Reflection #37 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 37 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 #37: The upside of contemporary worship’s come-as-you-are informality and spontaneity is often mitigated by worship leaders’ off-the-cuff rhetoric that, if not outright heretical, can paint a very insufficient, incomplete, or ill-informed picture of our Triune God.

I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English/Communication Arts.  I appreciate those truths conveyed in my communication theory studies regarding the value of understanding your audience members and their real and felt needs as you craft your message.  I acknowledge that studied perceptions (accurate or otherwise) of 21st-century parishioners’ needs motivate much of what we do in contemporary worship these days.  And I accept that all the above often leads to dressed-down rhetoric that eschews any semblance of formal scripting.

In practice, however, the applications of this well-intended theory often lead to verbiage that is suspect, at best, where theological truth is concerned.  Say what you want about centuries-old liturgies passed down through the ages.  Decry how, in the hands of passion-bereft worship leaders, such creeds, prayers, and recitations promote dry, tired worship.  (And, I confess, I was in my late 30’s, in my grad-school studies at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, before I experienced liturgy routinely and regularly effected well.)  But by the time those well-worn scripts–amended, edited, and shaped over time–reach us in the year 2019, they have, almost always, been shorn of any obvious theological inaccuracies (applied universally, recognizing distinct denominations’ various perspectives and those points of Truth about which Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians disagree).

In most churches my wife and I have attended over the past two and a half years of our church visits, it seems as if a desire to avoid stiffness unwittingly leads to unintended flippancy.  Mark Galli, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, puts it this way in an article  from his ongoing series on the current state of evangelical Christianity, The Elusive Presence, entitled “The Temptations of Evangelical Worship”:

We sing various choruses that say, “Bring down your glory” and “show us your face.” But we do not know what we’re asking for. People in the Bible who actually encountered God’s glory fall on the ground in fear. For example, after the miracle of the fishes, Peter knows he has seen glory and that he is in the presence of the Glorious One. He doesn’t give God an ovation. He doesn’t weep with joy. He falls on his knees, begging Jesus to depart from him. The glory of Jesus has made it clear to him that he is a sinful man (Luke 5).

The same thing happens to Isaiah in the Temple. When Isaiah is given but a glimpse of God’s glory, he doesn’t break into song, singing a praise chorus. He actually thinks he is about to die: “It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies” (Isa. 6:5).

51UUjlwIR5L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Transforming Presence: How the Holy Spirit Changes Everything–From the Inside Out, a new book from Daniel Henderson to which my mother introduced me, has some practical suggestions for avoiding both stiffness and rhetoric that promotes any number of inaccuracies re: the presence of God in our worship (particularly the notion that unless we do certain things when we gather God might not “show up” in our midst, the corporate worship version of putting the cart before the horse).  This instead-of-that-try-this list (from which I am cherry-picking particular examples) appears in an appendix at the end of the text entitled “A New Covenant Worship Vocabulary”:

“Lord, we welcome you” vs. “Lord, we are grateful for Your indwelling presence” or “Thank You for welcoming us at the cross.”

“The Holy Spirit came” vs. “The Holy Spirit worked powerfully in our lives.”

“Release Your Spirit” vs. “Bring us into complete submission and responsiveness to Your Spirit.”

“Holy Spirit, fall” vs. “Holy Spirit, fill, control, and dominate our lives.”

“Pour out Your Spirit” vs. “Take charge of our lives as we submit to Your indwelling Spirit.”

“Welcome to the house of the Lord” vs. “Welcome to the gathering of God’s people.”

“Flood the atmosphere” vs. “Take control of our hearts.”

“Let Your glory fall” vs. “Jesus, You are our glory.  We seek Your will and word.”

“Let our praises fill this temple” vs. “May the indwelling Spirit inspire our praises.”

“Thank You that we can come into Your presence” vs. “Thank You that Your presence has come into us–through the work of Christ.”

Nit-picking?  Arguing semantics?  I don’t think so.  More like putting the same kind of effort and energy into carefully choosing the words we use in our services that most of us put into doing our best to make every aspect of church-weekend life culturally relevant–from the parking lot to the nursery to the gathering for corporate worship.  Worship leaders, I encourage you to think carefully about these matters that are, I would argue, as important as your song selections and band rehearsals.  The Lord be with you!

Coming next week, Lord willing: More observations on worship in the contemporary American church.

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A Taste of Rich Mullins

Summer is my time for reorganization projects, and this week I’m going through old articles–some from magazines, some from newspapers, some from cyberspace–that I’ve amassed over the years.  I used to hand out short essays in writing classes I taught at Judson University to illustrate various aspects of effective rhetorical technique, and the small file I began in the early 90’s now fills two desk drawers, so it’s time to digitize all these and enter the 21st century.

C1oYD-no9YS._SL1000_Most of what I’ve saved has come from the creative energies of others, but while rummaging about the other day, I ran across a couple of articles I had written back when I was doing free-lance, feature-article/concert-review stringing for a couple of local papers, the Elgin Courier-News and, on rare occasion, the Wheaton Daily Journal.  During those years, I had the pleasure of getting to know ccm singer/songwriter Rich Mullins at a very basic level.  We weren’t drinking buddies or anything like that, but I did live next door to him one summer (fun story) when he stayed on Judson’s campus while recording in Elgin, and I did end up interviewing him on three separate occasions.  We also brought him to chapel (the quid pro quo for his cheap rent that summer) when I was directing that ministry at Judson.  It was enough so that had someone mentioned my name and put it in context for him, Rich might have said, “Oh, yeah–that guy at that school in Elgin.”  That was about the extent of the depth of our relationship.  (Some Elgin friends knew him better; in fact, Rich gave a house concert in their home a few weeks before he died.  You can access a home movie of that concert here, if you’d like.)

As I re-read the two pieces that ended up being published from those interviews (the third was the best of the lot but was nixed by the powers that were at CCM magazine, for which I wrote a regular column and album reviews, in the late 80’s . . . argh, editors!), I was reminded again of Mullins’ quirky approach to the Christian music industry, and life in general, a taste of which comes through in the pieces below.  (The first article is in two parts and must be read column by column, awkwardly.  Sorry.)  In the midst of various ubiquitous summertime “Taste of . . .” festivals, I hope you enjoy a small “Taste of Rich Mullins.”

Mullins 1a Mullins 1b

Mullins 2

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Who knows?  I plan to get around to more reflections on contemporary Christian worship in the American Church eventually.

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We Interrupt This Blog Series . . .

53580536_312280736313835_5335483072609517568_n. . . to introduce you to a fabulous music group that just released a full-length CD.  We the Least features two of my former Judson University Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts students, sister-and-brother duo Michaela and Nathanael DeLong, along with friend Dell May.  Their new long-player, Screw It Up, released on hard-copy CD as well as all the usual streaming outlets, is a sonic joy, full of catchy songs, interesting lyrics–many of them humorously self-deprecating (none finer than the title track)–and Christian Truth, some overt and some the product of what Eugene Peterson so marvelously designated the “sacred ordinary” things of life.  It is well worth your investment if you’re looking for something fresh and out of the ordinary for your summer listening pleasure.

I would be remiss if I didn’t flesh out the adjective fresh in the previous sentence.  Over the course of the past . . . well, for all of the 21st century, to be frank, I have despaired over the state of Christian pop music, especially where harmonic development, or lack thereof, is concerned.  As an exercise in both research and nostalgia, I recently have been listening to the WOW Hits series, beginning in 2004 and concluding in 2016, and I have been reminded again of the stultifying ubiquity of the I-IV-vi-V chord progression and its 23 other possible combinations in ccm.  Contemporary worship music is, alas, no better (and sometimes worse), a reality I have lamented in this space before.  There are, of course, laudable exceptions to the rule in both ccm and cwm, but they tend to be in the little-heard indie world, unfortunately; the fact that we can’t point to many more creative tunesmiths serving and being marketed for the contemporary Christian church does not reflect well on the current cultural arbiters of art made by believers.

I bang this drum loudly in Judson University’s Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts, and Michaela and Nathanael DeLong were clearly listening.  I laughed out loud for joy on more than one occasion, as a deliciously unexpected diminished chord appeared here, a cleverly unanticipated flat-VI chord emerged there, and on an on it went.  Combine the harmonic vivacity with perceptive lyrics that belie their authors’ relative youth, and I can recommend We the Least’s latest offering to you without a shred of reservation.  Truly, purchasing this album will be a decision you’ll be hardpressed to screw up.

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week, Lord willing: Back to reflections on worship in the contemporary American Church.

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Reflection #36 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 36 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 #36: Having grown up in a low-church environment, I have come to appreciate much more the care taken to construct sacred space in many high-church fellowships.  It does impact my worship, causing me to appreciate God’s transcendence in special ways.

Church-hopping on many Sundays as my wife and I do, I’ve been impressed by the number of free-/low-church congregations trying to do a bit more with aesthetics and sacred space these days.  To be sure, the sanctuary-adornment default setting for contemporary worship in these settings still leans heavily toward the utilitarian, and, I confess, I can’t help but feel the motivation for such lies in an unnecessary over-correction prompted by perceptions of cultural irrelevancy where by-gone implements of “traditional worship” are concerned–as if stained glass, baptismal fonts, or ornate altars would have seekers running for the nearest exit.

01e17a856fac7ec16a0e90d5966fad4bBut we have visited a number of non-mainline churches that are doing some excellent and creative things with staging, lighting, and set design that go far beyond the mere pursuit of the trendy and cool, moving into metaphysical realms that can, in the best cases, lend meaning to the overall worship.  (The accompanying pic comes from First Baptist Church in Elgin, Ill., where my former Judson University Worship Arts student, Joshua Hoegh, is the Worship and Creative Arts Pastor.)  In an age where educators tell us more and more students learn best via a multitude of different learning styles, paying attention to elements of worship leadership that go beyond what we typically associate with (and ask of) the person with a guitar standing in the center of the platform (i.e., a more holistic understanding of worship that transcends band direction and song selection) just might increase the impact and effectiveness of our corporate worship.

Worship leaders, if utilizing aesthetics that promote sacred space isn’t a strong suit, I get it.  During my 30+ years of weekend-warrior worship-leading, I focused mostly on music, but in a couple of ministries I had lay folks who contributed considerably to our efforts to enhance our worship space.  Their efforts supported mine and facilitated a richer time of worship for all.  I would encourage any worship leaders for whom this isn’t a gift to seek out church members who could come alongside them in powerful ways.

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week: service length in contemporary worship.

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Reflection #35 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 35 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 #35: There is no ideal place to put announcements in worship services, but, if you must have announcements, consider placing them at the end of the service.

I am now two-and-a-half years into an extended period of visiting churches around Chicagoland, what I have called “The Worship Leader Roadshow” in the Twittersphere.  And I have been collecting random observations along the way, delivering them to cyberspace via this blog.  One constant–across churches of different sizes and denominations–I’ve observed is that there is no good place to put the weekly announcements.

how-to-design-like-a-saint-475pxGather any group of worship leaders together, and eventually this subject comes up.  Some advocate for putting the announcements at the front of the service, before anything of greater substance transpires, but most end up admitting they make their way into the middle of the service somewhere, interrupting the flow and stifling momentum.  (As a staff member at several churches, I heard–more than once–that the announcements couldn’t be at the very beginning of the service because too many parishioners walked in late, and they would miss the important information.)  And even in this day and age of multiple information streams (websites, e-mail distribution lists, text alerts, Facebook), most of us still feel the need to take up valuable time in the midst of corporate worship articulating that which is readily available in numerous other locales.

Very few evangelical churches pursuing contemporary worship consider placing the announcements at the end of the service, but that, in my opinion, is the best place for them.  (Most Catholic churches I have attended over the years, put them there.)  Here are two reasons why:

Placing announcements at the end of the worship service gives greater emphasis to the final element of the traditional four-fold worship pattern, sending.  In this model, we are gathered, we are led to experience Word and Table, and finally we are sent.  (I use the passive voice for this sentence to underscore the important roles played by worship facilitators.)  Sent to do what?  In part, we are sent to fulfill the mission of the Church, generally speaking, and the church, specifically speaking.  The latter includes all the things that typically fill the time allotted for giving announcements: VBS, mission committee meetings, soup-kettle ministry, and a host of other worthy pursuits.  “Go and be the Church” exhortations/benedictions at the end of the service are natural spots for weekly announcements.

Placing announcements at the end of the worship service allows us to lead with our best stuff.  Journalists employ this concept routinely, and around newsrooms you’ll hear encouragement given not to “bury the lead” somewhere in the middle of your article.  My card-playing grandmother felt the same way, when during a game of Sheepshead, she’d throw the highest queen (i.e., highest trump card) she had while proclaiming, “Swing from the top!”  In similar fashion, relegating announcements to the end of the service puts them in their proper place, allowing significantly more important worship content to fill spaces of higher importance.  (When bookended with scrolling advertisements on the screens as people walk in, announcements made during the dismissal get highlighted twice.)

I have no ridiculous notions that end-of-service announcements will become the norm for contemporary American evangelical churches.  Too many constituents have what they perceive to be too much at stake to alter drastically de facto service orders, and too many worship pastors/leaders have too many other important battles to fight to die on this hill by themselves.  If senior church leadership can’t support worship leaders’ efforts to move what some would consider non-essential necessary evils out of the limelight, it’s not going to happen.  Is it the end of the world if announcements stay where most of us have them these days?  No, but any church that purports to place high value on corporate worship would do well to consider options that might make a few folks unhappy in order to pursue the greater corporate good.

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): the importance of sacred space for contemporary worship. 

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Reflection #34 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 34 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 #34: Churches that utilize “ministry time” at the end of the service, opportunities for congregants to respond to the worship that has just transpired, would do well to ask the band to reduce the volume of the music playing so that conversation can take place more effectively.

That is all. . . .

OK, an illustration or two. . . .

Many years ago I attended a concert by a Christian pop/rock band that featured, at thephoto-1507692049790-de58290a4334 end of the concert, an opportunity for audience members to come forward to speak with counselors for any number of worthwhile reasons–to accept Jesus as Savior and Lord, to rededicate lives to the Kingdom’s service, to receive prayer, etc.  No problem there; I’m all in favor of ccm bands providing space for folks moved by the Holy Spirit to respond to those stirrings.  But immediately after extending the invitation (to which several people responded), the band launched into the loudest song of the evening–an unmitigated, guitar-wailing, drummer’s-arms-flailing, full-frontal assault on the ears . . . which rendered any attempts at intimate conversation (i.e., the kind you’d expect to accompany requests for prayer) futile.  The image embedded in my mind’s eye is that of a well-intended counselor shouting her prayer into the ear of the supplicant, who is leaning in to hear while covering her other ear with her hand.

A few weeks ago, the church we visited offered a time of ministry following the sermon, and a handful of parishioners came forward for prayer while the pastor shouted comfort at them to the accompaniment of “This Is Amazing Grace” (or some similar up-tempo, up-volume number)–sung by both the band on stage and the congregation in the pews, a surround-sound onslaught that kept any meaningful counseling to a distinct minimum.

Shannon-and-Weavers

Worship leaders, the dialogical nature of corporate worship–God speaks, we respond–will prompt no shortage of opportunities for your flock to seek out spiritual nourishment, and you do well to provide such psycho-emotional sustenance right there, in the moment, before the enemy has time to spew his lies of doubt and fear (an example of what communication theorists refer to as communication “noise”; see above illustration)–and, yes, while the pastors or elders or the prayer-team members (literally) have the ears of those who have left their seats to come forward to receive all that strategically conceived “ministry time” can offer.  If you can’t eliminate singing during these sacred moments, consider choosing reflective ballads (not power ballads) and having the band drop way back in the mix (no drums, no electric guitars) or singing a cappella. The Lord be with you as you create the best possible space for folks to respond in worship!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Where to put those (necessary-evil) announcements.

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Reflection #33 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 33 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 #33: Contemporary worship, with its multi-song worship sets, can–with proper attention and care–serve an analogous role to well-crafted service orders that “sandwich” individual songs around other elements in the liturgy.

I grew up in the 70’s in an American Baptist Church that utilized many traditional liturgical elements.  There was a call to worship every week.  We sang the standard Thomas Ken doxology set to the OLD 100th hymn tune every week.  There was a (usually lengthy) Pastoral Prayer (titled as such) every week.  We sang the Greatorex “Gloria Patri” every week after that prayer.  The pastor prayed a prayer of invocation before beginning the sermon every week.  We sang a Hymn of Consecration (titled as such) following the sermon every week.  Etc.

downloadMy recollection here is ordered intentionally, for the musical elements (instrumental, choral, and congregational) always were woven in and around all the rest.  The only time this church–and we were typical for that era–used anything resembling the de facto organizational structure of contemporary American corporate worship, the “worship set,” was during periodic Sunday-evening “singspirations,” for which the small slice of regular attenders who trudged back to church that night would call out favorite hymns, one after another, in random fashion, with nary a prayer, homily, or responsive reading to interrupt the flow of the constant congregational singing.

So often in contemporary worship, it feels as if the songs we sing congregationally are selected with not a whole lot more attention to overarching cohesion than the songs we sang for those evening singspirations.  Granted, there is generally a progression of styles or “feels,” with the dominant orientation featuring the Outer Court-Inner Court-Holy of Holies pattern favored in charismatic worship–i.e., moving from upbeat songs of praise about God to more-reflective songs of worship to God.  (And, to be fair, this model can be used very effectively, if the worship leader provides a bit of context along the way.)  But whereas in the traditional worship of my youth the songs sandwiched in between all the other liturgical elements reflected what had come immediately prior or informed what came immediately after (at least when the service planners put intentional thought into the process), in many contemporary worship services I attend, such flow of substance–subject matter, content, a narrative arc, if you will–is nowhere to be found.

I confess this is one of my main concerns re: contemporary worship music–lots of focus on providing opportunities for congregants to love the Lord their God with all their heart and soul, not much focus on providing opportunities for congregants to love the Lord their God with all their mind–and I bang this drum pretty loudly and regularly.  In one of my worship classes at Judson University, I foster a discussion on constructing worship sets as narratives, and it never fails to elicit interesting results, as students–many, it seems, for the first time–consider the potential for worship sets to have the same story-telling power (in miniature) as operas, oratorios, suites, and song cycles.

Here’s an admittedly simple sample outline for a narrative-driven worship set for a service focusing on the power of forgiveness featuring the Parable of the Ungrateful Servant–Matt. 18: 21-35–as the biblical text: one song of confession, admitting the need and asking for forgiveness (e.g., Matt Maher’s “Lord, I Need You”); one song celebrating that God does forgive His children (e.g., Elevation Worship’s “O Come to the Altar”); and one song requesting the strength to forgive others as we have been forgiven (e.g., Matthew West’s “Forgiveness”).

Ideally, the worship leader would offer a few sentences of transition between the songs to help illuminate the narrative arc.  Elsewhere in this series I refer to this strategy as worship leaders’ connecting the dots for the congregation.  Pastoral liturgist Adam Perez put it this way in a recent tweet on the subject: “Musical transitions might aid the feeling of flow, but spoken transitions are what [help] immerse us in the flow of God’s story.”

The Holy Spirit can (and does) work in corporate worship sets devoid of such intentional story-telling, of course.  But putting in the time and energy to craft worship sets that bring the addition of a narrative arc to the process might help counter the criticism of contemporary worship as being lightweight in nature and enrich the lives of your congregants to boot.  (Much more can be said here about using narrative arcs in worship, and a great place to start is worship pastor Brenton Collyer’s series just begun on the subject of progressions in corporate worship.  I’m looking forward to his future posts!)

The Lord be with you as you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): “Ministry time” at the end of worship services.

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