What a New Jesus Culture Album Teaches Us About Worship

Justin Jarvis, Atmospheres

I've been listening to the newest album under the Jesus Culture umbrella, called Atmospheres. It's by my friend and fellow local Ft. Lauderdale worship leader, Justin Jarvis. We've shared coffee and way too large piles of pastrami at a local hole-in-the-wall. Atmospheres is an incredible live album with an amazing sound and overwhelming moments where great truth profoundly collides with raw experience. There are several songs that paint new, imaginative pictures of old, timeless truths, like "Taste" (with the killer line, "Your grace is a dream I cannot shake / taste and see, it's sweeter than anything"). "Born of God" is another great song, packed with the gospel narrative, linking Advent to Good Friday: 

1. Covered in flesh and blood, You came to us
Nothing of consequence to see
Inside of time and space, You laid Your life
Down on a cross to rescue me

Jesus, born of God
In the flesh, I will not forget
You lived and You died
What a love, what a sacrifice

2. Silent, You offered up Your body there
Numbered with murderers and theives
Bearing the weight of what I never could
You stood in my place and set me free

And O, the sacrifice
And O, the peace
You stood in my place and set me free

You bore the weight of what I never could
Immanuel, Immanuel, Immanuel, God with us 

Breathing Heaven's Air in Worship

But I wanted to draw attention to a specific song that carries with it a message about what worship is. It's a message I've talked about before--one that I believe the charismatic tradition has graciously illumined to the rest of the worshiping Church and maybe especially us cerebral Reformed types. "Shifting Atmospheres" is the song, and here are its lyrics:

1. We’re standing on the edge of something true
This moment is a holy one
And every dream a seed for miracles
This moment is a door for us

Taste and see all the promises of God
Live in you, and they live in me

Loud and clear, we are shifting atmospheres
With the heart of the One we love
No more fear, we will sing for all to hear
Of His love, His great love

Shifting atmospheres, shifting atmospheres

2. We’re prophesying now for bones to live
This moment breathes into the dust
A step of faith, a treasure for the brave
This moment is a door for us

Just believe all the hope of glory dwells
Here in you, and it’s here in me

Anything is possible with God
Nothing is beyond the reach of love
Anything is possible with God
Nothing is beyond the reach of His great love

Worship happens on foreign soil. I've heard worship described as "the embassy of heaven"--a place where national soil ceases to exist, and a piece of land is considered the sovereign sphere of another Celestial Country. In this respect, in worship, nationalism ceases to exist as the slain Lamb gathers people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (which, as a sidenote, should call into question our co-mingling of God and country in corporate, gathered worship...worship is, in essence, trans-national). 

What is remarable about Justin's song and about the charismatic tradition is that they really believe that God is TRULY present, breaking heaven into earth in the moment of gathered worship. And so do I. Imaginative theologians I respect use fancier phrases (Jeremy Begbie calls worship an "echo from the future," and Jean-Jacques von Allmen calls it an "eschatological event" where the Church "tries on her bridal garment"), but the essence is the same. Worship, because it is in Christ, is just like the Incarnation: heaven breaks into earth, and we "behold His glory, full of grace and truth" (John 1). This isn't wishful thinking or spiritualization; this is what actually happens. In worship, we "shift atmospheres," and we suddenly find ourselves not so much breathing oxygen as the air of heaven, the Holy Spirit, the Wind of God. O, for eyes of faith to see this as we stumble in, week after week, latte in hand and sin on our shoulders!

Ground Zero of Atmospheric Change

When the people of God gather together, worship itself, in whole, shifts atmospheres, if only simply because Jesus has promised to be there (Matt 18:20). And yet I really believe that God has ordained a ground zero of atmospheric change. We experience the atmospheric change, for sure, as we sing and pray together--thank you to my charismatic brothers and sisters that have reminded me of this, time and again. But we find the true gateway in what other traditions call "Word and sacrament"--preaching, the Lord's Supper, and baptism. We see these coming together in powerfully Spirit-filled moments in places like Luke 24, when Jesus both preaches to the Emmaus-sojourners of Himself in the Old Testament (Word) and then breaks bread with them (sacrament). Notice that it was only at the point of bread-breaking (not singing, not prayer), where their eyes were fully opened to see and experience the glory of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, where heaven broke in. 

What I love about Justin's song is that it doesn't let us off the hook that worship, borne from Word and sacrament, is not merely ritual but palpable experience of the presence of God and the atmosphere of heaven. In this regard, as others have said well, worship prepares us for "the rest of our life" by giving us one-hour "trial periods" and "dry runs" at experiencing the heavenly life. 

Every worship leader should long for this vision for their gathered worship experience. We should crave its felt-ness each week, and we should pray for its felt-ness over the people we lead and pastor. O God, help our unbelief!


The Murderous Intent of Baptism (and Why Worship Leaders Should Care)

Baptism should be on the radar of every worship leader because baptism is an act of God amidst the gathered, worshiping church. And if we all had perfect eyes of faith, baptism would feel every bit as communally euphoric as the most epic, heart-wrenching worship song we know. Here's why.

Whether we baptize babies or baptize those mature enough to profess faith, we tend to feel baptism as a communally pleasant experience. And it is. We have the opportunity to witness a sign and seal of God's saving work through Jesus Christ, and as we do so, God whispers to every one of us, "Don't you remember? I've promised to love you...forever." But baptism is at least as morbid as it is pleasant. 

In our sensational age, most of us have seen, either in real life or in vivid color on the big screen, acts of violence and murder that turn our stomach and take our breath away. The knife scene in Saving Private Ryan and the ending of Braveheart (not to mention every episode of The Walking Dead) are those kinds of moments for me. I watch, I wince, and, overwhelmed by the brutality, my heart says, "This is too much!" 

This kind of feeling should at least dawn on us as we experience baptism, whether we are the one being baptized or the onlooking church. Paul describes baptism, not merely as a symbol of, but a bona fide experience of, death: "Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death" (Rom 6:3-4).

Martin Luther (in keeping with Paul) describes faith as "a living, busy, active, mighty thing"--a gift from God, an alien invader graciously planted within us to hunt and to slay the Old Adam. In other words, faith has a bloodlust for our self-righteousness. Baptism, then, is one of faith's first declarations of intent to drown the Old Adam. Baptism is a prelude to the torturous journey of faith's slow, steady removal of the Old Adam's oxygen supply, as it wraps its hands around his neck and pushes his head under the water.

This is why we might say that the Christian's lifelong journey is a downward one, because it is a journey where God defeats our self-righteousness and replaces it with Another's. Christian growth happens on a path where our self-righteousness is being dismembered, limb by limb. And baptism is God's assurance that it will happen. Of course, baptism also displays "newness of life," but that only can happen after death.

If all this is true, then worship leaders should take heed. Baptism is a deeply powerful, Spirit-filled thing. It should get chalked up there with all the most overwhelming charismatic experiences we've had in worship. Baptism, worship leaders, is not an invasion or interruption of your worship set. Baptism is worship, and part of the reason I've described it in such shocking (but hopefully biblically faithful) terms is to help us see that, if we look with the eyes of faith, it is every bit as powerful and evocative as those pinnacle moments when we're weeping and singing our guts out. And, worship leaders, we should attempt to think about what baptism could look like in our worship services and contexts if we viewed it as part of our job to provide music and a liturgical flow that appropriately surround this holy moment. 

(I might finally say that all this was inspired by a re-reading of a German Lutheran theologian, Oswald Bayer, so if these ideas of faith-as-gift, Old Adam, and baptism are new or intriguing, check out this rather dense book.)


Fascinating Insight Linking Indian and Gospel Music

A while back I posted on a wonderful little session where Bobby McFerrin exposed the trans-cultural nature of the pentatonic scale.

I think a similar insight can be seen here in the common, trans-cultural “soul” of music as blues/slide guitarist Derek Trucks talks about his influences (thanks to Coral Ridge Music's Lindsey Blair, for pointing this video out to me!). A little after the 8-minute mark, Trucks notes how though the tonality of an Eastern scale and a bluesy gospel scale may be different, they have a similar soul, a similar way of expression. He says, “For me, it seems like it’s coming from the same place; it’s devotional music.” He demonstrates it in a side-by-side playing of the two melodies.

Perhaps I’ll just simply say that, when the soul sings (or plays), evidence of our common Maker begins to reveal itself…a kind of musicological argument for the existence of God.


Why the Doxology & Theology Conference is Worth Checking Out

November 13-14
Louisville, KY 

There are a handful of conferences that come around every year or two that I think are worth a worship leader's time and investment. They're not all the same, and they therefore don't serve the same purpose. I tend to think of conferences like these in two broad categories. The first are the "big tent" conferences. A great example of this would be the National Worship Leader Conference, now hosted regionally 3-4 times a year. Big tent conferences will try to bring a lot of people together, and they're usually willing to absorb a fair amount of tension in the vision, theology, philosophy, and outlook of worship. The second category of worship conference is the "niched" conference. This type of conference is there to articulate a specific vision for and outlook on worship.  The Doxology & Theology Conference (less than one month away!) is this kind of conference.

Why Go to a Worship Conference in General?

Before I advocate for D&T, the question should be asked as to whether conferences are valuable at all. I see worship conferences as having a two-fold value, neatly divisible in even halves. 50% of the value of a conference is its content and insight, and 50% is the networking. Even if I'm not much of a "student-type" or even if I'm not in a very teachable place (my life is busy, I've got other things occupying my attention), there is something refreshing to the soul about stepping outside of your world, zooming out, and getting a perspective of the forest instead of always inspecting the bark of that one tree that you live next to. EVERY time I go to a conference, something about the content will take me by surprise, illumine my life, and affect my ministry back home. But I also go simply to meet people, have conversations, hear stories, and establish more contacts. Usually, I'm frantically trying to get their name down so that I can follow them on twitter or connect with them on FB or Instagram. I can't tell you how much I've learned from and forged friendships through conferences followed up by social media. It's been remarkable, and it is a great habit to be ever widening your own circle of contacts and "influencers." And there's an ecclesiastical-theological truth here: the more of the body of Christ I know, the better I know Christ.

Why Go to This One?

So D&T is a conference with a specific theological vision. To be clear, it will talk about worship from within a theologically conservative and evangelical framework. It will view thoughtful cultural engagement as important, and it will articulate a gospel- and Christ-centered approach to worship and ministry. If you wanted a more thorough understanding, check out the book, Doxology & Theology. In the past, it has gathered the types of worship leaders who have been associated with churches connected with bigger wheelhouses like the Gospel Coalition and the Acts 29 network, so you can expect similar (though not identical) spheres of thought. You will find that the content has been influenced by pastors and theologians like D. A. Carson, John Piper, and Mark Dever, and worship thinkers like Bob Kauflin and Harold Best.

This year's conference is focused on "The Life & Labor of the Worship Leader"...a topic which is near and dear to my heart. I'll be doing a breakout on the subject of how worship leaders can think of themselves as pastors and engage their jobs more pastorally. If you're in or around Louisville, or if you can swing a last-minute trip, I'd encourage you to come!


If You're Interested in Deeply Studying Gospel Centered Worship

If you're like me, thinking about furthering your education in the area of worship studies, you're less interested in flashy admissions campaigns and impressive campus acreage. I want two things: A handful of great professors zeroing in on excellent subject matter.

There's a lot of talk out there about "gospel-centered" this and that, and a lot of people have spilled a lot of digital ink explaining how diluted and convoluted that discussion has become. Such is the fate of "gospel-centered worship." Nevertheless, if I myself were to put flesh on the bones of that phrase, I'd want to do it in a similar spirit to the theology and worship of a particular time and place in history. This time and place has gone under-appreciated, under-mentioned, and under-studied in our typical "gospel-centered worship" discussions. I'm talking about the English Reformation. 

Something special occurred in England in the 1500s as the Reformational streams from Calvin and Luther converged in those Western isles. Two things were happening in the lives and hearts of some key movers and shakers. First, the doctrine of justification by faith alone was rocking their world and radically reorienting the way they saw and thought about everything, from theology to farming. Second, those movers and shakers were in the process of reforming worship around this doctrine, rewriting liturgies through the lens of grace.

In short, sixteenth century England was a distillery for a kind of 200 proof gospel-centered worship. Honestly, the more I read and think about it, the more I want to read and think more about it. 

And this is why I'm going to be switching my doctoral emphasis to the newly-created Theology and Worship of the English Reformation track at Knox Seminary in their modular Doctor of Ministry program. Full disclosure: Knox sits across the street from the church I serve here in Ft. Lauderdale, and many of the professors are now my good friends. That said, I have not been asked, coerced, or bribed into this post. :) It's not propaganda. I believe in the subject-matter. I believe that studying it could unleash a fresh doxological reformation in the church. And I would love it if some of my friends and readers, who may be ready for something like this, would join me in this program.  Here's the track description:

The Theology and Worship of the English Reformation Track is designed to equip those in ministry to understand the doctrinal and liturgical reforms of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The received traditions of Catholic faith and practice were rethought in 16th century Britain along the “evangelical” lines of the Reformation, resulting in a consistent though broad Protestantism lived and expressed through the Book of Common Prayer. The early English evangelicals did find a middle-way of sorts, but not as is often imagined a via media between the Reformation and Rome. Rather, the English Reformation listened to and learned from both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions and attempted to express and embody a Protestantism that could include both (or at least not exclude either).

This track encourages an understanding of the mutuality of theology and worship and considers the complexity of contextualization, as well as the process of learning from the past for the sake of the present.

That last part is what I've found most intriguing about the worship revolution happening during the English Reformation. It was a project in contextualization. And that is so much of what good worship leaders do--wrestle with contextualizing timeless, Spirit-filled truths and traditions for new generations of worshipers.

The four scholars heading up the track are thinkers I can vouch for. I've sat under the teaching of all of them in one way, shape, or form: Ashley Null (the world's leading Thomas Cranmer scholar), Gerald Bray (a walking encyclopedia of church history, but particularly the Reformation), Jonathan Linebaugh (one of the most integrative thinkers I've ever met), and Justin Holcomb (just plain coolness).

So...if any of this is intriguing, take the next step and check out this amazing, one-of-a-kind program. It's built for full-time practitioners (like me) to jump in and out of intensive studies. It's not a "worship degree." I think it might actually be better than that. 


The Tension Between the Bland-Voiced Worship Leader and the Stylized Artist

We worship leaders feel an insane amount of conscious and unconscious pressure to sound as good as the latest recordings and rising-star reality shows. Even if we're not in "fancy" churches with great sound systems and heightened expectations, we all are pressing against the heavy burden to measure up. Sometimes, that pressure leads us to feel that we need to have that "artist's voice"--wispy, soulful, quirky, frilly, bombastic, indie, overstated, understated, or whatever else is our ideal. We seek to have something that makes us "legitimate" as a singer.

I confess that I feel a kind of reversed version of this every time I step up to a mic to record a vocal track. Let me explain. When I first started out formally leading music in churches, I had a handful of mentors who (wisely) encouraged me that my most important duty was to tow the melodic line with a clear, consistent, straightforward vocal tone. I was to give the people a strong lead by sticking to the rhythmic patterns that were "on paper," avoiding fanciful runs and ornamentation, and offer a clear, bright, cutting tone that let everyone know where the musical ground zero was. I wasn't to be overly stylized or artsy, for that would have created unnecessary difficulty for the congregation in trying to sing along. In other words, I was taught that overdoing it, in the congregational setting, was selfish rather than serving.

Well, as it turns out, after years and years of doing this on a week in and week out basis, this bland, straightforward voice became my voice. I didn't have any other voice. And then I stepped into the recording world. I found my voice dull, a little operatic (because my training, thank God, was classical), uninteresting, and even unpleasant to my ears (a lot of great vocalists still feel like this...self-criticism never stops). And to this day, every time I record, I have anxiety when it comes time to lay down the vocals. The voice that plainly and simply leads congregations isn't always the best voice on a recording. 

Many people will pause here to point out that this is the crux of the problem: recording and performance-driven sensibilities (all part of the "industry") have injected their sensibilities into the bloodstream of congregational music, making every worship leader feel like they need to be the next great voice, and brainwashing congregations into having unreachably high standards for their "artist." And while this is true, I think a case can be made that a worship leader, if their calling is to record, should try to learn to wisely straddle these two worlds when it comes to their vocalizing. 

To summarize, first, a song-leading voice isn't always a good recordable voice. My own recorded voice is something about which I still admittedly feel a fair amount of insecurity. But I've somewhat made my peace with the fact that my primary vocation is not as a kind of soloist-in-residence but as a pastor and congregational song-leader. I think the best worship leaders, who really care about the church singing, pursue a pretty straightforward vocal tone and presence. 

Second, a recordable voice isn't always a great song-leading voice. I've worked with singers who have beautifully stylistic, curiously interesting, brilliantly unique voices, and many times, those voices are horrible lead voices for congregational singing, even with well-done amplification. (As a sidenote, I've also noticed that people with stylized voices have trouble leading in acoustic settings with no amplification, because they don't necessarily know how to focus their tone and provide a loud, clear melody for people to follow.)

Thirdly, I know several worship leaders whose song-leading and recording voice are one and the same, and they work perfectly well in both settings (I wish I were one of them, frankly). It's a nice balance of simplicity and elegance.

Finally, it's okay to pursue both if one is called to both. I admire the worship leaders who get the difference and understand how to live in and transfer between contexts. And I think any vocational artist who's called to serve as songleader in a local church should make this a pursuit.


Do Lyric Statistics Indicate a Shift in Worship?

Bruce Springsteen's Lyrics, in a CloudWord Stats

Yesterday, Duke scholar Lester Ruth (someone whose work every worship leader should pay attention to) tweeted this interesting stat:

Continuing hymn/CCLI song comparison. Most frequent human verbs in hymns? "sin" and "see"; in CCLI songs? "sing" and "praise"

His sources for study involve, first, a look at the 70 most republished evangelical hymns up to 1860…so, material that many evangelical historians would classify as more “classic” hymns (as opposed to the “gospel hymn” era of post 1860 through the mid twentieth century). He is comparing these hymns to the lyrics of the 108 songs which ever appear on a CCLI top-25 list.

It is extremely hard to assess global data in a way that allows one to make accurate generalizations about shifts in the worship climate of evangelicalism, but I do believe that the kind of work Dr. Ruth is doing is getting closer toward something that allows for objectivity.

Let’s flesh this out. First, we’re talking about human verbs in worship songs, so this doesn’t include or observe divine action.  This is from the vantage point of our action. Secondly, we are talking about the top songs in general rather than the entire sung corpus of any local church.  Still, I think these stats give us some hooks to hang our thoughts on when it comes to what might appear to be some shifting theological emphases in evangelical worship.

God's Salvation & Human Triumph

It’s interesting that the most common human action-words of yesteryear were terms that are tied up more centrally in the narrative of the gospel. The gospel is predicated upon a realization and recognition of our sin, and many have said well that our recognition of the immensity of God’s grace is directly proportional to how deep and dark we see our sin. The second word, “see,” may not appear at first glance to be a gospel-narrative word, but it is. Looking and seeing, from the Pentateuch to Revelation, is one of the primary actions associated with salvation and reception of God’s grace. Think of Moses holding up the snake in the wilderness (Num 21) and Jesus’ exposition of that as a prefiguring type of Himself on the cross (John 3). Think of all the biblical language that invites people to “come and see what God has done, his awesome deeds for mankind!” (Psalm 66:5, NIV). Think of “beholding,” a synonym of “seeing,” and a host of scriptural quotations pertaining to salvation and God’s actions should start flooding the mind.

Note also that the most common human action-words of days gone by reveal an emphasis on the weakness and passivity of humanity. When I think of “sin,” I’m not usually tempted to think highly of myself. When I think of “see,” I’m inclined to ask, “What or Whom outside of me am I seeing?” I’ve talked on this blog many times about the prevalence of triumphalism in our worship (“God, this is what I’m doing for You”). The shift from “sin” and “see” to “sing” and “praise” I think at least hints toward the triumphalistic trajectory. “Sin” and “see,” though our action, really anticipate God’s action. “Sing” and “praise” are wonderful, biblical actions, as well (they're imperatives all over the Psalms). But the spotlight is definitely more on us.

Asking Fundamental Questions

Even if you think my analysis is reading in my own biases (which I admit could really be at play here…I’m going on words devoid of their lyrical context, and I’m hyper-sensitive when it comes to triumphalism vis-à-vis the gospel), just take a step back and ask some more fundamental questions.

If I’m reading through the scriptures and seeking to develop a full-orbed biblical theology of corporate, gathered worship, what human action-words should we expect to find? Perhaps it is “sing” and “praise,” especially if you’re just camping out in the Psalms. But once you move beyond the Psalms and listen to the full Scriptural voice about the core themes of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, an entirely different set of human actions comes to the fore, perhaps best summarized in themes of repentance and faith.

Finally, could we also be seeing how music, particularly singing, is starting to move to a more dominant position in the eyes of evangelicals with regards to what worship is? Nowadays, it's not uncommon to hear people say, when referring to music, "wow, the worship time was great." Or, we often hear, "first we'll have a time of worship [i.e. singing], then the sermon." It's pretty fair to say, I think, that NO Christian, prior to the twentieth century, would have understood what those expressions mean. The equation of singing with the totality of worship (not as a part of worship, but what worship centrally is) would not compute for nearly two millennia of Christian doxology.

At any given moment in history, it’s hard for people to lift their heads above the fray and take inventory of the water they’re swimming in. At least we can say, in the face of these stats, that we need to pause and reflect on shifts like these and what they mean. Even if our conclusions are dreadfully off (which mine could be), the exercise keeps our evaluative and critical antennae up, which can’t hurt as we seek to faithfully shepherd and pastor God’s flock in worship.


Destroying Self-Worship with Selfless Songs

Please stop what you're doing and treat yourself to this amazing post over at Liberate by a worship leader I respect and appreciate, Sam Bush. He spends some time exegeting the hymn, "Hallelujah! What a Savior," by Philip Bliss...a favorite of mine and a staple here at Coral Ridge. He hits on themes I try to bring up that I don't think enough attention is drawn to in discussions of the "aim" of worship songs.

Some quotables:

One reason why it might remain on the fringe is because it lacks any mention of Christian responsibility. There are no pledges to be faithful, no requests for teaching. The main focus, from beginning to end, stays fixed on Jesus Christ, the “Man of Sorrows,” and each verse ends with an exclaimed “Hallelujah! What a Savior!”

One of the miracles of worship is that, even if only for a moment, one’s mind isn’t focused inwardly. Martin Luther, expounding on Augustine, describes human nature as incurvatus in se, something that is “so deeply curved in on itself that it only bends the best gifts of God towards itself.” Luther admits that even worship can be turned into self-worship since our nature “so wickedly, cursedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake” (Lectures on Romans). 

Go read the post!

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