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In Worship, We Not Only Encounter God But Encounter the Church

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. (Hebrews 12:22-23, NIV)

Experiencing the Church

Many distill the essence of corporate worship as “encounter with God.” That’s a great summary. When we gather, God chooses to reveal Himself in special ways and through special means, many of which He reserves ordinarily only for that context. But have we ever thought about the fact that, in worship, we not only encounter God but encounter the Church? God and the Church are not the same (although, one could rightly argue, based on the reality of our union with Christ, that there is more overlap than we are sometimes comfortable to admit).  Encountering God is an unparalleled event.  Period.  Still, is there some sense in which our encounter with the Church should blow our minds and inspire awe in us, too? In worship, is there a sense in which we’ve not only experienced God but experienced the Church?  

“The Church”

I keep capitalizing “Church.” That freaks some Protestants out, but it’s purposeful. Just what is the Church?  Here are four shocking ideas.  The Church is...

  • The Body of Christ – the revelation of Jesus Himself to the world (!!!)
  • The Bride of Christ – the wife of the Creator of the universe (!!!)
  • All across space and time who profess faith in Christ (!!!)
  • The firstfruits of the new heavens and new earth (!!!)

The first two bullets should make mountains out of goosebumps, especially if we would stop thinking of them as purely symbolic, metaphorical ideas and move a bit more toward the literal. But let’s camp on the third and fourth points. 

All across space. A good pastor / worship leader will remind their congregation in worship that they’re worshiping, at that very hour, with saints across the globe.  Denver in the morning sings with Kampala in the evening.  Early risers in Seoul pray with Copenhagen vespers.  Westminster Cathedral worships with the Chinese underground.  God sees it all and receives it all.  It’s all, at once, His Church lifting up His worship.  When we enter into gathered, corporate worship, we are gathering with this body, which takes the eyes of faith to see.

All across time. We Westerners tend to think about this concept a lot less, while religions and cultures steeped in ancestor worship like Shintoism often tap into this a bit more.  But where those religions fail, Christian worship testifies that when we gather to sing, pray, hear, and feast, we join in a heavenly worship already taking place.  We don’t start the flow; we jump into the rushing stream. Revelation depicts the heavenly worship as not only being populated by heavenly beings but by “the saints” who have gone before—the great cloud of witnesses.  When we worship, we join with them, in a sense, mid-service. Even more than the Church across space, the Church across time takes the eyes of faith to see.  Imagine what new depths of worship we'd discover if we had better eyes to see just who was present with us as we worship.  Not only is the Triune Community present, but His whole Ekklesia is there, too.  O God, give us eyes to see!

The firstfruits of the New Heavens / New Earth.  When Jesus rose from the dead in His glorified body, He became the firstfruits of the resurrection to come--a sign of what was inevitable for the future.  In a secondary way, the Church, too, especially when she gathers, exhibits a "firstfruit-ness," especially visible with the eyes of faith.  Think of it like a rave.  (I know, dangerous metaphor.)  As the folks enter the space, they look ordinary.  Their skin looks human; their clothes look fashionable but still worldly.  When the music starts and the black lights come on, a new visual revelation unfolds.  The glow sticks and black-light-sensitive tattoos start to gleam, and suddenly this group of ordinary people looks more like a scene out of Avatar than anything you'd find on earth.  When the church gathers, God's presence and the people's body-of-Christ-ness makes the Ekklesia glow, and a faint reverberation of the heavenly kingdom is manifested on earth.  Firstfruits.  Once again, this is something seen only in and through the eyes of faith.

What this Means for the Content of Our Worship

I’d like to submit just one point of application.  If the whole Church is truly with us as we worship, then our worship should reflect, in some sense, our engagement with that reality.  In other words, even as we seek to be culturally relevant, this should be alongside, not at the expense of, the lasting traditions which have shaped the essence of Christian worship over time.  Some Protestants, again, get squeamish here because we surmise that to take tradition seriously we must abandon the Scriptures as our only rule of faith.  But what if that rule of faith is calling us (as outlined above) to be faithful to the Church that has gone before? 

I’ve been in an intense discussion with a dear friend and formidable thinker about the nature of contextualization of worship for the sake of mission.  Where’s that line between being faithful to the best of the tradition of Christian worship and being intelligible to a given hearer/worshiper?  I honestly don’t know if I could draw that line.  It almost seems better to weigh that out through much prayer, by the Spirit, and from within a given context.  Nevertheless, could it be rightly said that our best construal of missional worship, our best “doxological evangelism,” is to provide the context for the most robust experience of God and the most dramatic experience of the Church?  What if, by the traditions we embrace, people of a twenty-first century culture could feel the weight of what it’s like to pray with first-century Paul, to profess faith with fourth-century Nicaea, to Commune with sixth-century Constantinople, to chant with medieval Mediterraneans, to confess with sixteenth-century Genevans?  What if, even as our musical vernacular might change from Bach to rock, we’re encountering God in the same Sanctus, whose text, once accompanied by counterpoint, is now led from chord charts? 

Tradition and Liturgy Broker a Missional Encounter

What in our worship hearkens to and expresses the glorious “Great Tradition” (as Jim Belcher calls it in Deep Church)? What are we embracing that allows us to not only encounter God but rightly encounter the Church?  If our worship is all “now” or even mostly “now,” are we selling people short of a truly profound experience of the Church?  If our worship is so hyper-simplified into a block-of-songs-then-offering-then-sermon liturgy, have we pressed fast-forward on what should be a time-stopping event? You see, tradition and liturgy aren’t just cool, trendy, hip, upper crust, urban “worship accessories” for Catholics, Anglicans, the Orthodox, and the Protestant intelligentsia.  They serve to cause in worship a deep connection to and encounter with the Church.  Perhaps that’s what’s so enticing about tradition and liturgy for many—the intangible, weighty mystery that we’re connecting with a deep, ancient Community.  Yes, it’s a bit “mystical.”  But so is the Holy Spirit—the one who draws us together into this Community and fills us to be the Church.

This adds some relief to those concerned that some or most liturgy and tradition would be over the heads of some “simple-minded” folk or a stumbling block to people who don’t know Jesus.  It’s not always about “getting it,” but it is definitely about experiencing it.  It might for a time be over the heads of some, but it probably wouldn’t be over their hearts, so to speak.  In some respects, as James K. A. Smith teases out in Desiring the Kingdom, liturgical tradition has the ability to bypass the head and still form the heart.  But, as I’ve seen in my context, heads often follow. When liturgy and tradition are embraced and led sincerely and passionately, not only is God made visible in power and glory (because He has chosen to reveal Himself through certain means of Word and Table), but the Church is manifested in glory, too.  The Church, rightly viewed through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is an attractive, “missional” sight.


Five Reasons Why Contemporary Worship Should Embrace Liturgy

Alex Mejias from High Street Hymns shares why churches characterized by contemporary worship should engage in liturgical music:

1. Liturgical music is biblical.
2. Liturgical music helps us retell the Gospel-story.
3. Liturgical music connects us to the Historic Church.
4. Liturgical music connects us to the Global Church.
5. Liturgical songs complement contemporary worship songs.

Read the whole post!  It's worth it.


The Puritan Take on Good Preaching

In a recent post, I highlighted the fact that worship discussions throughout church history were based more on theology than pragmatics and how the reverse seems to be true today.  More narrowly, the same can be said of preaching, as well.  One of the hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation was the rediscovery of the preached Word as a means of grace.  A fresh wind of the Holy Spirit inspired new generations of preachers to bring the Word of God to the people of God with power.  By the time of the Great Awakenings and revivals happening in the US and Great Britain, preaching had become quite diverse in its expression and methodology.  Out of biblical conviction, and partially in response to the variegated preaching styles out there, the Puritans developed a distinct angle on homiletics (the study of preaching) worth summarizing here.

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms are, in many ways, a summary of Puritan faith and practice in that era (the mid-1600's).  Likewise, the supplementary work produced by the Westminster Assembly--The Westminster Directory of Public Worship--is very "Puritan" in its approach.  Zeroing in on preaching, on which the Directory spent much time (imagine if worship books today spent as much time on preaching!), Mark Dever and Sinclair Ferguson summarize six non-negotiables of preaching, according to the Puritans.  Preaching should be done:1     

  1. PAINFULLY: The Puritans refer to the practice of "taking pains" in preparation and presentation; they urge preachers not to treat their responsibilities casually.
  2. PLAINLY: "That the meanest may understand; delivering truth not in the enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect; abstaining also from an unprofitable use of unknown tongues, strange phrases, and cadences of sounds and words."
  3. FAITHFULLY & WISELY: "[Preachers should be] looking at the honor of Christ, the conversion, edification, and salvation of the people, not at his own gain or glory; keeping nothing back which may promote those holy ends...framing all his doctrines, exhortations, and expecially his reproofs, in such a manner as may be most likely to prevail."
  4. GRAVELY: As Richard Baxter has said, "I preach'd as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men!"
  5. LOVINGLY: "[Preachers should preach] with loving affection...and hearty desire to do them good."
  6. EARNESTLY: The preacher is to preach "As taught of God, and persuaded in his own heart, that all that he teacheth is the truth of Christ; and walking before his flock, as an example to them in it."

This recipe for a sermon probably tastes differently than modern recipes.  Yet I, as a preacher, find them right and challenging.  Would to God that more of our preaching were characterized by these criteria!

1The following are excerpted quotations from Mark Dever and Sinclair Ferguson, The Westminster Directory of Public Worship (Scotland: Christian Heritage, 2008), 64-69.


Theology vs. Pragmatism: The Foundational Difference Between Worship Discussions Then and Now

Church history knows no division between theology and worship.  As worship became “institutionalized” in the Church in the Middle Ages, though perhaps excessively mystical, leaders of and reflectors on worship did so through an intensely biblical-theological grid.  The writings and leadership of church music pioneer Hildegaard von Bingen attest to this. 

Click to read more ...


A Documentary Every Modern Worship Leader Should See

In days of old, church music leaders studied in seminaries and colleges, receiving degrees like Master of Church Music (MCM) and Master of Sacred Music (MSM).  Part of their curriculum was a thorough study of music history, with particular attention to the history of the music which shaped their field of traditional church music.

Click to read more ...


What Would Jonathan Edwards Think About Modern Worship? 

I used to be “us vs. them” when it came to worship.  I used to associate myself with the the thoughtful folk who were quick and clear in pointing out all the theological and pragmatic deficiencies of contemporary and modern worship.  Their voice is still heard today.  They’re quick to sniff out charismania.  They’re quick to label with words like “hype,” “emotionalism,” and “manipulation.”

A big traditionalist criticism of modern worship is that it insists upon emotional euphoria in every service and every song.  This criticism is not without warrant.  It is simply fact that much of the character of modern evangelical worship is shaped by Azusa Street-style charismatic worship habits.  The modern charismatic renewal, beginning in the early 1900s, seemed to insist upon similar pinnacles of euphoria as litmus tests for the presence, power, and movement of the Holy Spirit.   Many, many people have exposed the shortcomings of such a criterion.  However, our quickness to criticize and disassociate ourselves may be a baby/bathwater moment, and I think Jonathan Edwards’ posture toward similar happenings in his own day is instructive here.

The more I read Edwards, and the more I read about him, the more I want to be like him—at once theologically tenacious but experientially generous.  Some consider Edwards America’s greatest philosopher.  Whether or not this is true, the fact that he is even considered in the rankings tells us that he had a superior intellect and that he wasn’t merely a biblical scholar or puritanical evangelical.  Edwards is an intellectual Renaissance man—a historian, a philosopher, a theologian, a psychologist. 

When the Great Awakening unraveled in the United States, people (as we always do) picked sides.  There were the sold out bandwagon-ites who believed that these emotionally driven revivals were pure, unadulterated God-work.  There were the hard-lined skeptics who were quick to explain away the work.  Then there were those like Edwards who stood somewhere in between.  Could it be that one of the most well-versed philosopher-theologians to ever exist had anything kind to say about the ecstatic charismania of his day?  Apparently so.  Religious Affections, alongside a few other works, was the published wrestling of Edwards on this topic.  Edwards was not interested in proving that the Great Awakening was true and legitimate; he was committed to discovering, both from exegeting culture and the Bible, just what was true and legitimate about America's "new birth."  Contra traditionalists, Edwards was not willing to label all the emotionalism as hype, because Edwards understood biblical anthropology—we are whole creatures.  Nor, therefore, was the stirring of emotion a necessary evil.

Can we even stop right there and learn a few things from one of the most learned Americans about our own analysis of modern worship’s emotionalism?  I’ll leave that question largely rhetorical while pointing out something about the traditionalist thought-pattern I encounter in my church (I am using “traditionalist” not necessarily in terms of worship style but worship approach…I know several people who are fine with contemporary worship who approach worship from a “traditionalist” view).  I observe them, sometimes, to be terribly conflicted people.  I observe that some tend to overly compartmentalize their lives.  It says something to me when, in another context, they are full of emotion and bodily energy (such as when they're watching a football game), but when corporate worship rolls around, they're Narnian statues.  It further says something to me when they develop theological constructs to defend their stone-iness: “I worship from my heart,” or “Outward expression does not befit the reverence God demands in worship.”

Edwards would remind us that not all emotionalism is bad and that emotions can be a sign of heart-affections spilling forth.  In short, I think Jonathan Edwards would approach processing modern worship similarly to how he handled the Great Awakening—with some sympathy and support and some careful theological analysis and clarification.  Can modern worship be overly ecstatic?  Yes.  Does emotional manipulation exist in modern worship contexts?  Sure.  Can these experiences lead people to develop an unhealthy appetite for emotional euphoria, leading them to crave the experience more than long for God?  Certainly.  But a reaction to bag it all would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.


Great Critique of the Crowder Worship Conference

In his Christianity Today article, arts pastor W. David O. Taylor shares his insights from his time as a presenter and participator in Crowder's Fantastical Church Music Conference.  (I keep posting about this conference because I believe it's a significant marker in modern church music history.)

Here's some dialogue with a few quotes from the article:

You know you are at a worship conference sponsored by David Crowder when a fog machine kicks in and gobo lights wash the stage in color while the Welcome Wagon sings an exquisitely spare version of "Hail to the Lord's Anointed." It makes you wonder what the Moravian James Montgomery (1771-1854), author of the hymn, would have thought.

Love it.  Gobos + Montgomery = my cup of ancient-modern tea.  (How's that for consumeristic?)

The bounty of "I live for you" and "I'm gonna give my praise to you" songs kept reminding me that me, myself and I were engaged in something terribly important right then. After a while, as my grandma might say, I plum wore out. I got tired of me. But for those of us who allergically react to the wealth of I-songs, we need to remember that the Psalter includes a surplus of first-person singular prayers.

Amen.  But Taylor also provides a good counterpoint to keep the I-pendulum from swinging too far:

The British theologian David Ford explains the Psalter's dynamic well. He observes, "The Psalmist's 'I' accommodates a vast congregation of individuals and groups down the centuries around the world today.

The "I" in worship must still (and, biblically, was always intended to) be a corporate "I."  That's worth chewing on.

In an e-mail prior to the conference, Crowder shared with me a concern about rock music. He asked, "Is the pop-rock song 'disposable', as many suggest, and if so, what does that mean about basing our congregational singing on such a thing?" One might ask the same thing about the pop-rock musician. Does the stage-centric, unidirectional, heroic-leader, "passive"-audience, shout-fest, heart-on-the-sleeves culture of pop-rock music militate against healthy worship practices? Maybe. But not necessarily.

I agree.  Too many critics of modern worship believe these things are necessary evils rather than potential evils.  Heart, heart, heart.  It's encouraging to me that Crowder is thinking deeply enough about the nature of pop music to ask the question he asks.  Kenneth Myers would be proud...though still unappreciative of Crowder's art. ;)

If you throw a David Crowder into the Louie Giglio mix, you get the latest iteration of evangelical history: Wesley and Wesley, Moody and Sankey, Graham and Barrows, Giglio and Crowder. You get a classic pattern of preacher and musician, working together to bring the church to a renewed encounter with the living God.

Brilliant observation.  And this, folks, is why knowing history is so valuable.  There is nothing new under the sun, and perhaps the "old" ways aren't as outdated and irrelevant as we thought, huh?  This may be a stretch, though, given that almost nothing Crowder has produced post-Illuminate is congregational material. It's not a criticism of what Crowder has done.  It's just an observation.  Sankey and Barrows may have been performers in their own right, but they are known for their contribution to hymnody, not solo material.  Crowder's on the path of being remembered as a contributor to the latter, not the former.  (For what it's worth, the Giglio-Tomlin pairing more closely parallels the historical recapitulation, but Tomlin wasn't at this conference.)

The temptation at a conference like this is to be cynical and judgmental. Cynicism says these people are phony. Judgmentalism says these people are doing it wrongly. But I beg to differ. I found a lot of songwriters who humbly seek to provide the church with good worship music.

Would that more modern worship critics arrive here.  So much of what fuels the church disunity on these issues is the absence of a generosity of spirit.


Bifrost Arts from a Mainstream Worship Perspective

Check out how one blogger described their experience of joining with Bifrost Arts in worship at the David Crowder Fantastical Church Music Conference.  It's reveals how far people like us have to go in the quest to bridge the worlds of historicity and liturgy with mainstream evangelical worship:

Bitfrost Arts, a hymn-sing group from…well, I can’t remember if it was from Virginia or Missouri, but regardless, their sound was at the same time familiar and mysterious.  Instead of relying on the large square projection screens to prompt singing, Bitfrost Arts had printed out hymn-sing sheets, which really served more as an order of worship, complete with responsive readings and liturgical leadings.

I say that the sound was familiar in that most of what we sang were (somewhat) familiar hymns of the historical church.  The 2500 attendees were accompanied by a 15-person choir (comprised of randomly selected Baylor students on the quad), a drummer, guitar and bassist, as well as a full-sized harp.

I say the sound was mysterious in that the act of singing the old hymns with 2500 voices created a passionate sound which echoed off the walls with the same effect as if we had been standing in St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Archaic yet relevant, to sing these songs was to take a fully engaged step back into the historical church.  And the harp just added the appropriate eerie/surreal layer to blanket it all.

Words or phrases that intrigue me are:

  • how they spell "Bifrost" :)
  • "a hymn-sing group" (?)
  • "archaic yet relevant" (I know what they mean...not sure "archaic" is the right word, though)
  • "a fully engaged step back into the historical church" (true...there are many instances of disengaged steps back into the historical church)