Reflection #30 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 30 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 #30: My casual observation (admittedly biased) suggests there’s a slew of worship leaders serving contemporary churches who would benefit from some worship education.

Yes, you would suspect someone with a doctorate in worship studies, who teaches CWPA Demoss Stacked FC Logo PRINTworship at the college level, to hold the above opinion.  That doesn’t mean it’s not accurate–especially when there are churches advertising for worship leaders using the following rhetoric (quoted verbatim, without edits, from a job-search website a former student of mine sent to me):

Are you . . .

. . . Part hipster, part redneck and have strong musical skills with a guitar?

. . . Of the rare breed of creatives who is organized and efficient?

. . . An excellent communicator even when music is not playing?

. . . A multi-tasking leader who is also a team player?

. . . A person that even before you have your coffee you still have high energy, strong interpersonal skills, and a positive attitude?

. . . A Jesus-lovin’, Worship-leadin’, team builder who is self-motivated to accomplish the Great Commission with excellence?

If so, you might be perfect for our church!

To be sure, most of the above is not unreasonable to ask of worship leaders, but where are the questions indicating an appreciation of biblical, historical, and theological understandings of worship?  Where are the questions about contextualizing worship for the specific worshiping community in question here?  Where is there any sense that being able to speak to anything in this paragraph is of any importance to this church?  Certainly not in the follow-up instructions (again, taken verbatim):

Please submit your resume along with a link of you leading worship (i.e., YouTube, Vimeo).  Without a video of you leading worship we have no idea of your worship style or skill set, so you will not be considered for the position.

Also, tell us your favorite beverage and who your worship style resembles?

Granted, this is an extreme example, but skim through the listings on a job-ops website like Slingshot, and you’ll see a lot of talk about vision casting, team building, and band leading, but you won’t come across much related to having a firm command of what Scripture says about worship, of how 20 centuries of Christians have worshiped corporately (and what that means to believers today), or of why there is benefit in thinking theologically about Christian worship.

“So what?” some might ask.  “Our worship leader is passionate about Jesus, leads the band well, and chooses songs we like to sing.  Everyone leaves our services talking about how great the worship was.  [Insert side soapbox discussion of defining worship as congregational singing.]  What could Judson University, where you teach, or any other Christian school, possibly provide our worship leader that s/he doesn’t already have?”

Let me respond in this manner.  When I was a boy, I became a pretty proficient model-airplane builder.  I was meticulous, I followed the directions explicitly, and the end result looked an awful lot like the picture on the box.  But based on my ability to make model airplanes, I would never in a million years walk into Boeing’s offices and put myself forward as a candidate for a job.  I balance our family’s checkbook every single month.  At the end of the process I have resolved every issue so that the debits are accounted for and the credits are in their proper place.  But based on my successfully balancing my checkbook each month, I would be insane to go to an accounting firm and ask for a job as a CPA.

Engineers go to engineering school.  Accountants go to business school.  Why does the contemporary American Church, as a general rule, act as if there is little merit in worship leaders going to worship school? 

Does this mean every current worship leader without a degree in worship is serving the Church poorly and should quit immediately and go get a degree (or an advanced degree) in worship?  Of course not.  But I would suggest, humbly, that those churches that have hired worship leaders who do not have specific training in the biblical foundations, historical precedents, and theological convictions of worship make sure they provide funds for their worship leaders to pursue extra training on a regular basis.  Worship Leader magazine promotes the National Worship Leader Conference every May; this year’s conference is in a week.  LifeWay Worship just did its WorshipLife gathering in California last week and will be in Gatlinburg in June.  Calvin College’s Institute of Christian Worship hosts its Worship Symposium every January.  Many traditional denominations and national church congregations offer their own specific gatherings for worship instruction (e.g., Vineyard’s School of Worship). There are scads of opportunities to hone your skills and increase your understanding.

Worship leaders–even those with degrees in worship–we never have it completely figured out.  Do yourselves and your congregations a favor and try to get some worship education once or twice a year.  And high school students feeling the call to lead God’s people in worship, consider joining us at Judson University’s Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts!

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Lighting for contemporary worship.



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Reflection #29 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 29 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 #29: Where lyrics in contemporary worship music (cwm) are concerned, erring on the side of charity honors God.

downloadToday’s post comes in the form of a (slighted edited) response to one of my former students, a wonderful, thoughtful worship leader who honestly wants to do well by both her Lord and her congregation.  In essence, she asked what to do with popular cwm songs that contain lyrics that some consider theologically problematic.  Here’s what I suggested to her.

I’ve tried to become more gracious on this subject as I’ve aged and less inclined (in my better moments) to fan the flames of righteous indignation.  If a song is out-and-out heretical, that’s a different story, but there aren’t many songs that fall into that category.  Most of the songs to which you’re referring have one or two suspect lines, and the rest of the song is fine.  Here are a few examples and suggestions for usage.

By the time I hit my 40’s, I knew darn well that I never have and never will “surrender all” to Jesus.  Hence, I stopped using “I Surrender All” except when the pastor specifically requested it (usually for an altar-call-type setting) or unless the content of the sermon that morning made it clear that, with a bit of context, the song worked better than anything else the congregation knew.  So I tried to preface the song by acknowledging that this bold statement (echoing Peter prior to the rooster’s crow) probably works better as a prayer than a declaration: “Lord, You know my heart.  At this time, in this place, I want to surrender all to You.  Search my heart and know me, and give me the strength through Your Holy Spirit to lay both my burdens and my crowns at Your feet.  Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief!”

I don’t think I ever led “Everything Glorious” in a congregational setting, but, if I had, I would probably have pointed out that, in our culture, we have enough high-profile Christians who behave as if they really believe they are glorious (“You make everything glorious, [so] what does that make me?”).  What this going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket culture needs to see is a lot fewer examples of Christians strutting around gloriously and a lot more examples of Christians exhibiting humility and servanthood and grace and mercy, especially for those with whom they have fundamental theological, philosophical, and/or political disagreements.  The one, and pretty significant, exception I might make here would be if I were leading worship for a group of survivors or folks in recovery who know all too well how “unglorious” they are and need to be reminded that their Father sees them through the prism of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and, indeed, as Nancy Honeytree reminded us in the 70’s, “clean before [their] Lord [they] stand, and in [them] not one blemish does He see.”

The objectional lyric du jour in cwm, of course, is the use of the adjective reckless associated with God in “Reckless Love.”  “Overwhelming” love?  Of course.  “Never-ending” love?  Yes, thank God!  “Reckless” love?  Well, not if you use both the denotation and the connotations that 2,000 years of Christians have associated with that word.  But here’s the rub.  That kind of language absolutely resonates with this current generation, for all kinds of reasons that folks a lot more sociologically savvy than I have noted of late.  I get the idea and why it’s appealing; it comes from the same theological bent that produced John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, which also caught a lot of flak when it was written.  Hence, were I still leading for a congregation that because of demographics or inclination (i.e., boomers who want to be hip because they think that’s what they need to do to keep their children from scattering to the megachurches at their earliest opportunity; that’s a post for another day), I might use the song, but I certainly would put that word reckless in some context, and I’d sandwich the song between two others that feature God to a much greater extent than “Reckless Love” as both Object and Subject of worship.

The primary takeaway here is that we American Christians live in a culture that is increasingly dismissive at best and hostile at worst to all that we value.  Since very few unbelievers will give us the benefit of the doubt, surely we must extend it to each other (Gal. 6:10).  Hence, I choose to bless Judson VanDeVenter (“I Surrender All”), David Crowder (“Everything Glorious”), and Cory Asbury (“Reckless Love”).  I will choose to believe the best about them and not question their motives or their theology–and to whatever extent I might have issue with a line or two, I will pray for them and songwriters everywhere, that clarity would be a hallmark of their songs’ lyrics, words worship leaders will choose to put on the lips of the people of God.

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): the value of worship education.

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Reflection #28 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 28 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 #28: Contemporary worship songwriters who add bridges and alternative melodies to well-known hymns don’t add much to the experience, but here’s a case where I think the end justifies the means.

Having just come through Easter, many of us attending churches pursuing contemporarydownload worship probably sang modernized familiar hymns that added a bridge.  My memory’s ear tells me that Chris Tomlin’s “The Wonderful Cross,” released in 2001, was the first song in the most recent era of contemporary worship music to do this at a level that gained national exposure and acceptance.  Countless others have followed (our family experienced a variation on “Crown Him with Many Crowns” Easter Sunday), and we get a similar experience at Christmas each year, with one of my favorite worship leaders, Paul Baloche, doing numerous honors here.

On the one hand, purists note correctly that the bridges added by contemporary songwriters generally don’t elevate the lyrics of the original song, and “The Wonderful Cross” can serve as the poster child.  Take Tomlin’s bridge: “Oh, the wonderful Cross, oh the wonderful Cross / Bids me come and die and find that I might truly live. / Oh the wonderful Cross, oh the wonderful Cross: / All who gather here by grace draw near and bless Your name.”  Give credit where credit is due: The invitation to die-to-live is a nice bit of resurrection theology, and the internal rhyme of here and near in the last line is pleasant.  But Isaac Watts’ original, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” slays you with verses like this: “When I survey the wondrous cross / On which the Prince of Glory died, /My richest gain I count but loss / And pour contempt on all my pride.”  Or like this: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, / That were a present [or sometimes offering] far too small. / Love so amazing, so divine / Demands my soul, my life, my all.”  Need more reason to harrumph besides the less-satisfying lyrics of the add-on bridges?  Often the add-on bridges render the songs less congregational–at least by those who know the original–which defeats the purpose of congregational singing.

On the other hand, it’s fair to ask whether these great hymns, often so rich in theology, would get a hearing at all in contemporary worship without these bridges.  Indeed, bridges is an ironically appropriate term here, for the sections added on to the hymns–inferior lyrically and musically or not–do bridge the gap for younger folks and seekers who didn’t grow up singing hymns week after week for years, as many of us Boomers and early Xers did.  If the price for putting “Crown Him with Many Crowns” on the lips of our our congregants is to add a few lines in the middle that, in the minds of some, don’t add a whole lot to the experience, that’s a small price to pay.

Curmudgeons, take the big-picture view here, please.  And Chris Tomlin, Paul Baloche, and anyone else who would add to what has served the Church well for hundreds of years, thanks for breathing new into so many of these great statements of faith–and thanks for making them as lyrically beautiful, theologically rich, and melodically accessible whenever you can.  The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): What do we do with songs like “Reckless Love”?


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An Easter Gift from the Judson University Choir

web-cover-he-is-not-here__09044.1398274522.500.750I hope all reading this had a blessed Easter, a blessed Resurrection Sunday yesterday.  To allow the celebration to linger just a bit, this week’s blog post features a wonderful, neo-classical choral piece the Judson University Choir sang a few years back entitled “He Is Not Here!” by Russell Nagy.  Be blessed!



Coming next week (Lord willing): House lighting in contemporary worship.

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Reflection #27 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 27 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 #27: More and more churches are using video technology to great effect to aid their efforts in corporate worship.

downloadOK.  This one is something of a no-brainer.  Most churches are hip to the concept.  Indeed, an observation I’ve made in this season of life where I’m visiting numerous churches frequently is this: Few are the churches, even small churches, without some kind of presentational technology that allows them to project congregational song lyrics, pull up stuff from the Internet, and play videos.  But just to encourage those remaining churches that haven’t made this step yet and–probably more importantly–to remind those that did long ago why video technology is important, here are some random reasons why the contemporary American Church should be using video technology regularly, if judiciously.

Evangelizing the next generation.  There’s a reason the young adolescents of this current generation, whom social theorists dub “Gen Z,” are also called “screeners.”  Space doesn’t permit academic rationale for what is obvious to any casual observer of culture–screens are important to this generation.  Utilizing the “language” of video will only help younger folks tune in to that being communicated in worship.

Sharing testimonies.  I’m a firm believer that churches miss out when they don’t allow members of the congregation to testify in the midst of their worship services.  But doing it live is dangerous.  Who knows what might come out of someone’s mouth in the heat or nervousness of the moment?  Recording the testimonies and playing them back after they have been sufficiently edited (for length, clarity, or propriety) can save everyone from potential embarrassment while still allowing folks who otherwise would never have a voice in contemporary worship to share.

Storytelling.  Videos today function in contemporary worship the way live drama did in the heyday of seeker-sensitivity.  When Willow Creek started using dramatic sketches in their services to set up the sermons, it gave rise to a greater appreciation among church leaders of the power of narrative.  Nowadays, hardly any churches use live drama, and why would they, when telling a story is as or more easily done via video?  A well-produced narrative video–which can be shot over and over until scenes are captured just right; which can be layered with a controlled soundtrack; which can employ animation along the way, if desired–can set the stage for the message in powerful ways.

Forming servants.  It goes without saying that most of your best technicians (for video as well as for just about every other area of technology we have now and, especially, for that which will descend upon us in the future) are going to be younger people–who sometimes need coaxing to take part in the kind of church life that many of us assumed was part of the deal when we became members of a church back in the day.  Using younger people to help you with your video technology allows them to make significant contributions in ways that most others can’t.

One caveat for worship leaders:  Using video for any of the reasons above is commendable.  Using video just for the sake of using video isn’t–and smacks of us-too activity done solely to make sure folks know we’re hip and relevant.  (Sort of like the fad Chicagoland suburban megachurches seemed to embrace for a while where every church had to have an assistant pastor or someone pretty important on staff who came from England, Australia, or Ireland and delighted congregations with those delicious accents and brogues.)  As worship leaders, our job is to connect the dots for our congregations, to help them appreciate what we are doing when we gather together for worship, so when you use video, put the experience in some semblance of context whenever you can and help your parishioners appreciate why you’re making use of the technology now and again.

The Lord be with you as you use of technology for His Kingdom’s glory!

Coming next week (Lord willing): An Easter gift from the Judson University Choir.

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Reflection #26 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 26 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 #26: Churches do well to acknowledge that the giving of tithes and offerings is an important part of our overall corporate worship.

A book that is rearranging how my family and I understand and use technology is Andy 41Vj8HQRNkL._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  The vast majority of us (everyone but the Amish) are so caught up in gadgets and gizmos that (purport to) make our lives easier, we need periodically to step back and assess the situation.  What is the price we are paying for all this simplicity?  Is life really simpler with this technology?  What does all this convenience do to our souls?  What Would Jesus Do with a smartphone?  Would He even own one?

A tangential question that comes out of this for worship leaders of late is, How do we best collect the offering in the day of online giving, Google Pay, and Venmo?  Clearly, more and more parishioners give online; a concept that would have felt Jetsons-like only a decade or so ago is now commonplace.  I imagine studies eventually will show that folks who give online give more regularly and give greater sums when they do.  More regular giving of greater offerings is good, but is minimizing the act of physically giving in corporate worship bad?

In our visits to numerous churches in the northwest Chicago suburbs, my wife and I have encountered almost as many ways to collect the offering as we have churches.  Rare is the church anymore that brings ushers to the front of the church, who wait for a pastoral prayer of blessing for the offering and then collect cash and checks, row by row, while musicians play an offertory or “special music.”  It still happens, of course, but not all that often in churches pursuing contemporary worship.

Instead, we have seen churches that practice weekly Eucharist put a basket by the elements, and those coming forward to eat at the Lord’s Table drop their offerings into that basket.  Other churches indicate, usually from the pulpit (although not always), that there are baskets in the back of the sanctuary where people can deposit their offering envelopes.  While these methods get the basic job done–collecting the people’s gifts–they don’t often allow for any understanding of the worship involved in bringing a portion of that which God has blessed you–bringing your “whole tithe into the storehouse,” as Malachi describes it–to return to Him each week.

Certainly the job of worship education vis-à-vis the offering is more difficult these days, but I like the way one church we attend fairly regularly has decided to tackle this conundrum.  This church, with a strongly upper-middle class congregation, probably receives more online giving than most, yet they still bring ushers forward to receive the weekly gifts, row by row, where we all pass the bags to the end of the aisle . . . even though a solid half of the attendees probably don’t put anything at all in those bags because they went online and gave the previous payday.

More often than not, as the ushers are making their way down the aisles, the worship leader asks the congregation to pray together a prayer that functions as both sacred liturgical action (the prayer before the receiving of tithes and offerings) and worship education for congregants.  After the prayer, and while the ushers are passing the bags, the congregation sings a song corporately, often one that somehow relates to giving, Christ’s for us (kenosis) or ours to God (out of gratitude).

Here are three prayers that we have prayed prior to the collection of the offering in the past several months at this church:

God, You are the maker and owner of everything.  We give you this portion of our income, but even what we keep belongs to You–our time and energy, our gifts and resources, our heart and mind.  It is all Yours.  Amen.

God, we give because we want You to use these gifts to change lives.  May the lonely find a home.  May the broken be made whole.  May the condemned be forgiven.  May the weak be made strong.  May the good news of Your kingdom be heard near and far.  Amen.

God, we give because You have given us the most exciting mission in the world.  Do not let our gifts go to waste!  Use them to make passionate disciples who are belonging, growing, serving, and reaching.  Amen.

Nothing too theologically profound here, but good reminders of why we bring a portion of our income to church and give it to God.  With our current technology, the strategy this church uses–corporate prayers that help us appreciate the theological essence of the offering–is an important one, especially for those who aren’t body-physical worshipers on Sunday morning because they were mouse-click worshipers earlier that week.

However you decide to navigate this interesting issue, the Lord be with you!

Coming next week, Lord willing: The use of videos in worship.

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30 Minutes with Ian

imageLast week, I had the distinct privilege of contributing to “The Common Good,” a radio show produced in Chicagoland by WYLL, which features two hours of interesting reflections, opinions, and general musings about life, the Church, faith, and whatever else comes, often-unfiltered, to the minds of the hosts, Brian From and Ian Simkins, both Chicago-area pastors.  The latter, a former student of mine at Judson University, has been a friend for 20 years, and some of the most enriching, life-giving conversations I’ve ever had have come while noshing on an omelet or steak and eggs or a meat-lover’s skillet across the table from him.  While Brian was on vacation, Ian invited a bunch of his friends to come and fill some air time, and I thought for this week’s blog post, I would simply link the 36-minute conversation for your consideration, since each of the four segments had its genesis in something written in the past year in this blog space.  If you’ve read any of this blog over the past year, and if you’ve resonated with anything I’ve written, perhaps adding one additional dimension to the experience will be an additional blessing.  Here’s hoping.  The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Back to the reflections on contemporary American worship.

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