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Reflections on Teaching My Worship Class

Last week, I was blessed to have a packed classroom full of thoughtful, engaged students. My aim with this week-long intensive Worship course at Knox Seminary was not to solve all the problems but to place these present and future worship leaders and pastors on some healthy trajectories. We spent a LOT of time in the Scriptures, but we also needed to ask important questions about how we read the Scriptures, because ones understanding of interpretation (hermeneutics)--especially that of the Old Testament--shapes ones sense of what parts of the Bible are applicable to worship now. We asked important questions about the Christ-centered nature of worship, through the lens of Trinitarian theology, Old Testament worship practices, and a Reformational anthropology strongly connected to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And we did all that while moving up and down the "abstraction ladder," making sure we weren't staying in ivory tower for too long without asking concretely how what we were studying applied to our given worship contexts. We laughed, stood in awe, and wept. We gained some new convictions and solidified some old ones. From my perspective, it was a huge success. I'd like to share, with a little more detail, some of what we went through, including readings and key insights.

Textbooks Used

The following texts were read by students beforehand to prepare for the class.

Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014). 

  • Entire book – 360 pages.
  • ISBN# 0801026989  |  Amazon

Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009).

  • Part 1 (pp. 15-155) – 140 pages.
  • ISBN# 0801036402  |  Amazon

Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).

  • Chapters 7, 8, 9, & 10 (pp. 89-132) – 43 pages.
  • ISBN# 0310494184  | Amazon  

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, & Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001).

  • Entire book – 230 pages.
  • ISBN# 0801035775  |  Amazon

James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, & the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997).

  • Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2 (pp. 13-67) – 54 pages.
  • ISBN# 0830818952  |  Amazon

Along with portions of my forthcoming book, a critical article also explored was:

Michael A. Farley, “What is ‘Biblical’ Worship? Biblical Hermeneutics and Evangelical Theologies of Worship,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51, no. 3 (Sept 2008): 591-613.

  • 22 pages.
  • (Free online PDF

Day 1 - A Biblical Theology of Worship (I)

We began by examining the major Greek and Hebrew words for "worship," listening to Block's helpful categorization of them in three large groups of expression--attitude/disposition, physical, and cultic/liturgical. Against the broad backdrop painted by these worship words, we applied the language to the typically stunted ways we tend to use the the word "worship," allowing the biblical language to expand our imaginations. We then examined passages of Scripture that helped us to see some of the Bible's most broad governing thoughts about worship: (a) that corporate worship is a dialogue between God and His people, characterized by cycles of revelation and response; (b) that God is the proper object of worship, worthy because of who He is and what He does (and has done); (c) that we are worship's subject, called to offer a response of adoration, thanksgiving, devotion, etc. to God.

However, we camped longer on (c) to expose the incompleteness of Block's assessment of worship's subject, and for this we walked through various pages and statements of Torrance's work. What we learned is that a proper Trinitarian understanding of God yields Him as both object and subject of worship. In other words, worship's subject is not us, first and foremost, but the living High Priest, Jesus Christ, who offers up perfect worship to God the Father. By the Spirit, we all worship in Christ, echoing His prayers and praises after Him. This Gospel of worship's true Subject is a crucial element for understanding the role of worshipers and worship leaders. We engaged an in-class reading from church father Basil the Great as we examined John 4's statement about worship being done "in Spirit and in Truth," determining that this statement was nothing short of a Trinitarian read on what we had already discussed.

Day 2 - A Biblical Theology of Worship (II)

At the beginning of the second day, we took a step back from Scriptural examination to ask a critical question explored by Farley in his article: How are we reading the Bible to determine our theology of worship? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not simple, as Farley exposes.

We started the day by looking at the Reformed "Regulative Principle for Worship" (RPW) alongside the other major Reformational view, the Normative Principle (NP). We examined the debate between the RPW and the NP in its historical context during and in the generations after the Reformation, looking at the language and interpretation of the Westminster Confession of Faith and catechisms. We observed a spectrum within the Reformed tradition of how to understand the RPW, from the more "tight" interpretation by thinkers like D. G. Hart and G. I. Williamson to more "loose" interpretations by authors such as John Frame and R. J. Gore.

We then turned to Farley to understand the hermeneutical problems that are a part of determining a theology of worship. With Farley, we concluded that the Old Testament was often way too underutilized by evangelical interpreters. We made a case for a Christo-centric interpretation of Old Testament practices and forms for the New Testament church.

We turned, then, to the New Testament, to look at the typical passages that help us determine the "non-negotiable" elements of New Testament worship...things like Word, sacrament, singing, prayers, offering, etc. We determined, though, that the New Testament voice didn't offer the full story of how the Bible not only guides the elements of worship, but its structure.

We then walked through various Old Testament passages which exposed a consistent pattern of how the people of God approached Him, both individually and corporately, throughout salvation history, weaving in some insights from Block, Chapell, and Allen Ross. This consistent pattern, we determined, was strikingly similar to the shape that most historic liturgies of the Christian church took. We determined that the Scriptures offer general guidelines for worship structure that many of us have ignored or not fully seen...ultimately a worship structure that allows the church to encounter God in a Christ-mediated (not merely Christ-centered) fashion.

Day 3 - A Biblical Theology of Worship (III); Worship & Mission

On the third day, after reviewing the pattern of worship explored in day two, we sought to apply this pattern to various traditional and contemporary worship structures to see how a Christ-mediated worship structure could look through the lens of many different ways of worshiping--the Praise & Worship model, the Vineyard/Charismatic model, the historic liturgical (Word & Table) model, etc.--and I offered some "hybrid" options, like what I call a "Reformational Charismatic" model. We briefly touched on the perspective of worship-shapers like the Calvary Chapel movement, John Wimber, and Robert Webber.

At this point, we moved on from talking about the elements and structure of worship and into exploring worship's "grammar." We were interested in how we construct the words we use to talk to God and respond to Him in the worship service, peering particularly into the practices of the Reformers in this regard. We laid the foundation for this discussion by exploring three key Reformational anthropological insights: (a) simul justus et peccator; (b) the Old Adam; (c) incurvatus in se. We then looked at how one Reformer, Thomas Cranmer, used these insights as a kind of grid through which to sift the received liturgy, straining out works-righteousness from the grammar of worship through the way he edited worship's prayers. After this, we entertained an exercise where we examined, with this "Cranmerian eye," the words of popular worship songs, to work the muscles that would make us sensitive to what the Reformers were sensitive to. We concluded that if we are to take seriously the doctrine of justification by faith alone, we need to allow it to inform worship's grammar in the way the Reformers did.

Briefly after this, we turned back to the Christ-mediated, gospel-shaped worship patterns we previously explored and then looked at this pattern in light of an annual worship calendar. We explored the Old Testament annual cycles of feasts and festivals and then turned to John 5-10 to see how Jesus was proclaiming Himself the fulfillment of them. We determined that some kind of Christian calendar year may be warranted, even encouraged, by the Scriptures. We looked at the broad seasons of the Christian year and saw how they offer to the church a way of engaging the gospel story not only in a weekly fashion, but in an annual one.

We spent the remainder of the day exploring the topic of Worship and Mission, observing that they are too often separated in ecclesiological conversations. We determined, with the help of Jean-Jacques von Allmen, that Scripture sees worship and mission existing in symbiotic (mutually life-giving) relationship. They are both inherent in the Trinitarian life, and they are therefore part of the DNA (not departmental add-ons) of every local church. We asked the question of what contextualization of worship practices looks like, weaving in insights from Keller. We determined that contextualization involves perpetual three-way listening--to Scripture, to the Great Tradition, and to our local context--and when we listen in this way, we are engaging in the work of the Holy Spirit in and through all three (though most clearly and definitively in Scripture).

Day 4 - Philosophy of Worship; Worship & Formation; Architectural & Aesthetic Formation

Utilizing portions of my book, we began the fourth day by discussing the central questions we need to answer in forming our own philosophy of worship. The goal was to set the students on a trajectory to develop a succinct philosophy of worship statement that would be useful in formulating vision for their local church as well as entertaining various job opportunities as pastors and worship leaders.

We then moved on to an extended discussion of worship and formation. We walked through Smith's (maybe now classic?) treatment of affectively oriented anthropology and "cultural liturgies." After summarizing Smith, we brought in two other voices to round out the discussion, open-endedly, about important additional insights about how biblical change, growth, and formation works. We turned to a debate between Aristotle and the Reformers (particularly Luther and Melanchthon) about formation through habit, true change, and the bondage of the will. We read portions of Aristotle's Ethics and Melanchthon's Loci Communes to hear their voices in their contexts. Not necessarily solving all the problems, we did determine that habitual formation can only go so far before we need to reckon with the reality that "inside-out" change is only really possible when begun in the heart as a divine gift of transformational grace bestowed upon us by the Spirit through the work of the the Son. We concluded that formation must be thought about "within" this Gospel-centered structure for it to be truly formational in a positive, lasting direction.

We ended the day by talking about how architecture and other aesthetics shape and form people. We discussed, using diagrams provided by Block, the benefits and liabilities of different kinds of worship spaces and configurations. We walked through Coral Ridge as a test case, noting the pluses and minuses of a worship space like that.

Day 5 - Exam & Paper

The last day was reserved for an exam. My goal with the exam was to review the students' apprehension of the most important points, not nit pick the details. After the course, the students will be working on a paper due to me within the month. The paper includes their articulation of a philosophy of worship, their appraisal of the service structure and contents in their own local church, a "Cranmerian" analysis of a few worship songs in their local church. The final part of the paper is reserved for reflections on areas for pastoral growth for these future pastors and worship leaders.

Things I Learned

1) Teaching intensive courses is exhausting, intellectually and emotionally.

2) Teaching on worship is enriched when you get pastors and worship leaders in the same room. One of the blessings of this class was that the existing and future pastors in the room were forced to reckon with the voices and perspectives of worship leaders, who always see things from a slightly different angle. And, it was helpful for the worship leaders in the room to see these pastors wrestling through the issues from their perspective. And the fact that I am both an ordained minister and a worship leader means that I was able to help build those bridges and broker those discussions. I get both sides; I live in those tensions.

3) Teaching forces you to grapple with issues more deeply. When you have to teach something, you're often forced to pursue ideas further down the thought-path than you would in, say, the blogosphere. Students don't let you off the hook. They ask incisive questions and won't let you leave stones unturned. This is healthy, sharpening, but sometimes uncomfortable. And I'm grateful for it.

4) Teaching is nearly equal parts planning and improvisation. The most dynamic classrooms I've experienced have been the ones where the professor had a script, but knew how to jam on themes and variations. They had sensitive spirits for the rabbit trails, knowing which ones to go down and which ones to block off, and they recognized that often the greatest teaching moments happened on those side-paths, not the central one they had carved out. One of my philosophy professors, Douglas Groothuis, likened himself to the pedagogical version of a jazz musician. I felt, tasted, and enjoyed some of those realities last week. I didn't always do a good job, but I saw first hand the value of the interplay between my script and the improvised moments. And it was fun.

How Can One Get a Hold of the Content?

Knox Seminary filmed the class. It is in the process of being edited down, and it will be made available as an online course. If you're interested in the class, I imagine on a future date you'll be able to register for it and have access to the videos. You can contact the registrar, Lori Gottshall, for more details. At this point, we will see if there will be another opportunity for me to re-teach this class. I hope so! I've got some things that I'd like to make better. I'm so grateful to the leaders of Knox for giving me the opportunity to do this.


On Seminary Worship Classes and Lack of Training for Pastors and Worship Leaders

Over the last few weeks, I've gained some perspectives I didn't have before. I have new viewing angles on what I perceive as a continued problem that relates to the multi-layered reality of why worship leaders and their lead pastors often struggle to truly work together in that most central experience of the Church--worship. These insights have been gained as a result of being on the other side of this arena (for the first time for me, really), looking at the game from a totally different perspective.

Convos at Samford

Last week I was in Birmingham spending some great time with the excellent, way too talented worship faculty team at Samford University. Dr. Eric Mathis and soon-to-be-Dr. Emily Andrews (she's working on a thesis...stay's going to be dynamite) brought me in to guest lecture for a few classes and then give a two-hour workshop on what it means to lead worship from a pastoral perspective (yes, some the content of my book that comes out this October). Eric, Emily, and I shared many conversations in between the "on" moments, reflecting on the joys and challenges of the academic system. Ultimately, for people like Eric, trying to design degree programs and curricula to thoroughly equip emerging worship leaders in the 21st century, there are a host of understandable tensions that one must faithfully manage. Worship programs can't be designed ex nihilo. They must operate within the broader scheme of the academic vision of the institution. They must play well with others. Where the rubber meets the road: the simple fact is that there probably aren't enough credit hours to thoroughly train undergrads in all the theory and pragmatics of worship leading. The tension folks like Eric and Emily feel is that you need full training on the one hand in Bible and Theology and on the other hand in music. It always seems like worship degrees struggle to offer both robust theological/theoretical training and thorough musical training. After stepping into the university context for 48 hours, I get it. And I don't know that there are easy answers.

Prep at Knox

Simultaneously and by God's providence, I find myself in the final stages of preparation to teach THE worship course that Master of Divinity students down here at Knox Seminary will take in preparation for ministry. From the practitioner's perspective, I always looked back on my own seminary worship training with heavy gobs of criticism. I felt like my one worship course was woefully inadequate to prepare me and other pastors for one of the most important and ongoing things we do. I lamented all the pastors out there who I sense are operating out of an under-developed philosophy and theology of worship. But again, now I'm on the other side, prepping to teach that very course. I'm feeling the weight of it, and, if I'm honest, I'm already predicting failure for myself. I don't want to let these future pastors and future churches down. At best, I can offer a few central hooks to hang some really important ideas in hopes that these smart students will follow up on the trajectories I aim them toward.

Tackling the Problem

How do we tackle the very real problems here? To me, it seems like a key toward change, growth, and more health is relationships. On every level, from the academy to the church, the day won't ultimately be won merely through massive curriculum overhauls or increased credit hours in worship for divinity students. Relationships will win the day.

On the academic side, we need worship faculty who can bridge the relational gaps between them and their superiors (the deans, president, and other visionaries of the institutions) and between them and their peers (the other music and Bible faculty...both of whom can understandably look upon these hybrid "worship" people with great suspicion). We need talented people on the worship faculty who have the pedigree and chops to be respectable among the theologians and the musicians. This is a tall order, I know, but it needs to be said. We need worship faculty who understand the role of relationships among all these parties for the sake of forward progress. These relationships need to be genuine and heartfelt, otherwise they downgrade into mere academic politics, which helps no one and hurts everyone. 

I also perceive, on the academic side, that the academy needs to (continue to) extend a hand to the church and invite thoughtful practitioners to speak into the programs that they're developing...maybe even help teach in them. We need academics who sympathize with the pragmatics of on-the-ground worship pastoring, and we need practitioners who are thoughtful enough about their craft to be of use and help to the academic institutions. Another tall order. But, again, more achievable when people on both ends pursue genuine relationships, true friendships. 

On the church side, we need bold pastors who will initiate formative relationships with their worship leaders. Just recently, after having given several "worship pastor" presentations in Grand Rapids and in Birmingham, I'm struck by the amount of worship leaders coming up to me who desire to read my forthcoming book alongside their pastors. This is very telling. The subtext is that not only do we need worship leaders who will start to view their jobs more pastorally. We need pastors who will start viewing their worship leaders the same way. And we need to bridge the distance, once again, relationally. 

Could it be that for pastors, professors, and worship leaders, coffee shop conversations will be just as much an engine for change and growth as think-tanks, curriculum research, and workshops? 

I can't get away from the fact that our three-in-one God exists as a unified Community of persons, forever pouring themselves out in mutual self-giving. I can't get away from the fact that our one God's relationships drives His planning, not the other way around. 


How Far Off Are We from the Reformers' Vision for Lent?

I utilize a wonderful little liturgical resource in some of my worship planning for the chapel services at Knox Seminary, where I both study and teach. This book is a devotionally-oriented compendium of the collects (the short prayers, invocations which "collect" the hearts of the people at the beginning of worship) of the brilliant liturgical reformer, Thomas Cranmer. This book presents the week's collect along with a few historical observations of how the prayer was written and then offers a page-length devotional meditation on the collect.

The Fine-Meshed Filter of the Gospel

Cranmer composed, edited, or re-purposed these historic liturgical prayers, and they have become for the Anglican tradition some of the most beautiful gems of the Prayer Book. Reformation scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch says that the collects are "one of the chief glories" of the entire tradition of Anglican worship.* Studying the origins of the collects of Cranmer would be a formative exercise for any earnest worship leader interested in how a gospel-centered thinker edited the "worship words" of his tradition to be more in line with the good news of Jesus Christ. In writing his liturgies for the English church, Cranmer took the received Roman liturgy and not only translated it into English but "gospel-ized" it. In other words, Cranmer edited out everything in the liturgy that he felt was not in line with the Gospel, and he replaced it with an enormous spotlight on the finished work of Christ's life and death. He ferreted out every last hint of works-based righteousness, and replaced it with what Paul calls "a righteousness that is by faith from first to last" (Rom 1:17, NIV).

God's Word is a fine-meshed filter, sifting out self-righteousness in parts per trillion. The Law says that our righteousness isn't really righteousness after all. And the Gospel says that God didn't need our righteousness anyway. I was reminded of all this when I opened up my book to Cranmer's collect for the first Sunday in Lent. Here it is.


The Collect for the First Sunday in Lent

O Lord, which for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the spirit, we may ever obey thy Godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honor and glory, which liveth and reigneth, &c.


Like the Collects of Advent III and St. Stephen's Day, this prayer is addressed directly to Our Lord Jesus Christ. The reason is clear: Hebrews 4:15. This is an original composition for the 1549 Prayer Book. Our Reformers eliminated the medieval Collect which stressed fasting and good works as a means to earn merit, a notion completely out of line with the New Testament.


It is clear from this Collect that we cannot obey God in the direction of "righteousness and true holiness" until we are "subdued." What is in mind is the self-control of a person as St. Paul commends it in II Timothy 1:7: "For God hath not given us a spirit of fear; but of power and of love, and of self-control" ("of a sound mind" in the Authorized Version). ... The older or medieval model in commending self-control was the model of warfare, the war between the "flesh" and the "spirit." It was as if we were divided between a good "spirit" and a rotten "flesh." ... What Cranmer intends here, in place of the old model of warfare between "flesh" and "spirit," is the discipline exercised upon the whole person by the Spirit of God. Through the Spirit it becomes natural rather than against nature to restrain the evil impulse for the sake of love. The "godly motion" of the Collect is the spirit of a man or woman that has been aligned into the ways of goodness by the virtue of God's grace preceding. We are not understood here as being divided in some schizoid or dualistic manner, but rather as persons to be realigned or integrated by the rod of God exercised from love and hence for love. Remember the old saw, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak"? Cast out that thought, like the sad rag it is! Exchange it for the glad rag: "Love subdues the spirit, and the 'motions' follow and follow and follow."**


A Great Lent Makes Much of Christ

So here's what I'm thinking, friends. Liturgy and the Church Calendar are in vogue right now. And praise God for that. I happen to think the Church Calendar is much more than extra-biblical "dead traditionalism." It is rooted in a Scriptural understanding of annual Christ-centered cycles of worship, and it is therefore a quite lively tradition. Perhaps, though, we Protestants need to think more carefully about how we re-engage and appropriate these traditions, and Lent is case in point.

Lent is a wonderful season that can go all wrong if we don't, in the Spirit of the Reformers, maintain a stubborn commitment to the very Gospel that drove them to edit, redact, and overhaul their received liturgies. Lent is one of those places where works-righteousness likes to sneak in, where the Old Adam tries to reassert himself and gain a place at the table. For in a season of fasting and repentance (both thoroughly biblical ideas), we're always tempted to make it about us and what we do for God. Lent can become far more about what we give up for God and far less about what Christ gave up for God the Father on our behalf. Lent is ultimately about Christ's fasting, not ours...Christ's earning God's favor, not ours...Christ's victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil, not ours.

Jesus fasted for forty days to secure the favor of the Father, and he did this, in the words of the Nicene Creed, "for us and for our salvation." Jesus fasted in His Lenten wilderness so that our Lenten fast could be completely freed from any sense of securing the favor of God. We fast and repent from out of the favor of God, not for it. This does a marvelous relativizing work on our works, for it puts our fasting completely on the horizontal plane (between us and our fellow human beings), not the vertical (between us and God). It means that we fast for our neighbor. How is this so?

God doesn't need one ounce of our good works. He's got the King's chest...a big pile of merit secured by His Son and placed in its overflowing, eternal storehouse.  The Father looks at the Son's spoils from His war on earth and is satisfied. But though God doesn't need our good works, our neighbor does. We fast, therefore, that we may be freed up toward the types of "Godly motions in righteousness" that bless our neighbor. When I am self-controlled, my wife and my children are blessed. When I am not self-controlled, I hurt them. Though God doesn't benefit one ounce from my good works, my neighbor does a whole lot. So, we might say that a truly Gospel-centered Lent "horizontalizes" the works of the season. 

Furthermore, a truly Gospel-centered Lent understands with Cranmer, Luther, Calvin, Bucer, and the other reformers that it is only in focusing on Christ's work for us (our justification) that enables our work for the sake of our neighbor (our vocation). Therefore, Lent in the light of the Gospel remains, just like all the other seasons, all about Jesus. 

Worship planners and leaders, a great Lent makes much of Christ. 

*Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven: Yale, 1996), 417.
**C. Frederick Barbee and Paul Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 34-35. 

Thoughtful Responses to All the Modern Worship Bashing

In various spheres of the online worship conversation, a few posts (like this one and this one) have been circulating and dominating many of our social media feeds. They offer a strong (and not completely unwarranted) critique of "contemporary worship" and "megachurch worship." Their sharply critical posture, along with their provocative titles, is certainly what has attracted so many people to click, read, interact, and share. Several people have asked what I think about it all. The short answer is that I think about these kinds of posts similarly to how I have reviewed T. David Gordon's Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns: These posts are unhelpful in actually moving the church in a positive direction, not because some of their arguments aren't worth pondering but because they caricature what they critique and, in doing so, foster a spirit that actually makes fruitful dialogue harder. In my opinion, contemporary/modern/megachurch worship (whatever label you wish to use) is simply not homogenous enough to successfully analyze it in the way these writers have analyzed it. I'm not saying that making generalizations is bad, and I'm certainly not saying that today's worship landscape doesn't need an awful lot of prophetic critique. 

Thankfully, there are a few responses out there that I think do a far better job analyzing the issues at hand and offering ways forward, and that's the reason for this post. I would love to point you to them. The first is Glenn Packiam's "What You (Probably) Don't Know About Modern Worship." Glenn's is more strictly a critique of the critique. Here's a choice paragraph:

If one wants to prove the shallowness of modern worship, examples abound; but if you want to really understand and assess the subject, you need a more careful eye. And you must account for an insider perspective. What matters is not simply what the outside observer/blogger/professor thinks is going on; what matters is also what the pastor or worship leader says is going on, and what the worshipper is experiencing. (The latter is known as phenomenological perspective— the way people describe their experience of a thing.) If all we get are theoretical assessments from afar, we will evaluate modern worship without knowing if we are actually evaluating modern worship or our impression of it— which is almost always a caricature.

The second post is Mike Cosper's "Kill Your (Celebrity Culture) Worship." Mike (I think successfully) reframes the discussion around more core issues. Here is his summary:

In our day, we should be suspicious of the overhyped promises of megachurch worship, but we should also be suspicious of overhyped laments for “the good ol’ days.” What’s truly needed today is what was needed in every age: liturgical renewal—faithful pastors leading in worship that is faithful to the gospel, comprehensible to the congregation, and formative of the soul. 

Please read those posts! 


Reflections on the Calvin Symposium 2016

The Calvin Symposium simply has to be named among the best worship conferences out there. The challenge of getting so many different voices and perspectives in one place engaging in convicted yet loving dialogue is difficult, but the folks at Calvin have done a remarkable job of creating that space and setting the tone. My own experience as a conference attender, worshiper, panelist, and breakout session leader was shaped therefore not only by the content of the conference but the actual people in the room. I will share my impressions of the panels and breakouts I was a part of, for what they’re worth to others.

David Bailey, Sandra Van Opstal, Rawn Harbor, Myself, Monique, Ingalls, (not in picture) Ed Wilmington, Wen Reagan

I participated in four events and sat in on a host of others. Some of my highlights were being led by Bruce Benedict and his Hope College crew, deftly blending their band with the organ in a pipe rock extravaganza. It was also great conversing with worship scholars like Wen Reagan and Monique Ingalls about the national and global contemporary worship movement (check out this book that they both contributed to for fascinating historical and ethnomusicological insights into contemporary/modern worship). Another fabulous highlight was sitting in on Sandra Van Opstal’s pretty remarkable exposition of her new book, The Next Worship, which I look forward to reading and reviewing in more detail—there is a lot for me to learn under her tutelage.

Worship Leaders are Eager For This

The big surprise for me was to find how many people packed the lecture hall for my repeated workshop on “The Worship Pastor.” The room was electric, and people were resonating with what we were talking about. I was talking with individuals for long after the breakout ended, and I was hearing similar stories: “I’ve been feeling like what I’m doing has pastoral impact on people, and what you’re saying really helped define and awaken those thoughts.” I talked to lead pastors, as well, whose eyes were being opened to what the vocation of their counterpart worship leader really is.

Worship leaders are ripe and ready to take on the pastoral mantle. I’m not talking about formal ordination and formal “pastor” in their title. I’m talking about ownership…ownership of the reality of what they are already doing, shepherding souls, impacting faith-walks, and making disciples.

And Finally…My Hero

Dr. William Lock, my vocal and church music professor during some very formative college years

Most people didn’t know that a quiet legend was walking among us at the conference. His name is Dr. William Lock, who faithfully taught voice and church music for over 40 years at Biola University. And Dr. Lock has left an indelible mark on my life. He taught me to think critically about worship, church, and culture, and he was one of the first people to really encourage me as a writer. He gave me space to grow and wings to fly, and it’s high time I give this great mentor of mine a major shout out on this blog, which owes way too much to this man. 


The Case for the Emotional Worship Leader

My Facebook feed blew up this morning with this intense and quite moving footage from a New Zealand wedding. They're engaging in a sincere and powerful Haka ritual, and though I don't understand a word of it, I think I get it...and I think you do, too.

Our Love-Hate Relationship with Emotions

Let's face it. We evangelicals have a checkered past when it comes to emotions and worship. The Second Great Awakening--that early nineteenth century movement of westward-sweeping revivals--polarized the various Reformational and evangelical traditions. The wild reports of mass conversions following emotionally-charged revival meetings elicited usually one of two responses. On the one hand, the movement was greeted with great success, and its accompanying methods were championed as the way forward for evangelicals. On the other hand, emotionalism was looked on with great suspicion. Charges of false conversions and manipulation abounded. 

And we evangelicals today have inherited this schizophrenic relationship with emotions and worship. With a very broad brush, we can say that it tends to be (just as it was then) the more "thoughtful" traditions (i.e. the ones that place high emphasis on biblical fidelity and theological precision) that are more skeptical of dragging that clumsy bag of emotionalism into the worship service. Out of these traditions today, one can hear in their criticisms of today's worship the echoes of the tracts put out against the "enthusiasm" of the Second Great Awakening some two hundred years ago: "it's all just sappy emotionalism;" "they're just brainwashing congregations;" "they're encouraging you to turn your brains off and 'just feel'."

Because our suspicion of emotions is buried deep in our historical psyche, even a post like this, entitled, "The Case for the Emotional Worship Leader," is greeted with at least a raised eyebrow.

Emotions and Worship's Punchline

I've been doing a lot of thinking over the last few years about the nature of emotions and their relationship to worship. One of my best friends, who recently completed his Ph.D. at Baylor specializing in the philosophy of emotions, has been a mentor from afar...occasional dialogues, texts, emails, and book-exchanges. I've read books like Robert Roberts' insighful Spiritual Emotionshelpful sections in Jeremy Begbie and Steve Guthrie's Resonant Witness, and key portions of Brian Wren's Praying Twice. I've studied Reformational worship leaders and liturgical architects like Thomas Cranmer, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, and Martin Luther, who all pre-dated the Second Great Awakening, in hopes of learning from what responsible emotional worship leading looked like before we developed some of our hangups. And I've certainly done a lot of prayerful "practition-ing" on the local level, in dialogue with the pastors, musicians, choir, and worship leaders at Coral Ridge.

I've come to the conclusion that we've got a lot of ground to plow when it comes to emotions and worship. I don't really know what it looks like on the other side, but I do know that our historical PTSD over the abuses of the Second Great Awakening have had the residual effect on many of us of stunting our emotional engagement in worship. I have explored these things in the most succinctly systematic fashion I can in my book, The Worship Pastor, in the chapter entitled "The Worship Pastor as Emotional Shepherd"...which will be released (thankfully) mid-October of 2016 (updates of the book's progress here).

Now that I've raised these issues, I want to ask a few questions about the above video. I'll first tell you about my reaction: I was deeply moved. I was deeply moved because on this sacred day, there was enacted an historic ritual, and this ritual was performed with intense amounts of sincerity and heart. The ritual may have been foreign to us, but if you're like me, you found yourself nearly weeping at the end. 

God seems to have created us all with a kind of emotional resonating chamber that reverberates on similar frequencies to one another. A ritual from a culture half a world away from me echoes in my heart simply because emotions are a human, trans-cultural reality, and when they are on display in an intense and authentic way, they immediately begin to ring in my soul. Emotions, surrounded in ritual, are a powerful thing. This bride, groom, and these other men were doing something that led the other people in the room (and you and me). They took us somewhere. They took us on a journey of tension and release, whose punchline was, "Welcome to the family...we are for you, not against you."

Worship has a punchline. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ. And what if we worship leaders could wisely, responsibly, and faithfully tap into our own emotions so that that punchline has a greater opportunity to resonate with others? What if our rituals can surround (and appropriately safeguard) our emotions while nonetheless setting them free? What if, in our leadership, our emotions could be so appropriately deep and sincere that they cannot help but resonate?

I'm not talking about hyper-emotionalism and breakdowns on the platform. I'm talking about something that's very context-specific, but nevertheless bold. From the stateliest liturgical setting to the freest charismatic moment, what if we could find a way to emotionally lead that was faithful to the ritual and excited all the best frequencies of the emotional resonating chambers in the room?

How do we go about it? How do we toe the line between faithful shepherding and careless manipulation? Where's the boundary past "emotional resonance" to emotionalistic carelessness? These are all very important questions, and we need to answer them. For now, I just want to try to blow open the issue so that we can continue faithfully and pastorally responding to these questions, and a wonderful New Zealand wedding ritual moved me to do so.


Worship as Jesus Renewing His Wedding Vows

Metaphors are powerful, but this one's more than a metaphor...

Pastors from time to time are asked by older couples to join with them in what is most often a quaint yet meaningful ceremony. After decades of marriage together, committed husbands and wives sometimes desire to renew their wedding vows with one another. It's a time for each to remember and recount what they've committed to, and to declare their intentions to remain faithful for the next set of years God would grant. As I reflected on this, the more it became obvious to me that this is exactly what weekly corporate worship is. 

Continuity of Worship Practice

There are some theologians out there who see a lot of discontinuity between what God was doing in the Old Testament and what He did in the New. I am not one of them. In fact, when it comes to worship, I think those of us in evangelical traditions have been quite underserved in mining the wisdom of the theology and practice of worship in the Old Testament. We tend to too cheaply cry "fulfilled in Christ!" before exploring how we can engage (rather than jettison) the worship habits of ancient Israel. Take, for instance, the annual worship calendar of Israel's feasts and festivals. Thoughtful Christians who choose to recognize a Christian year (Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, etc.) can understand that "fulfillment in Christ" means not abolishing the annual worship cycles of ancient Israel, but worshiping through an annual pattern that interprets those Israelite rituals in light of Christ (check out my post about that here).

A Responsive Reading on Two Mountains

One Old Testament worship concept we don't hear a lot about these days is worship as covenant renewal. When the Israelites gathered for worship at certain times, there was a keen sense that what they were enacting, from sacrifices to songs to responsive readings and prayers, was a renewal of God's covenant with them and their covenant with God. Recall Deuteronomy 11. Just after God re-gave the Law to Israel and reminded them that the Law was ultimately about their hearts (Deut 10), He tells them about the consequences of keeping and breaking that Law--blessings for obedience, curses for disobedience (Deut 11:26-32). With this (Mosaic) covenant established, God prescribes a ritual of covenant renewal to enact the ratified covenant once Israel enters the promised land. One set of Israelites are to go up to Mount Gerizim and shout forth the blessings of the covenant, and the other set is to go up on nearby Mount Ebal and shout forth the curses. This ritual was intended to help Israel remember their vows and to assure the people that God would remember His.

One Mount to Rule Them All

So what of this worship practice for folks like us who sit on the other side of the Christ-event? Are covenant renewal rituals like this done away with because Christ has come, or is there a way to see these practices somehow re-enacted in Christ? Think with me about another mountain that a lone Israelite would ascend--the hill of Jerusalem. But this time, He didn't have to shout the Word of God because He is the Word of God. Think about the life's journey that this Hero took from birth to that final ascent, perfectly obeying the Law of His Father, withstanding temptation and never straying to the right or to the left. This thirty-year journey was His keeping of the covenant, earning all the blessings shouted from Mount Gerizim long ago. And then the final stage of that journey, arriving on the hilltop of Golgotha, was his bearing of the covenant curses--the dread of Ebal--in our stead. Hallelujah, what a Savior!

If Gerizim and Ebal find their fullest expression in Jesus, how could we reimagine those mountainous moments in our worship today? Well, perhaps the elements of historic Christian worship already do this. Worship services that walk through Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon / Absolution are re-enacting Gerizim and Ebal in and through the One who earned their blessings and bore their curses. Confession of Sin is a response to the Christian's acknowledgement that we have not kept the law (yet again for another week) and justly deserve those forever covenant curses. And yet the proclamation of forgiveness in Christ becomes a two-fold statement that (a) the penalty of those curses has been paid in full upon the cross, and (b) Christ's successful law-keeping has earned for us the righteousness required by the Law and shouted at Gerizim.

"Look Into Each Others' Eyes and Repeat After Me..."

This all brings us back to where we started. Many of Israel's rituals (including the Gerizim-Ebal response) were designed for "remembrance" (a rich biblical word) so that, when they were enacted, Israel would remember and feel yet again the affectionate "I love You" that they so needed to hear from Yahweh. Worship is no less for us. It is the Bridegroom Christ renewing His wedding vows with the harlot He irrevocably loves, the Gomer He won't let go. It is Christ reminding His Church that he took all the covenant responsibilities (the blessings and the curses) upon His own shoulders precisely so that His wayward Bride was free to return...not having to earn the relationship, but merely receiving it by faith. 

Worship is Jesus gazing into our eyes, repeating the vows He made on that bloody wedding day in that open-air chapel of Golgotha: "It is finished." Worship is Christ's reassurance that we can stop clamoring for sources of life outside of Him: reputation, power, wealth, know, the usual-suspect idols. We can cease scraping for significance in a world that offers it to us in millions of insufficient ways. We can receive our Husband as a gift and rest our weary head on His steady chest.

There is more ground to plow when it comes to engaging practices like Ebal and Gerizim. Perhaps some creative liturgist can write a song or craft a reading that divides the congregation into two or offers a worship leader / congregation call-and-response to more concretely place that ritual in the language of Confession and Absolution. But in the meantime, let's all tarry for a bit around that mystically wonderful idea that worship is a weekly reliving of a wedding day. 


New Album Coming in a Few Short Months!

God is always giving us a new song to sing. We've been writing and dreaming about this next handful of songs for the church for quite a while. In fact, a lot of the hardship that Coral Ridge has gone through over the last year has threatened to forestall if not shut down this project. But we, being both stubborn and confident in our Warrior-King Jesus's power midst the fiery darts of the enemy, have pressed forward. And we want to share a little bit about the uniqueness of this project.

A New Kind of Production

If you've been following my blog over 2015, you know I've been doing a lot of thinking in the area of emotions and the affections. You know, too, that I've been interacting with brothers and sisters from charismatic backgrounds and traditions beyond my own, trying to learn from the wisdom that I believe they do have to offer me when it comes to worship and emotional/affective formation (some of the fruit of that thinking will come out in my book this year). The more we had conversations together, the more we sensed that we wanted to try something a little different for both of us. My thoughtful, artistic, passionate friends wanted to take a stab at shaping songs that came from a more hymn-based, theologically informed, and historically-rooted context. I wanted to take a stab at giving my songs in demo form over to these qualified producers to see how they might take, tweak, restructure, and reimagine my songs through their lens. 

So...Dan Bashta and the hard workers over at 1971 Sounds in Atlanta are currently working on our new EP, and we should be able to lay down some vocals in February. I can't wait to hear what they have come up with, but thanks to a test run (see below), I'm excited to tell you it's going to sound different...and amazing.

A New Kind of Songwriting

Julie Anne Vargas and I have attempted to write a different batch of songs this time around. They were occasioned for where our church was at and where we were at. They are songs which, for us, fill holes in what's missing in our worship and where God is leading. There are no retuned hymns on this record, but I will say that the songs we've written are heavily haunted by both hymns and Reformational liturgies. Here's what we're cooking:

  • a call to worship song that interacts with the spirit of Thomas Cranmer's opening prayers of his 1552 liturgy...the 10 commandments, hearts cut wide open, and a driving beat
  • a love song to Jesus, grounded in His cruciform love for us
  • an intense worship song that tarries between the bronze serpent and the crucified Son of Man
  • a call to worship song that casts the service under the banner of Christ's finished work
  • a fresh big rock song based on Revelation 4-5

The Test-Run Was Wildly Successful

Last April, we did a dry run and worked with 1971 on reimagining our "His Be the Victor's Name." It is different, and I love it. I think you will, too. My hope is to release it early.

So please stay tuned for more updates. You can probably expect the EP to hit some time around March or April.