Reflection #17, part 1, on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 17, part 1, 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 #17: Worship leaders are using Trinitarian language more and more in their prayers and transitional comments, a good sign.

Where Trinitarian worship is concerned, the contemporary American church has shown signs of healthy progress in the past 20 years or so.  To be sure, some of the peripheral-fringe excesses of the charismatic renewal of the 70’s and 80’s caused many evangelicals to be careful about attributing too much of the saints’ activity in worship to the Holy Spirit, causing some to forgo attributing anything to the work of Holy Spirit in corporate worship.

Most worship songwriters of that era did a fine job putting words of praise to the Father 51kAL6f-LTLand the Son on the lips of worshipers, but the Holy Spirit got excluded from sung praise more often than not.  Several years ago, one of my worship grad-school profs, Dr. Lester Ruth, did a fascinating study of Trinitarian language (and the lack thereof) in contemporary worship music (cwm).  His findings were published (along with the findings of a slew of other worship theologians, on topics ranging from male perception of romantic lyrics in cwm to the artistic worth of worship song melodies) in a fascinating book edited by Robert Woods and Brian Walrath, The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise & Worship.  Not all the chapters are equally compelling, and the study is now over 10 years old, but the book still makes fascinating reading–the central theses hold up today–for anyone who wishes to think more seriously about what the lyrics in our cwm songs are actually saying–and, by extension, how they are forming us individually and corporately as we sing them.

In the event you don’t have time to read Ruth’s whole chapter, here are the questions he asks that drove his study:

  • Do the Songs Name the Trinity or All Three Persons of the Trinity?
  • Do the Songs Direct Our Worship toward the Trinity as a Whole or toward One of the Persons of the Trinity?
  • Do the Songs Remember the Activity of the Divine Persons among Themselves?
  • Do the Songs See Christian Worship as the Participation of Believers in Inter-Trinitarian Dynamics or Activity?
  • Do the Songs Use the Character of Inter-Trinitarian Relationships to Explore a Desired Character for Relationship among Christians, for Example, Unity, Love, Sacrifice, or Humility?

At the very least, in 2018 the answer to Ruth’s first question is “more regularly than before.”  I would love for cwm writers to ponder all five of his questions as they write for the Church in the years to come.

Why is this important?  More intelligent folks than I have weighed in on why worshiping through Trinitarian lenses is so important, so I won’t reinvent the wheel.  One of the oft-cited texts on this subject is James B. Torrance’s Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace.  He states what often happens in contemporary American worship services.  See if you recognize his description.

Probably the most common and widespread view is that worship is something which we, religious people, do–mainly in church on Sunday.  We go to church, we sing our [songs] to God, we intercede for the world, we listen to the sermon . . ., we give our money, time and talents to God.  No doubt we need God’s grace to help us do it.  We do it because Jesus taught us to do it and left us an example of how to do it.  But worship is what we do before God.

In theological language, this means that the only priesthood is our priesthood, the only offering our offering, the only intercessions our intercessions.

Indeed this view of worship is in practice unitarian, has no doctrine of the mediator or sole priesthood of Christ, is human-centered, has no proper doctrine of the Holy Spirit, is too often non-sacramental, and can engender weariness.  We sit in the [seats] watching the minister “doing his thing,” exhorting us “to do our thing,” until we go home thinking we have done our duty for another week!  This kind of do-it-yourself-with-the-help-of-the-minister worship is what our forefathers would have called “legal worship” and not “evangelical worship”–what the ancient church would have called Arian or Pelegain and not truly [universal].  It is not trinitarian.

At this point, I can see that this is going to need to be a two-part reflection, so I’ll save Torrance’s rejoinder for next week.  But please note, among all the rest of this good stuff, the end of the first sentence in the third paragraph.  The language Torrance uses here is for me, at this stage in my life, the most compelling reason to reject non-Trinitarian-informed worship:

“[T]his view of worship . . . is human-centered . . . and can engender weariness.”  How often I have found myself–both as a leader and as a congregant–weary after participating in corporate worship.  If you hear nothing else in this blog, please hear this: Failure to embrace a Trinitarian view of worship leads us to extremely unhealthy worship behavior that, at its core, is contrary to the Gospel itself.  Antidotal rhetoric to follow next week, Lord willing!

The Lord be with you!

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Worship-leading Lessons from Mr. Rogers

I really do intend to get back to the reflections on worship in the contemporary American church, but November/December is a crazy time in the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University, with one huge choir tour, four major concerts, five ensemble recitals, several off-campus ministry opportunities, and one all-department celebration of graduating seniors for which to prepare.  And I spent too much time and money on that grad-school training in worship (which doesn’t make me an expert but does make me passionate) to throw something together half-baked . . . that, and my first-born, perfectionistic, Enneagram-1 nature won’t allow it.  Lord willing, we’ll get back to a few of those reflections in the weeks to come.

For today, I share a few thoughts from the beautiful documentary on the life and Won't ministry of Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  I and countless late Boomers and Xers grew up with his PBS kids’ program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran from 1968 until 2001, what Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and many others in the Church considered his full-time vocational ministry.  My wife Lea and I watched the doc last night, and I was deeply moved on several occasions.

From the opening scene and numerous times thereafter, it struck me how many of his philosophies of ministry with children in his context apply marvelously to worship leaders’ ministry with congregations in our context.  For the sake of time and brevity, here are several quotations from the film that struck me as being particularly apropos for worship leaders (if you substitute “congregations” for “children,” whether referenced explicitly or implicitly):

Rogers: “It seems to me that there are different themes in life.  And one of my main jobs . . .  is to help . . . children through some of the difficult modulations of life.”  (Are we cognizant of this dynamic, of this potential in our leadership?)

A producer on the show: “We had a director that once said to me, ‘If you take all of the elements that make good television, and do the exact opposite, you have Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’  Low production values, simple set, unlikely star.  Yet, it worked . . . because he was saying something really important.”  (For those of us who serve in churches with significant production values, I encourage us to let this one sink in.)

His biographer: “A neighborhood was a place . . . [when] you felt worried, scared, unsafe [that] would take care of you, would provide understanding, safety.  That’s what the neighborhood was for Fred.”  (Substitute “church” for “neighborhood.”  Do we consider anything remotely along these lines when we lead?)

Rogers: “Love is at the root of everything.  All learning, all parenting, all relationships. . . . And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.”  (Substitute “in church” for “on the screen” and you have a strong case for worship as congregational spiritual formation.)

His biographer and David Newell (Mr. McFeely): “Fred was pretty radical in television for that day in that he used time totally differently.”  “To Fred, silence was his delight.”  (How can we worship leaders use time and silence to convey truth that just can’t be conveyed via typical cwm songs performed by typical cwm praise bands?)

There are countless others I could cite, but the one that brought me to tears and is sticking with me today is this, sung by Rogers, himself, with a reflection afterward:

“‘I like you as you are, exactly and precisely.  I think you turned out nicely, and I like you as you are.’  And children need to hear that.  I don’t think that anybody can grow unless he really is accepted exactly as he is.”

In hindsight, I recognize that once I started studying worship as an academic pursuit, I raised my standards for that which transpires in church on Sunday morning.  I raised the standards for myself and my fellow worship leaders, and I also raised the standards for the congregations I served.  Far, far too often, I allowed my increased knowledge of Christian worship (obviously not a bad thing in and of itself) to serve as a shame-catalyst toward those congregants (and there were many) who didn’t immediately drop years’ worth of understanding of what worship is and should be in order to embrace fully elements of worship (attention to the Church calendar, aspects of what we colloquially define as “liturgy,” a more pro-life understanding of communion) that now are so important to me.  How often I conveyed–in my spirit if not in my actual words–anything but Rogers’ gracious and loving words of acceptance: “I like you as you are, exactly and precisely.”

Worship leaders, especially those with new-found insight, aspects of Christian worship that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt would, in fact, be beneficial to your congregants if they would only embrace them, you will never move people to new ways of thinking if they don’t sense that you not only love them (which is your Christian duty) but also like them as they are right now, which is a conscious choice.

The Lord be with you, and have a blessed Thanksgiving!

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

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A Gift from the Judson University Choir

The Judson University Choir traveled to Iowa and Illinois over the weekend as part of our annual fall tour.  I didn’t have much time to write, so I’ll plan to continue the series of reflections on worship in the contemporary American church next week.  In the meantime, here’s a song that we’ve sung since 2012, a song of hope that never gets old, though we have sung it every concert for six solid years.  May this wonderful song of assurance, from a concert in 2017 (the most recent professional video footage we have of the song), be a blessing to you.

“I Will Rise” (Tomlin, et al.) — The Judson University Choir

The Lord be with you!

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An Appreciation of Eugene Peterson (in Three Parts)

PetersonOne of America’s favorite pastor/theologians died last week.  As is their wont, Christianity Today provided excellent coverage, none better than this collection of thoughts from several whom Peterson influenced greatly over the years.  To this chorus, let me raise a personal, three-part appreciation:

Three of Eugene Peterson’s Books You Probably Haven’t Read (but Should):

  • Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places — the first in a five-volume series, what one reviewer called “the pivotal work on spiritual theology”
  • Subversive Spirituality — a series of short essays and articles, including a revelatory interview done by those wiseacres at The Door in the early 90’s
  • The Wisdom of Each Other — What Lewis did for understanding the demonic (serious subject, humorous tone) in The Screwtape Letters, Peterson does for extolling the benefits of friendship (serious subject, winsome tone)

Two of Peterson’s I Haven’t Read (but Everyone Else Has–and I Will Soon):

  • Leap over a Wall — subtitled Reflections on the Life of David
  • A Long Obedience in the Same Direction — subtitled Discipleship in an Instant Society (and, good gracious, if we were “instant” in 1980, when this was written, what are we now?)

One Lengthy Quote from Peterson (the Best Succinct Thoughts on Suffering I Have Ever Encountered):

These excerpts come from Peterson’s introduction to the book of Job from his wildly popular paraphrase, The Message.  Read and be blessed.

The moment we find ourselves in trouble of any kind–sick in the hospital, bereaved by a friend’s death, dismissed from a job or relationship, depressed or bewildered–people start showing up telling us exactly what is wrong with us and what we must do to get better.  Sufferers attract fixers the way road-kills attract vultures. . . .

The book of Job is not only a witness to the dignity of suffering and God’s presence in our suffering but is also our primary biblical protest against religion that has been reduced to explanations or “answers.”  May of the answers Job’s so-called friends give him are technically true.  But it is the “technical” part that ruins them.  They are answers without personal relationshp, intellect without intimacy. . . .

On behalf of all of us who have been misled by the platitudes of the nice people who show up to tell us everything is going to be just all right if we simply think such-and-such and do such-and-such, Job issues an anguished rejoinder.  He rejects the kind of advice and teaching that has God all figured out, that provides glib explanations for every circumstance.  Job’s honest defiance continues to be the best defense against the clichés of positive thinkers and the prattle of religious small talk. . . .

The book of Job does not reject answers as such.  There is content to biblical religion.  It is the secularization of answers that is rejected–answers severed from their Source, the living God, the Word that both batters us and heals us.  We cannot have truth about God divorced from the mind and heart of God.

In our compassion, we don’t like to see people suffer.  And so our instincts are aimed at preventing and alleviating suffering. No doubt that is a good impulse.  But if we really want to reach out to others who are suffering, we should be careful not to be like Job’s friends, not to do our “helping” with the presumption we can fix things, get rid of them, or make them “better.”  We may look at our suffering friends and imagine how they could have better marriages, better behaved children, better mental and emotional health.  But when we rush in to fix suffering, we need to keep several things in mind.

First, no matter how insightful we may be, we don’t really understand the full nature of our friends’ problems.  Second, our friends may not want our advice.  Third, the ironic fact of the matter is that more often than not, people do no suffer less when they are committed to following God, but more.  When these people go through suffering, their lives are often transformed, deepened, marked with beauty and holiness, in remarkable ways that could never have been anticipated before the suffering.

So, instead of continuing to focus on preventing suffering–which we simply won’t be very successful at anyway–perhaps we should begin entering the suffering, participating insofar as we are able–entering the mystery and looking around for God.  In other words, we need to quit feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them, and–if they will let us–join them in protest and prayer.  Pity can be nearsighted and condescending; shared suffering can be dignifying and life-changing.  As we look at Job’s suffering and praying and worshiping, we see that he has already blazed a trail of courage and integrity for us to follow.

And One Provocative P.S. on the Subject of Sin, on which Peterson was never easy, but with which he was always gracious:

This comes from Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.

Most of the sins that we do not commit are not because of our virtue, but because we lack either energy or opportunity.  We would sin a great deal more than we do if we were only energetic enough and were provided more generous opportunities.  It is well to stay in touch with those sins that we would have committed if we had had the chance.

Coming next week (Lord willing): More Reflections on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

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Reflection #16 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 16 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 #16: Creative contemporary worship leaders are using a variety of instruments–beyond the stereotypical praise band lineup (electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, keys, and vocalists)–to great effect.  

A Couple of Questions:  Why is this a big deal?  Because where utilizing instruments in the service of praising God is concerned, if the resources are available (this is a big if, but not as big as it might seem; see below), worship leaders should seek to convey different aspects of 5121-mark-altrogge.220w.tnGod’s character via different musical means.  Worship leader Mark Altrogge (“I’m Forever Grateful”), pictured, once opined that worship leading is akin to holding a jewel up to see how a particular facet catches the light.  The next week, you twist the jewel just slightly, and a different facet of the jewel catches the light in a different manner.  Practically speaking, different aspects of God’s character are best informed by different styles of music.  If the aspects of God’s character all seem to be informed perfectly well by typical praise-band instrumentation, perhaps you’re not helping your congregation appreciate as much of God as there is to appreciate.  (Feel free to insert a plug for use of a lectionary here.)

I have a small budget, so how can I promote more variety of musical expression in worship?  Consider mining the congregation for talented musicians who haven’t given a thought to contributing to corporate worship in the past because they don’t play electric guitar, bass guitar, or drums.  Just yesterday my wife and I worshiped at a church where, in addition to the typical praise-band fare, a gentleman played trumpet–nothing to make anyone forget Phil Driscoll or pine for Miles Davis, but tasty fills and obbligato lines that added a wonderful acoustical change of pace to the routine.  The same guy played congas on a couple of tunes–again, nothing ridiculously tough or indicative of fabulous chops, just enough to add a little spice to the mix.

I know another worship band that, once a month or so, features an electric banjo.  Why?  Because the guy loves to play, is good, and wants to serve.  With the gear he has, he can make the thing sound like an electric guitar if he wanted, and he does on occasion, but he also plays country-fied licks on cwm standards, and it sounds great.  How about strings or other orchestral instruments?  Chances are good you have former first-chair-in-the-high-school-band flutists, violinists, and French horn players in your congregation.  Why not feature them on occasion?  That means that you have to find charts for them, so. . . .

A Couple of Resources: If you are worship leader serving the contemporary American church, chances are good you are aware of these two resources.  If not, let me introduce you to Praise Charts and LifeWay Worship.  In my years of serving as a weekend-warrior worship leader, I used both services with great regularity.  In the church I served most recently, our praise band had the following: the principal bassist for the Elgin Symphony, a clarinetist who had studied in college with a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a quality French horn player, a good alto sax player, a couple of pretty-good violinists, and a pretty-decent cellist.  I used them all in the band (maybe once a month, and not all at the same time), and I found music for them via these excellent online sites.

Praise Charts has a wealth of material, some of it free, but specializes in orchestrations that are as-closely-as-possible transcribed from the most-popular recordings of cwm songs.  If you have really fine orchestral players, they will love digging their teeth into these charts.  LifeWay takes volunteer church musicians to heart and features generally-easier-to-play charts that won’t tax players who aren’t picking up their axes with any regularity anymore.  Both services offer songs in multiple keys.  When I was leading, I often utilized two keys on some songs to allow us to modulate up a step at the end of the song to give the corporate experience a lift.  (I’ve often wondered why more worship leaders don’t do this.)

A Couple of Other Ideas:  Just this weekend, I became aware of a new website, Diverse Church Music, which, as it grows, is going to be a wealth of resources for those who want to be a little more global and/or a little less predictable re: their songs and accompaniment in worship.  Also, consider joining the folks at The Center for Congregational Song for an a cappella Sunday on March 10, 2019, when all around the world, worshiping communities will sing at least one song without instrumental accompaniment.  If you’ve never done this, I highly recommend it.  In my two most recent church positions, I did entire services a cappella (hymns, yes, but also cwm) at least once a year.  You’d be amazed at how well and enthusiastically your congregation will sing when they’re not having to compete with amplified instruments.

The Lord be with you as you seek to worship Him in all His vastness with an appropriately vast variety of instrumental accompaniment!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Trinitarian worship leaders.

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Reflection #15 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 15 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 #15: As one whose metabolism seemed to go on permanent leave after my sophomore year of high school, I tend to listen more and give more credibility to pastors who don’t look like they just came from a GQ photo shoot.  (I am guessing it works the other way around for some people.)   

What do revered theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), influential evangelist chestertonGeorge Whitefield (1714-1770), esteemed preacher Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899), and respected theologian G. K. Chesterton (pictured, 1874-1936) have in common?  All of them, for good portions of their adult lives, struggled with obesity.  Portly pastors.  Beefy brothers.  Hefty hombres.  And passionately committed to spreading the gospel, winning souls for Christ, and/or making difficult theological concepts comprehensible for Christians the world over.  Both/and at work here, not either/or.

I have commented in this space earlier re: the number of churches–which, historically speaking, have clearly placed great emphasis on the “presentational” aspects of Sunday worship–that now regularly feature a greater cross-section of physical fitness on stage, and this seems to happen a bit more frequently for those bringing the Word, as well.  Pastors in non-presentational, low-church settings have rarely been subject to fat-shaming–in fact, the opposite has usually been true–but now their (mostly) brothers in churches that project their larger-than-life visages on gigantic screens each week are being extended a little grace in this area.

Let’s acknowledge the, er, elephant in the room any time we talk about obesity in the Body of Christ and Americans’ general obsession with superficial beauty and our penchant, even in the Church, to worship at the altar of the airbrush.  Legalism where corpulence is concerned can be conjured up with little effort.  And those of us who aren’t as physically fit as we would like can easily work up a weird mixture of righteous indignation (“I’m more gracious than you”) and reverse snobbery (“I’m more in tune with the mission field [which, in America, is increasingly overweight] than you”).  Neither extreme helps the cause.

I find the following intriguingly titled, both/and exhortation from Jared C. Wilson more beneficial.  I will excerpt “In Praise of Fat Pastors” below, but in case you don’t get a chance to read it in its entirety, know that his one-sentence opening paragraph, answering the obvious objection to the title, is “Sort of.”  (He writes from a complementarian perspective, but his words ring true for egalitarians, as well.)

In the age of Pastor Fashion and sermons forbidding the eating of pork in service of the gospel of weight loss — I mean, does anything scream “Judaizer” more loudly than preaching the dietary law? except maybe actually preaching circumcision — don’t the pastors who don’t care about their image, their profile, their reputation seem more dignified? . . .

I don’t think you even need me to list all the evidences that American evangelicalism is obsessed with image, with cool, with seeming impressive. What we need are men (and women) who will lead the way in rejecting the Photoshopping of our faith. And wouldn’t it be a huge relief, wouldn’t we all just kinda exhale in relief if we were led in this way to stop sucking in our guts? Our stomach might increase, but wouldn’t we actually decrease in the right ways? Wouldn’t that kind of freedom to breathe — the freedom to simply be ourselves — be a fruit of the gospel? . . .

So no, I am not advocating gluttony here, just a Christward self-disregard, a godly un-self-consciousness. I am praying for an increase in the tribe of self-forgetful pastors — if not all-out dorky ones — with platforms thrust upon them genuinely “aw shucks”-wise, men who will love not their images even unto death. Men who at least are not obsessed with the camera catching their good sides. Give me a fat guy in the pulpit so long as he preaches not himself and not the law but the glorious gospel. And if you’ve got a pastor with washboard abs who does that– well, that’s okay too, I guess.

I preach to myself as much as anyone with many of these reflections, so here’s the takeaway: I will try hard not to roll my eyes every time a preacher throws in gratuitous references to daily workout regimens, and I hope my physically fit friends will extend a little grace to those of us who can’t buy off the rack in most stores.  And I pray for, in Wilson’s phraseology, “a Christward self-disregard, a godly un-self-consciousness” among our pulpiteers, “an increase in the tribe of self-forgetful pastors.”

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Variety in the praise team.

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Keller on Kavanaugh (Sorta)

I am taking a break from the ongoing series of reflections on worship in the contemporary American church this week.  The previously scheduled look at pastors and GQ will appear next week, Lord willing.

It’s been a long 10 days or so in many ways, and this past weekend I found helpful (once again) thefDF3OB_x writing of Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  Though Keller doesn’t mention the new Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States by name in this piece–“How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t”–it’s clear the virulent partisanship surrounding the appointment hearing and subsequent additional FBI investigation of Brett Kavanaugh served as the New York Times‘ impetus for publishing this essay, an excerpt from Keller’s book Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy.  (Kudos to the Times for publishing a piece that doesn’t pander to its usual political slants.)  Keller provides the kind of middle-ground sensibility here that causes some Christians to yearn for a third branch of American politics: Keller on the Insufficiency of America’s Two-Party System for Christianity.

The Lord be with you!

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