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. 

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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.


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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.

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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.

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Grace for the Worshiper

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, this week as it applies to worshipers and, in two weeks, as it applies to worship leaders.  The writing speaks for itself, but a general overarching theme relates to the previous weeks’ discussions on how we view worship–i.e., human effort we bring vs. divine effort the Almighty facilitates in and through us.

51vjBNYTzXL._SY346_We begin with the namesake-founder of The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies (Jacksonville, Fla.), my doctoral alma mater, the chief person (among many) who kick-started my interest in worship.  His Divine Embrace, one of his final books, sums up much of what had become passions for him.

If God is the object of worship, then worship must proceed from me, the subject, to God, who is the object.  God is the being out there who needs to be loved, worshiped, and adored by me.  Therefore, the true worship of God is located in me, the subject.  I worship God to magnify his name, to enthrone God, to exalt him in the heavens.  God is then pleased with me because I have done my duty.

If God is understood, however, as the personal God who acts as the subject in the world and in worship rather than the remote God who sits in the heavens, then worship is understood not as the acts of adoration God demands of me but as the disclosure of Jesus, who has done for me what I cannot do for myself.  In this way, worship is the doing of God’s story within me so that I live in the pattern of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Webber’s paradigm shift here is, for me, both subtle and profound.

The second quotes come from Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest who also was a41mR2BZJ1hL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_ gourmet chef.  Though firmly ensconced in the High Church, for a lengthy season he was a regular columnist for the firmly-ensconced-in-the-Low-Church satirical magazine The Wittenberg Door, published by those wild and crazy Youth Specialties folks in the 70’s and 80’s.  Capon’s reflections on grace were then and continue to be transformationally life-giving for me.  These excerpts come from Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace.  Here is his take on Paul’s famous declaration in Romans 8:1.

Saint Paul has not said to you, “Think how it would be if there were no condemnation”; he has said, “There is therefore now none.”  He has made an unconditional statement, not a conditional one–a flat assertion, not a parabolic one.  He has not said, “God has done this and that and the other thing; and if by dint of imagination you can manage to pull it all together, you may be able to experience a little solace in the prison of your days.”  No.  He has simply said, “You are free. . . .”

As an often-self-righteous older brother myself, I resonate with this definition of grace:

Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cessations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.

And, finally, a plea to exhibit the one behavior that will carry believers through all kinds of trouble in this life (and an unhealthy shame that comes from not fully understanding or embracing grace): trust.

Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting–no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you–you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop-closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life. If he refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk you because your faith isn’t so hot. You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead–and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.

If it all seems too easy, I get it.  Good chunks of my spiritual upbringing focused on human-derived efforts that unwittingly produced both legalism and shame.  A pastor friend of mine once said that if you preach grace that doesn’t take you right to the edge of embracing a license to sin, it’s not grace at all.  I think Webber and Capon, gone from this life but not forgotten, probably would have agreed.

The gracious Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): A Seventh-Day-of-Christmas gift.

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Reflection #19 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 19 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 #19: There are lessons to be learned about congregational singing from typical churches’ Advent worship.

I had not planned to write about this subject until yesterday, but the power of the congregational singing–the best I have heard in a long time–compelled me to reflection.  We visited a church we attend frequently, a large-but-not-huge megachurch in the northwest Chicago suburbs.  Though I generally prefer a more intimate setting for worship, the leaders here do an excellent job of maintaining aspects of church life more usually found in smaller congregations.  For example, they are employing an Advent wreath in worship this year (and did so last year, as well), they typically sing at least one hymn in their sets, they use the call-and-response “The Word of the Lord”/”Thanks be to God” after the public reading of Scripture, and they occasionally ask congregants to hit their knees for corporate prayer.  In other words, while they certainly are seeker-sensitive, they are not seeker-driven (and I would argue, and have in this article on churches’ quest for cultural relevance, that utilizing these vestiges of “traditional worship” in no way discourages most unbelievers and, in fact, often piques the curiosity of true seekers).

downloadThe above notwithstanding, I simply wasn’t prepared for the exuberance of the congregational singing yesterday morning.  The whole room resounded in song.  I could actually hear other voices with unusual clarity (for contemporary worship).  I even asked the production team members afterward if they were piping the congregation through the house mix (they weren’t).  If, as Aaron Niequist is fond of reminding worship leaders, the purpose of congregational singing is . . . wait for it . . . congregational singing, why don’t most congregations sound as robust as did those assembled yesterday morning?  Here are three congregational-singing lessons for the other 11 months of the year to be learned from my Advent-worship experience yesterday.

Lesson 1: Use familiar songs that have been sung for generations.  Yesterday we sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” in the primary worship set.  Notice the adjective is familiar, not simplistic.  There’s nothing simplistic about the chromatic harmonies (full of notes outside the key signature) of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or the chord pattern of “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” with its use of a III chord and secondary dominants, structure hardly ever employed in contemporary worship music (cwm).  (Contemporary worship songwriters, take note: You can have wonderfully singable songs that break out of the I-IV-vi-V mold.)  What are the non-seasonal equivalents of the above?  Hymns, of course, but when’s the last time you sang a song from the dawn of cwm as know it–something like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” or “Mighty Is Our God” or “Forever” or “Beautiful One”?  Or a popular song from the Jesus Movement like “Seek Ye First” or “Easter Song”?  There’s nothing wrong with singing the latest and greatest from Hillsong United, Bethel, or whatever song-producing community is hip right now, but if you want to facilitate congregational singing that will raise the roof, you have to go back to songs of shared experience (across the generations) with much greater frequency than currently occurs in contemporary American worship services.

Lesson 2: Strip back the accompaniment.  The service yesterday (see picture) featured the worship leader on guitar and lead vocals and a pianist (with a real piano–not just a keyboard encased in the shell of an upright for cool visual effect).  No driving drums.  No booming bass.  No shredding electric guitar.  No background vocals.  Just the unadorned sound of two acoustic instruments and one voice.  For ears accustomed to worship services featuring loud noise and frenetic musical activity with precious few lulls in between, such sonic minimalism was a welcome relief, to be sure, but the greater good was that without the extra barrage of sound, the congregation was compelled to fill in the gap, and fill it in they did!  Of course, you can’t lead contemporary worship these days with just a piano, guitar, and solo voice on a regular basis (can you?), but how about one week every other month?  Or be bold and schedule a service for a cappella singing, without accompaniment, and be prepared to be shocked by the sound of human voices as you’ve never heard in contemporary worship before.  (Use SATB vocals with your strongest singers.  I used to do this once or twice a year in the churches I served, and the results were always incredible.  Yes, it works for both cwm and hymns with a little bit of planning.)

Lesson 3: Remove other distractions.  Kill the fog machine for a week.  Keep the light cues bare bones.  Avoid ADHD video edits.  Keep the stage set simple.  The fewer distractions your congregation members have to avoid in order to focus on their primary task in corporate worship, the better they will sound.  It works during Advent.  Why not try it, at least occasionally, during other times of the year?

The Lord be with you as you facilitate the people’s song in worship!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Grace for the worshiper.


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Reflection #18 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 18 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 #18: There is something very powerful about corporate worship, especially congregational singing, that takes place in worship spaces that allow those in attendance to see–and hear–each other worshiping.  

When I first walked into the sanctuary of the church I served for 10 years, the final stop for my 30+-year career as a part-time worship leader/music director, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  The worship space was laid out in a large rectangle, but the pews were arranged so they faced the long end of one side of that rectangle.  Unlike most churches worshiping in rectangular spaces, the stage was not at the end of one of the two smaller sides of that rectangle, although for presentation’s sake, that would have made a lot more sense–and would have afforded space for more people.  The church leaders compromised the potential for seating even more by setting the pews in a fan shape that wrapped around beyond the 180-degree mark, almost like a giant congregational Pac-Man, with its mouth about to gobble up those of us who were on the stage (if you remember that game and can picture this in your mind’s eye).

It didn’t take me long to appreciate the genius of this arrangement, however, for that organization of pews–and, later, movable chairs–afforded the congregants the precious opportunity to see and hear each other in worship.  In so many churches, with the seating laid out in traditional fashion, we sing to the front of the stage and we hear from the front of the stage–i.e., we see and hear, primarily, the worship leaders.  (This isn’t a bad thing, of course, and I have reflected in this space in recent weeks how desperately I long to be led in worship by competent worship leaders–and, unfortunately, how often today’s contemporary worship leaders function almost exclusively as music or band leaders who provide scant actual leadership to the congregation, not the worst thing in the world but nowhere near the ideal.)  The arrangement of the pews/chairs in this sanctuary, however, allowed the vast majority of those assembled to sing across the sanctuary, to each other, so that most gathered could see and hear each other worship, even as they saw and heard the worship leaders peripherally.

Praying 2XWhat a difference that made for the purposes of congregational worship!  How powerful it was for grandparents, sitting with other oldsters, to look across the room to see their grandkids in the young-and-hip section raising their hands in worship.  And how powerful for the kids to see their “ancient” relatives, tears streaming down their faces, singing a familiar hymn.  Author Brian Wren explains the dynamic the congregation I served those 10 years experienced each week in his highly recommended Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song:

 Seating patterns affect congregational singing.  The more we can see other singers in the congregation, the more we are likely to hear each other, as other voices reach us before being absorbed, and visibility enhances our sense of singing together.  Architect Edward Sövik notes that “if you ask a group of people, young or old, to sing together in a free space without an audience, they will almost inevitably gather in a circle.”  Without verbalizing it, they are shaping themselves as a community.  Because a congregation is not a theater audience, an army parading before its officers, a class of medical students watching an operation, or a workforce being motivated by its CEO, its seating pattern should not follow such secular models.

Thus, the appropriate configuration for congregational song is not the arrangement dictated by what goes on in cinemas, parade grounds, classrooms, and lecture theaters, but something more like a circle, square, or rectangle.  In such a setting, people are more aware of one another and have a stronger sense that they are a single body whose parts belong together.

Granted, most of us serve in churches whose sanctuary architecture has long ago been fixed.  Still, Wren’s exhortation certainly can apply for those serving in churches where there is an element of weekly set-up involved (start-ups renting auditorium space; smaller church-within-in-a-church congregations meeting in a fellowship hall)–and, especially, for those privileged to be able to contribute to the conversation where the building of a new sanctuary is concerned.  And even those of us in fixed-furniture situations might serve our flock better by, at least, being aware of the dynamics at work vis-à-vis the sanctuary’s architecture.

The rest of Praying Twice‘s Chapter 3, from which Wren’s above quote is excerpted, “‘A More Profound Alleluia’: Encouraging the People’s Song,” is full of more excellent suggestions for facilitating more-robust congregational singing, and Chapter 4, “‘Some Demand a Driving Beat’: Contemporary Worship Music,” is the best argument for a Archboth/and approach to worship music I’ve ever encountered–rendered all the more gracious when you realize Wren is as “traditional” a church musician (organist, classical hymn composer) as you will find.  For more on the subject of how architecture impacts worship, see my colleague Mark Torgerson’s An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today.

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week, Lord willing: Grace for the worshiper.

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