50 Reflections on Worship in the Contemporary American Church — An Introduction

According to my records, my last post to this blog was almost three years ago, which is rather hard to believe, but a lot has happened in that time.  My father died.  My wife’s step-father died.  My daughter graduated from Judson University.  My son graduated from Waynesburg University.  My wife and I celebrated 25 years of marriage.  Judson’s Center for Worship in the Performing Arts, which I am privileged to direct, became the Demoss Center for Performing Arts, to recognize the significant contributions of Mr. and Mrs. Dennis and JoAnn Demoss to the ministry of the music and worship programs at Judson.  Judson’s Artist-in-Residence, Rev. Huntley Brown, and I took the Judson University Choir to Jamaica one May and Europe two years later.  It’s been a busy three years.

I also retired from active, “weekend-warrior” church worship ministry after 24 straight years (and 31 years out of 34).  The time clearly had come; my responsibilities at Judson had increased, but I had not made sufficient adjustments in other areas of my life to compensate.  After a few minor health scares, it was apparent that I needed to remove something from my plate, and so I resigned as Worship Pastor at Elgin Evangelical Free Church.  Almost immediately, the absence of the week-in-and-week-out stresses of church ministry produced lifestyle benefits that have since more than corroborated the wisdom of the decision.

Life without a weekend church gig has been interesting.  My wife and I have gone to a few churches with some degree of regularity, but we have also spent many Sundays doing something I’ve always wanted but never had the opportunity to do (because of my previous weekend commitments)–visit churches where current and former students serve in worship ministry.  It’s been thrilling to see how God is using these twenty- and thirty-somethings in ministry, and to recognize that my colleagues and I have had perhaps a small part in the process by which these young men and women currently serve the Church has been both humbling and gratifying.

Thanks, in alphabetical order from first name (corresponding pictures below), to current and former Judson students Aaron Andries, Aaron Niequist, Aaron Wiewel, Abby Wheatley, Adam Moxness, Andy Boettcher, Aubree Flickema, Ben Kafer, Bethany Timmons, Branden Benskin, Catlin Walton, Chad Negley, Chip Read, Cobey Bienert, Izy Hermosillo, Jeff Kuester, Jen Alderson, Jen Dotson, Jessie Garcia, Joey Atansio, Joshua Hoegh, Mara Schumacher, Martine Hunter, Mat Camerer, Matt Archibald, Matt Calio, Mike Rancharan, Sara Price, Sarah Gordon, Scott Bunn, Tiger Khokunthod, Tim Caffee, Tim Kindberg, Tina Spears, Walter Halliwell, and Winter Burnett.  And thanks, in advance, to the students, former and current, who will, Lord willing, bless God and His people in the months and years to come.  There are so many more of you whose worship leadership we want to experience.

I have Tweeted about these visits under the general banner of “The Worship Leader Roadshow,” and I’ve also taken field notes to help me, as a worship educator, get a sense of where the contemporary American Church is and appears to be going, at least where its corporate worship is concerned.  As an easy on-ramp back into the blogosphere after a near-three-year hiatus, I thought I’d share these notes for public consumption and, perhaps, further reflection over the next months.  If you happen upon one of these next posts, I welcome your thoughts.  May the Lord’s Church be edified in our efforts, and may the Lord be with you!


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Hand Bells? At Willow Creek? Huh?

gls_logoWillow Creek Community Church, on the heels of its annual Global Leadership Summit, featured Dr. Henry Cloud as the speaker for its weekend services on Saturday and Sunday.  So far, so good.  No big whoop.

Willow Creek Community Church, for its pre-message corporate worship, used–wait for it–hand bells.  Hand.  Bells.  At.  Willow.  Say what?

Just as soon as we make the decision at Judson University to sell our long-dormant octaves of hand bells, Willow goes and uses them in Big-Church worship, portending a wave of retro-cool hand bell usage throughout the contemporary American church.  Soon every Willow Creek Association and Willow-wannabe church in the world will be ponying up $10-20K for a set of bells.

But it doesn’t stop there.  In short time, buoyed by the success of the once-despised bells—those vestiges of boring, liturgical worship—Willow will lead the way, as it always does, for the first-ever megachurch purchase of a $300K, 100-rank, 500-stop pipe organ.  Other megachurches will soon follow suit, and all the mid-sized wannabes will do their best with the budgets they have, resigning themselves to in-home Wurlitzers or the sampled pipe organ patches on their now-unhip synthesizers.  And, in no time, ultra-cool worship in the contemporary American church will look just like . . . what Willow left behind in the 70’s as dull, dreary, and in need of repair.

OK.  Probably not.  But for those of us who have occasionally bemoaned the tendency of megachurches and all other trying-really-hard-to-be-culturally-relevant churches to throw the baby out with the baptismal font water, the following clip has to bring a smile (the bells appear around the 19-minute mark): Willow Using Hand Bells.

Seriously, hats off, once again, to Willow, for pushing the envelope.  The fact that they’re pushing the envelope backwards in recent years is yet one more reason I admire their collective efforts.

The Lord be with you!

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Worship at Its Core

One of the true privileges of my job in the Center for Worship in the Performing Arts atCWPA_Stacked_Full Color Judson University is helping to train young people who will serve the Church as worship leaders.  Seeing how their knowledge expands, by God’s grace, over the course of four years is a joy.  Engaging them in conversations to help them anticipate that everyone they eventually encounter in their congregations will have opinions–many of them strong–on the specific Sunday-morning activity for which they will be responsible can often distill worship to its core, its true essence (stripped of the first-world, western, American, suburban–in my case in Elgin, Ill.; choose your appropriate adjectives) lacquer that so many of us inadvertently, one hopes, slap onto corporate worship.  Yes, worship leaders must be sensitive to cultural contexts, but doing so should not override central tenets, and, it’s been my experience, too often it does.

21dkQs+oFvL__UX250_In going through some old papers the other day, I came across an excellent article that addresses this subject extremely well.  It comes from the pen of one of my all-time favorite authors, early contemporary Christian music pioneer John Fischer, whose end-of-the-magazine essays in the old CCM magazine were must-reads for anyone wrestling with the intersection of Christianity and culture.  (CCM‘s decline as a viable journal can be traced, in my opinion, to the day John’s insights were no longer welcome there.)  I still use in my teaching two books that are collections of some of those columns–Real Christians Don’t Dance and True Believers Don’t Ask Why.  (I was just on Amazon’s site and am pleased to see that these two and several others of John’s books are now available for Kindle.)   

I have had the privilege of knowing John for about 20 years–he has spoken and performed at Judson several times–and I still find his ministry to be a blessing to me.  Here’s what he had to say on the subject of worship in an essay from 2010 entitled “Why Worship?”

I will worship God today because it is good and right to do so.

I will worship God today, not because of what it will do for me, or because it is popular, or because it is Sunday, or because I like the worship music, but for the simple reason that I was made to do this.  To worship God is what I am here for.

Worship is not an asset.  It is not an added benefit to my life like working out or taking vitamins.  Nor is it a secret formula that will add a deeper dimension to my life.  Worship is the air I breathe.  It is the blood pumping through my veins.  It is the cells in my body that reproduce and keep me alive for this.  Everything else I do is extemporaneous.  To worship God is the root of my being.

I understand why, but it is not necessarily good that worship has become a trend–a seminar that pastors attend to learn how to do it better.  Music directors are now worship leaders, and this is all well and good, but it can also be demeaning to worship if we end up thinking that this is all worship is: the latest idea that will get more people to come to church.

Remember the pet rock craze?  Or canned air?  Or rain in a jar?  Or anything else so basic that someone tries to make a buck off of packaging, in a clever way, what everyone already has for the taking?  In the same way we risk the danger of belittling worship by marketing it or using it as a means to an end.  No one needs to sell worship to anyone.  Worship is the end.  The Westminster Catechism calls it the “chief end” of man.  That’s another way of saying it is the most important thing we were created to do.  And if it’s that important, then it is accessible to everybody, all the time.

The Lord our God is one God, and we will love him and worship him because of who he is and who we are.  It is good and right to do so.  It is arrogant not to do so.  We are his creatures; he is the creator.  We are the sheep of his pastures; he is the shepherd.  We are mere people; he is God.  To do anything but worship him is to inadvertently put us in his place, and I don’t think anyone in his or her right mind really wants to be there.

John Fischer now writes a daily blog, “The Catch,” to which I subscribe, and I would encourage you to check it out: John Fischer’s “The Catch.”  (This week’s offerings thus far have been particularly poignant.)  I think you will find him to be a welcome addition to your daily walk.

The Lord be with you!


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Of Rainbows and Patience

Below is the final of seven devotionals I was asked to write for a group of Judson University students heading to India for a three-week May term missions trip several years back.  I used a logorainbow as a metaphor for God’s patience with us.  Given the hoopla surrounding rainbows in our culture the past couple of years, I might have gone with something else here, and the devotional certainly dates itself with the mention of an Encarta encyclopedia, but, on the whole, the general message holds up well, I think.  To my shame, I am so quick to write people off, to believe the worst about their future prospects based on their current behavior.  Thank God He is more patient with us than we usually are with those created in His image.  (More on praying directly to the Holy Spirit, as I do at the end of this devotional, might be good fodder for a future post.)

“The Promise”

Genesis 9: 12-16 – “God continued, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and everything living around you and everyone living after you.  I’m putting my rainbow in the clouds, a sign of the covenant between me and the Earth.  From now on, when I form a cloud over the Earth and the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll remember my covenant between me and you and everything living, that never again will floodwaters destroy all life.  When the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll see it and remember the eternal covenant between God and everything living, every last living creature on Earth.’”  (The Message)

One of the coolest of any natural phenomena is the rainbow.  Kids and adults alike stop to “ooh” and “ah” at its appearance.  Although I’m terrible at science (I always hate to get the green pie pieces in Trivial Pursuit), my Encarta CD-ROM encyclopedia tells me that when “the sunlight enters a raindrop it is refracted, or bent, by and reflected from the drop in such a way that the light appears as a spectrum of colors.”

The scripture passage above illustrates the metaphorical reflection that takes place to accompany the physical reflection of the sunlight hitting the raindrop, each and every time a rainbow shows up.  It is God’s promise never to allow His wrath to overcome Him again in the form of an earth-destroying flood.  Certainly the world is as wicked now as it ever has been.  Scripture paints no rosy picture of things getting better—from a purely moral perspective—as time goes on.  And yet, God chooses to restrain Himself, to hold back, to wait.  Second Peter 3:9 tells us that God doesn’t want any people to perish as the result of their sin, and so He is patient.

In like manner, would you be patient with your brothers and sisters in Christ on this trip, and would you be particularly patient with unbelievers?  Would you, especially, not write the non-Christians off, give them up as lost causes, leave them to their just desserts, or wash your hands of them, Pilate-style?  Instead of becoming angry or frustrated by the lack of belief, or morals, or basic human decency that the non-Christians with whom you come into contact on this trip display, would you channel that energy into prayer for them, that they would—somehow, someway—understand their need for a Savior?  Would you exhibit to them the same patience that God has exhibited to all of us?

Just as the sunlight is bent by the raindrop to produce the rainbow, may God take the interactions that you have with unbelievers, as difficult as they might be, and bend them into a beautiful rainbow of patience for all the world to see.

Prayer for today:

Holy Spirit, Who comforts, sustains, guides, and directs, make us patient beyond what is humanly possible, that our relationships with those that don’t know You might please You and benefit them, for the growth of Your Kingdom.  Amen.

The Lord be with you!

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Why Do Christians Routinely Hide behind Masks?

Earlier this summer, I began posting devotionals I had written a few years back at the request of the leaders of a team of Judson University students traveling to India for a short-term missions project.  The theme of the trip was the general topic of reflections.

TrueFacedThis is the sixth of the seven short meditations, and it came on the heels of my having read one of the handful of books that I can honestly say changed my life.  I have referenced it in this blog before, and I encourage any Christians who want to face our tendency to pretend we are flawless and have all our stuff together to grab a copy of TrueFaced and give it a read.  I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Here are the devotional thoughts I offered in the aftermath of digesting this short but important work and coming face to face with my own tendency to live my life behind a mask of piety and stoicism.

“Being True-Faced”

Galatians 3:5 – “Does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust him to do them in you?” (The Message)

We discussed a few days ago that the eyes are the windows to our souls.  Windows reflect—in certain lighting, anyway—but they are primarily transparent.  We see through them into another realm.  Christians should be windows; we should be transparent with each other and with a dying world that desperately needs to hear our Good News.  Then why is it so hard to be honest with each other about our struggles with sin?

Recently I read a fabulous little book entitled TrueFaced.  Although I can’t do justice to it in a one-page devotional, the gist of the book is that we all come to a fork in the road in our lives; sometimes we come to it daily.  One side takes us down the path of Pleasing God, while the other takes us down the path of Trusting God.  Although they both sound desirable, when we start to travel the road of Pleasing God, we end up entering the Room of Good Intentions through the door of Human Effort, and we end up miserable, because, as Paul tells us in the verse above, our “strenuous moral striving” gets us nowhere.  “Our righteousness is like filthy rags,” Scripture tells us (Is. 64:6).

In contrast, when we head down the road of Trusting God, we end up entering the room of Grace via the door of Humility, and we find that those assembled there are “standing with God, with [their] sin right in front of [them], working on it together.”  In other words, God stands with each of us, viewing the hideous ca-ca of our lives, and it doesn’t cause Him to flinch, run away, or reject us.  Instead, he acknowledges the sin, and gives us the strength, one day at a time, as the folks in AA would say, to work on it with Him.

1 John 1:8 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  And what’s worse, those on the outside of the Christian faith are affected by our dishonesty.  Mike Yaconelli (one last time) says,

What we don’t understand is that when people look at the Church and see only imposters, they conclude that Jesus is an imposter.  . . . The power of the Church is not a parade of flawless people, but of a flawless Christ who embraces our flaws.  The Church is not made up of the whole people, rather of the broken people who find wholeness in a Christ who was broken for us.

Prayer for today:

Gracious God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us mercy and peace, that we might be honest with You and with each other, and affect the world with the Truth of the grace that sustains us.  Amen.

The Lord be with you!

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What Does the SCOTUS Ruling on Gay Marriage Mean for Worship Leaders?

It has been interesting to see the hoopla in the aftermath of last week’s Supreme Court ruling affirming gay marriage as a civil right.  There have been astounding responses on both sides of the issue.  In particular, who knew so many evangelical Christians would be pleased by the decision?  Even the most progressive evangelicals have to be pleasantly surprised to learn how many brothers and sisters agree with them.

At a time like this, it’s tempting for theologically conservative worship leaders to feel the need to have an excellent response to it all.  There is an understandable urge to address the cultural Zeitgeist with a pithy riposte, something that can be used as an “Onward Christian Soldiers” rallying cry for any needing reassurance that the battle is not lost.  To any of my brothers and sisters feeling this way, I would suggest, in love, that the answer to the  question asking what the SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage means for worship leaders is simple.


Indeed, nothing has changed for us worship leaders based on this ruling–whether we loveKauflin the decision or hate it.  The role of worship leaders, notes Bob Kauflin in his excellent book Worship Matters, is “to teach, train, and encourage God’s people in praising him rightly and living for his glory.  In that sense worship leaders follow in the footsteps of Old Testament Levites who taught the Israelites what God required in worship and how they could faithfully follow him.”  What worked well for the Levites thousands of years ago will work well for us today.  Two Sundays back, our job was to help our parishioners praise God “rightly and live for his glory.”  For every Sunday henceforth that still is our job.  The opinion that one can’t live for God’s glory if married to someone of the same sex is one best taken up by a pastor in a sermon.  The famous theologian Karl Barth allegedly encouraged pastors to prepare sermons with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  No such exhortation is known for worship leaders.

This past Sunday, in my opening comments before we launched into the call to worship, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus,” which I had selected under the direction of the Holy Spirit before I knew the SCOTUS was going to rule on gay marriage last Friday, I reminded the congregation at Elgin Evangelical Free Church that the exhortation voiced most often in Scripture is “Do not be afraid,” or words to that effect.  (Some have posited that this encouragement occurs 365 times in Scripture, in the event that some of us need daily reminders.  I don’t know if that’s accurate, but it has a plausible ring to it, doesn’t it?)  For those who dislike this ruling, now is not the time to run and hide.  God is still on His throne.

I also read James 1:19-20, where the apostle says, “My dear brothers and sisters, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.  Your anger can never make things right in God’s sight.”  If our righteousness is like filthy rags (Is. 64:6), then our righteous mark-galliindignation can’t be a whole lot better.  Even if it’s true that we can be angry without sinning (Eph. 4:26), how many of us do that well?  I would err on the side of caution here.  (The best, brief summary I have encountered re: how theologically conservative Christians should then live in light of the ruling comes from one of my favorite current editorial writers, CT‘s Mark Galli, in this article: “Six Things to Do after the Supreme Court Decision on Gay Marriage”)

I am grateful to the Holy Spirit, forever and always the source of our inspiration as worship leaders, for guiding me to choose that classic chorus as the call to worship for this past Sunday.  Worship leaders, let us, in the days ahead, whether we’re for gay marriage or against it, remind our congregations to turn their “eyes upon Jesus,” to look fully into His “wonderful face.”  If we and they do, the things of this world, such as polarizing Supreme Court decisions, “will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

The Lord be with you!

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A Prayer for Charleston

In place of the usual this week, and in light of the horrible shooting incident in Charleston last week, I offer the following prayer from my friend, Pastor Ian Simkins, lead pastor of Poplar Creek Church in Bartlett, Ill.  As you read, please pray for all those involved in the tragedy.

A Prayer of Lament (Charleston)

God of comfort, grant us peace.

Our hearts are broken, our souls heavy. Our sorrow is a weight around our necks – sinking our feet deep into the mire of despair. Deliver those buried under this burden of misery.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of justice, grant us hope.

We proclaim that Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, yet we confess that the sin and brokenness we see around us is a bitter reminder of a Kingdom not yet fully come. May we be agents of your justice in every crack and crevice of our lives.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of power, grant us strength.

We know that the same force that spoke the universe into existence is alive in each of us, yet our spirits are weary. How long, oh Lord – must communities be torn and fractured by senseless violence? How we are desperate for your vitality and courage. We can do nothing without it.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of passion, grant us stillness.

We are a tangle of emotions from rage to anguish. We long for your Holy Spirit to guide our hearts to right responses. May our hearts break for the things that break yours. May we be filled with anger that submits to your sovereignty. May we find the stillness necessary to align passions with yours in order to navigate these brutal waters.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of wisdom, grant us insight.

We are confused, disconcerted in every way. We know that you “work for the good of those who love you,” but we must confess our own turbulence. With all of the messages competing for our attention, may we attune our ears to hear you voice loudest. We desperately require a wisdom beyond our own faculties.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of redemption, grant us life.

You alone, O God, are the source of life. Yet our narratives bleed crimson with brutality and death. We need new songs whispered into our ears, new rhythms to pound in our chests, so that we may join in the chorus of new life.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

The Lord be with you!

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