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Tuesday
Jun282016

My Big Move, My New Church

Over the last twelve months, my postings have been sparse due to all the creative energy being poured into the book. (It’s available for pre-order on Amazon, by the way.) And over this last month I’ve been on radio silence as my family made a pretty big transition out of South Florida and on to a new call up the road. Many of you already know, but for those of you that don’t: I’ve joined hands with some great leaders and joined hearts with a vibrant, gospel-obsessed congregation in the heart of downtown Birmingham—Cathedral Church of the Advent.

What I Love About Advent

Advent is an Episcopal church with deep roots—established in 1872. It has a long and rich history, smack dab in the middle of a downtown that is going through all the joys and woes of urban renewal. Birmingham is an exciting town to live in, and all of us at the church are sensing a ripe season of ministry ahead. Part of what excites me about being a part of this church is its providentially strategic placement.

Another thing that excites me about Advent is its emphasis on the gospel. Though a completely different local church in a completely different town, there are many ways in which the Advent and Coral Ridge shared a strongly similar vision and mission for what a local church is and does. In fact, over the years there has been a lot of cross-pollination between the leaders and thinkers at Advent and Coral Ridge, which is how I first got connected with the church.

Yet another thing that I love is Advent’s worship (duh). Most of you all know I’m a big fan of the Prayer Book tradition—the oldest English-speaking liturgies around rooted in the best of historic Christianity’s pre-English-speaking worship words and practices. I’ve been studying the theology and worship of the English Reformation for several years now at Knox Seminary, and it’s answered a lot of questions for me about what gospel-centered, Reformational worship looks like. (My doctoral thesis will likely aim at what it means to bridge the worlds then and now in worship.) Advent has a glorious musical tradition with just about the best choir I’ve ever heard in a local church, led by a couple of great musicians who really care about congregational singing. Advent is growing in its more modern musical expression, and my job is to oversee the whole kit and caboodle (all of the services, all of the liturgical happenings).

My Journey from Coral Ridge

I’ve received a lot of support and prayers over the last year, and it’s been needed and appreciated. God walked Coral Ridge through a significant season of pain, and He saw fit to call me to be a part of the transition between the past and the future for the church. In fact, I tell people that it was actually the time when things got really hard that my sense of call was the most clear. Providentially, my last Sunday at Coral Ridge was the Sunday on which their new Senior Pastor, Rob Pacienza, was installed. I’m genuinely excited for the future of Coral Ridge, especially because I had the honor of passing on the ministry of worship to Julie Anne Vargas, a talented, capable, godly, pastoral leader who I had the privilege of mentoring and working with.

All I can really say is that God was gracious in simultaneously giving me a sense of completion of my call at Coral Ridge and a new call to a church that He was obviously preparing me for. The timing was perfect. (I know He doesn’t always work like that.) People have sometimes wanted to read subplots and intrigue into all of this, but there simply isn’t any to find. For me, the transition out of Coral Ridge was deep and sad (who doesn’t hurt when you have to say good bye to people you love?), but sweet and loving. They sent me to my new call like a missionary. And I will tell you, Birmingham is a new mission field for me if I’ve ever seen one.

What I’m Up To Right Now at Advent

Right now at the Advent, I’m trying to do a lot of listening, really. I’m trying to spend lots of time getting to know people, hearing their stories and hearts.  I’m imbibing the rhythms of worship, and I’m trying to figure out what makes things tick. I’m trying to get a handle on what the culture of worship at the church is like. I’m not implementing a thing. I’m merely taking in. I’m thinking, praying, asking, dreaming. I’m leading worship services, too, and feeling like a rookie once again—asking rookie questions, making rookie mistakes. It’s humbling, and it’s fun. I’m enjoying soaking in the richness of tradition, hearing God’s Word, His law and His gospel, coming at me in the liturgy, receiving preaching that points me to Christ, and taking in the nourishment of the Lord’s Supper. It’s all really, really good. I’m feeling blessed and grateful. And at peace.

Some FAQ’s I’ve Been Getting

Questions from friends near and far keep coming up. I thought I’d pose and answer the most frequent ones.

What’s your official title?

Canon for Worship & Liturgy. It’s pretty awesome. It makes me sound like a big deal. For those not familiar with Church of England-style lingo, a “Canon” is basically an “Associate Pastor.” “Canon” sounds strong and powerful, but the reality is I will need another “n” before I’m going to be able to blow anything up.

Are you wearing all the bling?

Yes, I’m sporting a collar on occasion—mostly on Sundays and for hospital calls. Yes, I don robes and vestments on Sunday mornings when I’m leading the liturgy. Daily, no. I wear downtown-y clothes during the week. :) For me, I’m all about doing what’s best for the flock, what helps me to minister well. It honestly feels a little uncomfortable for me, but that will fade with time, and it doesn’t feel uncomfortable for everyone else, which is what really counts. All things to all people!

Did your theology change?

Not at all. Actually, becoming a part of this very Reformationally-conscious Episcopal parish makes several aspects of the theology I’ve always been convicted of feel more at home, rooted, and centered. Advent, as a part of the Anglican communion, is very aware of its historic theological identity—its roots in the theology of the 39 Articles and the original Prayer Books of the Church of England—and it actually thinks (as I do) that the gospel articulated, prized, enacted, and preached therein is worth dying for.

Yes, many (well, most) other Episcopal parishes conceive their identity very differently. Advent is a place that chooses to take its historic roots seriously, engaging (and believing in the contemporary relevance of) the streams of Luther and Calvin that flowed into the Church of England at the time of its formation. Advent believes in all the evangelical (in the best sense of the word) essentials that I do.

What about your ordination?

For some, this will feel like yawn worthy TMI. I’m ordained in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), and when I was at Coral Ridge—a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)—I was serving in what Presbyterians call an “out of bounds” capacity. It makes me sound like a deviant. All it really means is that I retained my ordination in the EPC even as I served in a non-EPC church. I regularly attended regional EPC pastors’ meetings for support/accountability, even as I completely and passionately invested myself in the local church.

I’m doing the same thing in Birmingham. I’m transferring my ordination into the regional EPC body here and serving in an out of bounds capacity. It’s less-than-usual configuration, for sure. But it appears that my whole ministry to this point has been less-than-usual. I’m just following God’s lead. Though I readily conceive of myself in relation to the Church catholic, and in relation to denominations, movements, and tribes within the universal church, I’ve always felt that my sense of call must first and foremost be to a local church—to flesh-and-bone humans who do life together and pour out their gifts for one another and for the world. God has made my call to Advent crystal clear, and I’m excited to be rolling up my sleeves.

As the dust settles over the summer, I hope to resume a more regular rhythm of posting. It’s very life-giving for me. I imagine, given my new context, that I will be thinking different thoughts. I only and always find my best posts springing from reflections that happen in my local context. I’m excited for the release of the book and the conversations and new thoughts it will stimulate. The Worship Pastor might end up raising more questions than answers, but, as others have told me: That’s what second editions are for. 

Tuesday
May172016

Watch the Fascinating Discussions I Had at Calvin

One of the joys of both being on and moderating a panel discussion on worship issues at a place like the Calvin Symposium is that you're bound to talk about things you didn't imagine would be on the table. Such was my case as I moderated "The Worship Leader as Pastoral Musician." So many important issues were brought up, and our hearts were on our sleeves. Many sensitive topics were not navigated around, but through. 

One of the things I love about Calvin is its diversity. The annual Symposium is a place known for creating "irenic friction," the kind of rub that is truly productive, sharpening, and formative. So few places can achieve this balance. They usually slip off the tight rope either on the side of homogeneity (everyone looks the same and says the same thing), or relativity (conviction-less "blah blah" where everyone's opinion is so validated that no truth-planes are ever landed). I think, in my panel, you see that kind of irenic friction happening between panelists and the great questions that were being asked from the audience.

I would love your thoughts about what stood out to you from this discussion. What new insights did you gain? What do you agree and/or disagree with? What would you add to the discussion? Where would you have wished it would have gone? What needed to be said that wasn't said?

I imagine that with my book coming out this October, I'll have the opportunity to engage in more of these kinds of discussions. Check it out and comment below, please!

(Oh, and go pre-order The Worship Pastor on Amazon now!)

 

Worship Leader as Pastoral Musician from Calvin Worship Institute on Vimeo.

Wednesday
May042016

What I'll Be Up to at the National Worship Leader Conference

I love the National Worship Leader Conferences. I've been to them in every kind of capacity now. I've been there as a participant (Check out my post on that from several years back). I've been there as a songwriter, featured at one of their informal showcases. I've been there to conduct an interview with Bill and Gloria Gaither (read my insights about that here). Last year, I had the opportunity to speak about Jesus as the one true Worship Leader. This year, I'm participating as a kind of "pastor-chaplain" over the event, along with speaking to the topic of worship leading as prayer leading, along with hosting a few breakouts.

The 2016 theme is a bit more focused than previous years: "Teach Us to Pray." Worship Leader Magazine and the conferences have been examining the nature of worship as prayer, believing that a recovery of this idea just might be the source of healing and wholeness for many of the current issues before the church's worship today. Of course I agree.

Breakout Session: 10 Things Worship Leaders Wish Their Pastors Knew. Let's just say this one will get saucy.

Breakout Session: Leading Through a Worship Style Transition. Let's just say this one IS saucy. I don't need to add to the sauce.

There's still time to register for Virginia, Texas, and Kansas (I'll be in VA and KS).

Tuesday
May032016

Thoughts About the Song "Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)"

If you follow my blog, and if you read my book, you will hear a lot about the Reformational distinction of Law and Gospel. For me, this paradigm is inescapable not only in the Bible but in all of life. It is the distinction that Paul makes in order to exegete the whole Bible in a Christological fashion. From his clear statement in Galatians 2:16, to his developed soteriology in Romans 3, to his exegesis of the Pentateuch in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul testifies that Law and Gospel are the two forms in which the Word of God breaks into creation.

I’m convinced that these two forms of God’s Word speak loud and clear (whether we recognize it or not) in every last one of our worship services, and the more we can discern their voices, the better equipped we will be to plan and lead gospel-shaped, Christ-mediated worship services.

This distinction is heavily at play in the liturgies which emerged during the time of the Reformation. In particular, I observe a strong Law-Gospel filter applied to the way reformer Thomas Cranmer constructed the English Prayer Book. When I first read his 1552 liturgy, I was a little surprised to find a litany with the Ten Commandments at the top of the service. Not only was this not a seeker-sensitive move; it was downright depressing! The 1552 service begins with this dramatic prayer, still a part (in various modifications) of many Anglican/Episcopal services today:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer immediately prefaces a responsorial reading of the Ten Commandments, where, after each commandment is read, the congregation responds, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” Think about the impact of opening a service like this. Think about what you would feel as you would enter into God’s presence in this fashion.

Modern worship songs frequently address, either explicitly or implicitly, how in worship we “open our hearts” to God. Our temptation, then, in reading back into Cranmer’s opening prayer is to think that an “open heart” is a positive, feel-good image. But once we realize the context of the Law in which it’s placed, we need to understand this cardiological statement more like “open heart” surgery rather than the lovey-dovey stuff (for Cranmer, and for the Law-Gospel distinction, this comes later). “Our hearts are open” means, “O God, before Your Law, my heart is cut open, and I’m bleeding to death. In Your presence, I am undone.”

Needless to say, I found this move by Cranmer captivating. I began asking: What would it look like in a twenty-first century modern worship service to begin like this? What would it look like to open a worship service with the Law offering a sucker-punch straight to the gut of Old Adam? So we wrote a song. It is neither a full blown recitation of the Ten Commandments nor a verbatim recasting of Cranmer’s glorious “Collect for Purity.” It’s a modern take on capturing the feeling and reaction that Cranmer’s liturgy would have evoked. Perhaps most muted is the fifth commandment, universally applied beyond honoring father and mother as “let loving-kindness flow to all we know.”

The hope with the song is not so much provide a tool for people to recite the Ten Commandments in a worship service as it is to create a context where the Commandments’ weight is palpably felt, where the Law can do it’s appropriate killing and crushing work, and where we can cry out to God, “You’ve cut my heart open! Sew it back together!,” or, in the words of Toplady, “Wash me Savior, or I die.” 

“Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)” is intended to be a song for use at the top of the service, or within the first few songs. It really doesn’t fit anywhere else, unless you’re intending to introduce another gospel-structured narrative cycle into the service. I hope it fills a gap in worship songwriting and provides something fresh for those of us with highly sung, song-set-oriented liturgies.

Resources for the Song

chord chart | lead sheet

Lyrics

1. You brought us safe across salvation’s sea
To know no other gods, nor idols seek
Incline our hearts to keep Your Word 

Your holy Name is sacred on our tongues,
Your Sabbath day is rest for restless ones,
Incline our hearts,] to keep Your Word 

Almighty God, our hearts are open
Our secret thoughts are bare before Your eyes
Your presence is the all-consuming fire
Purify our hearts, as we cry:
Lord have mercy 

2. Let lovingkindness flow to all we know
Till anger, lust, and greed we cannot sow
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word 

Your Truth shall silence every lying mouth
And quench the urge to take what is not ours
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word 

Bridge:
Lord have mercy
Perfect glory
Now surrounds me
Overwhelms me

5. My meditation both the day and night
The Law that shows Your perfect will aright
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word

Words & Music: Zac Hicks & Julie Anne Vargas, 2015
©2015 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP); Julie Anne Vargas
CCLI #7056905
Wednesday
Apr202016

The Chink in the Reformation’s Iconoclastic Armor

Zombies in the Lights

A few days ago, I ended up in a really fascinating dialogue on Twitter with thoughtful worship leader, Jordan Atwell (@jordanatwell) and visual liturgy smart guy, Stephen Proctor (@stephenproctor). We were entertaining the question, in response to my tweet about this wonderful article, about what it looks like to pastorally engage visual aesthetics in worship. We tend to think of things like projection, screens, lights, and other visual atmospherics as either neutral cultural phenomena or (more negatively) as yet more capitulation to culture’s rock show idolatry.  Usually, all the conversations about those visual elements stop there. Either we’re relegated to pragmatic, technical conversations about the latest, coolest LEDs, gobos, robotics, and immersive projection, or we’re (not inappropriately) decrying the commercialization of worship through zombifying overstimulation.

But what if there’s another conversation to have? What if the discussion about lights and projection can be framed pastorally? I think the above mentioned article is a great example of what such reflection might look like with regards to screens and slide projection. But that’s not what I want to talk about in this post. 

The Debbie Downer of Visual Arts

Stephen mentioned what many do when these discussions get rolling—namely, that the Reformation’s iconoclasm (rejection of much visual art) threw out a lot of the helpful and sacred visuals of the church, impoverishing our “sacramental imagination.” Stephen, of course, is dead on. Perhaps some want to justify the Reformation’s general over-reaction to stained glass, art, and other aesthetic riches due to how far the medieval Roman church had gone in the opposite direction.

Nevertheless, I have observed a chink in the Reformation’s generally iconoclastic armor, and I believe we’re witnessing, slowly but surely, that chink being identified, yanked on, and peered through. The hole is getting bigger, and those of us who cherish much about the Reformation may find a way through Reformational principles to recover a sacramental imagination that can appropriately, imaginatively, and richly re-embrace the aesthetics that aid and abet a holistic worship experience (and a holistic faith). The Reformational chink is Augustinian affective anthropology.

Here’s what I mean. With the continued influence of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom (and now his more accessible simplification in You Are What You Love), more and more folks in Reformational traditions are awakening to the reality that human beings are centrally affective creatures. We operate, most fundamentally, out of what we love. Our affections, much more than our brains, are our life’s behavioral rudder. This is a notion rooted in Augustine, the early thinker who had more influence on Reformational thought than perhaps any other church father or mother.  (I should mention that hopefully this notion is rooted in Jesus…and I think it is [e.g. Luke 6:45].) Augustine’s view of the human makeup (his anthropology) is that we are centrally desiring creatures. Augustine believed that the Bible reveals to us an affective anthropology.

I believe that this anthropology was at least tacitly present in the minds of all the Reformers. But we find it leaking out particularly in the writings of Luther (scattered about), Melanchthon (his 1521 Loci Communes), and Cranmer (his homilies and in his Prayer Book). David Taylor also unearths aesthetic dimensions of Calvin’s theology in his dissertation. (I mention this, because Calvin is often the chief poster boy for the Reformation’s iconoclasm.)

The Aesthetic Portal to New Horizons

What we find in the work of Luther, Melanchthon, Cranmer, and Calvin are  expressions of affective anthropology that are in tune with some aesthetics. Cranmer, in particular, seemed very comfortable employing the riches of the rhetorical arts. Reading his 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books is like taking a journey through Erasmus’s rhetorical teachings: word couplets/triplets, evocative language, etc. Cranmer’s poetic prose was an intentional use of the art of language to engage the senses and emotions of the worshiper.

Cases like these help us to see that while it is fair by and large to call the Reformation iconoclastic, even the Reformers understood that aesthetics were a gateway to help form the sacramental imagination of the people of God. Could it be, then, that we can re-enter some much needed discussions about the aesthetic and pastoral use of visual arts (lighting, projection, color, haze, etc.), through the Reformational portal of affective anthropology? Could it be that Protestantism’s historic emphasis on affective spirituality will open up fresh pastoral discussions about visual aesthetics that neither remain in the superficial realm of pragmatics nor pharisaically dismiss all such talk as blind idolatry?

Not everyone will buy into this, but I, for one, am optimistic.

Tuesday
Apr192016

What You Can Expect from Our New Album

In eleven days, we will have a night of worship and release our album down here in Fort Lauderdale. It will be a special night in a lot of ways. For me, it will be the culmination of three hard and wonderful years of ministry as well as the fruit of many more years of songwriting.

What These Songs Have Meant to Us

Julie Anne Vargas and I set out a year and a half ago to begin writing a fresh batch of hymns and worship songs for our congregation. God was pressing certain themes onto our hearts. We gathered a small group of musicians, artists, and enthusiasts together from inside and outside our church and shared our songs with them--a kind of informal singer-songwriter night--to elicit feedback on the front end as we were crafting these songs. We intended to produce an LP, a top-notch full-length record. God had other plans. Shortly after we completed the songwriting process, a seismic bomb blew up at our church and everything unraveled.

Strangely, eerily...well, providentially...Julie Anne and I were discovering that the songs we wrote were the songs that Coral Ridge needed to sing in this season. The last year has been marked by God's gracious hand tenderly stripping us back, exposing our idols, foregrounding our need, and showcasing deeper riches of what it means to be found in Christ and Him alone

The songs of Sacred On Our Tongues all testify to THAT.

What's With the Title?

The phrase, "Sacred On Our Tongues," comes from the opening track's first verse:

Your holy Name is sacred on our tongues
Your Sabbath day is rest for restless ones
Incline our hearts to keep Your Word

We liked the ring of that phrase. There is an incarnational quality to the juxtaposition of "sacred" and "tongues." The title offers a holy gravity which characterizes the feel of every song on the EP--distance and nearness, transcendence and immanence.

The phrase I think also offers a slightly intentional nod to two streams of Christianity that converged on this record--the traditional-liturgical and the charismatic. First, we wrote these songs under the heavy influence of Reformational liturgy and the post-Reformational English hymn tradition. "Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)" is a loose setting of Thomas Cranmer's Ten Commandments liturgy at the opening of his 1552 Prayer Book. "High and Lifted Up" is a sung reflection on John 3's exposition of Christ as the bronze snake in the wilderness, with strong poetic leanings into the hymn tradition. "His Be the Victor's Name" is a recasting of our 2013 song, with some significant changes to the Bridge text and to the overall feel of the historic hymn. "All That You Are" is indebted to Joseph Hart's theological vision for "Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy," though it goes in a different direction.

But second, we wanted to offer these songs in rudimentary form to friends outside our tradition--brothers who have long been thoughtfully writing in the more charismatic spheres of Christianity. My friends, Matt Jackson and Daniel Bashta, graciously agreed to work on the project and to put their musical stamp on our demos. They helped us produce the record at 1971 Sounds with David Dalton and Mitch Parks in Atlanta, and I have to say that I'm blown away by what I'm hearing.

So, yeah. I'm hoping "sacred" will grab the liturgophiles and "tongues" will excite the Pentecosmics. But, perhaps the old addage will ring true: aim at everyone, hit no one. Who knows? I'm honestly less worried about who the album will reach and touch. I'm simply grateful to have been a part of creating an artifact that built some bridges across some unlikely boundaries. I think both our traditions will be the better for having worked together on this. 

The Songs

Textually, Sacred On Our Tongues is a powerful mixture of theological depth packed into more lyrical simplicity than I'm used to. Musically, the album is far more lush, cinematic, and immersive. The five songs probably all reside in the realms of atmospheric, in your face, moody pop rock. I think that the producers' arrangement choices are tasteful and fresh. The album's aural color palette is far more brilliant than anything I've produced...I guess that's what happens when you give it over to people who know what they're doing in the studio. Here's the track listing. Follow the links to check out the full text, along with (eventual) charts and lead sheets.

1. Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)
2. High and Lifted Up
3. Sing in Your Love
4. His Be the Victor's Name (2016)
5. All That You Are 

Where to Get It

Sacred On Our Tongues should drop everywhere Sunday, May 1--iTunes, Spotify, etc. For those who purchase music (which we wholeheartedly encourage), we always try to make the lowest prices available at coralridgemusic.com.

Follow Coral Ridge Music:

Monday
Apr112016

Review of The Next Worship, by Sandra Van Opstal

I currently serve in a context of tremendous diversity. In the market just two blocks from my house, I regularly hear five different languages—English, Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, and French—and more infrequently hear at least another three. The church I serve doesn’t yet look like our city, but it’s making strides. When I arrived in South Florida over three years ago, I knew that praying through how to engage worship in this diverse climate would need to be on the top of my task list.  For this reason, I wish I had Sandra Van Opstal’s marvelous new book, The Next Worship, then. 

And yet, after reading the book, I have become convinced that reflecting on what it means to “glorify God in a diverse world,” as the subtitle states, is something every church should be doing, no matter how homogenous the culture. The Next Worship is for every church and every situation—not just the ones that care about “multicultural worship.” The book strikes a great balance between theory and practicality. Filled with many stories from Van Opstal’s own rich and experienced ministry, The Next Worship grounds its important principles in real-life (messy) situations.

Founded on the Future 

Van Opstal makes the case that engaging diversity in worship is an eschatological imperative. In other words, what we should be about now is grounded in the what happens in the end: “This vision of the end can only be hoped for and lived into by recognizing how far we are from it, and the beauty and awe we will experience when we participate in it” (p. 35). This vision sees a day when all nations are gathered around one throne. The Next Worship is a strong, convincing case that the future “not yet” is (and should be) breaking into our “already.” I want to share those parts of the book that I’ve found most inspiring, compelling, and convicting for my own ministry, in hopes that you might see the value in picking up this unique resource. 

Fresh Scriptural (even Sacramental!) Observations

I was inspired by Van Opstal’s synthesis of scholarship and exegesis of the Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:15-24 (Chapter 3). She offered important insights into the nuances of ancient Near Eastern culture at play in the parable. For instance, many of the excuses for not attending given by those invited would have been insulting and offensive to the host (p. 57). In fact, it appears that those who desired not to come were conspiring to shut the party down. Our normal read of the parable usually interprets the master’s invitation of those on the margins as the master’s “Plan B,” but certain clues in the text indicate that the master had always intended to invite everyone. He wanted the well-to-do to be seated alongside the marginalized. The point? “The nature of the master is to extend hospitality to all, including those we wish he had not invited” (p. 56).   

Van Opstal then does something that might be surprising to many who converse about “diverse” and “global” worship. She offers, through this parable, a Communion-centric vision of worship. Usually, conversations about diverse worship revolve around leadership and musical style. Van Opstal refreshingly starts not there, but at the Table (pp. 59-60). The Table is where reconciliation begins: “Reconciliation is not something we add to our worship; it is a practice in which we live out our true nature as one new humanity” (p. 61). And now we see the grounds for the conversation—this is why considering diverse worship is important for both multicultural and homogenous churches.

The Prophetic Edge

Throughout the book, there is a prophetic edge to the conversation. Van Opstal points out some of the elephants in the room that typically overshadow conversations like these. Chapter 2, “Is PB&J Ethnic Food?”, exposes some of the biases and ignorance of people like me, who have grown up with the perspective that my (white Western European culture) is the majority culture and therefore gets to constitute what’s “normal.” Her point, which is worth making early, is that we are all ethnic. There is no “normal.”

Hospitality, Mutuality, Solidarity 

The trifecta—hospitality, mutuality, solidarity—is for me the biggest takeaway from The Next Worship. It was an eye-opener. Van Opstal uses these three categories to highlight the ways we go successively deeper into a biblical understanding of what it means to engage in diverse worship in our local bodies:

  • Hospitality  = “We welcome you.”
  • Solidarity = “We stand with you.”
  • Mutuality = “We need you.”

I’ve always heard diverse worship discussed mainly in the first category of “hospitality.” A church’s dominant group welcomes and makes room for members of other groups. But hospitality should move beyond providing appropriate accommodations. A powerful charge: “In a multiethnic community no members should be made to feel like perpetual guests” (p. 63). Solidarity comes “when we identify with another’s community in the practices of lament and joy” (p. 66). And mutuality exists when we can’t imagine life without one another. 

This mutuality is fleshed out in what was for me the most challenging chapter, on shared leadership. Van Opstal discussed the levels/degrees of shared leadership. I found myself wrestling though what the deepest levels of shared leadership would look like in a context like mine. If I’m honest, that vision might very well be years away, but it’s always healthy to hear voices that remind you of what you should be aiming for. Listen to the challenges:

This level of leadership takes an immense amount of emptying on the part of the worship leader. There is no room for pride, fear or control. This takes more time as well; the process is much more involved and requires trust in planning and synergy and chemistry in the service. The worship leader still takes ultimate responsibility for the time. If it fails, the team leader is responsible. If the experience and practice is a success, all team members share in the celebration for having shaped it. Who wants that job? Not many people, which is why this model is rarely practiced (p. 90).

Beyond the Music, Pastoral Leadership

I’m incredibly grateful, as I said before, that the discussion about diverse worship moves in The Next Worship beyond music to the other elements of the service, especially in Chapter 6. More than that, Van Opstal points out what many miss—namely, that form itself is content, that “form is as meaningful as style” (p. 132). 

Chapter 7 offers a wonderful vision of what long-term leadership looks like, how culture-change in a congregation takes place. Van Opstal encourages leaders to embrace discomfort, to honor legacy (a wonderful counteracting of so much ageism that is a part of the culture of worship conversations today). It really is at this point that I felt The Next Worship moved from being prophetic to being pastoral. It’s here that the process is highlighted—the need for constant interpretation of experiences, the reception of feedback, creating a style and worship sensibility that fits one’s local context (p. 152).

Finally, Chapter 8 gives some marvelous helps for actually training and equipping worship leaders. I'll particularly highlight the discussion on emotional intelligence and self-awareness (characteristics we often lack as worship leaders!). 

One Desire and Lingering Questions

As I mentioned above, The Next Worship is helpfully predicated on an eschatological vision. I think the conversation about diverse worship and reconciliation, though, is further bolstered when we set these things more in their soteriological context. To put it more plainly, I’m so convinced by the aim of this book that I had longed to hear it more explicitly and fully set in the context of the Gospel: because God has reconciled Himself to us, we can be reconciled to one another. This is hinted at in places like p. 62, where Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson are quoted, saying, “Worship is the power that opens us up to the possibility of reconciliation.” What, precisely, is that power in worship? It is the gospel—the “power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:19).

How might this be fleshed out? In the brilliant discussion on hospitality, solidarity, and mutuality, the gospel tells us that before we offer these three things to others, we are first given these things in Christ. In His incarnation, Christ became more than a visitor; He became “an actual stakeholder in the community” (p. 63). Christ identified with us in our lamentation and joy. And in being united with Him in death and resurrection, we are given a seat at the Trinitarian table. Though Van Opstal hasn’t done this, sometimes discussions about justice and reconciliation highlight Christ as example of these things rather than provider of these things. The former has the tendency to reduce discussions of justice to moralism—a list of "shoulds." The latter, I believe, is the only way reconciliation can be achieved. This is why the soteriological vision of reconciliation is just as important as the eschatological one. In fact, the eschatology of justice is inseparable from the gospel: Paul's big surprise in Romans 3 is that the day of future justice/justification (all the same word group in Greek) has broken in to the "now" (Rom 3:21).

Some lingering questions I have pertain particularly to Chapter 6, on the components/elements of diverse worship. Are there, in fact, some trans-cultural elements and forms that all cultures are inspired and compelled to engage? For instance, Van Opstal quoted Russell Yee: “There is not one complete service even described in any detail in the New Testament, let alone prescribed” (p. 121). While this is true, there really is more to be said when it comes to unpacking the biblical vision for worship’s elements and form. I’ve been challenged by Michael Farley’s article highlighting the ways evangelicals tend to interpret what “biblical worship” is and is not. There, Farley points out that there may be biblical warrant for more elements and (especially) structure than we typically think when we simply look at the New Testament for explicitly prescribed forms. If Farley is right (and I think he is), this has some implications for Van Opstal’s discussion on forms and practices (for instance, in her chart highlighting the difference between a Latino church’s order of service and a White church’s, p. 98). Appendix E (pp. 193-194) does list some of these things, but I'd love to see this discussion fleshed out.

Where the Discussion Might Go From Here

Therefore, I think next steps for “diverse worship” discussions involve honest wrestling through the enculturation of historic, trans-temporal, trans-cultural forms and liturgies, which, according to Farley’s helpful exegetical tips, actually stem from God’s work in the (non-white, non-Western) ancient Near Eastern culture of the Old Testament. If we began this honest wrestling, I believe that every culture would have something (perhaps even highly cherished) in our particular worship experiences in need of revision and sharpening. I guess this is a counter-balance to Van Opstal’s important pastoral advice: “Christians must practice the discipline of acknowledging differences while suspending judgment” (p. 99). Yes, and at the same time (and I know Van Opstal would agree), Christians must also be willing to bring the discussion back around to theological reflection on our cultural practices. Diverse worship, in form and practice, needs to be a constant, Spirit-filled, and ongoing dialogue between cultural practices and the Scriptural authority that gives them shape and credence.

* * * * *

In conclusion, I confess to being a semi-active listener to the discussion on multicultural issues in worship, but I still discern that The Next Worship actually pushes the conversation forward rather than rehearsing the same talking points (as good as they have been).  Furthermore, it’s an incredibly useful text. It doesn’t float in the clouds but offers manual-like strategies, tips, and plans that actually help us on the ground level of ministry. Finally, Van Opstal has convinced me that I can no longer be “semi-active” in these discussions, for diverse worship is our shared context now, and the grace of God compels us so.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough, and I encourage every one of you to go out and get it! I need it. You need it. If part of our job as worship pastors is to prepare the people of God for eternity, I can't think of a more balanced, helpful, prophetic, and pastoral text than this one.

Purchase The Next Worship on Amazon.

 

Tuesday
Apr052016

The Worship Pastor - Book Update #2

 

(Read the initial post)
(Read Book Update #1)

Book Update #2

It's been a while since my initial post and the first update about the progress of The Worship Pastor. I'm excited to tell you that its now available for pre-order on Amazon, due out on October 11!

Last week, I finished the hard work of doing some extensive indexing for the book (I find indexes valuable for a host of reasons), and Zondervan is in the middle of working on the book layout. As I read through it yet again, I'm very satisfied with the scope and content. The editors did a wonderful job of smoothing out the readability and accessibility, and I love the way the book moves up and down the "abstraction ladder," dealing with things both theoretically and practically. 

Since my last update, I've had a chance to teach on some of the book's content, at a breakout workshop at the Calvin Symposium and then later for a more extended seminar for worship students at Samford University. I'm very pleased with how folks are responding to the ideas I've synthesized. The resonance has confirmed for me that I'm not totally out to lunch!

I'm currently working with a designer who is redoing my graphics to make them look much more uniform. I don't have many pictures and diagrams, but when they appear, let's just say they will be pleasing to the eye.

Thank you all for the wonderful support, excitement, and feedback. Spread the love, and I'll keep you posted.