.

Church is powerful when it embodies this inclusion. . . . becom[ing] the home away from home where we offer each other a place to reunite, be fed, commune, wash, rest, and receive what we need for the road.

I can relate.  I grew up Low Church, by and large, and even with a doctorate in worship studies, and even having sung for a couple of years as a paid soloist in a Catholic parish’s choir, my default setting features variations on the two-fold worship theme (music and message).  As much as I love and appreciate “liturgy” (colloquially defined), I don’t experience it as frequently as I experience “three Tomlins and a Redman” (in the words of author/worship leader Aaron Niequist) and a 45-minute message.  (See the previous post for more on this.)

So when I worship in High(er) Church settings, I love it when the worship facilitator takes just a moment to explain what’s going on or what’s to come–from the Anglican priest leading worship with a congregation full of doctoral students several years ago to the Lutheran pastor putting worship into context for a whole slew of mostly Low(er) Church Judson University Choir members on our winter tour a week ago.  And I am always blessed when the worship leader at Chicagoland’s best-attended monthly Taizé worship service stands in front of the hundreds assembled 10 minutes before the service to rehearse the more difficult choral parts–and to give us a taste of what it all will sound like when the soloist offers a descant on top of our singing.  (Lest you think this concept doesn’t apply in contemporary worship contexts, the worship leader at the very-contemporary church my wife and I visited yesterday did a fabulous job with hospitality during a prolonged worship set that featured an unusual congregational object lesson with bags and faux-candle luminaries that was illuminating both literally and figuratively/spiritually.)

Worship leaders, the Lord be with you as you seek to bring everyone into the worship experience with your hospitable choices!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Pastoral burnout.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Reflection #21 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 21 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #21: Good, theologically solid, grace-filled sermons really can be delivered in fewer than 45 minutes.

One of the hallmarks of most contemporary worship services is the primacy of the sermon.  Every other vestige of the worship of days gone by got jettisoned by the founding fathers and mothers of contemporary worship.  Hymnals?  Gone.  Organ?  Gone.  Baptistry?  Gone.  Altar?  Gone.  Stained-glass windows?  Gone.  Crosses?  Gone, at least, most of them.  Lengthy sermons that take up more than half the total time of the jonathan_edwardsservice, that shine the spotlight (these days, literally) on one single person as the primary and culminating facilitator of the people’s worship, that (in their worst manifestations) promote a celebrity-pastor culture that wages war on a significant theological lynchpin of the Church (the priesthood of all believers)?  Repackaged as “teachings,” perhaps, but as alive and well as they were in were in the days of any of the famously long-winded pulpiteers (Jonathan Edwards, for example) of Christian history.

And yet, as my wife and I have traveled Chicagoland visiting churches, we have often been profoundly blessed, challenged, and encouraged by sermons that have been much shorter than the 45 minutes afforded most contemporary worship sermons (especially in the megachurches).  Sometimes we’ve heard these sermons in mainline churches, which typically place far less time and emphasis on the pastor’s oration and much more time on the Table, Scripture reading, and other “liturgical elements” (recitations of creeds, responsive readings, corporate confessions, etc.).  But we’ve heard short (relatively speaking) messages even in churches that pursue two-fold worship (worship set and sermon), often in churches that have a longer worship set up front than most. (In one multiple-site, mini-megachurch in our area, the pastor gets 25 minutes.  A friend, he’s told me that though he balked at the time restriction initially, he’s found he’s been able to flourish amid the restraints, forcing him to get quickly to the essence of his message and eliminating anything that doesn’t sensibly lead to or follow after the climax of his words.)

I don’t have a right-vs.-wrong opinion here.  I simply want to point out that if you can embrace the notion that the word God has given pastors for any given Sunday morning might be delivered as or even more effectively via a shorter sermon, you then allow for the possibility that God might have equally important words He wishes to convey via different channels other than the preaching.  In a day and age where educators readily acknowledge the benefit of delivering content in multiple ways–i.e., understanding that not all of us are aural learners who learn best via one-way lectures–there might be some exciting tweaks that could break into the status quo where contemporary worship’s general service order and flow is concerned.  Here’s hoping!

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week, Lord willing: Greeters in the average contemporary American church. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Reflection #20 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 20 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #20: The public reading of significant chunks of Scripture is extremely rare.  Proof-texting is common; reading Scripture that allows for context is not.

Does anyone bring a Bible to church anymore?  Opening this post with that sentence risks courting readers’ prejudgments, and I certainly am not interested in a “Back in my day . . .” rant about Biblical illiteracy in the Church, regardless of the accuracy of the content of such a screed.

One reason I don’t regularly (OK, often; OK, ever) bring a hard-copy Bible to church anymore is because whatever Scripture is utilized in worship shows up on the screens via the ubiquity of projection technology in all but the most impoverished of churches.  Moreover, like half the world, I have the YouVersion app on my smartphone, and I’m able to pull up a zillion renditions of the passage at hand with a few taps of my finger.

Those reasons noted, surely another reason so few of us have our Bibles in hand when Connie Cherry better pic we come to church these days is because so little Scripture is actually read in the services.  (Few people who attend evangelical contemporary American church services need to be convinced of this truth, but to put the issue in sobering perspective, I commend this piece written a number of years ago by one of my grad-school profs, Rev. Dr. Constance Cherry: “My House Shall Be Called a House of . . . Announcements.”)

Very few churches outside of those that use a lectionary set aside a particular time in the service for Scripture reading; usually, it’s enveloped into the pastor’s sermon.  While this is not necessarily a bad thing (and, certainly, better than nothing), it is, I would argue, a diminution of Scripture’s import, a relegation of the Word to a level on par with the pastor’s sermon illustrations.  If the word of God really is “sharper than a two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12), you’d think we’d give it a place of greater prominence and use it a bit more freely in worship.  (Yes, I realize I’m guilty of doing the same kind of proof-texting I call into question above, but this is a 900-word blog, not a 45-minute sermon.  Different venues and purposes.)

There are no quick and easy solutions here, I know, but I like the approach of a mainline church we occasionally visit here in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.  They don’t use a lectionary in their contemporary service, but they have the ushers hand out Bibles to folks as they enter the sanctuary, and the pastor gives page-number references when he quotes Scripture, even though the passages are projected on the screens behind him.  This past summer they also embarked on a congregation-wide Scripture memory project, whereby they memorized a simple verse or two of Scripture each week, reciting it together in worship the following Sunday.  Too VBS for need-to-be-relevant contemporary churches?  Too bad.  Though such simple action-steps aren’t going to turn every parishioner there into a Bible scholar, they are placing God’s words on the lips of His people with greater frequency than in just about any church we’ve attended in the past two years, and that’s a very good thing.

Worship leaders, you probably can’t make radical changes to what goes on in the weekly flow of your worship services (if you have that kind of authority, by all means, use it), but you can control the introductions, transitional comments, and conclusions of your worship sets.  I encourage you to bring Scripture into your worship-leading efforts with increasing frequency in 2019!  (One more proof text.)  God’s word shall not return to Him empty but will accomplish His purposes (Is. 55:11).  How cool, and what a privilege, to be the conduit!

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): The dearth of concise sermons in contemporary worship.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Grace for the Worship Leader

I am taking a short break from the reflections on worship in the contemporary American church for a couple of weeks to highlight four of my favorite authors on the subject of God’s grace.  Two weeks back, the two Roberts, Webber and Farrar Capon, provided insight into how grace applies to worshipers, and this week two other sets of authors consider how it applies to worship leaders.  The writing speaks for itself, but a general overarching theme relates to previous weeks’ discussions re: how we view worship–i.e., human effort we bring vs. divine effort the Almighty facilitates in and through us.  (This is especially pertinent in situations where worship leaders feel compelled to serve as motivating forces by which congregations should worship more passionately and fervently.)

51+7Q1L5IeL__SX341_BO1,204,203,200_I have become so enamored of Debra and Ron Rienstra’s Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry, to which I have referred in this space before, that I plan to use it as a primary text in my Worship Resources class at Judson University next fall.  Here they speak to the perfectionistic tendencies to which worship leaders often succumb.  (In particular, consider how focusing on others, the world, universal pain, and the like in worship can help foster shared experience, which helps take worship leaders’ individual efforts out of the spotlight just a bit.)

Worship leaders often feel the pressure to be perfect and holy and put-together at all times—at least on the outside. But keeping up a good front actually works against leadership effectiveness and good worship. Instead, worship leaders have to allow themselves to be “slammed by life,” as one of my students put it. The spiritual life does not always lead us through green pastures and beside still waters. There are valleys of shadows, too. Worship leaders have to be open to life—to our own and others’ pain, to events in the world, to people who are especially difficult to deal with, to disappointment and frustration. If preachers and pray-ers and musicians can show others how to bring those shadows to God through worship, they will demonstrate an authenticity that we all can emulate. Being open to life enables leaders to fill out “empty” technique with solid content, the genuine stuff of real life.

John Witvliet is one of the head honchos for all things related to worship at Calvin College in rw_130Grand Rapids, Mich.  He has authored and edited numerous books and journal articles on the subject of worship over the years.  This excerpt comes from a revelatory piece he wrote for Reformed Worship a few years back called “Constancy, Enduring Dispositions, and the Holy Spirit’s Help in Our Weakness.”

There is also another layer here to address, which gets down to our fundamental understanding of agency in worship. It is very tempting to conceive of a worship leader as the spiritual engine that drives the worship train, or the highly-charged sideline coach who needs to keep her team fired up.

This puts all the focus on our agency, a vision that doesn’t square with the New Testament. In the New Testament, our agency as worshipers and leaders is intimately linked with what Jesus is doing as we worship and with what the Holy Spirit is doing as we worship. Remember these comforting words: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Rom. 8:26).

In the past few years there has been a lot of attention drawn to the emotional engagement of up-front worship leaders. We hear and read things like “you cannot lead others in worship unless you are a worshiper,” or “how can you expect to lead people into the throne room of God if you haven’t been there yourself?” or “to be a worship leader is to be a ‘lead worshiper.’”

I can see the appeal of these statements—the way they prophetically address those of us who simply go through the motions or those of us who stoically dismiss emotional engagement as unimportant. But they can also discourage and demoralize us in their exaggerated incompleteness. Your congregation’s worship is not ultimately mediated by your level of or capacity for emotional engagement but by the perfect mediating work of Jesus, effected through the Holy Spirit. Praise God! This can free you—and all of us—to engage emotionally, but without a sense of burden that it all depends on us.

I pray both of these excerpts will speak peace to those of us who lead worship on a regular basis–especially coming out of a wonderful but often ridiculously stressful time of the year, when so many people have such high expectations to be moved in worship, and historical traditions and current sentimentalism wage war on uncluttered, focused  worship.  Worship leaders, be encouraged.  Your congregations don’t need your perfect example.  They don’t need your exhortations to really sing or to authentically worship.  What they need most from you is your quiet recognition and confident resolve that in your (and their) weakness, God will be strong–and (attend to these pronouns) far from needing or even desiring our frenzied activity (as we lead) for His worship, God will provide the means by which He (as we lead) will facilitate His people’s worship.

The gracious Lord be with you!

Coming next week, Lord willing: The public reading of Scripture in contemporary worship.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Seventh Day of Christmas Gift

Huntley Xmas COn the seventh day of Christmas, that guy whose blogs I read occasionally gave to me . . . not seven swans a-swimming but this video of Rev. Huntley Brown, an itinerant pianist who has traveled the world with the Billy Graham Association and currently serves as our Artist-in-Residence at the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts (DCWPA) at Judson University.  Huntley and I were at Judson together as students back in the 80’s, and we have been good friends ever since.  I pray this rousing rendition of the familiar Christmas classic  blesses you today and throughout the remainder of the Christmas season.  Please enjoy Rev. Huntley Brown, the Judson University Choir, and the Judson Civic Orchestra’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” from 2017’s DCWPA Christmas Concert of Worship.

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week, Lord willing: The public reading of Scripture in contemporary American worship.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments