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Monday
Nov142016

A Brief Theology of Volume Levels in Worship

Regardless of your tradition, volume may be one of the top three perennial “unsolvable” problems in worship planning and leading. No matter which way you go, someone is unhappy. Too loud? People feel discouraged from singing because they can’t hear themselves. Too soft? People feel discouraged from singing because they can hear themselves! And this isn’t merely a problem for churches with million-dollar sound systems and rock aesthetics. It’s a problem I’ve heard articulated by folks who feel the organ is too loud (or too soft) in a traditional service. There are people with hearing problems or hearing sensitivities that complain about how worship can be literally painful to endure. Yet others don’t have a formulated reason beyond “I don’t like it.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a prayer card disguised as a complaint about volume: “Please pray for the drummer who feels it’s his job to make us all deaf” is a paraphrase of one “prayer card” I received years ago on a Monday morning. So, yes, volume is a hot issue.

No Resolution?

And it also seems like it’s not a resolvable issue. Inevitably, if you make a decision which sides with one group’s persuasion, you are deciding directly and actively against another group’s persuasion. For those of us in charge of making these decisions, it feels lose-lose. My general opinion about volume levels has been a kind of happy medium: loud enough that the music fills the space, encouraging the people to sing out without feeling exposed, yet in the quieter moments offers key times where the congregation can clearly hear themselves singing mightily. For me, when I have strived for that, it seems that the complaints have gone down to a minimum (not completely gone!) and musical worship has been most strengthened. However, I think there’s something slightly more nuanced—more pastoral—at play here.

If you’ve read my book, you know it’s my belief that every decision we make in worship is a pastoral one, whether we know it or not. In other words, nothing in worship—not even decibel level—is outside the governance of faithful, biblical reflection. I’d like to offer some brief biblical and pastoral reflections on volume level in hopes that worship leaders, sound technicians, and congregants alike can see that they are all participating in real, biblical, pastoral work as they process and facilitate the “sound environment” of their worship spaces. And to do this, we turn once again to worship’s great biblical barometer—the Psalms.

1. The Bible tells us worship should be LOUD.

Listen to these commands: “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts” (Psalm 33:3); “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” (Psalm 47:1); “Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150:5). Joy, again and again in the Psalms, seems to be associated with pushing the faders up, pressing the organ volume pedal to the floor, and turning the amps up to eleven. The joy of salvation and deliverance is expressed in shouts (Psalm 20:5; 27:6; 32:7, 11; 33:1; 35:27; 42:4; 47:5; 65:8; 66:1; 81:1; 89:15; 126:2; 132:9). Trumpets (no mutes in the ancient Near East) were blasted (Ps 47:5; 98:6; 150:3). So it seems that the loud end of the dynamic spectrum is appropriate for worship music. 

2. The Bible tells us worship should be SOFT.

Equally present in the Psalms is the expression on the other end of the sonic spectrum. “I have calmed and quieted my soul” is what one worship song sings (Psalm 131:2). Psalm 95 provides that contrast. Verses 1-5 express loud, thankful, jubilant worship. But Verses 6-7 encourage a different posture: bowed, quiet, reverent. Alongside the admonitions to leap, clap, and shout are the edifying words that whisper “be still” (Ps 37:7; 46:10) and “wait” (Ps 25:5, 21; 33:20; 37:7; 130:5). As one desperate worship song puts it, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps 62:1,5). In the Psalms, therefore, we hear that low decibels, even a zero reading, are appropriate for worship music.

Pastoral Choices That Lead to “Faithful Feelings”

So if we look to the Scriptures for a “biblical theology of volume in worship,” we hear something that defies almost all our categories. We hear a word that tells us that God wants it all—the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It’s not so much, then, of whether worship should be loud or soft, but at what moments. How might we navigate this wide spectrum as faithful pastors? Well, it might start by recognizing our job as emotional shepherds. We have a role in faithfully guiding the people of God through a holistic experience (emotions included) of worship’s rhythms and story. What if we began to see volume not as something that needed to be solved with a one-size-fits-all level that works for the most people? What if we understood that volume was an affective tool to faithfully and pastorally wield in the art and craft of disciple making? What if we got our musicians, sound technicians, and congregants on board with a mode of thinking that worship is a journey though a story, and that story has ups and downs, highs and lows, louds and softs? What if our congregation learned how to be more faithfully Christian “feelers” of the loud and raucous joy of God’s glory and salvation, of the quiet contrition of confession and repentance, of the piercing moans and groans of lamentation, of the weary sighs of mourning? What if our noise trained us to be more faithful Davids who were loud in their gladness to enter the house of the Lord (Ps 122:1)? What if our silence trained us to be more faithful “watchmen” who quietly waited for the morning (Ps 130:6)?

And now we can see how our aesthetic choices about dynamics are really opportunities for pastoring. We see now that from the electric guitarist’s amp level, to the organist’s use of their antiphonal division, to the sound tech’s fingers on the main faders—these are all moments where every believer can take up their call as a “priest” in ministering to their sister and their brother. Hopefully a post like this can open up fresh dialogue on a topic that in many churches feels weary, old, or hardened.

Thursday
Oct132016

The Heart of the Book of Common Prayer According to Cranmer

I recently read this article, a review of Alan Jacobs' The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, from over a year ago. The article is written by a person I would consider to be the world's foremost Thomas Cranmer scholar, Ashley Null. Null has earned the right of being called "foremost" both because he studied under Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose landmark biography of Cranmer set the new gold standard, but also because he is doing something no one else has ever done, painstakingly working through and preparing for publishing Cranmer's extensive collection of notebooks called his "great commonplaces." Null has been living in Cranmer's head and heart for quite a while now.

So despite some quibbles and corrections to the review insisted upon by Jacobs, Null's points are worth reading for anyone serious about understanding the original intent of the Book of Common Prayer. I say "serious" because the over four hundred years of Prayer Book study, revision, and historiography has littered the landscape with a lot of erroneous speculation about the theological center (or perceived lack thereof) of the Prayer Book. Cranmer's supposed intent has been coopted to defend practices and doctrine that Cranmer would not have desired. It's one thing to believe that the Anglican tradition should be wide enough to house all the permutations of doctrinal and doxological expression in today's worldwide communion. It's quite another to summon Cranmer for approval. We need more historical clarity.

I would be so bold as to say that Null is in the midst of proving that Cranmer was a convicted Reformational Protestant, not a confused churchman waffling somewhere between Rome and Wittenberg. Even more, Cranmer intended the Prayer Book to be a Protestant and "evangelical" (in the Reformational, not modern, sense of the term) worship document.

Null's article does a good job getting to the heart of the matter, but I commend a search of and appropriation of his extensive writings, including his dissertation turned publication, Thomas Cranmer's Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love.

I leave you with a few of the choice quotes from the article that summarize just what Cranmer was all about with the Book of Common Prayer:

"Cranmer’s prayer books were primarily a missionary means to convert the hearts of English people."

"For Cranmer only divine gracious love—constantly communicated by the Spirit in the regular repetition of Scripture’s promises through Word and Sacrament—could inspire grateful human love, drawing believers toward God, their fellow human beings, and the lifelong pursuit of godliness."

"In short, the heart of Cranmer’s liturgies is moving human affections to serve God and neighbor by the power of the gospel."


Monday
Oct032016

Worship Leading for Funerals: Dos and Don'ts

An excerpt from my book, The Worship Pastor, has been posted over at Crosswalk. In that excerpt, a part of my chapter on "The Worship Pastor as Mortician," I discuss some of the dos and don'ts that are part of planning and leading worship services for people who are suffering, especially for funerals and memorial services. I've made my fair share of mistakes, and I've seen many well-intentioned worship leaders inadvertently do some of those same un-pastoral things in those contexts.

One really pertinent piece of pastoral advice: "shut up and play." :)

Please check out the article, and please go get my book!

Monday
Sep122016

What Some People Are Saying About The Worship Pastor

I've been privileged to pass some advance drafts of my book, The Worship Pastor, to some thinkers, writers, scholars, and poets across all kinds of lines. I've been very grateful for the responses, feedback, and endorsements. Below is what they've said! Also, the book's site is officially up. Pre-orders really help, so please spread the word. And, there's some incentive. I've put together a study guide with discussion questions and "for further reading" recommendations. Some people will really want to dive more deeply into the topics I open up. Those helps are available for FREE for folks who pre-order!

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“The modern role of the worship leader . . . has emerged in recent years as a mission-critical position on church staffs,” writes Zac Hicks. But how do we characterize that role? With years of contemporary worship-leading experience, theological acumen, love of the church, and profound respect for the calling of leading God’s people in declaring his glory, Hicks identifies the role as pastor. Hicks explores perspectives that will inspire worship leaders and ennoble the worship practices and priorities of God’s people.”

— DR. BRYAN CHAPELL, pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church; author, Christ-centered Worship

 

“Zac Hicks educates and challenges us to carefully consider how we “do” our function as congregational leaders of prayer, all the while christening us with an elevated title that suits the role: the worship pastor.”

— CHUCK FROMM, founder, Worship Leader Magazine

 

“Not only is this book well-written, it is deeply wise and consistently scriptural. I love this book. I wish that every worship pastor (and every pastor) would read it. Read it. You will be pleasantly surprised.”

— ELYSE M. FITZPATRICK, author; Home: How Heaven and the New Earth Satisfy Our Deepest Longings

 

“It’s been fifty years since the first forms of contemporary worship appeared. It’s been thirty years since the position of worship leader developed. It’s been twenty years since mainline churches adopted contemporary styles. And so it’s time for a mature, multifaceted guide for those who lead God’s people in worship. Zac Hicks’ The Worship Pastor fills that need wonderfully.”

— LESTER RUTH, research professor of Christian worship, Duke Divinity School

 

"As worship pastor becomes a standard job title in churches across the globe, we are in dire need of a guide for this unique vocation. Zac Hicks has given us a masterpiece that is equal parts manual and manifesto. This book is pastoral theology at its very best."

—GLENN PACKIAM, pastor, New Life Downtown; author, Discover the Mystery of Faith

 

"This book is a welcome introduction to the multidimensional nature of worship leadership. Written for practitioners by a practitioner, Hicks brings a convincing voice to the slow-growing but much-needed plea for worship leaders to take up the pastoral duties that are so vital for successful ministry. I highly recommend it for persons in any stage of worship ministry."

—CONSTANCE M. CHERRY, professor of worship and pastoral ministry, Indiana Wesleyan University

 

“In The Worship Pastor, Zac Hicks holds up the diamond of worship leading and
wonderfully encourages us in its many faceted roles, reflecting the glory of the gospel with every view. This book is a must-read for pastors, worship pastors, and even worship team members.”

— STEVE AND VIKKI COOK, songwriters, teachers, worship leader/team member

 

“If I could choose one worship pastor to serve with for the rest of my life, it would be Zac Hicks. Marinate in his book, Worship Pastor, and you’ll understand why my words aren’t pastoral hyperbole. Get it; soak in it; share it with many.”

— DR. SCOTTY WARD SMITH, teacher-in- residence, West End Community Church

 

“Long has the worship community needed a guidebook for understanding that the role of the worship leader encompasses more than great music. I highly recommend The Worship Pastor to anyone seeking to follow God’s call to lead worship.”

— DR. VERNON M. WHALEY, dean, School of Music, Liberty University

 

“Zac Hicks has laid down some important principles for worship leaders to function beyond merely choosing songs—as pastors. Worship leaders who adapt Zac’s principles and disciplines will find that their call to ministry will be widely enhanced to the glory of God.”

— DR. EDWIN M. WILLMINGTON, director, Fred Bock Institute of Music, Fuller Theological Seminary

 

"Zac has thoughtfully and thoroughly addressed the many creative avenues in which worship can be pastored. And that’s so important, because techie artists like me need a better, deeper theological understanding of the influence we have over the worship space. And how we may actually be worship pastors even though it’s not in our job title."

—STEPHEN PROCTOR, visual liturgist and projection artist, illuminate.us

 

“This is book is an invitation to reenvision the identity of all of us who lead God’s people in worship. My prayer is that it will encourage and inspire both beginning and lifelong leaders of God’s people, and lead to worship of greater theological depth and Christian joy.”

— JOHN D. WITVLIET, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin College and Theological Seminary

 

“Speaking from years of personal experience, Zac Hicks offers this winsome invitation to worship leaders to think of themselves as ministers as well as musicians. Essential reading.”

— MAGGI DAWN, associate professor of theology and literature, Yale Divinity School

Tuesday
Jul262016

Killing Worship Through Over-Explanation

Reformed Worship just released a new post of mine, entitled, "How Over-Explaining Worship Kills Worship." In that post I entertain some important pastoral reflections on the nature of leading worship that educates and informs without throwing a wrench into worship's gears. Hopefully you'll find it helpful! Here's a little quote: "Worship isn’t a time for parsing doxological technicalities just like driving isn’t a time to take apart your engine." Go read the post!

Tuesday
Jul192016

Concerns about the Resurgence of Liturgy

Tongue firmly in cheek: I’m beginning to think that Santayana’s quip, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” should be added to Scripture, because it has proven to be pretty infallible. (Okay, okay, it shouldn’t be added to Scripture…it lacks apostolicity, universality, etc., etc.)

Sound Familiar?

My new context at Cathedral Church of the Advent has me reflecting a lot on the history of the Church of England, and right now I’ve been fixated upon the events of the mid- to late-1800s, which served to influence radical shifts in both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States. We take many of those changes for granted today. It’s downright SHOCKING to read about the controversies of this era and what the debating parties said and believed. (Let’s just say that one pastor issued brass knuckles to his congregants as a result of this turmoil. I’m not kidding.) And there are some very uncomfortable parallels with some trends in modern American evangelicalism that make me at least a little more concerned about the resurgence of liturgical interest among folks like me.

Anyone who is interested in, dabbling in, swimming in, drowning in historic liturgy needs to be aware of what is variously called the “Oxford Movement” or the “Tractarian Movement.” In the nineteenth century, there arose a group of pastors, churchmen (and women), and leaders in England who were finding life in the rediscovery of the church’s forgotten traditions of the pre-Reformation era. Spurred on by some probably healthy desires to connect the worship and life of the church with more ancient tethers, young pastors and leaders like Edward Pusey (1800-1882), John Henry Newman (1801-1890), John Keble (1792-1866), and John Mason Neale (1818-1866) were digging through history like pirates finding buried treasure. They were enthralled by the beauty, mystery, reverence, transcendence, color, and life of old, forgotten hymns of the church and liturgical practices long cast aside. Sound familiar?

I Empathize...Deeply

I share, quite deeply, many of these sentiments. When I was first starting out as a “professional” worship leader, the recovery of old hymns and liturgical prayers and practices lit my fire. And it still does. In fact, John Mason Neale was (and still is) a hero to me. Many don’t realize that the Oxford Movement’s retrieval of forgotten hymns gave us some of the greats that we would not otherwise have. Classic example: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a 12th century medieval Latin hymn (Veni, veni Emmanuel! Captivum solve Israel!) that Neale re-discovered and translated into English so that we, even today, weep every Christmas as we cry out for our longed-for Messiah. I can only hope that as I and others retune and re-give old hymns to the 21st century church, maybe something similar will be recovered, restored, and perpetuated for the sake of Christ’s church. However…

Always and Only for the Sake of the Gospel

The more I am reading quotations and analyses of the first hand accounts of the Oxford Movement, the more concerned I am that we who care about retrieving historic practices of the church take heed of the now encrusted and (in my opinion) negative consequences of the movement’s success. Cutting to the chase, the movement was so dazzled by “the beauty of the liturgy” and the connectivity with the ancient that the core of what made those things valuable and gave those things life—namely, the Gospel—was obscured, if not lost.

Brothers and sisters, recovery of hymns and liturgy must never be for its own sake, but always for the Gospel’s. The only thing that should dazzle us is God on a cross. All rituals, practices, formalities, and ancient accouterments should aid and abet that one reality. Insofar as ancient liturgy and historic hymns lead us to wonderment at the fact that while we are great sinners, Christ is a great Savior, I say, “Bring it on.”

Idol-Factories, Forever and Ever Amen

But the irony is you and I will make an idol of anything…even the thing that is intended to lead us to Jesus! This is my diagnosis of the Oxford Movement, by and large, and this is my concern for this current era, which shares some similarities in zeal and aim. As the Oxford Movement took hold and took over (it’s still quite discernable in American Anglicanism today), the window between the Christian and Christ, which Reformers like Cranmer worked so hard to clean, once again became smudged and smeared.

One of the things that I love about Bryan Chapell’s game-changing book, Christ-Centered Worship, is its call for retrieval of the shape of historic Christian liturgy precisely so we might recover the Gospel’s narrative in our worship services. I imagine that our retrieval of hymns and liturgy should look something like this, contextualized for our local flocks and expressions. Therefore, as we proceed in mining the jewels of the past and polishing them off for the present, I propose a simple, evaluative question: Does this practice help to lead our people toward or away from Christ and His finished work? I don’t think this is a one-size-fits-all question. I think it needs to be asked perpetually, prayerfully, and locally. But, literally for Christ’s sake, we must ask it. Our gods can only dazzle for so long before they devour us.

In other words, as we dig for treasure, let's make sure we're not digging our own graves.

Friday
Jul082016

A Pastoral Reflection on Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"

I've been preparing as a student for a most unique course on "Doctrine for Preaching and Pastoral Care," with Dr. Jonathan Linebaugh at Knox Seminary. It will happen in a few weeks. He has us reading some unconventional (and splendid) material. The course is particularly designed to intersect with my English Reformation tract, as it is attempting to exposit the pastoral heart behind the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Along with a few great theological books, we have been tasked to read novels by George Eliot, Mark Rutherford, Thornton Wilder, and William Inge, and poetry by Oscar Wilde and Samuel Johnson.

Below is what I would describe as a "pastoral exposition" of a moving poem by Oscar Wilde, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." Do yourself a favor and spend an hour soaking in this poem.

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Where Souls In Pain Find No Comfort

How can a guilty murderer look toward his day of execution with restful surrender, without guile or self-deception? Oscar Wilde’s answer is, “In Christ.” The “Ballad of Reading Gaol” recounts a prisoner’s observation of another prisoner’s peace and freedom as he approaches the hangman’s noose—the unavoidable consequence for killing his wife in cold “blood and wine.” The convict’s freedom was evident in the prison yard—a “light and gay” bounce to his step, and a wistful gazing at the sky as if to say, with Dorothy, “There’s no place like home.”

The narrator exposits the gracelessness of prison, where “souls in pain” find no comfort—not from the Chaplain, not from the Sheriff, not from the Governor, not from the guards who watch the death-bound murderer weep and pray. The other guilty prisoners look upon him and see their own eventual fate, and they dread it. This dread accounts for the shock they experience as they observe his peace. Their “endless vigil” of anxious prayer the night before the murderer’s execution is contrasted with his deep sleep. And he goes to the gallows a free man, freer than anyone in the prison—including Chaplain, Sheriff, Governor, and guard. The noose is the murderer’s gateway to Paradise.

Hopelessness Leading to Hope

Wilde’s prisoner would agree with Paul Zahl that perhaps the best exterior sign on a church’s door should read “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,”[1] for salvation and freedom only begin at the end of Hope, “in the cave of black despair” (II.3.4). Wilde’s murderer found no freedom until he found no hope in himself and was forced to look out and up. And when he looked up, he found that “only blood can wipe out blood, and only tears can heal.” He found “Christ’s snow-white seal” (V.17.3-4, 6). The doomed prisoner discovered the only thing that would set him free: “the loftiest place is that seat of grace for which all worldlings try” (II.8.1-2). The murderer discovered that, even while he was yet a murderer, Christ died for him (Rom 5:8).

Wilde’s ultimate point, though, has less to do with the murderer and more to do with everyone else (including you and me). After a blunt critique of society and the justice system in Part V, Part VI offers the punchline—we are all the murderer. In the Spirit of Christ in His Sermon on the Mount, Wilde ratchets the bolt of the law, so that none can escape its bind:

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword! (VI.3)

The Futility of Separating Wheat and Tares

Perhaps Wilde would have pastors see that there is very little (really no) good in sorting our congregations into the good and the bad. We are all prisoners. We are all murderers. The only response, then, is grace and comfort to every last one of our parishioners. Wilde initially implies that perhaps no word of grace can exist for prisoners of this sort (and therefore us): “What word of grace in such a place could help a brother’s soul?” (III.6.5-6). But he doubles back on the question toward the end, claiming that the Word about Christ is that word of grace which can help. I translate Wilde’s warning to pastors: that pure and precious word of grace is especially given for preachers to proclaim from pulpits.

Wilde’s indictment of pastors is perhaps most pointed in his few mentions of the Chaplain who, in response to the murderer’s anguish, called twice a day and “left a little tract” (III.3.6). In the end, the Chaplain’s ministry was as cold as the Governor who, instead of seeing a person before him, saw the need to uphold “The Regulations Act,” and the Doctor who, instead of seeing a person before him, felt it better to be clinical about death. This all feels a bit like Jesus’ storied reply to the man's self-justified question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). For pastors, then, we must be careful to not make ministry to all the “prisoners” around us clinical and formulaic. We must see that every last one of us is hurting.

Let Us Preserve the Pulpit (and the Worship Service)

May the final gauntlet thrown down on the Chaplain never be thrown down on us:

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonored grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save. (IV.22)

Let us preserve the pulpit, not for good teaching, good advice, good will, or (God help us) good fun. No, let us preserve the pulpit for Good News. Wilde would tell pastors that graceless preaching is “pitiless and hard,” and leads only to soul-rot (V.11), hastening people to their graves beside which such preaching would neither kneel to pray nor offer its cruciform seal.

Perhaps, then, the Governor, Doctor, Chaplain, and guards can be seen as metaphors of what not to do in the pulpit, and what not to do in pastoral care. We are not ultimately executors of God’s law, clinical diagnosticians of our people’s sickness, tract-tossers of Christian platitudes, and gatekeepers whose sole job is to tow the line of church discipline. We are heralds of a Word of peace to a people nightly tormented by guilt.

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” helps me see that even the most hardened person before me is really “the little frightened child” who “weeps both night and day” (V.5.1-2). God, give me eyes to see and ears to hear.

 


[1] Paul F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 232.
Wednesday
Jul062016

Why Confession Should Be Interrupted, Not Completed

Feeling Worship

Over the last two years, I've been thinking a lot about feeling and affect in worship. I've been pondering how our "emotional apprehension" in worship shapes, informs, propels our congregational gatherings. I used to think that if people just had enough instruction about what worship is and does, they would be more engaged in its elements. I still believe in that, but I've come to the conclusion that I can go deeper as a pastoral worship leader in pondering the participation and formation of the people of God. People are not only receiving things in worship cognitively, but emotionally. As many of us now know thanks to the re-presenting work of thinkers like James K. A. Smith, this emotional apprehension takes place in the core of us, in that place in us the ancients called "the affections."

Of course, jumping on the affections-train has me thinking about worship in a whole new way. I'm scrutinizing my own heart and emotional life along with my congregation's. I'm thinking through how our liturgical rituals (our singing, our praying, our preaching, our baptizing, etc.) can become more alive, more real to us. And right now, I'm thinking about Confession and Assurance/Absolution--that series of crucial moments in many of our worship services where the people of God cry out for forgiveness, and God offers it in His Son.

Surprised by Grace

I want to make a case that, for at least some of the time in worship, Confession should feel interrupted by the word of pardon which follows it. It's a theological case--particularly a soteriological one--that has an emotional outworking. The case is this: You and I are never "prepared" for salvation. Salvation comes to us as a gift (Eph 2:8), and a surprising one at that. The fact that God saves us "even while we were yet sinners" (Rom 5:8) means that we're never "ready" for salvation. The Gospel is, through and through, a surprising Word from outside of us, that breaks in at a moment we least expect it.

Our default, "Old Adam/Eve" mode of thinking is, with Pelagius, that we contribute something to our salvation. Our readiness to receive the gospel fits somewhere in this (sinful, heretical) sphere of old world thinking. Apart from God's revelation, God's breaking in, we are never ready, willing, and able to receive the Good News. We are "yet sinners," thinking our sin-y thoughts, doing our sin-y deeds. Salvation, like the incarnation, is a total surprise, a shocker. It's a megaphone so loud that, for the first time, even the deaf can hear.

A Felt Gospel (and I'm not talking flannel graphs)

I wonder whether our worship services couldn't stand to allow this theological reality to be affectively demonstrated and apprehended. What would it look like? Perhaps it would look like a time of Confession that never gets fully off the ground. Perhaps it would look like a Confession interrupted before it was completed.

What could this look like in various contexts? For sung liturgies (song-set oriented worship), perhaps we need some songs written that move from Confession to Assurance that offer a fitting musical surprise at that juncture (a key change, a sudden lift, a shift in tempo or meter). If it's a move from one song to another, perhaps it might mean a shortened outro of the Confession song and a quick move to the assurance song. For worship services that offer a silent time of Confession before the Absolution is offered, perhaps you could figure out what the "normal" amount of silence is and then lop off ten to fifteen seconds to give everyone a sense of incompleteness ("Wait, I wasn't done confessing. I still had more to say."). If your liturgy is fixed, like the Prayer Book tradition I'm now in, perhaps the liturgist fires off the word of absolution ("Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy...") during the "Amen" of the Confession. 

Will this feel odd to people? I think so. But I wonder whether the oddness is exactly the affect of salvation, rightly perceived. I'm sure Jesus in all His glory felt quite odd and interruptive to Paul on the road to Damascus. I'm sure the "neither do I condemn you" jolted the woman caught in adultery. Maybe, from time to time, Absolution should feel out of place to remind us that it is out of place.  

The reality is that, were we given all the time in the world to confess our sin, it still wouldn't be enough. Our infinite transgression is infinitely confess-able. It is only our self-righteousness that causes us to run out of things to confess. If we're being true to the theology of the liturgy, it just might be that our Confession should take the lion's share of the time. But that's the point. It doesn't because God interjects into our Confession a profession of the One who "made an end to all my sin."

Again, this will look differently depending on your liturgical flow, but it's worth pondering as we consider not only how the liturgy is understood cognitively but apprehended emotionally. 

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Postscript: This is just another way I'm thinking though what it means to be an "Emotional Shepherd" in worship. If these thoughts resonate, consider picking up my book, with a chapter dedicated to the topic.