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Entries in gospel-centered worship (5)


If You're Interested in Deeply Studying Gospel Centered Worship

If you're like me, thinking about furthering your education in the area of worship studies, you're less interested in flashy admissions campaigns and impressive campus acreage. I want two things: A handful of great professors zeroing in on excellent subject matter.

There's a lot of talk out there about "gospel-centered" this and that, and a lot of people have spilled a lot of digital ink explaining how diluted and convoluted that discussion has become. Such is the fate of "gospel-centered worship." Nevertheless, if I myself were to put flesh on the bones of that phrase, I'd want to do it in a similar spirit to the theology and worship of a particular time and place in history. This time and place has gone under-appreciated, under-mentioned, and under-studied in our typical "gospel-centered worship" discussions. I'm talking about the English Reformation. 

Something special occurred in England in the 1500s as the Reformational streams from Calvin and Luther converged in those Western isles. Two things were happening in the lives and hearts of some key movers and shakers. First, the doctrine of justification by faith alone was rocking their world and radically reorienting the way they saw and thought about everything, from theology to farming. Second, those movers and shakers were in the process of reforming worship around this doctrine, rewriting liturgies through the lens of grace.

In short, sixteenth century England was a distillery for a kind of 200 proof gospel-centered worship. Honestly, the more I read and think about it, the more I want to read and think more about it. 

And this is why I'm going to be switching my doctoral emphasis to the newly-created Theology and Worship of the English Reformation track at Knox Seminary in their modular Doctor of Ministry program. Full disclosure: Knox sits across the street from the church I serve here in Ft. Lauderdale, and many of the professors are now my good friends. That said, I have not been asked, coerced, or bribed into this post. :) It's not propaganda. I believe in the subject-matter. I believe that studying it could unleash a fresh doxological reformation in the church. And I would love it if some of my friends and readers, who may be ready for something like this, would join me in this program.  Here's the track description:

The Theology and Worship of the English Reformation Track is designed to equip those in ministry to understand the doctrinal and liturgical reforms of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The received traditions of Catholic faith and practice were rethought in 16th century Britain along the “evangelical” lines of the Reformation, resulting in a consistent though broad Protestantism lived and expressed through the Book of Common Prayer. The early English evangelicals did find a middle-way of sorts, but not as is often imagined a via media between the Reformation and Rome. Rather, the English Reformation listened to and learned from both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions and attempted to express and embody a Protestantism that could include both (or at least not exclude either).

This track encourages an understanding of the mutuality of theology and worship and considers the complexity of contextualization, as well as the process of learning from the past for the sake of the present.

That last part is what I've found most intriguing about the worship revolution happening during the English Reformation. It was a project in contextualization. And that is so much of what good worship leaders do--wrestle with contextualizing timeless, Spirit-filled truths and traditions for new generations of worshipers.

The four scholars heading up the track are thinkers I can vouch for. I've sat under the teaching of all of them in one way, shape, or form: Ashley Null (the world's leading Thomas Cranmer scholar), Gerald Bray (a walking encyclopedia of church history, but particularly the Reformation), Jonathan Linebaugh (one of the most integrative thinkers I've ever met), and Justin Holcomb (just plain coolness).

So...if any of this is intriguing, take the next step and check out this amazing, one-of-a-kind program. It's built for full-time practitioners (like me) to jump in and out of intensive studies. It's not a "worship degree." I think it might actually be better than that. 


Worship as Trinitarian CPR

The worship service is a dynamic moment. Too often, we're tempted to think low thoughts about what a worship service actually is and what is actually happening there. So, let me put it bluntly. In worship, God intends to kill you and then make you alive again. Every week.

God wants His weight to so crush you, His heat to so scorch you, His light to so blind you, that you must cry out to God the Father, "Save me!" At this point, the Gospel rushes forth, a mighty Wind into your lungs from the Holy Spirit breathing the Son into your lifeless body.

Over at Worship Cohort--a site I heartily recommend for solid thinking on worship alongside practical helps--I describe how the Call to Worship is not an empty ritual but a dramatic event where dead people are called out among the graveyard of life into a resurrecting, resuscitative moment. Here's an excerpt:

Between Sundays, we do a whole lot of dying. And then, drug to worship by God’s providence, just as our soul is about to gasp its last breath, God (Father) says, “Wake up, sleeper,” and we rise again by the Breath (Spirit) of the Gospel (Son). Trinitarian CPR. That’s what worship is.

Go read the whole article here!


What the Church is Informs what Worship Looks Like

Pragmatists by Birthright

We evangelicals have pragmatism encoded in our DNA. To “do what works” is so instinctual it sometimes feels as though we’ve come up with a sixth sola—solus whateverworkus. We think this way because it’s part and parcel to the Western American psyche and because, well, “doing whatever works” works.  The proof is in the pudding. The statistics don’t lie.

Pragmatism is not inherently evil.  In fact, pragmatism is a sub-set of something very good and very biblical—wisdom.  If God is truly sovereign, then we can, to some degree, rely on the try-and-succeed pattern to teach us things about how to operate in the world that He has designed and continues to preserve and govern.  But the try-and-succeed pattern can only get us so far because the system is tainted.  The factory is full of rust, warped parts, and broken gears, so though stuff might come off the assembly line, we can’t fully trust the fact that because it “produces” it’s right and good.  Worship needs other informants besides wisdom. 

Ecclesiology Informs Doxology

For worship, one of those informants is a full-orbed understanding of what the Bible says the Church is. In other words, ecclesiology informs doxology. 

Michael Horton fleshes this out in one very tangible way:

Whenever we gather for public worship, it is because we have been summoned. That is what “church” means: ekklesia, “called out.” It is not a voluntary society of those whose chief concern is to share, to build community, to enjoy fellowship, to have moral instruction for their children, and so forth. Rather, it is a society of those who have been chosen, redeemed, called, justified, and are being sanctified until one day they will finally be glorified in heaven. We gather each Lord’s Day not merely out of habit, social custom, or felt needs but because God has chosen this weekly festival as a foretaste of the everlasting Sabbath day that will be enjoyed fully at the marriage supper of the Lamb.*

Allowing ecclesiology to inform doxology really does cut through a lot of “fat” of what worship is all about at its core.  When we gather on the Lord’s Day, we don’t gather to share; we don’t gather to build community and fellowship; we don’t gather to “become a better me” or improve ourselves; we don’t even gather to gain Bible knowledge or sharpen our theological swords.  We gather to hear and respond to afresh God’s gospel call on sinners’ lives each and every week.  We gather to renew God’s covenant with us.  We gather to have our stiff necks massaged by grace and our hard hearts softened by mercy.  The Good News always gathers a crowd, and that crowd is nothing other than the local church.  

This is not to say that all the other aforementioned things aren’t important by-products of the gospel call in worship.  In fact, they are, and when they’re absent we pastors have some questions to ask ourselves about the health and content of our worship services.  But the problem is that we can all too easily push for worship to be about these things (this is the slippery slope that an over-emphasis on pragmatism often puts us on), such that we begin measuring our effectiveness based on these things rather than our faithfulness to rehearse, enact, proclaim, and embody the gospel call of the Triune God.

How Now Shall We Worship?

This immediately sheds light on both the form and content of the worship service.  For the content, we can now ask questions like:

  • What in our worship indicates God’s glorious summons of the world to worship? 
  • Are our songs and prayers “vertical” enough to paint the picture of a God-calls-we-respond paradigm, or do we too quickly jump to either how we’re experiencing God in the moment or what we are or will do for God in the present or the future (what many have called “triumphalism”)?
  • Are our songs and prayers saturated enough with the explicit good news of Christ’s finished work for us in His life and death, or are we more nebulous about sin and salvation?

For the form, we can additionally ask:

  • Does our worship move like a dialogue (God speaks, we respond, God speaks, we respond, etc.)?
  • Is our worship service shaped like the Gospel (moving from the Father’s glory and call, to our inability, to Christ’s work of salvation, to the Spirit’s application of Christ and empowering for ministry and mission), or are we simply beholden to a worship flow that “works” (a block of songs, the offering, the sermon, and a closing song) because it inspires people and doesn’t take too much of their time?
  • Does the form of our worship service seek to entertain / keep attention, or does it seek to take people on a journey through a story?

Worship Works Best When the Gospel Works Best

These questions are diagnostic, but hopefully they probe deeply enough to expose the need for ecclesiology to inform doxology over and above our penchant toward slouching to the least common denominator of "whatever works." The truth is, though, that when the Gospel is sung, prayed, enacted, rehearsed, heard, tasted, and seen, it works.  The good news of Jesus Christ, being God's only recipe for human flourishing, catalyzes growth, health, and life in people.  We need no other argument, no other plea.  This is as pragmatic as it gets because it addresses both felt and (more importantly) actual needs of human beings.  So, if we're really interested in providing "what works best," we need look no further.  We don't need a sixth sola, because solus whateverworkus merely reiterates the others.  Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, is really all we need.  The gospel works best.  

*Michael Horton, A Better Way: Recovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 24.

Is Christ-Centered Worship Anti-Trinitarian?

An Irish Trinitarian Shamrock Cross

I was recently blessed to lead a breakout session at the Doxology & Theology Conference in Frisco, TX, on “The Worship Leader and the Trinity.”  If you’d like to grab my notes for that, go here.

In some of my closest worship leader circles, where the cross is lifted high and the gospel is seen as the shaping paradigm for the Christian life, much is made of the concept of “Christ-centered worship”—worship that focuses on Jesus, especially the imputation of the merits of his life and the atonement of his death onto believers.  Yet, as orthodox Christians, we profess that our God is Triune—one God, eternally existing in Three persons.  And while each Person might have unique roles, we’re careful to point out that Their oneness encourages our worshiping the Three by neither excluding nor neglecting any one Person.  In the words of the Nicene Creed, around which all Christians should be able to rally, we rightly adore “the Spirit, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.”  So is “Christ-centered worship” challenged by this notion?  Bryan Chapell helps answer the question:

The redemptive flow of biblical worship inevitably makes our liturgy Christ-centered.  This does not mean that Christian worship diminishes the honor of any other member of the Trinity.  God the Father makes our worship Christ-centered by redeeming us through the work of his Son, and giving the Spirit to testify of him.  Because worship is a response to this witness of redemption, the grace God provides through his Son is the thread that sews the service together.*

So, in other words, Christ-centered worship and Trinitarian worship are one and the same.  To speak of Christ-centered worship is to make explicit what Trinitarian worship is—approaching the Trinity through Christ, who is applied to us by the Spirit.  Christ, the only mediator between the Godhead and humanity (1 Tim 2:5), is the door through which we walk to enter the blessings of the mutual, self-giving love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Even more profoundly, and certainly more mysteriously, the Spirit unites us with Christ—we are one with Him—such that we somehow are experiencing the Trinitarian life as we are in Christ.  This is getting at what Scripture means when it says that our life is “now hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3) and why we in some sense here and now have “died with Christ” (Col 2:20) and are “raised with Christ” (Col 3:1).  This is what John the apostle is meaning when he says that “our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:4), and it is what Peter is pointing to when he says that we “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4).  In the words of John Piper, “God is the gospel.”  The good news is that in Christ, through what He has done for us in His life and death, we’re invited to experience the joy and life shared by the Magnificent Three.  So gospel-centered is Christ-centered is Trinitarian.  The three are one.

*Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 113.  

Worship as Gospel Target Practice

I continue to slowly read through James K. A. Smith's book, Desiring the Kingdom.  It has fast become one of the three most important books on worship I have read in the last decade.  The book's central point is pictured through a hundred different metaphors and explored from a hundred different angles.  I would like to tease out just one metaphor.  Smith says, 

The liturgy is a "hearts and minds" strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and "aim" our love toward the kingdom of God.*

In other words, worship is like target practice for our hearts.  What is the function of target practice?  Whether you're a rifleman, a basketball player, or Katniss Everdeen, target practice serves one primary purpose: to train your muscles and senses through repeated action to hit bullseye, so that when you're in real life, the real game--when it counts--you are able to hit true with almost instinctual, subconscious automaticity.  A basketball player will shoot free throw shots in the practice gym over and over again so that, when they're on the line in the game, they almost can't miss because, from the tips of their toes to the top of their head, they've so trained their body that it is as if they can only make the shot.

Worship "rituals," thoughtfully planned, purposefully led, and intentionally engaged, have a very similar effect on the "aim" of one's soul.  Smith frames this aim in terms of the "kingdom," hence his book's title reveals that worship causes us to "desire the kingdom."  Complementary to that idea, I'd like to testify that good worship causes us to be a people patterned according to the gospel.   

I have been a participant in gospel-shaped worship services for over a decade now.  This means that I've been worshiping in service contexts where, either through song, scripture, spoken elements, sacrament/ordinance, or some combination of the four, there are explicit moments in the service where we're walking through the pattern of:

(a) God's glory, power, and holiness
(b) our sin, rebellion, brokenness, and unworthiness
(c) God's provision of a Mediator to bridge the vast chasm between (a) and (b)

In more formal (high church) contexts, this is often called (a) the Call to Worship / Praise; (b) the Confession of Sin; (c) Assurance of Pardon / Absolution.  It is the "gospel shape" that Bryan Chapell (in Christ-Centered Worship) observes is a part of all the major Christian worship traditions from the earliest times.  It is the core of the "Great Tradition" that Jim Belcher (in Deep Church) identifies as the common river from which the various tributaries of Christianity branch.  

Walking through this gospel-shape week in and week out for over ten years now has made me a creature of habit the other six days of the week.  When I stumble into sin daily, when I walk with my wife and my kids through their sin daily, an instinct quickly emerges and my heart starts raining gospel free throws.  I find the crushing power of God's glory over me, and I am brought low.  I cry "uncle" and admit my sin before my Maker.  And God ministers His good news of Christ, through the Spirit, to my heart.  I have just acted out and performed what I "rehearse" every Sunday.  I have just hit bullseye because of each Sunday's relentless target practice drills.

As worship leaders, pastors, planners, and worshipers, it behooves us to think long and hard about what our worship services aim us toward in both content and form.  Thoughtful worship leaders most often think about content: What is the theology of the songs, the spoken elements, the prayers?  And we should ask quite clearly, "Is the gospel there?"  But we also need to probe the question of form: Does the flow and rhythm of the worship service walk through the gospel story?  Is the gospel not only proclaimed in the content of the songs, but do we actually progress through the steps of glory, sin, and grace?  

In many ways, the more I plan worship services, the more I boil it down to one fundamental evaluative question: "In how many different ways are we proclaiming the gospel this Sunday?"  I certainly expect to hear it in the preaching, but I want it to saturate our prayers, songs, responses, readings, and celebrations of baptism and the Lord's Supper, too.  And I also want it proclaimed in form.  I hope that the gospel story has been "remembered" (in the robust, Koine sense of anamnesis) in at least three different ways each Sunday.

So the question is before us: If the gospel is not the target for your services, what is? 


*James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 33.