Reflection #32 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 32 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 #32: The contemporary American church seems to have very little room for children in “Big Church” worship.  

Several weeks ago on Palm Sunday, the church we visited brought a slew of children on stage to help lead the closing congregational song, one which the kids knew well enough to function nicely as worship leaders.  They waived no palm branches (as happened all around the world in many churches), but their enthusiasm brought sufficient energy to an annual Sunday service that should be focused on great hope–and hope manifested in as body-physical a manner as congregants can muster.

In both churches I served for the majority of my weekend-warrior ministry, we had children’s choirs that put on Christmas musicals by some of the best kids’ choir composers of that era: Pam Andrews, Kathie Hill, and Celeste Clydesdale, among others.  These were always well received, often well performed, and usually well suited for actual ministry that went beyond the “Aw, they’re so cute” factor inherent in these things.  I know parents who came to faith as a result of the Holy Spirit’s using an evening’s production (more often than not, the accumulation of several evenings’ productions) said parents wouldn’t have bothered with had not their seven-year-old scion been part of the occasion.  In part to promote the evening, I routinely had the kids sing a call to worship from the production a week or two before it was to be performed.

I know there are other churches that do similar things, but not many these days outside of Christmas and Easter, especially in churches trying hard to be culturally relevant.  Typically, if the kids are in the service at all, they leave en masse right before the sermon.  At least with this model, young believers get the opportunity to sing congregational songs with their parents and older parishioners, experience the giving of tithes and offerings, and hear some Scripture read and a prayer or two recited, thus beginning the process of forming the spiritual muscle memory related to the ebb and flow of corporate worship.

One of the by-products of the seeker-sensitivity movement, though, featured complete and totally separate programming for K-8 kids during corporate worship.  The strategy can be justified on many levels, and certainly is not universally misguided, but it does have the effect of removing children from what can and should be a weekly dose of spiritual formation for the total Body of Christ.  You don’t have to be a member of a “liturgical” church to understand and appreciate the special catechumenical potential for youngsters sitting among the adults when they absorb the week-in-and-week-out efforts of sensitive worship leaders and pastors.

51GWtbUMsCL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Marva Dawn, in her excellent collection of sermons and essays A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World, addresses the benefits of encouraging children to be part of every aspect of our services in a series of 10 responses she gives to children who complain about having to go to church.  Here are the ones that support this blog the best:


  • We’re not going to church; YOU are the Church–and we go to worship so that we learn how to be Church. . . .
  • The congregation cannot get along without you.  Just as your body needs every single part . . . so the church needs every single person to make it whole.  Perhaps this Sunday some persons will need you to be eyes or hands for them.
  • You need the gifts of worship because you will learn things there that will make sense later.  Almost every week I learn something that comes up in the days that follow. . . .
  • Attending worship will teach you skills for your Christian life–skills like how to pray, how to sing, how to sit quietly in God’s presence, how to study the Bible. . . .
  • The congregation needs the talents you bring to worship–your singing voice . . ., your ability to learn new songs quickly, . . . your warmth and friendliness in the “Passing of the Peace” [or, for low-church evangelicals, the “Greet Your Neighbor”], . . . your modeling of reverence for the other children. . . .
  • Most important, God needs you there because he loves to be with you in his house.

Worship leaders in contemporary American evangelical churches, I encourage you to borrow from our mainline brothers and sisters, who typically incorporate children much better and more often than we do, adapting their examples for your particular contexts.  Does the future of the Church depend on it?  I don’t know, but is it at least somewhat possible that the great exodus of millennials from our churches (one article among 1.5M that popped up on a Google search) partly stems from their having been, every weekend for years, sequestered away to more kid-friendly digs, depriving them of the opportunity to acclimate to the sacred actions of their parents and grandparents in worship–to the extent that those same formative actions mean nothing to them now?  I don’t think it’s a ridiculous notion.

The Lord be with you as you consider utilizing children in worship!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Analyzing the worship set.

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Reflection #31 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 31 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 #31: With so many presentational aspects of contemporary American worship drawing cues from pop and rock music concerts, lighting can really help or really hurt the cause of corporate worship.

As I have mentioned before, I enjoy introducing significant authors in this blog.  Today’s 71XECQ1nE+L._US230_special find is Tex Sample, a professor emeritus at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.  A former student recommended his fascinating The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World to me, and I used it as a text for a while in one of my worship classes.  Subtitled Electronic Culture and the Gathered People of God, the entire book is eye-opening (and, since it was written 20 years ago, prophetic in a Brave New World sort of way), but chapter 3, in particular, “Sound as Beat,” should be required reading for every worship leader where having a healthy respect for the power of sound, especially rhythm, is concerned.

Although Spectacle is primarily focused on all things audio, Sample does have a paragraph on the symbiotic nature of sound and light in performance.  One of his theses is that contemporary worship has become an “electronic spectacle”; he uses this phrase in value-neutral terms, however, and attempts to bring clarity and understanding, not judgment and curmudgeonly condemnation.  The following gives you a good sense of how he approaches his subject matter:

A number of writers . . . note that sound “enters” us in a way that the visual cannot.  I believe this now has shifted so that the percussive character of light now accompanying sound takes on a role and importance it has not had before. . . . Light has come to take on something like the character of sound.  In this connection, compare the place volume and light now have within much popular music, especially in concert.  In electronic spectacles beat “enters” one’s body.  You can actually feel the vibration against your skin, muscle, and bone.  Changes, however, in visualization now provide a parallel result with the visual.  You cannot simply close your eyes and block out the stimulation.  The detonations of light penetrate eyelids and percussively illuminate the arena around you.  Our capacity to shut out the visual, should one want to, has become more limited.

This light augments music and gives it a multi-sensory character of a kind it has not had prior to electronic culture.  A practitioner as sophisticated as Mickey Hart [longtime drummer for the Grateful Dead] says that he is “synesthetic, which means I see sounds and hear images.”

I confess I am not a lighting guy.  I know good (and bad) lighting in worship services when I see it, but I am not the one to give suggestions to the light crew for anything specific.  That said, here are some very general principles that worship leaders might consider re: the lights they use in corporate worship gatherings:

Less is more.  In the same way that lightning-quick changes on the video monitor have the potential to overwhelm the senses (do we really need as many camera angles as the networks use for NFL games to capture the essence of our worship band’s efforts?), so too do rapid light cues.  One general lighting pattern per song should suffice, unless there is a dramatic shift in the feel of the song two-thirds of the way through.  Changing the cues subtly, with slow fades, also helps immensely.

For congregational singing, being able to see fellow parishioners singing aids the corporate worship.  Singing passionately with other believers (and being able to watch them do so) paradoxically promotes two polar experiences.  First, it reinforces that corporate worship is corporate–something the Body of Christ does together, that can’t be done in isolation, that is crucial to our corporate spiritual formation as the Church.  Second, it encourages us in our personal worship, both in that very moment in the midst of the worship set (where so-called vertical and horizontal worship merge) and also in our private worship times outside of the walls of the local church (i.e., our personal spiritual formation).  Hence, leave enough lighting in the house to allow this to happen.  (This also allows astute worship leaders a chance to read congregational response cues, which sometimes can be helpful–although we always need to be careful in making significant assessments based on the outward behaviors of our worshipers.  Both congregants who appear fully engaged and completely disengaged in worship might or might not be.)

999961The lighting director’s version of the Hippocratic Oath says, “First, do not distract.”  Good worship leaders know that any oohing and aahing that emanates from the congregation needs to be in response to truths about God, not flashy light cues (or anything else, like guitar solos, we do in worship).  At all costs, we want to eschew that which might, in the words of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School Professor D.A. Carson in Worship by the Book, tempt us to “worship the worship” in any way.

The Lord be with you as you seek to discern the best strategies for utilizing lighting to enhance your worship services.

Coming next week (Lord willing): children in worship.




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Reflection #30 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 30 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 #30: My casual observation (admittedly biased) suggests there’s a slew of worship leaders serving contemporary churches who would benefit from some worship education.

Yes, you would suspect someone with a doctorate in worship studies, who teaches CWPA Demoss Stacked FC Logo PRINTworship at the college level, to hold the above opinion.  That doesn’t mean it’s not accurate–especially when there are churches advertising for worship leaders using the following rhetoric (quoted verbatim, without edits, from a job-search website a former student of mine sent to me):

Are you . . .

. . . Part hipster, part redneck and have strong musical skills with a guitar?

. . . Of the rare breed of creatives who is organized and efficient?

. . . An excellent communicator even when music is not playing?

. . . A multi-tasking leader who is also a team player?

. . . A person that even before you have your coffee you still have high energy, strong interpersonal skills, and a positive attitude?

. . . A Jesus-lovin’, Worship-leadin’, team builder who is self-motivated to accomplish the Great Commission with excellence?

If so, you might be perfect for our church!

To be sure, most of the above is not unreasonable to ask of worship leaders, but where are the questions indicating an appreciation of biblical, historical, and theological understandings of worship?  Where are the questions about contextualizing worship for the specific worshiping community in question here?  Where is there any sense that being able to speak to anything in this paragraph is of any importance to this church?  Certainly not in the follow-up instructions (again, taken verbatim):

Please submit your resume along with a link of you leading worship (i.e., YouTube, Vimeo).  Without a video of you leading worship we have no idea of your worship style or skill set, so you will not be considered for the position.

Also, tell us your favorite beverage and who your worship style resembles?

Granted, this is an extreme example, but skim through the listings on a job-ops website like Slingshot, and you’ll see a lot of talk about vision casting, team building, and band leading, but you won’t come across much related to having a firm command of what Scripture says about worship, of how 20 centuries of Christians have worshiped corporately (and what that means to believers today), or of why there is benefit in thinking theologically about Christian worship.

“So what?” some might ask.  “Our worship leader is passionate about Jesus, leads the band well, and chooses songs we like to sing.  Everyone leaves our services talking about how great the worship was.  [Insert side soapbox discussion of defining worship as congregational singing.]  What could Judson University, where you teach, or any other Christian school, possibly provide our worship leader that s/he doesn’t already have?”

Let me respond in this manner.  When I was a boy, I became a pretty proficient model-airplane builder.  I was meticulous, I followed the directions explicitly, and the end result looked an awful lot like the picture on the box.  But based on my ability to make model airplanes, I would never in a million years walk into Boeing’s offices and put myself forward as a candidate for a job.  I balance our family’s checkbook every single month.  At the end of the process I have resolved every issue so that the debits are accounted for and the credits are in their proper place.  But based on my successfully balancing my checkbook each month, I would be insane to go to an accounting firm and ask for a job as a CPA.

Engineers go to engineering school.  Accountants go to business school.  Why does the contemporary American Church, as a general rule, act as if there is little merit in worship leaders going to worship school? 

Does this mean every current worship leader without a degree in worship is serving the Church poorly and should quit immediately and go get a degree (or an advanced degree) in worship?  Of course not.  But I would suggest, humbly, that those churches that have hired worship leaders who do not have specific training in the biblical foundations, historical precedents, and theological convictions of worship make sure they provide funds for their worship leaders to pursue extra training on a regular basis.  Worship Leader magazine promotes the National Worship Leader Conference every May; this year’s conference is in a week.  LifeWay Worship just did its WorshipLife gathering in California last week and will be in Gatlinburg in June.  Calvin College’s Institute of Christian Worship hosts its Worship Symposium every January.  Many traditional denominations and national church congregations offer their own specific gatherings for worship instruction (e.g., Vineyard’s School of Worship). There are scads of opportunities to hone your skills and increase your understanding.

Worship leaders–even those with degrees in worship–we never have it completely figured out.  Do yourselves and your congregations a favor and try to get some worship education once or twice a year.  And high school students feeling the call to lead God’s people in worship, consider joining us at Judson University’s Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts!

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Lighting for contemporary worship.



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Reflection #29 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 29 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 #29: Where lyrics in contemporary worship music (cwm) are concerned, erring on the side of charity honors God.

downloadToday’s post comes in the form of a (slighted edited) response to one of my former students, a wonderful, thoughtful worship leader who honestly wants to do well by both her Lord and her congregation.  In essence, she asked what to do with popular cwm songs that contain lyrics that some consider theologically problematic.  Here’s what I suggested to her.

I’ve tried to become more gracious on this subject as I’ve aged and less inclined (in my better moments) to fan the flames of righteous indignation.  If a song is out-and-out heretical, that’s a different story, but there aren’t many songs that fall into that category.  Most of the songs to which you’re referring have one or two suspect lines, and the rest of the song is fine.  Here are a few examples and suggestions for usage.

By the time I hit my 40’s, I knew darn well that I never have and never will “surrender all” to Jesus.  Hence, I stopped using “I Surrender All” except when the pastor specifically requested it (usually for an altar-call-type setting) or unless the content of the sermon that morning made it clear that, with a bit of context, the song worked better than anything else the congregation knew.  So I tried to preface the song by acknowledging that this bold statement (echoing Peter prior to the rooster’s crow) probably works better as a prayer than a declaration: “Lord, You know my heart.  At this time, in this place, I want to surrender all to You.  Search my heart and know me, and give me the strength through Your Holy Spirit to lay both my burdens and my crowns at Your feet.  Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief!”

I don’t think I ever led “Everything Glorious” in a congregational setting, but, if I had, I would probably have pointed out that, in our culture, we have enough high-profile Christians who behave as if they really believe they are glorious (“You make everything glorious, [so] what does that make me?”).  What this going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket culture needs to see is a lot fewer examples of Christians strutting around gloriously and a lot more examples of Christians exhibiting humility and servanthood and grace and mercy, especially for those with whom they have fundamental theological, philosophical, and/or political disagreements.  The one, and pretty significant, exception I might make here would be if I were leading worship for a group of survivors or folks in recovery who know all too well how “unglorious” they are and need to be reminded that their Father sees them through the prism of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and, indeed, as Nancy Honeytree reminded us in the 70’s, “clean before [their] Lord [they] stand, and in [them] not one blemish does He see.”

The objectional lyric du jour in cwm, of course, is the use of the adjective reckless associated with God in “Reckless Love.”  “Overwhelming” love?  Of course.  “Never-ending” love?  Yes, thank God!  “Reckless” love?  Well, not if you use both the denotation and the connotations that 2,000 years of Christians have associated with that word.  But here’s the rub.  That kind of language absolutely resonates with this current generation, for all kinds of reasons that folks a lot more sociologically savvy than I have noted of late.  I get the idea and why it’s appealing; it comes from the same theological bent that produced John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, which also caught a lot of flak when it was written.  Hence, were I still leading for a congregation that because of demographics or inclination (i.e., boomers who want to be hip because they think that’s what they need to do to keep their children from scattering to the megachurches at their earliest opportunity; that’s a post for another day), I might use the song, but I certainly would put that word reckless in some context, and I’d sandwich the song between two others that feature God to a much greater extent than “Reckless Love” as both Object and Subject of worship.

The primary takeaway here is that we American Christians live in a culture that is increasingly dismissive at best and hostile at worst to all that we value.  Since very few unbelievers will give us the benefit of the doubt, surely we must extend it to each other (Gal. 6:10).  Hence, I choose to bless Judson VanDeVenter (“I Surrender All”), David Crowder (“Everything Glorious”), and Cory Asbury (“Reckless Love”).  I will choose to believe the best about them and not question their motives or their theology–and to whatever extent I might have issue with a line or two, I will pray for them and songwriters everywhere, that clarity would be a hallmark of their songs’ lyrics, words worship leaders will choose to put on the lips of the people of God.

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): the value of worship education.

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Reflection #28 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 28 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 #28: Contemporary worship songwriters who add bridges and alternative melodies to well-known hymns don’t add much to the experience, but here’s a case where I think the end justifies the means.

Having just come through Easter, many of us attending churches pursuing contemporarydownload worship probably sang modernized familiar hymns that added a bridge.  My memory’s ear tells me that Chris Tomlin’s “The Wonderful Cross,” released in 2001, was the first song in the most recent era of contemporary worship music to do this at a level that gained national exposure and acceptance.  Countless others have followed (our family experienced a variation on “Crown Him with Many Crowns” Easter Sunday), and we get a similar experience at Christmas each year, with one of my favorite worship leaders, Paul Baloche, doing numerous honors here.

On the one hand, purists note correctly that the bridges added by contemporary songwriters generally don’t elevate the lyrics of the original song, and “The Wonderful Cross” can serve as the poster child.  Take Tomlin’s bridge: “Oh, the wonderful Cross, oh the wonderful Cross / Bids me come and die and find that I might truly live. / Oh the wonderful Cross, oh the wonderful Cross: / All who gather here by grace draw near and bless Your name.”  Give credit where credit is due: The invitation to die-to-live is a nice bit of resurrection theology, and the internal rhyme of here and near in the last line is pleasant.  But Isaac Watts’ original, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” slays you with verses like this: “When I survey the wondrous cross / On which the Prince of Glory died, /My richest gain I count but loss / And pour contempt on all my pride.”  Or like this: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, / That were a present [or sometimes offering] far too small. / Love so amazing, so divine / Demands my soul, my life, my all.”  Need more reason to harrumph besides the less-satisfying lyrics of the add-on bridges?  Often the add-on bridges render the songs less congregational–at least by those who know the original–which defeats the purpose of congregational singing.

On the other hand, it’s fair to ask whether these great hymns, often so rich in theology, would get a hearing at all in contemporary worship without these bridges.  Indeed, bridges is an ironically appropriate term here, for the sections added on to the hymns–inferior lyrically and musically or not–do bridge the gap for younger folks and seekers who didn’t grow up singing hymns week after week for years, as many of us Boomers and early Xers did.  If the price for putting “Crown Him with Many Crowns” on the lips of our our congregants is to add a few lines in the middle that, in the minds of some, don’t add a whole lot to the experience, that’s a small price to pay.

Curmudgeons, take the big-picture view here, please.  And Chris Tomlin, Paul Baloche, and anyone else who would add to what has served the Church well for hundreds of years, thanks for breathing new into so many of these great statements of faith–and thanks for making them as lyrically beautiful, theologically rich, and melodically accessible whenever you can.  The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): What do we do with songs like “Reckless Love”?


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An Easter Gift from the Judson University Choir

web-cover-he-is-not-here__09044.1398274522.500.750I hope all reading this had a blessed Easter, a blessed Resurrection Sunday yesterday.  To allow the celebration to linger just a bit, this week’s blog post features a wonderful, neo-classical choral piece the Judson University Choir sang a few years back entitled “He Is Not Here!” by Russell Nagy.  Be blessed!



Coming next week (Lord willing): House lighting in contemporary worship.

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Reflection #27 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 27 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 #27: More and more churches are using video technology to great effect to aid their efforts in corporate worship.

downloadOK.  This one is something of a no-brainer.  Most churches are hip to the concept.  Indeed, an observation I’ve made in this season of life where I’m visiting numerous churches frequently is this: Few are the churches, even small churches, without some kind of presentational technology that allows them to project congregational song lyrics, pull up stuff from the Internet, and play videos.  But just to encourage those remaining churches that haven’t made this step yet and–probably more importantly–to remind those that did long ago why video technology is important, here are some random reasons why the contemporary American Church should be using video technology regularly, if judiciously.

Evangelizing the next generation.  There’s a reason the young adolescents of this current generation, whom social theorists dub “Gen Z,” are also called “screeners.”  Space doesn’t permit academic rationale for what is obvious to any casual observer of culture–screens are important to this generation.  Utilizing the “language” of video will only help younger folks tune in to that being communicated in worship.

Sharing testimonies.  I’m a firm believer that churches miss out when they don’t allow members of the congregation to testify in the midst of their worship services.  But doing it live is dangerous.  Who knows what might come out of someone’s mouth in the heat or nervousness of the moment?  Recording the testimonies and playing them back after they have been sufficiently edited (for length, clarity, or propriety) can save everyone from potential embarrassment while still allowing folks who otherwise would never have a voice in contemporary worship to share.

Storytelling.  Videos today function in contemporary worship the way live drama did in the heyday of seeker-sensitivity.  When Willow Creek started using dramatic sketches in their services to set up the sermons, it gave rise to a greater appreciation among church leaders of the power of narrative.  Nowadays, hardly any churches use live drama, and why would they, when telling a story is as or more easily done via video?  A well-produced narrative video–which can be shot over and over until scenes are captured just right; which can be layered with a controlled soundtrack; which can employ animation along the way, if desired–can set the stage for the message in powerful ways.

Forming servants.  It goes without saying that most of your best technicians (for video as well as for just about every other area of technology we have now and, especially, for that which will descend upon us in the future) are going to be younger people–who sometimes need coaxing to take part in the kind of church life that many of us assumed was part of the deal when we became members of a church back in the day.  Using younger people to help you with your video technology allows them to make significant contributions in ways that most others can’t.

One caveat for worship leaders:  Using video for any of the reasons above is commendable.  Using video just for the sake of using video isn’t–and smacks of us-too activity done solely to make sure folks know we’re hip and relevant.  (Sort of like the fad Chicagoland suburban megachurches seemed to embrace for a while where every church had to have an assistant pastor or someone pretty important on staff who came from England, Australia, or Ireland and delighted congregations with those delicious accents and brogues.)  As worship leaders, our job is to connect the dots for our congregations, to help them appreciate what we are doing when we gather together for worship, so when you use video, put the experience in some semblance of context whenever you can and help your parishioners appreciate why you’re making use of the technology now and again.

The Lord be with you as you use of technology for His Kingdom’s glory!

Coming next week (Lord willing): An Easter gift from the Judson University Choir.

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