Reflection #25, part 4, on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 25, part 4, 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 #25: Perhaps the reason so many worship leaders in contemporary American evangelical churches function mostly as song leaders or old-school music directors is that churches greatly underestimate the potential for corporate worship to change lives.

Most bloggers write for themselves as much as they write for any audience; I am certainly no different.  Writing this blog each week helps reinforce my life-changing studies at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies 15 years ago.  And this lengthy series, in particular, in which I’m trying to bring some theological reflections to bear on CWPA Demoss Stacked FC Logo PRINTworship in the contemporary American church, helps me clarify the material I share with my students in Judson University’s Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts.  Moreover, this particular four-part reflection has reminded me again of the significant responsibility worship leaders have–now more than ever–to help their congregations understand and appreciate the power their corporate worship has to transform radically and over time their lives and the lives of others.

I have been using the marvelous book, edited by Alexis Abernethy, entitled Worship That Changes Lives, specifically a chapter written by worship theologian John Witvliet, “The Cumulative Power of Transformation in Public Worship.”  Having digested Witvliet’s contribution, I’m eager to dive into the whole book this summer, especially chapters discussing how the arts aid worship in transformation and what psychological aspects affect transformation in corporate worship.  (Abernethy is a psychology professor at Fuller Seminary.)

But for this final installment, I’ll allow Witvliet to inform our thoughts one more time–although I can’t imagine he won’t appear in this space again.  At the end of his chapter, Witvliet offers four proverbs to summarize his main points (covered in summary fashion in the previous three blog posts).  I will cite each, provide a short quotation of clarification, and add a word of exhortation of my own.

Number one: “Wise is the Christian leader who understands that the Holy Spirit is the agent of genuine transformation and actively prays for the Spirit’s transformative power.”

One of the great temptations we face as leaders is to think that we can bring about an experience of the Spirit, that we can somehow engineer the Spirit’s work.  This ability would be no different from magic, that we can manipulate divine action by “pulling the right lever” with certain words or sounds or moments.

How often, in my younger years as a worship leader (and in my weakest moments even today) I assumed for myself my efforts were the impetus for passionate congregational worship, work only accomplished by the Holy Spirit.

Number two: “Wise is the Christian leader who develops an acute awareness of the cumulative power of worship to transform us over time and invests a portion of the creative energy in worship toward this long-term transformative project.”

We need uncommon creativity in explaining the sheer significance of habits. . . . [W]e need to be uncommonly creative about engaging in habits that are poised to sustain us for a lifetime of vital, faithful service.

All our churches are “liturgical”; they all follow a basic outline.  Do we know why we do things the way we do–what spiritual purposes our orders of service attempt to achieve–and, as important, do our congregations understand these motivations?

Number three: “Wise is the Christian leader who is intentional about the kind of long-term growth most needed for a local congregation to express mature Christian faith, who gives careful attention to the implicit meaning of the words, gestures, visible symbols, and patterns of interactions in worship.”

“How can our worship not only express where and who we are, but also form us to become what we are not yet?  How can our worship practices grow in us deeper, more profound, more faithful capacities, attitudes, emotions, patterns of interaction, and convictions?”  Vital, faithful worship always challenges us and grows in us new capacities.

We don’t pursue the new for the sake of novelty; we pursue the new because at no time do we ever have full and total knowledge of or appreciation for God in all fullness.  There is always much more to learn–especially from cultures and worshiping communities who, as Rich Mullins once said, “underline different parts of their Bible than you do.”

Number four: Wise is the Christian leader with the poise to practice vital improvisatory ministry, faithful to ancient patterns, alert to life-giving innovations, aware of the Holy Spirit’s work in each.

[T]he Holy Spirit works in sovereign freedom through both established patterns and innovations, in both dramatic and subtle ways, through both dramatic conversion U-turns and cumulative formation over time. . . . We need to joyfully practice ritual patterns that form us deeply in the contours of the Christian faith while simulataneously praying for the Spirit’s dramatic work in our midst.

As with so many matters of our faith, where worship is concerned, it’s almost always best to embrace both/and as opposed to either/or.

Worship leaders, the Lord be with you as you seek to be a vessel through which the Holy Spirit forms and transforms the people of God!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Pursuing worship education.

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Reflection #25, part 3, on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 25, part 3, 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 #25: Perhaps the reason so many worship leaders in contemporary American evangelical churches function mostly as song leaders or old-school music directors is that churches greatly underestimate the potential for corporate worship to change lives.

I have been discussing lately the power of worship to transform lives.  I have, I hope, made the case (with substantial assistance from John Witvliet, of Calvin College) that AlexisAbernethy_400x400most of us in American churches practicing contemporary worship don’t view seriously enough corporate worship’s and congregational singing’s power to transform lives.  In this next section from “The Cumulative Power of Transformation in Public Worship” (in Worship That Changes Lives, edited by Alexis Abernethy), Witvliet sagely and theologically answers objections to the obvious examples of times when worship doesn’t transform lives.

For one, worship is not the only formative power in our lives.  Even lifelong worshipers are formed also by advertising, shopping malls, television, friends, and families.  All these things too have rituals, habits, gestures, and language that form us.

For another, we can be inoculated against the formative power of worship.  One way to inoculate ourselves against part of worship’s power is to think of going to church in superstitious terms, as if we are hedging our bets with God.  If we participate in worship and simply hope that our being there will cause God to bless us, what we are doing in church really amounts to practicing something other than Christianity.  We are practicing superstition, or hypocrisy–in which we sometimes even intentionally learn to say things to God that we do not mean. . . .

Third, some of this formation depends on our attentiveness.  A person who attends worship reluctantly, perhaps with a spouse or parent, and works to avoid active engagement with liturgical action, is less likely to be transformed by the experience.  And some of us are kept from attentiveness by powers beyond our control.  Clinical depression or ADHD, for example, might significantly affect our aptitude to enter into worship.

Fourth, external factors can also turn upside down a lifetime of formation like an earthquake that changes the flow of rivers.  An experience of abuse or injustice in a congregation can lead us (understandably) to turn away from everything that the congregation stands for, possible casting aside years of formation as firmly as we can.

Fifth, some people can use the topic of the Spirit’s transformative power in worship as an exercise of power to restrict the influence of other people.  Introverts who cannot stand exuberant handclapping can speak of this transformative power over time to silence other voices, just as extrovert enthusiasts can invoke an emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s more dramatic modes of work to bolster their own preferences.  Presbyterian and Reformed Christians (of which this author is one) can use all this talk of Spirit-led habit formation to squelch moments and practices of charismatic zeal, just as charismatics can use talk of Spirit-led spontaneous ecstasy to squelch Presbyterian and Reformed patterns of prayer. . . .

Having listed the “Yeah, but” reasons why worship doesn’t always form us, Witvliet finishes the section by providing helpful reminders of God’s sovereignty in this, as in all other, aspects of our faith.

These are important caveats that need to be front and center in the minds and the hearts of all who would speak of the cumulative power of transformative worship over time–just as the converse of each of these statements needs to be prominent in the awareness of those who testify to the Spirit’s dramatic inbreaking.

Such caveats remind us how messy ministry is.  In nearly every community, the deep formative power of worship offers a mixture of good and bad.  Congregational leaders can never be in control of all this formation.  Indeed, the wheat and tares of vital Christianity appear in every facet of Christian living, including worship.

But these caveats need not slow or stop our grateful reception of the Spirit’s cumulative transformative work over time.  Compare them to the complaints of a reluctant physical therapy patient: “Why exercise when my eating habits will only put on the calories I am taking off?”  “Why exercise when I am likely to simply stop in six months and lose everything I’ve gained?”  “Why not go on sinning so that grace may abound?”  As in every other area of Christian life, we gain wisdom when we hold on to vital truth about faithful ministry with open-minded awareness of the dangers and downsides of the claims we embrace.

Worship leaders, as you graciously seek to allow your worship sets a more substantial place at the Sunday-morning table–not necessarily in time, but in substance–the Lord be with you as you hold up the ideal even in the face of counterexamples that testify to our fallen condition.  Worship can be transformative, and we should pursue transformation as we plan.  The fact that not everyone will be transformed is no reason to set our sights lower.

Coming next week (Lord willing): final thoughts on worship’s power to transform.

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Reflection #25, part 2, on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 25, part 2, 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 #25: Perhaps the reason so many worship leaders in contemporary American evangelical churches function mostly as song leaders or old-school music directors is that churches greatly underestimate the potential for corporate worship to change lives.

Last week I argued, based partly on John Witvliet’s “The Cumulative Power of 2017_Witvliet_headshot_359 Transformation in Public Worship” in Worship That Changes Lives (ed., Alexis Abernethy), that, despite numerous indications to the contrary in contemporary worship in the evangelical American church, congregational song has the power to transform lives–as much as any sermon or other liturgical action.  To support the claim that corporate worship can facilitate great spiritual transformation, Witvliet offers five specific areas formed when we worship together.  While not specifically focused on the people’s song, I believe these apply to our worship sets, which surely function as an element of worship.  Of course, for many (at least colloquially), “worship” = “congregational singing.”  Here, then, is Witvliet’s take on what actually is formed in worship.

Part of what is formed in us is explicitly conceptual.  Worship both presents concepts and “practices concepts.”  For example, we hear repeated references–and perhaps an occasional explanation–of the Trinity, but we also experience prayers offered to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, prayers that invite us to imagine God as the One who is before us, alongside us, and within us.  We hear the claim that Jesus is God’s Son, who became human for our salvation.  But we also practice this claim when we take bread and wine that are provocatively given to us as “the body and blood of Jesus.” . . .

Second, part of what worship forms in us is a new perspective on life in all its dimensions.  The writer of Psalm 73, perplexed at the success of the foolish, testifies that upon going “into the sanctuary . . . [he] perceived their end” (v. 17).  Participation in worship offered a perspective, a point of view, that helped the writer see life in an altogether different way.  Through the lens of worship, all the idolatries of money, sex, and power–even if only in a momentary glimpse–are put in their proper place. . . .

Third, part of what is formed in us is a set of emotions.  Worship helps to sculpt the emotional landscape of our lives.  The melodies, rhythms, and harmonies of worship evoke and shape certain emotions in us.  They may allow us to experience grandeur or gratitude or lament in ways that will happen in no other part of our lives–affections that, because they are offered in the name of God, become permanently attached to our minds and hearts with our notion of God and true spirituality.  Some churches form in worshipers a deep awe; others shape a profound exuberance.  Others . . . manage to teach worshipers to express genuine and honest guilt, but in ways that allow the grace of the gospel to melt that guilt away. . . .

Fourth, worship forms us in certain relationships–with both God and each other.  Worship enacts a conversation between God and the gathered community.  We learn to hear God speak words of comfort, assurance, challenge, and correction.  We speak [and sing] words of praise, lament, gratitude, and confession.  All these words only make sense as expressions of [a] fundamental relationship.  Likewise, worship enacts relationships with others.  As we gather at the Lord’s Table, worship forms us to consider each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of age, gender, race, or socioeconomic class.  Worship forms us to act toward each other as fellow servants, as fellow saints in patterns of interaction that do not come naturally to us in any walk of life.

Fifth, part of what is formed in us are certain virtues.  Hearing a courageous preacher helps us imagine how we might summon courage to speak the truth.  Speaking a penitential prayer of uncommon honesty might quicken our conscience to perceive our own patterns of personal dishonesty.  And each of these discrete, individual virtues [is] deepened through the fundamental way that worship calls us to take ourselves out of the center of the universe. . . . Or, as Michael Lindvall puts it, “Worship is the weekly practice at not being God.”  In a culture of self-centeredness, worship is one of the few activities that has as its intrinsic purpose to “decenter” ourselves, to see what it feels like not to be the center of the universe in which we live.

In sum, the nature of what is formed in us is wonderfully complex: in worship we practice certain convictions, perspectives, emotions, relationships, and virtues.  This formation is as rich and wondrous as sanctification itself, a wondrously fulsome process by which the Spirit grows new dimensions of holiness and Christlikeness in every aspect of our lives.

Worship leaders, doesn’t this just make you want to let out a shout?  Doesn’t it call all of us to be more than band directors?  What an awesome privilege–what a terrifying responsibility–we have when we view worship and its power to transform lives in this manner!

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): “Yeah, but” thoughts on the transformative power of corporate worship.


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Reflection #25, part 1, on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 25 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 #25: Perhaps the reason so many worship leaders in contemporary American evangelical churches function mostly as song leaders or old-school music directors is that churches greatly underestimate the potential for corporate worship to change lives.

Sure, encounters with the audible voice of God can change lives.  Ditto many near-death experiences.  History is replete with examples of lives that changed courses radically via powerful sermons.  And many evangelicals these days would even testify to the notion that lives can be rearranged profoundly at the Table.  But does our congregational singing have the power to transform lives?

Based on the corporate song in contemporary worship services, most honest Christians would have to respond, “Probably not.”  Our worship sets, almost exclusively at the onset of the service, play many important roles.  They signal to the coffee-drinkers in the fellowship area that church is starting.  They set a peppy tone that provides, in some respects, a balm for the stress with which so many of us enter the worship space.  They warm up the crowd before the main event, the sermon–in the same way an up-and-coming or old-and-fading band warms up the headliner at a rock concert.  But, from all appearances, no one really expects the congregational singing to do much more than this.

41KRv1E8l1L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_For the next few weeks, I’m going to reference one of my favorite worship theologians, John Witvliet, whose work has appeared in this space before.  His chapter, “The Cumulative Power of Transformation in Public Worship,” in Worship That Changes Lives: Multidisciplinary and Congregational Perspectives on Spiritual Transformation (Alexis Abernethy, ed.) should be must-reading for worship leaders called to more than alarm-clock or cheerleader status on Sunday mornings.  Witvliet writes of three sets of competencies that show up in corporate worship.  The first he entitles “Gesture and Bodily Competencies.”

Some years ago I attended a worship conference that featured quite different types of services, with music led by organ and choir, jazz combos, and praise bands.  Regardless of style, what struck me . . . was the powerful way in which worshipers’ bodies acted out well-rehearsed habits.  One service began with the processional hymn “Lift High the Cross.”  The organist announced the hymn with a dramatic trumpet stop.  I could not help but notice the person in front of me, clearly habituated to this type of service, who within a second of the organ’s first note stood straight up, grasped his hymnal with two hands, and extended his arms to hold the hymnal in a rather regal position as if he were joining the choir’s well-rehearsed symmetrical procession.  It was a body position of reverence, solemnity, and awe.  Another service began with Michael W. Smith’s “Agnus Dei.”  A worship leader with a guitar began by playing the introductory chords; the drummer added a subtle pulsing rhythm on the cymbal.  I couldn’t help but notice the person alongside me, clearly habituated to this type of service, who within a second of the first guitar chord lifted her hands gently upward, looked up longingly, and closed her eyes in prayer.  It was a body position of intimacy, engagement, and awe.  Both gestures were immediate.  Both had been ingrained through prior worship experiences.  Both communicated to me a powerful sense of affect.  Both, it might be argued, not only reflected but also shaped the worshiper’s emotional life.

Witvliet’s second set he calls “Visual and Musical Competencies.”  For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to reference only the latter.

What more soul-shaping force can we imagine than the songs we sing?  Even when we are tired or depressed, old songs well up within us and dance on our plaintive, whistling lips.  When we are old and can remember little else, we are still likely to recall the songs learned in our childhood.  Music has the uncanny ability to burrow its way into our spiritual bones.

I have written before of music’s power to get into my father’s soul in the midst of dementia that robbed him of pretty much everything else in life.  Might we consider how that power can be unleashed in corporate worship?

Witvliet relates his final set of competencies to language acquisition.

As with every other cultural experience, participation in communal worship gives us a language to say things that we would not have come up with on our own.  We know that a breathtaking sunset evokes a response, but it is the church that teaches us to say, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  We cannot sleep after watching yet another dismal news story about hunger, and it is the church that teaches us to say, “Lord, have mercy.”  The church gives us practice in saying things that form in us new capacities for relating to God and to each other–much like parents teachng their toddlers to say “thank you” are hoping not just to help the children to be polite, but also to form in the child the capacity for gratitude.

Worship leaders, the Lord be with you in your role as facilitators of spiritual transformation!

Coming next week (Lord willing): More on spiritual transformation via worship.


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Reflection #24 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 24 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 #24: So often over the past couple of years, even while visiting numerous and disparate churches in random order, God has seemed to have a specific word for me or a member of my family each time.  Have we become immune to the concept of holy expectation in contemporary worship?

I think the answer to the above question might be “yes, more often than not.”  I understand why, of course.  We live in the age of Planning Center and other often-useful planning_centertools that help keep our services flowing smoothly.  Those of us in highly presentational churches have producers in our ears telling us how much time we have before we have to cue up the morning’s video, like a benevolent Holly Hunter to our William Hurt in Broadcast News.  And the running clock back by the confidence monitor flashes red when we go over the allotted time for any element of the service.

That acknowledged, over and over again these past couple of years I’ve been impressed by the number of times the pastor’s sermon or a transitional comment by the worship leader has spoken directly to a specific concern or issue facing me or a member of my family.  It’s been uncanny–especially given that I refer to my wife and me as “free agents” these days, camping at the churches where our children attend and serve with a degree of regularity but also visiting a host of different churches, probably 40 at least in two and a half years.

These small-scale occurrences, too numerous to be the result of chance (even if I were inclined, and I’m not, to view them that way), have caused me to think a bit about the concept of our congregations’ expectations as they come to worship each week.  It certainly seems that most churches are programmed so completely that there really isn’t room for much else–even though I’m sure most church leaders would respond in the affirmative when asked if they desired God to move in their midst in worship.

Dr. Jeff Iorg, president of Gateway Seminary, wrote a paper a while back entitled “Holy Spirit Empowered Ministry: A Case Study of the Church at Antioch” that articulates some Dr._Jeff_Iorg,_President_of_Golden_Gate_Baptist_Theological_Seminary,_speaking_at_the_Missions_Conference_in_Feb_2013key concepts from the 1st-century church’s worship practices.  The link will take you to the entire paper, but let me excerpt some particularly compelling observations where corporate worship and a sense of “holy expectation” are concerned.  As you read, you might consider asking yourself how closely our current worship services mirror those described by Iorg.  Even if you subscribe to the notion that much of the content in the book of Acts describes as opposed to prescribes, the question unsettles.

Healthy churches experience the power of the Holy Spirit in their worship services.  Healthy churches have a holy expectation something special will happen every time they gather to worship God.  Healthy churches have leaders and members who seek God’s power in planning, preparing for, and directing worship services.  Healthy churches experience the Spirit’s intervention when worshipping.

How can you discern if the Holy Spirit is moving in the worship services of your church?  Simply put–supernatural things happen.  Decisions are made and life change happens beyond the scope of human ingenuity.  People give gifts, make commitments, and chart new directions because of insight received while worshipping.  In short, things happen that can’t be explained by the work of your two hands!

When the Holy Spirit moved in the church at Antioch, the members did something beyond their ability.  They responded to preaching, gave money, delivered messages to fellow believers, accepted a call to missions, fasted, prayed, and laid hands on fellow believers (commissioning them for service).  When the Holy Spirit is active in a worship service people respond–privately yes, but also openly, definitively, and publicly.  Certainly, public response can be manipulated and be too dependent on emotional appeals.  But foregoing all opportunity for public response in worship isn’t the answer to those excesses. . . .

Healthy leaders and healthy churches have a sense of expectancy when they gather together.  They seek the filling of the Spirit, personally, and the empowering of the Spirit, corporately.  These churches create opportunity–spiritual, emotional, and physical–for people to respond to the Spirit’s prompting in worship.  They facilitate praying, sharing testimonies, confronting sinful behavior, public repentance and supportive prayer, and expressions of mutual support (laying on of hands in Antioch, often a hug or a handshake today).  These churches plan time in their worship gatherings for a response–using various methods but always giving people an opportunity to follow the Spirit’s promptings, urgings, or instructions.  Healthy churches expect the Holy Spirit to be an active participant in their worship gatherings.

Read the last two sentences in light of the fact that Iorg is a Southern Baptist; non-charismatic churches don’t get a pass from him.

Worship leaders, consider adding time for planned spontaneity in your services.  The Lord be with you as you seek to help your congregations increase the level of holy expectation they bring to corporate worship!

Coming next week (Lord willing): The importance of worship education.

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Adjusting Your Worship Set in Light of a Local Tragedy


Last Friday morning, a disgruntled Aurora, Ill., manufacturing-company employee, after being told he had been terminated, opened fire with a gun he had brought with him, killing five and wounding six, before being shot and killed by police.  Most believers would agree that, at times like this, corporate worship has a vital role to play, but what kind of adjustments should worship leaders make to their worship sets in the immediate wake of a tragedy?  There are numerous things you might consider, but here are three things I recommend you not do the first weekend following an instance of unspeakable horror.

1) Don’t ignore the tragedy.  Terrible events like this happen so frequently that we risk becoming numb to them if we don’t fashion some kind of response.  To whatever degree that is true for individuals, it’s even more important for churches–especially when the tragedy hits close to home.  NYC houses of worship, we’re told, were flooded in the aftermath of 9/11.  At times of great communal calamity, the God-shaped void Pascal opined can be found in all unbelievers seems to prompt many to see what the Church has to offer vis-à-vis explanation and solace.  While we can’t address every single act of evil or every natural disaster in our worship services, we must confront the brutal manifestations of our fallen world when they happen in our backyard.  Barth’s exhortation for preachers to prepare with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other serves as great advice for worship leaders, too.

2) Don’t be afraid to go off script.  With the advent of worship-planning software (see next week’s blog), worship leaders construct worship-service orders further in advance than ever before.  While I generally applaud this preparation, we need to be willing to change directions pretty quickly when a tragedy happens in our community.  Almost exactly 11 years ago to the date of last week’s shooting, a gunman opened fire at Northern Illinois University (about a half hour from Aurora).  I led worship that weekend, and here’s a brief summary of what we did, taken from a look at the relationship between suffering and worship I wrote for Worship Leader magazine soon thereafter:

On the Sunday morning following the tragic shootings at Northern Illinois University earlier this year, I decided to abandon the typically peppy call to worship that I had planned.  This wasn’t a hard decision, by any means.  The daughter of one of my praise team members had been in the classroom when the gunman opened fire, and she, like hundreds of other students, had had to crawl to safety in the midst of the chaos.  The collective spirit among the assembled that morning was somber, questioning, even fearful—grieving with this family and with the other local families that had lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.

Like the displaced Israelites suffering in Babylonian captivity, we were, that morning, understandably tempted to ask, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord” in the “strange land” of our grief and confusion (Psalm 137:4)?  Was there any place at all for worship when every single one of us was “weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care”?  My theological training told me the answer was “yes,” but I didn’t have as quick an answer for how to translate that truth, how to make some sense of that which made no sense.

We began our worship with the songbook of all songbooks, for the Psalms not only give us permission to feel sad, but also to question, even to be angry.  Certainly our omniscient Father knows how we feel anyway. . . . The Incarnate Jesus—fully God and fully man—experienced similar kinds of feelings. . . . And the Holy Spirit would not be referred to as “the Comforter” . . . if there were never anything for us to be comforted about.

Our pastor still preached the sermon he had prepared, so we didn’t completely abandon all our preparation, but, at the top of the service, we changed gears in a manner that attempted to address the tragedy theologically.

3. Don’t sugarcoat the tough stuff; wrestle with it.  The Sunday after the loathsome synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh last fall, the worship leader of a church service I experienced online began the set with “The Lion and the Lamb.”  My initial fear, that he was going to ignore the shooting altogether, was alleviated when he transitioned into a prayer for the victims, but, in doing so, he missed a chance to wrestle with hard truth.  “Who can stop the Lord Almighty?” the congregation had just sung/asked together, and a worship leader more in tune with fostering congregational spiritual formation might have responded, before transitioning into the next song (or the prayer that followed, in this case), “Well, there are 11 families in Pittsburgh this morning that might suggest one deranged guy with an AR-15 can and did.”  That could have led into transitional comments about the difficult-to-grasp but real sovereignty of God, the problem of pain and suffering manifested in times like this, or a whole host of other things, but the juxtaposing of the triumphal “Lion and the Lamb” with the brutality of the Pittsburgh shooting—without putting both in context—was a missed opportunity.

The Lord be with you, worship leaders!  Your role, always important, is critical in the aftermath of tragedy.

Coming next week (Lord willing): Holy expectation (or the lack thereof) in contemporary worship.


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Reflection #23 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 23 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 #23: There is a slew of very good communicators pastoring churches large, small, and in between these days–men and women who really preach well.  Are we praying for them with any semblance of regularity?

Sometimes these kinds of things are wholly coincidence; then sometimes they’re holy coincidence.  To wit, I’m two days late with this post due to busyness.  And the next-in-line reflection, observed well over a year ago, concerns the general excellence of pulpit communication in the contemporary American church and the need for us to be praying for our pastors.  And my (trying-to-be) daily devotions found me in Proverbs 11 today: verse 2, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom”; verse 14, “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers.”

And then the news broke this morning that another famous Chicagoland pastor has finally fallen . . . after years of allegations by wounded former members intensified in recent months, culminating in a media outing that, if the details reported by several independent and reputable sources are accurate, defies the imagination.  And this came on the heels of the horrific report from the Houston Chronicle a few days back about 20 years’ worth of sexual abuse by ministers in the Southern Baptist Convention, actions elmer_gantry_burt_lancaster[1]brought to light enough times in other religious arenas that they don’t, distressingly enough, defy the imagination anymore.  A casual historian of the 22nd century, surveying the landscape of American Christendom of the current era, might conclude that our pulpits are filled with nothing but Elmer Gantrys.

In the year or so since the #ChurchToo movement gained national prominence, the blogosphere has exploded with socio-cultural examinations of how we got here–what mistakes, especially the lack of meaningful oversight, paved this road to destruction and what sins came to flourish in celebrity pastors’ incubators of isolation fostered by the absence of accountability.  These explorations will prove beneficial, no doubt, in the years to come, as elder boards craft better checks and balances for their ministry leaders.  What can we do to help in the meantime and well beyond?

We can pray, and a lot more than most of us (myself included) do, specifically for our pastors.  Although I never was a senior pastor, I worked closely and on staff with six, and I saw the toll–physical, emotional, and spiritual–it took on each.  Simply put, being a pastor can be, and often is, a brutal and thankless gig.  Even ministry among folks who are on track in their spiritual walks can be tough, given our human sin nature (“prone to wander, Lord, [we] feel it”), but how often are any congregations collectively clicking on all cylinders, en masse?  You don’t for a second have to condone any of the behavior alluded to above to recognize, also, that all our pastors face serious spiritual opposition.  The enemy hates the work of all Christian-ministry leaders, and his forces are strong.  So I am saddened but not surprised when pastors fall or leave the Church burned out beyond recognition; I am most saddened to recognize the woeful insufficiency of my prayers for my pastors over the years.

Worship leaders, all of this makes your role so much more critical than it might otherwise appear.  I close by reprising a thought I had a while ago in this space, like Bach, borrowing from myself when what you created before can be utilized equally well at the moment:

The thought comes from Andy Crouch, itinerant speaker and author of a slew of books, including Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.  My wife and I have of late found Crouch’s words to be prophetic for our times.  I commend his entire Q talk (Andy Crouch on power) to you, but the phrase that stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it was this:  “[Power], if left unchecked by worship, [will] destroy me, my marriage, and anything I have to give to the world.”

No one goes into Christian service of any kind assuming the allure of whatever power eventually accompanies the position will inevitably bring down the ministry . . . but to assume said allure won’t, at least, prove problematic and need to be brought into check at regular points in the process denies the reality of human nature.  May all of us in positions of leadership in the Church Universal align ourselves with wise counselors who can–graciously but forcefully–keep us rooted and, especially, humble.  And may we pursue authentic worship with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength . . . for all kinds of holy and righteous reasons, but, for the purposes of this topic, because doing so is our best defense against our abuse of power.

Church, let’s covenant to pray more effectively and fervently for our pastors.  Worship leaders, help keep us all in check with your prayerful and focused facilitation of our worship.  The Lord be with us all!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Holy expectation (or the lack thereof) in contemporary worship.

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