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Entries in gospel-shaped 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. 


Album Roundup Week: We Will Proclaim, Live Worship with The Falls Church Anglican

This week I'll be highlighting a few albums that have come my way over the last few weeks and months. First up is We Will Proclaim: Live Worship with The Falls Church Anglican, a project overseen by my friend and fellow worship leader-blogger, Jamie Brown

This album is a true "church album"--ecclesiastical and communal from top to bottom. It runs like one, beautiful worship service. It is highly collaborative at every level. Lots of musicians and minds contributed to it, and songs are pulled from all over the church music spectrum...everything from Matt Redman, to Bob Kauflin, to old hymns, to original material. The music and production are both beautiful and human!  The album is gospel-shaped, deeply "liturgical," and full of heart. Many moments (even the first track, which is just an extended Call to Worship) have ministered to me and brought me to tears.

I want to draw your attention to one particular song that I think is powerful, beautiful, and needed in the Church, which happens to be the one exclusively written by Jamie: "Father Open Our Eyes." Here is the text:

Infinite grace and mercy,
tenderness deep and wide
A strong lion for our defense,
a humble lamb as our sacrifice
How can we take Him for granted?
How can our hearts become hard?
Oh, that again we would run to our friend,
embraced by the grace in His arms

Father, open our eyes, help us to savor Jesus Christ
Father, level our pride, show us the one who gives us life
Help us to love Your Son

Innocent, perfect beauty,
met by our wicked sin
The King eternal becomes the judged,
His enemies to be made His friends
How can we take Him for granted?
How can our hearts become stone?
Oh, that today we would fall on our face,
undone by the love He has shown

Come, Holy Spirit. Lead us to Jesus. Help us to worship.

Several things about this song are noteworthy.  First, it is beautifully Trinitarian. It embodies worship to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Notice that the chorus sings to the Father, while the goal is His aid in opening our eyes in order to savor the Son. The bridge gets at the "how": it is really the Spirit that the Father and the Son send to "lead us to Jesus." Second, it centers us on the finished work of Christ, rather than our subjective experience. The only good news we can perpetually find in worship is located outside ourselves in who Jesus is and what He has done. As I've said elsewhere, the best, most biblical "Spirit-filled worship" is that which makes much of the Son, placing the triumph and victory in Christ, not in our own fleeting whims. It reminds us that worship's Object is not a warm feeling or a renewed sense of zeal for God's cause, but Christ Himself.  Thirdly, it contributes to the language and vocabulary of invocation, which we need. Churches that engage a more formal liturgy are familiar with this, but we evangelicals who are used to a block-of-songs-then-sermon format may fail to remember the power that comes from Invocation: asking the Holy Spirit to be present and to work in the worship service. Moreover, when we ask the Spirit to what He loves, which is to showcase the Son, the invocation becomes that much more powerful. Beautiful!

Overall, especially as a live album, We Will Proclaim is a stacking of stones of remembrance to God's faithfulness in a church community that is on the move and has been through a lot! I'm appreciative of the pastoral heart that is obvious throughout the project, from singable keys, to simple yet elegant production, to theologically rich songs mixed with deeply passionate engagement. 

You can listen to and buy the album here!


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!


G. K. Chesterton Challenges the Critique that Liturgy is Deadening

Does repetition inherently lead to boredom? Robbie Castleman asked that question in her fabulous book, Story-Shaped Worship, and then answered it from the pen of G. K. Chesterton:

Now, to put the matter [the idea that repetition inherently leads to boredom] in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. 

They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.

Is it possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.*

So here's to all those worship planners out there dog set on doing the same thing, week in and week out. Granted, we can creatively, freshly, and innovatively express "the same thing," or we can do it with a lifeless roboticism. 

But we can rest assured that when our liturgies--our worship service structures--are shaped like the Gospel, the Holy Spirit will be rising up within us, after it's over, to scream, "Do it again, Daddy!"

*G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 60; quoted in Robbie Castleman, Story-Shaped Worship: Following Patterns from the Bible and History (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), 33-34.

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.