A Summary on Worship

28 April 2020

What follows is an excerpt from a letter to a fellow pastor who asked me for some help with the discussions on worship that are happening in his church.

In my first pastorate, I had to build the foundation for church music from the ground up, because they didn’t sing at all. So just getting to the point where we sang anything required some teaching.

When talking about standards for worship, I have discovered the hard way that a preface is required. Our worship is accepted before God’s throne for the same reason that we are accepted before God’s throne: because of Christ. So sing off-key in your shower or in the living room with all the kids beating rhythm instruments out of sync, and know that God accepts your worship. When we talk about improving our worship, it is important that no note of condemnation creep in, as though God rejects what we’re doing now, but if we’ll just work a little harder, then we will be accepted. No indeed. We are fully accepted in the Beloved already. But we are not all grown up yet. Standards in worship are about growing in maturity, blossoming into walking worthy of the acceptance God has already lavished on us.

That said, I approach worship music from two basic angles of attack. The first one is just straightforward obedience to New Testament commands. In other words, we need to stop asking “What do I want to sing?” and start asking “What does God want to hear?” Since Abel, the determining factor in all worship is what God wants to receive, and since Cain, we’ve been insisting on offering what we want to give instead. (I find this shift is key to getting the congregation to discuss worship well. Without it, the whole discussion is just a battle about whose preferences should win out, and that’s useless and divisive.)

But what does God want to hear?

One of the answers to that is “the Psalms.” We are told that we should sing Psalms in the NT (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, Jam. 5:13). Of the three passages, only one is a direct command. The other two are descriptions of a Spirit-filled life — but one presumes that the traits characterizing a Spirit-filled life are desirable and should be cultivated. We are not told that we should sing only psalms (in fact, the Psalms themselves tell us to sing a new song). The range of meaning of the word “psalms” may be broader than just the 150 biblical psalms — but it certainly doesn’t mean less than that. So the 150 furnish us a starting place, a primer for what God-honoring worship music can be.

I had someone bring this home to me about 12 years ago, and I set about in earnest to learn some singable version of each psalm. I’m not there yet, but I’m a long way down the road, and it’s been life-changing. Along the way, I’ve partnered up with musicians to create singable versions of the Psalms; to date I can sing about 40 psalms and an assortment of other biblical songs (Song of Moses, Song of the Bow, etc.)

Some implications quickly become apparent when you really try to do this. The first one is that musical style preferences are very secondary. God gave us the lyrics; what the music must do, above all, is match the lyric God gave. For Psalm 150, there really should be cymbals; the music had better be loud and boisterous. For Psalm 51, it had better not be. Psalm 23 can be sung as a march (as in the Genevan setting) or as a lullaby (as the setting in Sing Psalms has it) — both are accurate representations of major themes in the psalm. In fact, I started a sermon on Psalm 23 last year by singing both versions back to back and then asking, “Which one of those is true?” and going from there.

A serious effort to sing the psalms also means leaving a lot of your prejudices behind when it comes to what constitutes good worship. If you come from a sing-all-10-verses-of-the-hymn background, you’re going to hate Psalm 136 (so much repetition!). If you come from a sing-the-chorus-15-times background, you’re not going to know what to do with Psalm 18, because the information load is just huge. (A musician working with us made Psalm 18 into a cycle of 5 songs that can be sung as stand-alone pieces, or all together as a single unit. It takes 23 minutes to sing the whole thing, and it took him nearly 6 weeks to write.)

Of course, we are not Hebrews, so we don’t speak Hebrew; we translate the language. We also don’t sing Hebrew music; we do a culturally appropriate translation in terms of ethnomusicology as well. But we ought not to mangle the psalm text in order to try to make a 3-minute pop song (or a 4-verse Common Meter hymn) out of it. In other words, it needs to be good translation, and that means that it will be musically different from what we’re used to. God means to transform our music, and the Psalms are one of the tools that He will use to do it. (By the way, Matt Jacoby, the founder of Sons of Korah, talks about this process in an interview that’s on one of their CDs. It’s worth hearing.) As we submit ourselves to the demands of rendering each psalm well, we will become better composers, better musicians, better worshippers.

I should warn you that my own personal revolution regarding worship started exactly here, with seeking to obey the NT instruction on singing psalms. I had no idea what I was getting into; I was just trying to do what God said I should do. As always, when you write God a blank check, He’ll take you places you never dreamed….

I said there were two angles of attack. The second one is the book of Hebrews. The
basic orientation I take is outlined in the paper I presented at a plenary session for GES National Conference back in 2010, called The Forgotten Sanctuary.

In a nutshell, I believe that Hebrews tells us that in our gathered worship, we are before God’s throne in the heavenly tabernacle. I believe that gives us a good set of guidelines for choosing what’s appropriate in worship, and what is not. I can say it better now than I did back then, and in simpler terms: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s what we’re seeking to do, in worship as in all else. So when we see what His will is like for heavenly worship, that tells us what earthly worship should aspire to.

This has gotten long enough, so I’ll stop here. Of course I can recommend bibliography and all that kind of thing if you like — I didn’t come up with all the above all by myself. Happy to do so, but I know you’re busy. Let me know what you want. If you got as far as this, thanks for indulging my longwindedness. I certainly hope it was helpful.



At a Friend’s House, On Thursday

22 March 2020

When I proposed giving up church for Lent, I had no idea that it would end up happening so literally, but here we are. In a world of virtual church services, the question of the Lord’s Table comes up. When we’re gathered around a laptop live-streaming a service in the living room, do we take communion, or don’t we?

In the Eastern and Roman communions, of course, the answer is an unequivocal “No!” The Table has to be administered by a priest, and that’s that. In Anglican praxis, the elements have to be consecrated by a priest, but can be delivered by someone else, which presents interesting logistical challenges.

But since that kind of priesthood doesn’t actually exist in the New Covenant anyway, I’m mostly interested in what everybody else should do. For many groups, it’s a tricky question. We’ve worked hard to preserve the specialness of the Table. We don’t want people to treat it casually. And so for many churches, the answer will be no. The Lord’s Table is for when we gather together, they will say; let’s wait until we can gather again.

I propose a different take. I think this is the litmus test for what we really believe constitutes the church. When we’re telling people that they will have to live-stream the service because we’re not allowed to gather in groups of more than 10, we have been very quick to tell them that the church building is just the building; the people are the church. We have been quick to say that we are just as much the church when we are assembled in praise in our respective living rooms. So my question is: do we really believe that, or don’t we? If we withhold communion, we don’t. We’re saying, “You’re the church…but not really.” We’re affirming the the whole property-owning, weekly production-manufacturing, corporate structure as the real church — and you gathered in your living room with a few friends and neighbors as something less than that.

If it’s a few believers gathered in the spare room of a private house, is it still the church? Yes! Should the church come to the Table? Well…duh. Is it okay that it’s not in a church building on a Sunday? Well…WWJD? He celebrated the Lord’s Table with a few friends in a private home, on a Thursday! Oh, the scandal!

So yes, we should do this. And also yes, we ought to train people not to take it lightly. This is serious business. We could do worse than simply follow Paul’s directions, thus:

Leader: On the night He was betrayed, Jesus took the bread after supper, and when He had given thanks, broke it, saying, “This is My body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. [prays] Lord God, thank you for the broken body of Your Son our Savior, who was  crucified for us. 

Leader breaks the bread, distributes it. All eat.

Leader: In the same way He took the cup after supper, saying “This is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” [prays] Father, thank You for the shed blood of Jesus Christ, who raises us into new life.

Leader distributes the cup (however you’re doing it)*, and all drink.

Leader: As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

*There are many details that this order of service does not address. Wine or grape juice? What if you can’t get either? What if you’re out of bread? Do you use a common cup? Do you pass hand to hand around the Table, or does everyone receive directly from the leader?

You know what? We can have many lively debates about what would be best. I’ve hosted some such debates right here (and here) on this blog. But the bottom line is that it is better to obey imperfectly than to disobey because we’re paralyzed by perfectionism.

We’ve all done this before; let’s approximate the communion service we’re familiar with as best we can with the materials we have available. We can fill out the details later; today, let’s just obey, confident that our Father, while perfect, is not a perfectionist. We are already fully accepted in Christ; let’s be confident of that acceptance and draw near to God by the means that He has ordained for us.




The Case for Contemplation

28 December 2018

Read Romans 11. I know, I know. It’s one of those passages that people have a really hard time with. Read it anyway; it’s good for you. Don’t stop at the end of the chapter; read through 12:2.

Now, let’s go back and take a look at the end of the chapter. I’m going to drop a few verses out, just as a thought experiment.

For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all. I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

So here’s the question: Did you see any break in the argument? Does it seem like anything is missing?

It doesn’t, does it? If vv. 33-36 weren’t there, we would never miss them. What Paul is doing in those verses is not, strictly speaking, advancing his argument. He’s worshipping. Overtaken by the reality of the things he is describing, he launches into praise.

This is a step beyond cognitive theologizing. The cognitive work lays a foundation, but the purpose of the foundation is to see the God we’re thinking and talking about. When we do, for real, we cannot help but praise.

If we don’t find ourselves breaking into spontaneous praise as we think through our theology, we’re probably missing something. We’ve slipped into playing with the ideas as ideas–looking at them rather than at God.

It’s an error I’ve slipped into many times. When this is happening, there is no road to recovery except repentance. So we confess our preoccupation with the play of ideas. We devote ourselves again to God Himself–to loving Him enough to learn and tell the truth about Him, always as an exercise in knowing Him more fully. And we make time to praise. There is no way to learn except to do it.

All about the heart?

13 July 2018

As we approach God in worship, there’s a natural tendency to get sidetracked on production values, thinking that musical quality and such are more important than anything else. Of course, that’s not true, and evangelical Christianity also contains a strong impulse to repent of that and focus on the heart as the central thing — as it should.

1. The heart is the central thing. If the heart is not there, then the rest is worthless.

2. A right heart is not a license to do whatever you want. Because a wrong heart invalidates even the best and most tasteful production, there’s a tendency to think that a right heart validates all production decisions, and nothing else matters.

In other words, knowing that the heart is the primary thing, and without it, everything else is worthless, it is easy to slip into thinking that if the heart is there, everything else is still worthless. That it doesn’t really matter what we do, as long as our hearts are right. Not true. Does God value our imperfect production? Of course. Like a proud father sticking a 4-year-old’s drawing on the refrigerator, He sees the heart in what we do, and loves it. But it would be weird for a 25-year-old to produce the same drawing and expect the same response. A good father expects the kids to embrace their responsibility to grow up.

3. Getting your heart right is always the first priority. A right heart will discover that there are vehicles that are more fitting, and others less fitting, to express itself. As that right heart grows into adult capacities, it will find adult means of expression, not just stick to the tried and true strategies of childhood.

4. A right heart worships God, not excellence. When your heart wants to bury the talent in the backyard, you can be sure that your heart is not right. A right heart has a sense of proportion, and would rather do a good thing imperfectly than do nothing because perfection is not available. It never will be, this side of glory.

A Collect Against Despair

20 December 2013

God of all comfort, who sent Your Son to be for us a man of sorrows and to bear our grief even to death: Grant that we may keep our eyes fixed on You in hope, and hoping in You, that we may live as agents of Your blessing in the world, through Jesus our Lord and brother, who having passed before us through shame, despair and death and triumphed over them now lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Bonsai in the Tabernacle

21 April 2013

“Martial arts as a living tradition is like any craft tradition in that skills must be taught, learned, and performed by individuals who innovate even while reproducing the tradition.”
-Peter Lorge

Worship is a similar tradition, and it is the tradition that orders our world. This makes alterations in worship a big deal-whether we recognize it or not.

In this culture, we suffer from an overwhelming temptation to change it up constantly lest our worship get ‘stale.’ Now, this can actually happen, but far more commonly, staleness is not the problem. When the worship begins to feel a little dead, most of the time that’s not staleness, it’s winter.

As a culture, we’re nothing if not mobile. It’s always spring somewhere, and you can just keep moving with the weather. But you’ll never grow roots that way. You can stay alive in a bonsai pot — beautiful maybe, but stunted, bearing very little fruit, dependent on constant care from others. You were made for better than this.

Settle in. Endure. Pass through the winter of your discontent. Spring is coming, and growth. Keep at it, and your roots will sink deep into the aquifer. Bonsai don’t fare well in droughts.

Neighborhood Sacramentology: What the Table Does

31 March 2013

The first Neighborhood Sacramentology post on the Table considered the priesthood and the validity of the Eucharist, which raised the question of when we ought to observe the Table. The second post enriched the question by recasting it in liturgical terms, and that left us with three questions.
1. What are we doing/representing at the Lord’s Table?
2. How can we do that effectively in a given context?
3. Are there contexts where the Table should or should not be observed?

This post will tackle that first question.

Whether in a high-church Anglican service in Canterbury Cathedral or a secret meeting of a Chinese house church in a nondescript apartment in Beijing, the Lord’s Table will be the highlight of Christian worship around the world today, and rightly so.

On this day, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

A human being died, was buried, and on the third day, and was raised to new and incorruptible life.

But so what? It was 2000 years ago, in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, and nobody’s successfully done it since. Other than being a candidate for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, what does it have to do with me?

Nothing at all…unless somehow, I could participate in it. If the same thing could happen to me, then the resurrection of Christ is not just a historical oddity. It’s proof that new life and immortality await whoever follows in His footsteps, whoever partakes of Christ.

This is Paul’s point in Romans 6. We who believe in Christ participate with Him in His death and resurrection, and because He is raised, we also are raised to new life. Hebrews shows us Christ as our forerunner, the High Priest who leads us into the Presence behind the veil of the heavenly Tabernacle, going before us, whose ministry never fades because He always lives to intercede for us.

When we come into the Presence in worship, we find Him there ahead of us, blessing and breaking the bread and pouring the wine. “This is My body,” He says, and “This is My blood.” There in the throne room of His Father, He invites us to His victory feast: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has everlasting life, and I will raise him up on the last day, for My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him.”

You are what you eat. We who eat and drink Christ are Christ’s Body, His hands and feet released into the world to do the works that He did, and greater works still. As the bread and wine are broken down and incorporated into our bodies, so He is incorporated into our hearts, as the Eucharistic exhortation also says: “Feed on Him in your hearts by faith, and with thanksgiving.”

This is what the Table does, and what the Table represents.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!