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Gratuitous: We Worship as God Creates (Part 2)

Gratuitous beauty one Sunday at Coral RidgeIn the previous post, we explored the shocking gratuity of God’s beauty displayed in the earth.  We discussed how the Trinity’s lavish outpouring of excessive beauty should be reflected in our worship, because our worship reflects our God.  We now briefly turn to the pragmatics of how we as worshipers and worship leaders might see that gratuitous beauty come to life in our churches.

Toward a Way Forward

Here are some thoughts, off the top of my head, toward seeking more gratuitous beauty in our worship services.  (I’d love to hear yours!)

Have a keen sense of smell for the off odor of hyper-pragmatism.  (Notice that I said "hyper"; being practical isn't necessarily bad.)  Pragmatism doesn’t have to be the enemy of beauty, but in our history, it often has been (just think of educational budget cuts in schools and which departments first get hit).  When “what works best” is the prevailing mantra, just know that sometimes beauty gets suffocated.  Beauty, for everyone but God (Who is neither wanting nor wasting), often requires a bit of excess—excess money, excess raw materials, excess time, etc.  And excess is not a part of the pragmatist’s paradigm.  Excess feels very impractical.  We evangelicals have a long history of prioritized pragmatism (you hear it in the quip, “Win the lost at any cost.”).  We just need to have our antennae up for how pragmatism sneaks in to choke out beauty, and we need to be able to willingly and lovingly call it out.  (This is sometimes what is behind the tension between a worship pastor and a lead pastor.  Many worship pastors intuit or lean toward fighting for beauty, and sometimes lead pastors are wired with a heavy dose of pragmatic, bottom-line thinking.)

Cast a vision for a big budget.  Gratuity involves expense, especially the kind that seems inordinate.  I remember one of my college church music professors bemoaning the anemic worship/music budgets of many churches.  Sometimes that sounds like rich-guy talk…first world problems.  It’s more complex than that.  Whether you’re a big church or a small church, urban or rural, Western or majority world, you might try encouraging a budget which, as a percentage of the whole, seems a bit much.  But then, once you do that, you need to carefully steward such gratuity.  Gratuity should not be frivolous waste but lavish love.  Remember when Mary expended a whole pint of expensive perfume on Jesus' feet in one shot (John 12).  She “wasted” a big budget.  (I praise God that at Cherry Creek and Coral Ridge I’ve been alongside leaders and church bodies that get this!)

Begin to ask how you can beautify the elements of worship that already exist.  Sometimes, when we think about “arts and worship,” we pigeonhole our thought-patterns into adding “artistic elements” to our worship (you know, freestyle sculptors and interpretive dance and such).  But, what if we took inventory of what we already do and simply asked, In what ways can we make these things more beautiful?  How can I help beautify the music?  How can our prayers and Scripture readings be more beautiful?  How can we beautify our preaching? (Many don't think about the sermon as an opportunity for beauty, but oratory is just as much aesthetic as it is didactic.)

Beautify your worship space.  This might be one of the more obvious ones, but in recent years we’ve tipped the scales heavily in favor of pragmatic function over aesthetic impact, replacing cathedrals with warehouses. So it might be worth asking the question of how we can turn our drab, dated, overly-functional, or industrial-looking spaces into inspiring, beautiful ones.  (You can think about this whether you're a church with an established building or a community meeting in temporary spaces.)

If you're at a loss in the physical-space-and-beauty conversation, a great place to start for some building blocks is Bifrost's Arts' Liturgy, Music, Space Curriculum, available for free download here (see esp. pp. 38-47).

With ALL of the above, consult artists and artistically-minded people.  Don’t just commission an artist (or worse, ask for a donation) to paint some murals for your fellowship hall.  Don’t just bring them in to do a flash-mob sculpting of the bust of Jesus during your service.  Don’t just replace the sermon one Sunday with their Shakespearean recitation of the Gospel of John.  Engage their gifts and skills in the consultation and execution of addressing the big picture stuff, like budgets, worship elements, décor, and architecture.


I've only scratched the surface. What else would you add in the discussion of reflecting the Trinity's generosity of beauty in our worship?


Gratuitous: We Worship as God Creates (Part 1)

God's Gratuitous Beauty - courtesy of National GeographicTrinitarian Gratuity

I’ve been getting a lot of spiritual mileage off reflecting on the Trinity, and Michael Reeves’ little book, Delighting in the Trinity,* has been the source of a lot of it.  I’ll no doubt be jamming on several Trinity-related posts over the next few weeks and months.

Reeves discusses the Trinity’s fountain-like qualities—a relationship overflowing with so much love that it spills outward in perpetual giving.  Creation itself, he describes, is the manifestation of that overflowing love.  He goes further,

As it is, there is something gratuitous about creation, an unnecessary abundance of beauty, and through its blossoms and pleasures we can revel in the sheer largesse of the Father (p. 57).

That is so true.  In one sense, we could say that the entire scientific enterprise of discovering, analyzing, and cataloguing the world is an exploration of the seemingly endless--indeed gratuitous--beauty displayed in creation.  There’s something no doubt perverted or mal-formed about a scientist who doesn’t periodically sit back from his or her work and just say, “Wow!”  Anything gratuitous has that effect.  Gratuitous beauty especially has that effect.

Our Triune God is a God who has chosen to not only make His world incredibly functional, but exceedingly beautiful.  Many theologians have pointed out how the ongoing scientific discovery of the immensity of creation (e.g. organisms in the ocean's deep, celestial bodies in space previously beyond our sight, microscopic complexities at cellular and atomic levels) serves to corroborate God's passion for beauty...not just that He likes it, but He almost can't help Himself in over-filling the world with beautiful things.  Any attempt at surveying the beauties of the world would lead us to one conclusion: God is gratuitous when it comes to beauty.  We can't possibly take it all in, yet it is for His pleasure, His glory, His majesty, His delight.  

Our Worship Reflects Our Theology

Worship thinkers often talk about how our worship itself reflects the kind of God we serve—that the elements, structure, and experience of worship all “explain” Whom we understand God to be.  So here’s the question for us: How does our corporate worship display that God is a Trinity Who revels in pouring out gratuitous beauty?  If confession reflects God's holiness, if songs of praise reflect God's joy, if prayers of thanksgiving reflect God's bounteous provision, then what about our worship reflects God's passion for an overabundance of beauty?

If you’re a Protestant like me, something in our DNA starts sending freak-out alerts to our brain.  We’ve spilt Reformational blood trying to get away from the “excesses” of our brother and sister Roman Catholics, and in the process some of our revolutionary grandparents swung that beauty-pendulum about as far away from the gratuitous-pole as possible.

SIDENOTE: The interesting thing about the modern worship movement (which has remarkably transcended some of these old wars) is that they’re experimenting in new forms of gratuitous beauty that don’t look much like the smells and bells of yesteryear and therefore evade some of our historical baggage.  I think back to the 2012 National Worship Leader Conference.  In one of the worship services, the sanctuary was absolutely taken over (every square inch of wall) by projected names of God alongside complementary backdrops.  The cultural critic in me wanted to cry “overstimulation,” but the aesthetician in me (and perhaps the best part of me that "hopes all things") exclaims, “Gratuitous beauty!”

SIDENOTE 2: I am so grateful for the renaissance of Christian reflection in and around the arts, coming out of places like Bifrost Arts, CIVA, Cultivare, and IAM and from institutions like Duke Divinity School, Gordon College, Union University, Belmont University, Fuller Seminary, Biola University, King's College (NYC), and people like Makoto Fujimura, David Taylor, Isaac Wardell, Jeremy Begbie, and my colleague, Dan Siedell.  Something about this resurgence is awakening our aesthetic palettes to crave beauty, such that I think, in our worship services, we’ll be seeing more experiments in gratuity over the next few decades.  Perhaps the old wars have been fought and run their course, and new generations are no longer holding the same grudges, such that we can healthily move forward.

In the next post, we'll explore just a few ideas about engaging lavish, gratuitous beauty in worship.


*Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IVP: 2012).

Great Worship Conference Headed Your Way!

Bifrost Arts Conference
"The Cry of the Poor"
Philadelphia, PA
April 22-24 

Today is the last day for discount registration for the second Bifrost Arts Conference.  The first conference happened two years ago, and you can read (and watch a video) of my experience here.

From day one, I have appreciated the (sadly) unique vision for worship that is cast by Bifrost Arts and their leader, Isaac Wardell.  This year's theme is "The Cry of the Poor," and here's their description:

This year’s Bifrost conference will explore the intersection of worship, community, and mercy. Speakers will include Makoto Fujimura (Director of International Arts Movement), John Witvliet (Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship), Greg Thompson (fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture), and Frère Emmanuel (brother from the worshipping community of Taize), as well as other panels and workshops.

We are also excited to have music from Sandra McCrackenPhiladelphia Choral Arts, the Bifrost Arts Ensemble, and The Welcome Wagon. We hope you can join us!

"Worship and justice" is a heavily explored theme in Scripture (especially the prophets), and under-appreciated in modern Western culture.  We need conferences like this.  The other value of a gathering like this one is that they elevate the "worship" discussion above merely music and technology (often the dominant themes of mainstream worship conferences) to issues of art, beauty, aesthetics, liturgy, and social action and concern.

Follow Bifrost Arts:


Get Bifrost's Music:

For more thoughts and ideas, check out Cardiphonia's post about it.



Worship & the Body: The Heresy of "Purely Spiritual" Worship

Most students of church history eventually run across that nasty heresy called "Docetism."  It comes from the Greek word dokeo, which means "to seem."  Docetism is the belief that Jesus only seemed human but was actually spirit taking on a "human shell" for a time.  Underneath Docetism lie the Greek/Gnostic emphases of glorifying the spiritual and disparaging the physical.  Thus, when we speak of something as "docetic," we often mean that it has the tendency to negatively view physical, material reality and prize that which is purely spiritual.

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An Important Dialogue About Worship Music

This has been floating around in many of the online circles I run in.  It's a very, very good dialogue between three guys who I admire for thinking theologically and pastorally about worship--Kevin Twit, Mike Cosper, and Isaac Wardell.

Here are some of my takeaways:

  • On the topic of songs and "singability" of modern musical idioms:
    • It is often said that a lot of "contemporary" music is unsingable...too many flourishes, too many pop-vocal-isms.  People say that about U2's music--too high, too irregular.  And yet, for many reasons, you attend a U2 concert and you find thousands of people joining in songs, where many people who would normally say "I'm not a singer" or "I can't sing" find themselves singing away. There is something profound about this observation.

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Worship and the Physical Body: The Earthen Vessels Symposium - Part 1

I have the privilege of contributing to a blog symposium, along with several other authors and bloggers, on Matt Anderson’s terrific book, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith.1  Matt is a fellow Biola-grad, lover of Christ’s Church, and blogaholic over at Mere Orthodoxy and Evangel.  Even as I interact with the book, be sure to check Mere-O in a few days from this post to see Matt’s interaction with me.

The final chapter of the book, “The Body and the Church,” instead of focusing on ecclesiology (the study of the church), in general, zeroes in on doxology (the study of worship) in particular.  To structure the dialogue, let me first attempt to summarize the chapter in a thesis statement, along with his subsequent supporting arguments.  Anderson’s chief point is that the physical body matters to corporate worship.

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An Art Project Worth Supporting - Bifrost Arts

When I heard the first Bifrost Arts album, Come, O Spirit, a few years ago, I was excited to hear the wedding of the emerging Seattle-esque, pop-orchestral song style (perhaps made most famous by one of the album's producers, Sufjan Stevens) with historic Christian hymnody and liturgical service music.  It is a truly unique venture.

When I heard Bifrost's commander in chief, Isaac Wardell, share from his mind and heart at the Bifrost Arts conference earlier this year, I came away with an even deeper respect and appreciation for the (quite robust) vision of Bifrost Arts, of which music-making is only a part.  Bifrost's leader thinks theologically and biblically about worship, and God has given him a platform to reach and influence scores of young evangelical worship leaders who need to hear what he has to say.  

When you support Bifrost Arts by contributing to the seed money for their third album, it should be obvious that you're supporting more than a sweet, artsy album.

Please consider supporting this vision by contributing to the Bifrost kickstarter project.  


If you haven't heard Bifrost's material, here's a free sampler to get you started!


Why Architecture Matters: Our Quest to Unify Organ and Drums for the Sake of the Gospel 

Philosopher and liturgical theologian, Nicholas Wolterstorff, recently reminded listeners at the “Liturgy, Music, and Space” Conference hosted by Bifrost Arts this past spring that the architecture around and in your worship space makes theological statements whether you like it or not.  For instance, a tall, raised platform at the front the sanctuary with the Communion table positioned in the very back can make the theological statement that the Lord’s Table is so holy that its access must be limited and guarded.  Or, think of a worship space in which the seating is arranged in a circle or semicircle around the leaders in worship in the middle.  This can make a statement about the unity of the people of God in worship and the tearing down of sharp divisions between the congregation and the worship leaders.  Or, think about the warehouse with a huge stage and lighting structure.  It says, “we’re here to perform for you…sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”  Architecture tells the story of your theology of and priorities in worship.  I want to share with you how we’ve chosen to let some recent changes to our sanctuary’s architecture inform our theology of worship. 

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