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An Important Worship Conversation Happening in the Blogosphere

Two worship blogs I regularly follow, authored by two worship leaders I highly respect--David Santistevan and Jamie Brown--have engaged in an important exchange, asking the question about what the "real problem" is with evangelical worship today.

It began a few weeks ago with Jamie's post responding to his (and my) experience at the National Worship Leader Conference in DC. Here is the crux of the problem, as Jamie articulates it:

Throughout the conference, at different sessions, with different worship leaders, from different circles, using different approaches, and leading with different bands, I picked up on a common theme. It’s been growing over the last few decades. And to be honest, it’s a troubling theme. And if this current generation of worship leaders doesn’t change this theme, then corporate worship in evangelicalism really is headed for a major crash.

It’s the theme of performancism. The worship leader as the performer. The congregation as the audience. The sanctuary as the concert hall.

It really is a problem. It really is a thing. And we really can’t allow it to become the norm. Worship leaders, we must identify and kill performancism while we can.

David's post, in response, came two days ago:

The problem with modern worship isn’t the lights. The problem with modern worship isn’t the writing and singing of original music. Matter of fact, I believe we need more songwriters writing more songs…better songs. The problem isn’t the dimly lit room. The problem isn’t the big rock band and creative music. Our hearts don’t know their need for Christ. We are not desperate. We are not broken. We don’t approach Sunday with expectant, faith-filled, repentant hearts. We aren’t hungry for Jesus.

Please read both their posts to understand what they're saying. They're both making important points. Both posts have received lots of comments and incited plenty of (helpful) social media dialogue. In commenting on David's post, Jamie wrote:

I totally agree that we need to acknowledge and express our desperation for Jesus. Many times, dead worship exists because we don’t know our need for a Savior. I’m right with you. But is the solution to sing more songs about desperation? Is the solution to people’s lack of awareness of their desperation to engage their senses, turn the lights down, turn the stage lights up, or sing newer songs? No. The answer to desperation is not more desperation. The answer to desperation is exaltation. We exalt Christ. Clearly, loudly, boldly, and sweetly. Our job is to exalt Jesus. And when he is lifted up, he does the drawing people to himself. And then people are satisfied.

There's something in what both David and Jamie said here that is zeroing in on some of the ultimate core issues, and this is where a good understanding of God's "two words" of Law and Gospel--a HUGE Reformational distinctive, championed by Luther, Calvin, Beza, and Ursinus--is deeply illuminating. The "Law-Gospel distinction" (see Michael Horton's helpful explanation here) tells us, with Paul, that God's communication to us basically comes to us in two forms: Law ("do this for me") and Gospel ("I have done this for you"). They each have job descriptions. One of the preeminent tasks of God's Law (among other tasks) is to show us our desperation. God's Law, whose bar can be summed up as "be perfect as Your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48), exists primarily to drive us to Christ by revealing our inability to keep it. We hear God's Law most clearly in Scripture, but we feel echoes and iterations of God's Law in ten thousand voices each and every day. It is the voice of "you don't measure up." We feel it when we see a person more fit than we are. We feel it when we get passed over for a job promotion or receive less than A+ on a paper. We feel it in our relational brokenness. We feel it, in the words of Jamie, when we rightly experience what it's like to truly "exalt" God: He is perfect, and we are anything but. 

When we truly hear the voice of the Law, it has a crushing effect. The Law causes desperation. Then, and only then, can the Gospel sweep in with all its relieving good news: "Though you are wholly inadequate, there is One Who has come to do for you what you could never do for yourself." God's two words: Law then Gospel. The beauty of God's design here is that it is only the Gospel that can both satisfy and supply the energy for what the Law demands. If we want to become good Law-keepers, no amount of telling us to obey the Law can do that. It is simply not the Law's job description to fulfill what it demands. The Gospel does this. It transforms our heart to want to obey the Law.

If there is truly one central problem with evangelical worship today (and evangelicalism in general), it is the confusion of these two realities and the resulting havoc it wreaks on our worship. Here's how this plays out in this discussion. Jamie's point is that worship leaders misunderstand their role vis-a-vis God and the congregation, and he's right. We worship leaders who tend to inflate our own self-importance begin to slip into entertainment mode. David's point is that worshipers need to come to grips with their desperation, and he's right. The Law, which emanates from a proper "exaltation" of God ("Wow, God, You are SO marvelous...SO perfect, SO holy, SO pure"), makes us desperate ("I'm ruined, because I recognize I'm NOT that nor on my best day could live up to that"). The performance-beholden worship leader and lackluster worshipers need to be reminded of their brokenness. And then we need the worship-producing good news.

The kind of worship that begins to chip away at the problems, the idolatries, and the bad practices of all worship everywhere is worship that begins to appropriate the weight of Law and Gospel to their fullest capacity. It is worship that makes much of God's glory, then much of our inadequacy, then much of God's lavish grace in Christ. When these realities receive their proper attention and ordering in our worship, I won't go so far as to say that the "problems" solve themselves, but I will say that they're finally set within their proper context to be dealt with.

A worship leader (most likely unknowingly) addicted to the limelight doesn't have a realistic view of themselves (which the Law gives), because if they did, they'd be screaming in what they do, "Don't look at me! Look at Jesus!" (which is precisely what Jamie was encouraging). A worshiper obsessed over secondary issues to the point of not engaging in worship also lacks a clear diagnosis of their own problem (which, again, the Law provides) and needs to understand their desperation (which is what David was encouraging). And, we would all say, the only way out of this for all of us is to allow the finished work of Christ to be declared, retold, re-sung, and re-lived in our gathered times. And this is what the Gospel provides. 


Driving the Fear of Tradition out of Our Evangelical Psyche

My Story

I grew up in the free church tradition (some people say "free church tradition" is an oxymoron, buy it's only an apparent one).  This means I had a healthy skepticism, even fear, of anything that would subvert the raw, naked authority of Scripture...which means I had a special fear of and kept a healthy distance from anything related to "church tradition."  Perhaps the Apostles' Creed wasn't suspect, but reciting it in worship was.  

I carried the default perspective that the Church's talk and weaving in of any notion of "tradition" was one of the primary reasons it got off course, which means that the only Church of the past, prior to the Reformation, that I had any respect for was the absolute earliest church--the apostolic church of the first century.  Once the church fathers started their writing and processing in the post-apostolic era, that's when things started going downhill, I thought.  Tradition was the "leaven of the Pharisees" that Jesus so vehemently opposed, I believed. 

That this type of thinking is so prevalent among evangelicals was evidenced by the fact that my church history professor at Denver Seminary had to go to great lengths to validate the medieval period to us as a time period worth studying, knowing, and appreciating.  I remember him poking holes in precisely what I thought--namely that, after Augustine, the Church entered a "dark period" it did not emerge from until the Reformation.  The millenial span between roughly 500 AD and 1500 AD was a black hole, a void, in the growth and influence of we thought.

Beginning in college, largely through a study of Western music history (which is, for the first several centuries, a course in CHURCH history, interestingly enough), God started driving the wedge of tradition into my soul. What started as appreciation moved to fascination, which then led to experimentation, which then led to appropriation.  

For me, it started simply with the church's songs.  I began to dig into the hymns of the past and discovered that the type of Christianity expressed was one that I had longed to express but had no vocabulary for.  Examining these hymns shifted to jumping on the bandwagon of regifting these hymns to the local, modern, Western Church.  But hymnody was merely a gateway drug toward more intensely exploring the traditions and worship practices of the past.  I wanted the heavier stuff.  I began investigating "liturgy."  

My evangelical psyche told me to beware of tradition.  For me, however, the deeper I got, the more I realized that there didn't have to be a competition between tradition and Scripture; that the Reformers themselves, along with the biblical doctrines they re-emphasized for the Church (like sola scriptura), were not jeopardized.

Great Books Cast Out Fear 

I've been reading D. H. Williams' Evangelicals and Tradition.  Williams is a Baylor prof and stands within the free church tradition of Baptists (part of my own heritage).  If you find tradition a tough pill to swallow and have grave concerns for how any appreciation of tradition might creep into tainting fundamental doctrines of evangelicalism, look no further than this book.  It parses the issues well and speaks to the free church evangelical.  Its goal is to address the concerns of the skeptical evangelical and then encourage an appreciation and appropriation of historic, small-c "catholic" Christianity, largely through an engagement with the patristics (the church fathers who learned from and immediately followed the New Testament apostles).  It's heavy, relatively thorough, and, to me, convincing.  It honestly makes me want to buy the entire 38-volume set of the works of the Early Church Fathers, but I'll refrain because I'm already under enough investigation with my wife regarding my book-buying addiction.

I would commend it as a tool to guide pastors, worship leaders, and worshipers into greater depths of faith by re-training our ears to listen to Christians from the past that we've been subliminally told we shouldn't listen to.  The best part of Williams' book is that it doesn't require you to sell your doctrinal soul.  You can still hang on to all the powerful correctives that the Reformers championed (the Reformers, by the way--especially Calvin--were strong advocates and practitioners of listening to the voice of the early church). 

Where the Rubber Meets the Road for Worship Leaders

Evangelicals in the modern age do a lot of talk about being missional, which usually leads to conversations about contextualization--making the timeless truths of our faith apprehensible in a twenty-first-century context.  It is sometimes the case, though, that in our efforts to contextualize, we drop all reflection on and appropriation of precisely that which we're supposed to translate.  In other words, our quest toward hyper-relevance causes us to lose sight of tradition.  

So many worship leaders out there have no grounding.  Experience drives their practice, and theology and tradition are appropriated in a very tertiary way.  But one day, nearly all of them (so I've experienced) come to a "What in the world am I doing?" moment.  Many respond to that moment by thinking they've "aged out" of usefulness in our youth-obsessed culture.  Others go through a full-blown existential crisis, doubting the very faith that they once led others in.

I can't tell you how beneficial it's been for me, when those waves come, to be grounded in my traditional, small-c catholic Christian heritage.  I can't tell you how much the historic worship practices of the Church (even as I seek to contextualize them to my city, region, and time period) speak and minister to me.  I can't tell you how much the objective faith of and in Christ as it is embodied in the rooted, trans-denominational elements of truly Christian worship (outlined well by Bryan Chapell in Christ-Centered Worship...see my review  summary) has ministered to me in my time of need.

If we really do believe, as the Apostles' Creed states, in the "holy catholic church [and] the communion of saints" we should begin to cultivate in our souls a respect, appreciation, and deference for what the Church of the past has to teach us now.  And, once again, the beauty of all this (as argued by Williams) is that it doesn't have to come at the expense of how highly we view the authority of Scripture.  


Thoughts on the Altar Call

The altar call is a sensitive topic

In the almost four years of this blog's life, I've yet to post on the use of the altar call in worship.  It's important to me to remain respectful of other traditions outside my own (Presbyterian/Reformed) and to try to understand practices from the inside out as opposed to from the outside in.  The altar call is actually something I have a lot of (positive) experience with, having grown up in a wonderful, evangelical Southern Baptist church in Hawaii that faithfully preached the Word and weekly called us to repentance and faith.  Pragmatically, the altar call in that context was much more broad than just a summons for non-Christians to be able to publicly profess their faith.  As is the case in many places, my church used that time as an open opportunity for people to pray with the pastor or elders/deacons about personal needs.  I publicly professed my faith at the age of seven in response to an altar call, and not nine years later, as a teenager, I went before my church in that context to commit my life to pastoral ministry.  So, there's a soft spot in my heart for the altar call, even as I try, in the next few moments, to challenge some of its assumptions.  

Here are some of my thoughts, for those who care to listen.  The difficulty with a post like this is that it's emotionally charged for some because of how many good (even life-changing) and bad experiences people have had with the altar call.  Most people I talk to about the altar call do not have a neutral perspective.  It's a polarizing topic, mostly because of its mixed history of victory and vandalism.  I know that the evolution of the altar call has allowed it to broaden to a general time open for personal prayer and ministry.  I love that such practices are brought in as a part of corporate worship, but here I want to speak specifically to the "traditional" concept of altar call--a place in the service where non-Christians are given an oportunity to, on the spot, make a decision to enter into faith in Christ.

Certainly, God has used the altar call to bring many to faith in Him. 

It is undeniable.  From stadium-packed Billy Graham crusades to 30-person country churches, I personally know hundreds of folks who came to genuine faith in such contexts. And, when sinners like you and me step into faith, the first thing I want to do is rejoice with the heavenly host (Luke 15:10) over one more lost soul redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.  Praise God.

The altar call is built on at least one good biblical assumption.

I stand with the Reformers in believing that a robust, unbridled preaching of Christ as He is displayed in the Scriptures is, in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, "the outward and ordinary means" God uses to birth initial faith in the non-Christian and ongoing, sanctifying faith in the believer.  So, altar calls, most often following the sermon, wonderfully assume that the preached Word will do what God says it will do: birth faith. And that is stunning, in and of itself, that Christians who practice it have that kind of confidence in the preached Word, such that they, right on the spot, issue a call to repentance and faith.  I praise God for that.  Would to God that those of us who don't practice the altar call have that kind of confidence in the raw power of the preached Word.  "Faith comes by hearing" (Romans 10).

We mustn't caricature the altar call based on bad models of its practice. 

The folks I know who have negative experiences of altar calls have probably been victimized by perversions and manipulations of a perhaps well-intended practice.  Sometimes, altar calls have been used to emotionally and psychologically pin people to the ground in submission.  They've been drug out endlessly, just waiting for that "one lost soul hanging in the balance" to tip over the edge into salvation.  They've been used to boost conversion stats, church growth numbers, and preachers' egos.  They've manipulated people into manufacturing false conversion experiences born out of human effort rather than waiting on the new birth that only comes by the Spirit (John 3:1-8). With any practice, we humans know how to take something good and make it completely atrocious.  Some people have been deeply scarred by such manipulative, self-serving atrocities.  But, as with any analysis, we need to process the altar call for what it truly is, in its best form, with its best intensions in mind.  (Some will probably think that I have not done so in what follows, but here we go.)

However, I find little biblical support for the altar call in worship.  

The last two words are crucial.  Do I find biblical support for people, by the power of the Spirit, calling other people to repentance and faith in public settings?  Absolutely.  It's all over the OT prophets.  Our Lord repeatedly did this in His ministry, as recorded in the Gospels.  And the apostles in Acts also did this.  I question, though, whether this should be a routine practice in worship.  All these recorded actions did not take place in the context of corporate worship, but out in the public square.  I am with Keller as he speaks of "evangelistic worship," in that the worship of the community of faith should be intelligible and attractive to non-Christians, even as it is other-worldly.  In fact, it's its other-worldly-ness that makes it attractive.  I hope that each week "the convicted by all...[and] the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you" (1 Cor 14:24-25, ESV).  The gospel in the liturgy, culminating in the gospel preached and then displayed and imbibed in the Lord's Table, should do the work God says it does.  It should engender new and greater faith in all Christians and some non-Christians.   

Nor do I find a lot of historical support for the altar call in worship.  

All my reading suggests that the altar call originated (or at least became a more established practice) with the evangelization of the American frontier, particularly in the revivals of the Second Great Awakening, championed by leaders like Charles Finney.  Camp meeting-style revivals were all the rage, largely catering to non-Christian audiences where emotions were tugged on with stirring music and where a rousing evangelistic message was preached.  There even existed what was known as the "anxious bench," in which "prospective Christians could be set apart from the congregation and 'preached into conversion'"* and where they would wrestle in fear and anxiety over the fate of their souls and the opportunity to repent.  I have no doubt that God worked in and through those means.  I also have no doubt that it was quite a spectacle.  The trouble came when folks like Finney took the camp meeting model, mixed it with win-the-lost-at-any-cost pragmatism, and decided that this model should be imported into the church's Sunday morning corporate worship gathering.  

Any even remotely long view of the historic worship practices of the Christian church shows no trace of anything like an anxious bench or an altar call.  If anything, worship has always been (to state the obvious) a very Christian practice, intended for Christians, albeit with onlooking non-Christians (1 Cor 14, again).  

The title "altar call" itself is problematic to me.

I remember waking up to this thought one day when I was researching the history of medieval Christian worship and the Reformers' response: "Why do we call that place up front an 'altar'?" Luther had me ask.  Christ was sacrificed once for all and no other sacrifice is ever needed (Hebrews 10:10).  I get that some traditions call the Lord's Table a memorial to the altar of Christ's sacrifice some two thousand years ago, and many of us know that Roman Catholic theology holds that a sacrifice is being made there when it is celebrated.  But this isn't what we believe in the Protestant tradition.  Why do we call it an altar?  My only thought is that we're doing so in order to call people to a place where they can "come and die" as "living sacrifices" (Romans 12).  That's alright to me (it feels a little sticky, though, like we're emphasizing too much of ourselves), but for the sake of crystal clarity about the "finished-ness" of Christ's once-for-all sacrifice, I think abandoning the term is altogether better.

The altar call seems to fit a more Arminian theological structure, to which I don't subscribe.  

Notice that the practice of the altar call places strong emphasis on personal will and decision-making, and sometimes, even providing a context for a "crisis point" of faith.  The altar call is predicated chiefly on the human will and providing an opportunity for that will to freely make a choice for God and Christ.  Are our wills at play in our salvation?  Definitely.  Good Arminians and Calvinists agree here.  Where we differ is (a) how to describe/understand "free will" and (b) where human will functions in the hierarchy of God's work in faith and salvation.  I can't go into it here, but for further research, pull out good authors on the subject of "libertarian" (which many Arminians subscribe to) versus "compatibilistic" (which many Calvinists subscribe to) free will, and then mix in a little reflection on the biblical idea articulated by Luther of "the bondage of the will."  (I have found John Frame's works, particularly The Doctrine of God, comprehensive and compelling here.)  That will get you nice and dirty.  Suffice it to say that Arminian theology, in my opinion, places heavy emphasis on the human being's (libertarian) free will, which would therefore support a practice like the altar call, which is directed at calling human beings to a point of free choice.  In other words, the emphasis that the altar call places on the free will is consistent with the emphasis Arminians give it in their soteriological structure.  And I simply don't share those convictions and emphases.  I want to be clear that I'm not saying the altar call is an inherently Arminian practice. However, it emerged historically out of Arminian convictions, and the way it's often done tends to be loaded (consciously or sub-consciously) with Arminian language.

We also need to look at the early champions of the altar call and ask what their underpinning theology was.  Finney was a forthright Arminian, to put it lightly.  An altar call, bent on addressing and summoning a person's will into action, is very in line with Finney's theology.  And it is in line with the theology of many churches and pastors who still practice the altar call.  It's "internally consistent," one could say.  But again, this is where I differ with some of my dear brothers and sisters.  Such a practice, especially with many of its basic assumptions, simply doesn't jibe with what I believe about salvation and grace and God's working in both.  This is not to say that there exist folks in the Reformed tradition who practice the altar call.  I know many Reformed Baptists and even Presbyterians who do so.  All I'm saying is that the altar call fits much better in an Arminian structure because of the shared assumptions and ordering of those ideas.

I have sometimes found that those eager to employ the altar call in worship have a very narrow view of when and how God saves.  

When I've encountered folks who bemoan that the altar call is not employed in our worship, they often give the impression (I may be wrong) that we're missing a big opportunity when we don't call people forward.  They might say, "It's like you've allowed God to work in people's hearts and then given them no opportunity to respond to that work, and so people aren't saved."  I punt upward to the previous point.  Ultimately this is a more "Arminian" type of thing to say, and I'm not an Arminian.  It's based on believing that God's salvation of souls hangs on whether or not we do or don't do something.  This might be your soteriology.  It's not mine.  

Personally, I'm grateful that I don't have to bear the burden of souls hanging in the balance based on whether or not I'm on my game as a pastor or evangelist.  My understanding of the Bible tells me that God is on the hook for that, not me.  My call is to be faithful to preaching and proclaiming the Word, but the good news for me is that, even when I'm not, God's plan for those whom He calls is not thwarted ONE LITTLE BIT.  Whew!  As a Calvinist (again, I know not everyone's here), I have a big trust that God will save folks in His time and in His way.  I do not need to manufacture events or "make space" for God to do so in the worship service.  God is bigger than that.  Have I called folks to repent and trust in Jesus in the past?  You better believe it.  But I've seen it more often in the context "out in the world" and among the natural conversations and relationships I've had.  And, if someone's responding for the first time in faith to the Word of God preached, an altar call simply won't make or break their salvation.  That's God's business.  God alone saves, calls, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies.  Does this take the wind out of my evangelistic sails?  No.  Quite the opposite.  Because God alone saves, I'm free to do my part in the gospel-mission project with confidence and increased boldness.**  

Other aspects of historic Christian worship fulfill the best parts of what an altar call does.

Because good worship is dialogical (God speaks, we respond, God speaks, we respond, etc.), response to God's love, saving acts, and gospel story are already built in.  In a sense, the whole worship service is one repeated and cyclical "call and response" to the gospel.  We could therefore say that good Christian worship is an enacted, embodied series of "altar calls."  Even more specifically, though, the Lord's Table, in its full-orbed biblical picture, is THE place where sinners act out our response to the call to repent and believe.  It is Christ's invitation for people to come and feed on Him in faith.  It is Christ's invitation to come to His wedding banquet, experienced in part now in order to give us a hunger and thirst for what is to come.  So, if folks are clamoring for a spot in the service for people to "make decisions," I believe that when we understand the Eucharist in all its sweeping glory, we have all that we really need, and the altar call's best parts are merely duplicating what God has graciously provided in the Supper.  I have heard testimonies from some who say that they first came to faith in Christ AT the Lord's Table.  Praise God!

Ultimately, the altar call doesn't really seem necessary

I feel so blessed to work in a local church context at Coral Ridge where the gospel is preached so nakedly and boldly that I can witness, left and right, lives changing all around me...without an altar call.  We don't need a "time of decision" for decisions to be made.  We don't need to have people officially come forward for them to be called to repentance and respond in faith.  We're watching it happen as we're trying, in our own broken way, to proclaim the gospel in Word, sacrament, and liturgy.  And the networks of relationships, alongside the conversations and connections made during the week, show me that sinners (like me) are responding in faith!  In this regard, it makes the altar call as an official element of regular, weekly worship seem rather superfluous.  From what I hear, it's still VERY effective out in some parts of the world, especially on the frontiers of mission, but I, for all the above reasons, don't see its value for corporate worship.  


Perhaps we can boil down this post to one penetrating question.  Should our missional practices, simply because they might be missionally effective, be regularly imported into corporate worship?   Once everything is parsed out, this is what we're asking.  Some have no problem saying "yes."  I have a serious problem with that, precisely because I think God has revealed some very specific things He wants His people to do and be about when they gather weekly for worship.  And I believe, ironically, that when we do those things well, the lost get found, and sinners like you and me find faith.

*John Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 167.
**R. C. Sproul's Chosen By God, and J. I. Packer's Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God are excellent here.

A New Kind of Worship Leader: Why the Doxology & Theology Conference Encourages Me

For the past three years, this blog has been dedicated to (among a handful of other things) encouraging and heralding the turning of the tide of evangelical modern worship.  The first decade of the new millennium was the season of sowing, and I believe that this decade will be the season of sprouting (and maybe some reaping).  The overwhelming age demographic at the Doxology & Theology conference last week in Frisco, TX was twenty- and early thirty-somethings. 

Throughout the times of worship, the keynote lectures/sermons, and the breakout sessions, three emphases kept rolling out again and again:

  • The worship leader is a pastor (or performing a pastoral function)
  • The worship leader is a lover of Christ and His gospel, first and foremost
  • The worship leader is a student of the Scriptures

Notice two things.  First, this was very much a modern worship conference, stylistically speaking.  All the headlining worship bands were in-your-face, Gretsch-plus-pedal-board-weilding, kick-and-tom-pounding, rock leaders.  At one time, while Mark Dever was being interviewed by Matt Boswell, Dever mentioned his church’s organ, and Boswell jokingly paused to explain to the crowd what an organ was [laughter].  Dever followed up by pointing to one of the rock keyboards on stage, quipping, “It’s a keyboard with pipes” [lots of laughter]. The second thing to notice, though, is that the above three emphases have nothing to do with musical style.  This could very well be a first for a sizeable (there were around 400 people in attendance), industry-sponsored modern worship conference.  Style was very secondary, maybe even tertiary.  There were no breakout sessions on sound, lights, or how to improve your electric guitar tone.  Preeminent were the qualifications, heart, and theological zeal of the worship leader.  (Wow.)  These observations are corroborated by the handful of conversations I had with young worship leaders I met, as I heard what impacted them most about the conference.  Of the many folks I talked to, nearly all were wide-eyed about the weight of their role, and they were eager to wrap their hearts around a biblical vision of what they do as worship leaders.

What we’re seeing is a new group of worship leaders come of age who are dissatisfied with the model they’ve been given by their modern worship forbears.  We’re seeing a sloughing off of some values associated with the modern worship ethos and a reclaiming of other ones in their place.  And in ten years, many of the folks at this conference, I suspect, will be the movers and shakers in modern worship, at least within the sphere of mainstream conservative evangelicalism.

Historians always caution against making big historical observations from a temporally proximate position.  The distance of time opens up some of the best vantage points.  Ignoring that important observation, I still believe that what we’ve seen over the last decade comes awfully close to a bona fide shift of values in modern worship and that the Doxology & Theology conference can be looked at as a point-in-time marker—maybe even a hinge.  Of course the industry rolls on.  Of course the mainstream modern worship bandwagon and events like the National Worship Leader Conference will continue to be heavily attended and populated.  But something’s happening, and I praise God for it.  


New Liturgy Site a Sign of the Times for Evangelical Worship

Over the years, I've attempted to catalogue and explore the shifts that we're observing taking place in mainstream evangelical worship.  Many of these shifts, in my opinion, are in the right direction, and encouraging them has been one of the chief aims of this blog since its inception in 2009.  Those of us who have been in the contemporary worship biz for a while are probably aware of one of the leading sites to provide music and resources for worship leaders and churches,  Praisecharts, in many ways, is even more robust than CCLI in providing relatively inexpensive options for procuring chord charts, lead sheets, harmony sheets, and orchestrations of a LOT of music for worship.  

Interestingly, the makers of praisecharts began working on a site recently launched called  This is fascinating on so many levels.  I and many others, including my friends over at Liturgy Fellowship, were in preliminary conversations with the great folks at praisecharts many months ago.  They explained that they were observing a growing number of (predominantly evangelical) churches, many of whom in the contemporary camp, who were re-engaging "liturgy" but desiring resources and not knowing where to go.  

Why is there a resurgence of interest in liturgy among evangelicals?  One theory I have is that the emerging generation of worship leaders and new church leaders (folks especially in their 20s and 30s), are potentially the first to have grown up in the purely contemporary church.  Let's recall when the traditional-to-contemporary shifts took place en masse--the 80s and 90s.  Evangelicals who were kids in that time frame, who grew up in the church, were perhaps the first generation to only know contemporary/modern worship songs and the standard block-of-songs-and-a-sermon worship service structure.  Just as many of us, who have found ourselves in a rootless, fragmented, relativistic, postmodern millieu, were finding solace in old hymns (hence the rehymn movement), so we were finding our corporate faith enlivened by re-engaging the liturgy that many of our forefathers and mothers had purposefully chosen to forget.  That the makers of praisecharts, an engine which has risen to the top in service of evangelical mainstream worship, are interested in servicing the liturgical renewal among evangelicals is a huge sign of the times and one more large piece of evidence that a shift is taking place.  

The most telling thing about is that it's not attempting to only be a "traditional worship" site.  The liturgies they have put together tie in more modern-styled songs.  For instance, this Lent service has a more modern arrangement of the Kyrie by High Street Hymns.  They've also included our version of "Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending" as an option for one of their Advent services.  I'm digging it.

So, what other signs of the times have you observed about modern worship moving in a direction toward more theological depth, biblical reflection, and historical rootedness?


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.

Confessional Evangelicalism vs. Just...Evangelicalism

I think I work with one of the smartest guys on the planet.  My colleague and partner in crime, Dave Strunk, continually blows me away with his ability to synthesize information and process things from a systematic perspective.  He has written a brilliant review of Al Mohler's chapter in the book The Spectrum of Evangelicalism.  His basic point is that the term "confessional" matters in the phrase "confessional evangelicalism."  It's a very important piece for anyone who's considering wrestling through the "confessional" aspect of being an evangelical.  A choice quote:

Isn't the point of confessional evangelicalism that our beliefs, worship, and church practice are rooted in the confessional history of the church? If one wants to adopt the mantle of evangelical but also claim the qualifier confessional, then the confessional history matters, whether it be Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, or some other variety. Isn't the point that generic evangelicalism is given color and flavor with its convictions rooted in the past?

Complete with C.S. Lewis references and coherent argumentation, this article is worth your time.  Read it!



More and More are Returning to Tradition

In case you haven’t seen the 2007 US News article, "A Return to Tradition," it's worth a read.  It corroborates a lot of what this blog has been saying over its short life-span.  Retrieval and recovery is something that evangelicals are becoming more and more interested in, but it's not limited to evangelicals.  Check out the article.

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