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How Worship is a Murderer

Many of us struggle to see gathered, corporate worship as helpful to our spiritual growth and vitality. And even if we find it helpful, we might lift an eyebrow at anyone who might say that it is instrumental or (dare say it) necessary. The irony for those of us who take lightly the weekly gathering of the people of God is that the spirit which rises up within us that says "I don't really need this that much" is the very same spirit that worship intendeds to kill. If worship had a Twitter profile, its brief description would have to include "Murderer." Worship was built by God to be a blood-thirsty attack dog with a keen appetite for something very specific in us. My favorite worship theologian, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, explains:

To declare that [worship] is optional, that it is not necessary to the continuation of God's work of salvation, is to despise the source of grace. ... By worship, if not by worship exclusively, the Church keeps open the wound which the resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit have inflicted on the self-righteousness of the world, and in this way too the process of salvation is continued.*

God designed worship to slay our self-righteousness.

We human beings are "bruised by the Fall" (Philip Bliss) in such a way that we are hell-bent self-justification machines. We know no other pattern than to hide our weaknesses and manufacture pseudo-strengths. Our instinct, when accused of wrongdoing, is to deny and defend. Our default, when we do the right thing (no matter how much we say it's "for the glory of God") is to pat our spiritual selves on the back and believe that God is more happy with us because of what we've done. When the Holy Spirit applied the work of Christ to us, God the Father delivered the mortal wound to the beast of our self-righteousness. But the beast, while bleeding out this side of eternity, is still snarling, clawing, lashing, biting, and lunging. It is this disgusting creature that Paul is talking about in the latter half Romans 7, when he finally cries out, "Wretched man that I am!" This tormenter of souls rises weekly, daily, hourly within us.

But we're not without hope. God has equipped a warrior to unsheath his gospel-sword every week to deliver another thrust into the thick flesh of our self-righteousness. That warrior is worship.

What von Allmen meant was that worship, rightly done, takes us on a needed weekly journey where we are reminded that we must come to the end of ourselves before we can fully see, appreciate, appropriate, and drink in the gospel. The beginning of worship should cast such a vision of God that we are blinded by His glory and leveled by His perfection. Worship gives us a picture of God's holiness that is so high and so "other" that we are jarred out of any sense of being able to attain it. During the week, our amnesia begins to set in, and our eyes go blurry, such that the mountain of God's glory starts looking like a gently-sloped hill. "I can climb that," we think. ("I can avoid these pet sins for a few days." "I can please God by being faithful in my devotions and Bible reading." "I can be a good mom and not lose my temper." "I can avoid those channels and sites.") We think, "God must love me more this week, because I've been pretty good."

And worship grabs us by the collar, slaps us in the face, and says, "Wake up, man!" It yells, "You're far worse than you ever imagined, because, look, look at God!" And, once again, the scales fall off our eyes and the placid, green, hills-are-alive peak you thought you were looking at is really a hulking Himalayan cliff. And there it is: the moment of impossibility, where God's gracious sword enters the beast yet again. Worship is God's gracious murderer.

But God is in the business of killing precisely so He can make alive again. However, instead of reviving our self-righteousness, He gives us an alien organism--His very Self, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. This is the moment in worship where, after we have seen God's glory and confessed our sin, God delivers the word, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." The gospel is good news, indeed.

Worship should be that epic...every week. 

*Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 115-116.

Why Worship Leaders Aren't Rock Stars - FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY

The Latest, Greatest Worship Leader 101 Manual

A few months ago a fabulous worship book came out, and I finally had a chance to sit down and read it. Many young (and older) worship leaders aren't the "reading" type. Big books over 150 pages are intimidating and tiresome. Sometimes they're discouragingly "deep" without enough practical application. Until this year, it would have been hard for me to recommend a good starting place for a worship leader in this camp. Many books come close, but few hit a home run. I think Stephen Miller's Worship Leaders, We Are Not Rock Stars does so. It fills a gap. It is a great read, and it is concise and comprehensive for what it's trying to do, which is to articulate a vision for the vocation of "worship leader" which is more deeply biblical than the paradigm that we often see in modern evangelical worship.

I met Stephen a year ago at the Doxology & Theology Conference in Frisco, TX, and I was blessed by his leadership and pastoral spirit. I couldn't commend a more genuine model of consistent, faithful worship pastoring in a local church (he serves at The Journey Church in St. Louis).

Why the Book is So Wonderful

Miller encourages worship leaders to view themselves at varying levels as pastors and shepherds who are doing important theological and formational work in local churches (Chapters 4, 5). I love this quote:

By deciding which songs the local church sings, a worship leader is exercising his pastoral responsibility. He must discern the doctrines he is teaching to whomever he is leading and shepherd them into a greater understanding of gospel truth (p. 59).

Miller also recognizes and encourages that the inner life of the worship leader must be marked by gospel-saturation and robust personal worship of God (Chapter 2 & 3).  He encourages worship to take a simple liturgical structure based on Isaiah 6, which ends up being (whether consciously or unconsciously) a wonderful, simple distillation of one of my favorite worship books, Bryan Chapell's Christ-Centered Worship (Chapter 6). And he does all of this in a well-written, very conversational style with a lot of funny stories. My wife and I were cracking up several times as I read large sections to her (just read Chapter 1).  The chapters are short, engaging, to-the-point, and they end with great discussion questions good for any group.  This would be a great read for any worship leader with his or her team.


There are really only a couple of moments in the book where I cock my head a bit, wishing for a slightly different wording.  For example, in the final chapter, Miller says:

I would argue that as powerful and helpful as they are, church services are potentially our smallest expressions of worship. Being a Christian is about so much more than going to a church building on the weekends (p. 119).

I know what he's saying, and it's an important emphasis (the emphasis of the chapter, in fact) to remind worship leaders and worshipers that all of life is worship unto God. However, I sometimes hear in such "all of life worship" conversations a downplay of the importance of corporate, gathered worship. I actually believe that corporate worship this the greatest expression of humanity's worship and the culmination of what it means to be the Church (and therefore a Christian), which I've processed here, here, and here. Discussions like these often reveal what has been called an "underdeveloped ecclesiology"--a deficit in understanding who the Church is and what she does in her work and worship. I'm not accusing Miller's statement of this as much as I am using this as an opportunity to raise the issue, to which I've become sensitive, that I frequently find discussed in my evangelical circles.  In fact, the rest of Worship Leaders, We Are Not Rock Stars is a treatise on the worship leader in relation to the gathered, corporate worship of the church. So, my concern mostly is that people don't take Miller's statement the wrong way, which I've heard many do with similar statements around this topic. Miller is definitely making the important point that if we think we've checked off our "worship box" for the week when we've attended gathered worship on Sunday, we've grossly underestimated what the big picture of worship is all about.  And that point is needed and important.

Get It For Yourself, Get it For Your Worship Leader

All in all, Worship Leaders, We Are Not Rock Stars will be the book I now recommend to aspiring young worship leaders who want to dip their toes into what it really means to be a worship leader.  It gets beyond the fluff of hyper-pragmatism and hyper-spiritualism that most often accompany these types of concise worship leader "manuals." This is solid stuff. In many ways, I find Worship Leaders, We Are Not Rock Stars biographical of my own theological journey and convictions about my vocation as a worship pastor. Would to God that more and more evangelical worship leaders looked like the type of leader exemplified in the chapters of this book.

And then there's this absolutely fabulous album, full of moving ballads, face-pounding rock, and (most importantly) compelling lyrics, including some reimagined old hymns.   

The Giveaway

So...who wants a free book? I've got one hard copy to mail and five e-books to email.  That's a total of six possible winners!  All you need to do is tweet or post something about Stephen's book with a link to this post. If you're on Twitter, please mention both Stephen (@stephenmiller) and myself (@zachicks). If you're on Facebook, make sure you're my amigo so you can tag me (find me here).

Here's an autotweet for your convenience!

All mentions must be in the next 2 days, ending on Wednesday at noon, EST.  The winners will be chosen at random and notified by the end of the week.  I'll update this post when the winners have been selected.


How to Develop Your Own Philosophy of Worship

Whether you're a worship leader, a pastor, a church leader, or a congregant, having the basic building blocks of a philosophy of worship is vital. When you have your philosophy in place, it helps guard against the type of decision-making that will ultimately hurt or mal-form you and your congregation. When you lead and make decisions from your philosophyas opposed to from your hip, your leadership becomes much more purposeful, wise, and (when your philosophy is borne out of theological reflection) biblical.  

I recently developed this outline with questions and bullet points that I now give out to interns and folks who are ready to think critically about worship.  In my opinion, these are probably the most important questions to ask, and hopefully they're set in a way that they are useful to just about any brand of Christian worship out there. Please pass this on to worship leaders and worshipers for whom this may be useful!

(Here it is as a PDF in case its more useful to download and pass around.)



Use these guiding headlines and questions as a structural framework for your philosophy of worship.  Know that just because the questions are detailed doesn’t mean your explanations need to be long.  Sometimes, answers to several questions can be summarized in a single sentence.  Strive to be both thorough and brief.

Everything bolded must be addressed/answered.  Questions not bolded are suggested lines of thinking to prime the pump for important philosophical issues at stake.

As all these topics and issues are processed, it is important to refer to and interact with Scripture.  It is expected that statements and arguments are scripturally grounded, with parenthetical references and perhaps occasional quotations.

Defining and Defending Worship

1. Define “worship” in its broad sense.  Address the three spheres of the “broad sense,” as they funnel down toward the “narrow sense”:

  • The three spheres
    • What is worship most broadly as a human action?  Aim at large, more dictionary-like definitions.
    • (Getting more specific) What is uniquely Christian worship?
    • (Getting even more specific) What is worship in the context of all of life?  (i.e. what many refer to as “whole-life” worship)
    • Other helpful questions:
      • How is worship related to and a reflection of the essence and attributes of God (e.g. His Trinitarian nature)?
      • How is worship related to and a reflection of the gospel of the saving work of Jesus Christ?

2. Define “worship” in its narrow sense (i.e. corporate worship).

3. Corporate worship vs. Individual worship

  • How do they overlap?
  • How are they distinct?
  • How do they inform one another?

4. Whom is worship for?

5. What role does corporate worship play in the Christian life?

  • Is it merely beneficial?  Is it necessary?
  • Does God do anything unique in the context of gathered, corporate worship that He ordinarily reserves for only that time and place?  If so, what?
  • How does worship shape believers?

6. What is happening in worship?

  • Is worship merely helpful, formative ritual?
  • Does supernatural activity take place in worship?
  • If so, what is happening?  Address issues of God’s presence / encounter with God. 

Form, Content, & Expression of (Corporate) Worship 

1. What dictates the form and content of a worship service?  In other words, what guiding voices inform the elements, content, and expression of corporate worship? 

  • What role does Scripture play?
    • How does the Bible inform worship?
    • Explain (you don’t have to necessarily use the terms) where you fall on the Regulative Principle vs. Lutheran Principle spectrum/divide.
    • What role does tradition/history play?
      • What obligation does Christian worship now have with engaging elements, structure, and content of Christian worship of the past?
      • If tradition should be a part of worship, what should or might it look like?
      • What role does cultural context play?
        • How should biblical Christian worship be contextualized to given times, places, and cultures? 
        • What role do cultural forms/expressions play in worship? 
        • Should worship reflect the culture?
        • Should worship be distinct from culture?

2. How is corporate worship to be structured?

  • What informs the structure of worship?  How should worship flow?
  • Is only music “worship”?  Are other elements of the service besides singing “worship”?

3. What elements of worship are non-negotiable? 

  • In other words, are there “universals” for Christian worship which transcend context?  If so, what are they?
  • Be sure to address the issue of ordinances/sacraments of Baptism & the Lord’s Supper.

4. Worship and Non-Christians

  • How should we think of worship in relation to the non-Christian?
  • Are non-Christians capable of worshiping God?
  • In what way(s) is corporate worship “for” non-Christians? 
  • Does corporate worship evangelize?  Is corporate worship an evangelistic rally?
  • Address issues of accessibility and intelligibility. 

5. Is worship “replaceable” or “substitutable”?

  • Can a church engage in worship by a corporate deed of mercy?  (e.g. Does a community work-day substitute for what corporate worship is and does?)
  • Can individuals just as easily and rightly worship God on their own (e.g. on an individual retreat, in the wilderness, in nature, in a solitary place, in their own private devotional life) instead of attending and participating in corporate worship?

6. What human faculties (e.g. mind, body, will, emotions, etc.) should be expressed/summoned in worship, and how are they best employed?

7. Describe the scope and balance of worship expression.

  • Should worship be loud, energetic, and up-beat?
  • Should it be soft, quiet, and reverential?
  • Should worship be emotional?
  • Should worship be cerebral and intellectual?

8. What role does music (and particularly singing) play in corporate worship?

  • Is it necessary?
  • If so, why is it valuable?  What does it accomplish?
  • Is music unique among art forms when it comes to use and implementation in corporate worship?

9. How do the previous two questions intersect with issues of cultural context?

  • Is there any sense in which issues of “propriety” (i.e. what is appropriate) in worship expression are relative based on a given cultural context?
  • Are there liabilities inherent in certain cultural contexts/expressions which should be challenged, pastored, shepherded, to grow beyond?

10. How does the fact that the Church is trans-/multi-cultural, trans-temporal, and trans-national play into how worship is expressed?

  • Does the Church bear the responsibility of reflecting its diverse nature in the actual expression of its worship?

The Missing Piece in Debates about Physical Expression in Worship

Lunette with Orante. From early Christian fresco, second half of the third century. Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy. Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY. Yesterday in worship, I encouraged our congregation to respond to the preaching of the Word of God by engaging in a physical act on the final verse of our closing hymn, “Jesus, with Thy Church Abide.”  I reminded them that early Christian art (shown here) depicts at least some Christian worshipers praying in nearly the opposite physical manner that we do—eyes open, body standing, heads lifted, and hands raised.  (I found the above depiction on the cover of the outstanding work, Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth Century Jerusalem, by Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John Witvliet.) So, on the final verse, we all raised our hands together, 300-strong, and sang:

May she holy triumphs win
Overflow the hosts of sin
Gather all the nations in
We beseech Thee, hear us

Click to read more ...


Why We Gather for Worship

"Constituting and Fulfilling the Church"...Yikes

Bloggers can easily tell when a post resonates with a large amount of people because of the way their hits spike over a given 48 hours.  A recent post on Why We Need the Call to Worship did that.  My hunch as to what resonated was how all those various short blurbs on the Call to Worship pointed to the gravity and depth of what corporate worship truly is.  

Some of the best advice I've received on reading theology is to regularly venture out of one's tradition.  In doing so, I've found a bedfellow in Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, especially on the topic of what worship is and "does."  About gathering for worship, Schmemann says,

The journey begins when Christians leave their homes and beds. They leave, indeed, their life in this present and concrete world, and whether they have to drive fifteen miles or walk a few blocks, a sacramental act is already taking place, an act which is the very condition of everything else that is to happen. For they are now on their way to constitute the Church, or to be more exact, to be transformed into the Church of God. They have been individuals, some white, some black, some poor, some rich, they have been the "natural" world and a natural community. And now they have been called to "come together in one place," to bring their lives, their very "world" with them and to be more than what they were: a new community with a new life. We are already far beyond the categories of common worship and prayer. The purpose of this "coming together" is not simply to add a religious dimension to the natural community, to make it "better"--more responsible, more Christian. The purpose is to fulfill the Church, and that means to make present the One in whom all things are at their end, and all things are at their beginning.1

We evangelicals struggle to understand this reality (yet thirst to understand better) because many of us have an "underdeveloped ecclesiology"--a very anemic view of who and what the Church is.  Our (great) heritage has emphasized our personal relationship with God.  If we've grown up in the evangelical Church, we will have no doubt been taught at camps, retreats, and in discipleship courses that we must pursue God one on one and cultivate the devotional life of personal piety.  This emphasis, wonderful as it is, can have a negative impact on us, causing us to squeeze out any sense of who we are, not as individuals before God, but as the Church.  In other words, heavy doses of our individual relationship with God can when left unchecked squelch our sense of corporate identity as the Body of Christ.  The result is that when we read Schmemann throw out phrases like "constitute the Church" and "fulfill the Church," we scratch our heads, cock our eyebrows, and with a gnarled face mutter, "Hmm...sounds kind of Catholic."

There exists a desperate need for evangelicals to recover a high ecclesiology, a robust sense of who we are as part of the Church community.  The beauty of this recovery is that we don't have to give up much...only add to.  A strong, positive view of the Church doesn't come at the expense of the great Reformational doctrines that we prize or the individual personal piety we emphasize.  In fact, evangelicals could be poised to be one of the "brands" of Christianity that have the most full-orbed expressions of historic, biblical Christianity...if we begin to recover a high view of the Church.

What does this mean for gathering for worship?  

First, it raises the stakes.  If, in worship, we're more fully "becoming the Church," we have to take attendance and active participation seriously.  

Second, it means that God is doing some actual spiritually formative work in us, even when we simply come and get our backsides in the seats.  

Third, it means that in corporate worship (as opposed to in our homes or at our workplaces or anywhere else), human beings gain some of the truest sense of who we are.  This is going to sound a little crazy, but in corporate worship, we gain a truer sense of the meaning of life.  

Fourth, it means that pastors, worship leaders, and planners can't just shoot from the hip when planning a worship service.  We can't just look for what's hip, what's on the CCLI charts, what technological accessories we'll employ, what people want to hear, want to sing, want to do.  There must be purpose in both the content and form of our worship.

Finally, it means that we want to be very careful of replacing a worship service with anything else.  It's in vogue today to talk about the fact that the church needs to be more active in our communities. It gets tricky, though, when you have such a low view of the Church and her worship that you look at the service of the Church as expendable or replaceable.  This happens when churches say, "Instead of worship this Sunday, let's do a church-wide community service project.  We'll 'worship' in that act!"  In one sense, we can applaud this gutsy move, because they're saying, "Hey, folks, serving our community is really, really important.  We're even willing to close up shop on worship to do it."  But two things should give us pause: (a) all that we've said above about what happens when we gather; (b) the fact that this seems to be a pretty unprescedented move in the history of the worshiping Church.

I personally feel like I'm just scratching the surface on understanding what it means to be the Church, but the more I scratch, the more I'm discovering that I've been missing out on something pretty amazing.

1 Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 27.

Why the Tension Exists Between Private and Public Worship

I experienced a real "aha" moment recently when reading Jean-Jacques von Allmen's fabulous work, Worship: Its Theology and Practice.  Sometimes I find that, in discussing the concept of worship with thoughtful folks in the church, we're talking past each other with what we mean by "worship."  One person is referring to whole-life worship while the other is talking about gathered, corporate worship.  And there certainly is a tension between these two realities.  On the one hand, the concept of whole-life worship reminds us that no aspect of our life is left untouched in the quest of the glory of God (Col 3:17).  People who champion this approach helpfully point out that folks who think they've done their "worship duty" by attending Sunday services fall short of God's summons on their lives the other six days of the week.  On the other hand, there is something unique and irreducible about the public gathering of the people of God.  People who champion public worship rightly point out that an overemphasis on whole-life worship can often lead to downplaying the importance of coming together weekly with God's people for the special things that God reserves for that context only (e.g. the Lord's Supper).  

When we take a step back, though, we have to at least for a moment scratch our heads as to why we even have such discussions and emphases and why it is that we often talk past each other when we discuss worship.  When dualisms like these are exposed, it often means that there's a tension to be maintained for a proper biblical understanding (think of other classic dualisms like God's oneness / threeness, Jesus' divinity / humanity, Divine sovereignty / human responsibility, etc.).  So why is there a healthy tension between private, individual, whole-life worship and public, corporate, Lord's Day worship?  

Von Allmen says that this tension walks on the same tight rope as the theology of the Kingdom of God:

[Corporate worship] is necessary because the Kingdom of God is not yet established with power. [Corporate worship] as such is necessary because the whole of life has not yet been transformed into worship.  Thus it suggests that the Kingdom exists already, like the leaven in the dough, but is not yet established. It shows that Sunday is other than weekday, that all is not yet Sunday.1

Whoa. Did you catch that? The private / public worship divide is directly related to the already / not yet divide of the Kingdom of God.  If we're honest, there's a tension in all of us when we worship on the Lord's Day and then "go out into the world" Monday through Saturday.  This rhythm is a good rhythm...a necessary rhythm, even, for now.  But it feels partial.  It feels incomplete.  It feels forward-pointing.  It feels pilgrim-ish, not home-ish.  And it makes complete sense.

Personally, I want there to be more of a unity and seamlessness between my Lord's Day life and my weekday life.  I want the worship in one sector to more naturally feed into and feed upon the worship in the other sector.  Certainly part of this is my fault--my own sin, brokenness.  But it's also the fault of the broken world (well, I guess I'm culpable for that, too), waiting like a pregnant woman for her due date.  The Kingdom is not yet fully realized, and we will always walk through our seven-day rhythm with a funny taste in our mouth.  Evidently, that's the flavor of "not yet" rolling around on our tongue.


1Jean Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 116-117.

Eleven Reasons Why Singing Is Important

As a worship leader who tries to engage people pastorally, I not infrequently encounter men and women who don't care one bit about the singing portion of a worship service.  It's pulling teeth for them.  There are a host of reasons.  Often times, it's personal--they don't feel they have a good voice, or the emotion tied to singing is uncomfortable and foreign for them.  Sometimes it's philosophical--they believe that the only important part of a worship service is the sermon and so they just want to "get on with it."

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Christmas Day 2011: Forcing the Issue of Ultimate Allegiance Between Sunday Worship and Family Traditions 

Starting around six months ago, there began a flurry of exchanges among worship leader Facebook groups, email groups, and online forums.  “What is your church doing for Christmas Day this year?”  The subtext of the dialogue was largely, “Are you going to have a worship service or not?”  There was at least a small amount of panic about how this could all possibly work.  People aren’t used to going to church on Christmas Day.  But many are very used to their tried and true family traditions.  (“We always open presents on Christmas morning.”  “We always have Christmas brunch together witht the family.”)

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