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Paul's Take on Spirit-Filled, Christ-Centered, Flesh-Killing Worship

O Paul That Will Not Let Me Go

Paul's letter to the Philippians has been haunting me lately. In a well-known section of the epistle, I was surprised afresh by some important links that the apostle compactly makes between worship, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the gospel. He says in Philippians 3:3 (ESV):

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

This is remarkable. I'd like to comment on the context and the grammar. The context is Paul's larger conversation about dealing with a group of people who seem to be infecting some of Paul's early church plants. They're poisoning the well of the gospel's pure water by demanding that true faith is "Jesus plus" something else. This something else is circumcision. With strong rhetoric, Paul calls these folks "evildoers...who mutilate the flesh" (3:2). Paul contrasts the purity of the gospel with what he calls "confidence in the flesh," which he illustrates with his own life (3:4-11). This "confidence" is boasting in what one does for God, what one brings to the table to make God pleased. Paul illustrates this confidence by rattling off a list of good deeds and favorable pedigree. 

We might say that this whole section is an explication of the not-I-but-Christ-ness displayed in Galatians 2:20 (ESV): 

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Paul is basically saying that there are two ways to live, either in Christ or in the flesh.

Paul's Connections: Spirit, Jesus, Flesh

With that in mind, we look back at the grammar of Philippians 3:3. He makes a statement ("we are the circumcision") and then strings together three qualifiers (the ones who worship, the ones who glory, and the ones who do not place confidence). These three ideas are strung together by a simple series of "and's," but that shouldn't lead us to conclude that Paul is being stream of consciousness here, simply tacking on one idea to the next. We should see a relationship between these three: what identifies us as the people of God (the true circumcision) is that we worship by the Spirit, glory in Christ, and put no confidence in the flesh. These three things mark us as Christians.

Paul's word for "worship" (latreuō) is a term most often associated with what scholars call "cultic service," or service within the liturgy. When the term is used, in other words, it tends to refer not to general "all of life" worship but to the kind of worship, the kind of "service," we typically offer when we gather with others in corporate worship. Paul is not necessarily pointing to gathered, corporate worship here (latreuō is certainly used in more broad contexts of meaning), but that image is certainly echoing as he uses the word.

What I find remarkable is how Paul connects three ideas we don't always necessarily think are connected: worship in the Spirit, Christ-centeredness, and the theology of "flesh." It's as if Paul is saying "we worship by the Spirit, which is to glory in Christ, which is to put no confidence in the flesh." If this is true, it corroborates what I've said in another post about what true Spirit-filled worship looks like: to make much of Christ. And making much of Christ stands in direct opposition to making much of ourselves. I'm thinking here of worship language in our prayers and songs which tends to place too much emphasis on what we responsively do for God--live for Him, serve Him, give it away for Him, surrender to Him, etc. (Check out how I address this in my various posts on triumphalism.) Too much of this creates a lot of room for "confidence in the flesh," which in turn minimizes "glory in Christ," moving away from what it means to "worship by the Spirit." 

Content, Structure, Grammar: New Depths of "Christ-Centered Worship"

Why do I bring all this up? Because if we are to pursue Christ-centered worship, we need to plumb new depths of meaning. Usually, the conversation on Christ-centered worship begins around content: Do our lyrics and prayers talk about Christ and his saving work of life and death? Great question. Great start. But we need to go deeper.

And when the conversation does go deeper, we thankfully get into talk of structure. Not only must we have Christ-centered content, but we must think about how the very narratival shape of the worship service must be Christocentric--approaching God through Christ. I'm thinking here of historic, trans-denominational, trans-temporal "deep structures" of Christian liturgies which include elements like Confession of Sin, Assurance/Absolution, and the like.

But even here there is still more ground to break in talks of Christocentrality. We may refer to it as "grammar." I'm using the term metaphorically. What I mean is to ask the question of how our language toward Jesus in our songs and structures actually get constructed. The reality is that we can have cross-centered songs and prayers, and we can even have a Christ-mediated superstructure to the worship service, all the while undermining the Message in those features with poorly constructed language...language which allows "confidence in the flesh" to leak in. 

So again, I'll beat this drum. Too much language about my commitment, my response, my works--they begin to shape our "spiritual grammar." I've pointed out in the past that reformers like Thomas Cranmer were keenly aware of worship's grammar and the necessity that justification by faith alone and not by works affect the very "sentence-construction" of our worship. 

Therefore, I want to sound the call again, this time not merely engaging with important theological connections, but actual biblical statments which lend aid to what we're saying here. We've connected these ideas many times theologically, and I think Paul provides us ample warrant here in Philippians 3.


Spontaneity, Planning, and the Holy Spirit in Worship

In the Cracks

For many of us who have been knowingly or unknowingly schooled by a certain influential slice of evangelical worship, our view of the Holy Spirit's role in worship is pretty straightforward. The Spirit comes in the "cracks"--the surprising moments, the in-between times, the unplanned invasions. And, to God's glory, Scripture describes the Spirit's work in this way. We witness Jesus, for instance, sparring with a well-educated theologian with this little jab about the way salvation works: "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8, ESV). The Spirit's surprising, unplanned work is tied in with some pretty pivotal moments in the history of the Church, such as Pentecost (Acts 2). The very Greek and Hebrew terms for "spirit" (pneuma, ruach) are the same words for "wind" and "breath," those ethereal elements of nature that can't be fully pinned down. 

So it's natural and fitting for us to believe that the Holy Spirit works in worship in the unexpected places. Some traditions actually plan for unplanned time so that this kind of Spiritual work might be made manifest, and I for one need to constantly listen to these voices and practices...God really does amazing things there.

Orderly Spontaneity

I would hope, though, that the traditions that preeminently cherish the Spirit's spontaneous work in worship would also increasingly hear Scripture's voice about the work of the Spirit in the order of things. Now, with that statement, I'm sure that for some, it feels like I have thrown a big bucket of water on the raging Fire of God. Hang with me, though, and check out what Constance Cherry has to say about all of this:

[When we turn to the Scriptures,] what we find there is that God is a God of order--it is one of the most significant aspects of God's nature. There are many examples of this in Scripture, but none more obvious than that found in the creation accounts in the opening chapters of Genesis. One simply cannot miss the orchestrated plan that God uses to create the heavens and the earth...The order of creation mattered. ...

When we give some forethought to planning the order of worship, we emulate God's approach to events. Remember, in providing for order, one creates a condition in which every part or unit is in its right place. An order (to anything) is simply a plan for a succession of events. Order provides direction for these actions.

The Holy Spirit is always at work--in advance, during, and after the events of human history. Though the Holy Spirit may appear to us to act spontaneously, this is because we are often unaware of the Spirit's action until it occurs, for we are not often privy to God's actions in advance. Therefore it is a leap in logic to assume that the Spirit primarily acts spontaneously and is therefore the preferred mode for the ordering of worship events. I am not suggesting that there should not be room for unexpected movements of God's Spirit in worship; these should be expected and welcomed when they occur. Yet there is no biblical evidence that the Holy Spirit is especially available as an antidote for inadequate worship planning.*

There is a lot of great wisdom packed in there, and it's a helpful balance for those of us who plan and lead worship. If we lean toward believing that the Holy Spirit's work is more or less equivalent to the unplanned and spontaneous, it's a helpful check to ponder the "orderliness" of God's actions. The Spirit, who hovered over the waters, had a central role in moving creation from chaos to order as those opening days progressed. Order is rooted in the nature of God, who is the Holy Spirit. This is what more liturgical traditions will try to articulate to more charismatic traditions about the nature of the Holy Spirit in their worship services, and I think it's worth hearing.

How I Try to Find a Balance

Here are some of the ways I try to find a balance, being someone who believes in the dynamic and immediate work of the Spirit in my life, open to surprises yet believing in His work in the "systems."

First, with some regularity, I pause to invoke and invite the Holy Spirit even as I'm sitting before Planning Center thinking through my liturgy and song set. As I do this, I must admit that things still feel very human. I'm thinking through songs, wrestling with tempos, keys, arrangements, and affects. I'm not all of a sudden feeling like I'm in some heightened spiritual state (though it would be refreshing if it happened more often). It feels very mundane. But I try, I strain to believe that when I ask for and invite the Holy Spirit's presence, He graciously condescends to fill me.

Second, I'm often firing up what some of us evangelicals call "arrow prayers" throughout the week and especially on Sundays, asking the Holy Spirit to prepare the people and fill the service with His life and power. As I'm going about other tasks, when it comes to mind, I simply ask God for those things in one or two sentences.

Third, I'm repeatedly firing up those same types of prayers throughout the service I am leading. In little instrumental breaks or turns between verses, choruses, and bridges, especially in the opening songs, I'm praying in my head/heart (or even sometimes with my lips), "Holy Spirit, come and fill your people," "Help us now, Spirit!"

Fourth, with less frequency but with a steady regularity, I pray with our teams before worship and include this type of sentiment: "O Holy Spirit, we want to acknowledge that You've been moving among us through the planning and rehearsing of this service. These plans are your plans, and we believe that You've been faithful to make them. Even so, sometimes we can get in the middle of things and mingle our sin, idolatry, and misdirection into Your perfect plans. Forgive us. We give this service to You. If you want to take it in an entirely different direction, or if you would desire to disrupt and change our plans, make us ready and open. We come to you with open hands. We want to be honest that though our plans aren't sacred and infallible, Your work in them always is."

Fifth, I try to plan for what I know the Holy Spirit loves all day every day: Jesus. I'm firmly convinced that a Spirit-filled worship service is, at its core, a service that makes little of ourselves and much of the person and work of Jesus Christ. (For more on this, check out this post.)

Trans-Tribal Relationships

I know my charismatic brothers and sisters will want to press me here for at least one more thing on this list--actually creating space for spontaneity in the service, whether it be an extended interlude or an open time of prayer and ministry. Ah, I'm trying. Seriously, pray for me and my church. I believe that these moments can be powerful, and within who God has made us to be and what God has called us to do as a church, I want to foster this kind of culture in the appropriate places.

But, hopefully, we can keep the dialogue open and ongoing. I certainly haven't said anything new, but I thought it worth reiterating and sharing what my practice is. My encouragement to all of us across traditions is to continue listening to each other...and I mean a deeper listening than reading a blog post or article from "outside your tradition." I mean relationships. Get to know the worship leaders in your town and give them the freedom to talk about what their passions, hopes, and dreams are for worship. Give them the benefit of the doubt (love hopes all things), and then graciously share your own heart. I've found strange and wonderful things happen when I legitimately get out of my tribe for a bit.

*Constance Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 40-41.

A Great Invocation to Kick off Good Friday...or any Service

For our Good Friday service at Coral Ridge this year, we will begin the evening with an Invocation for piano, strings, and voices (though it really could be reset in a bunch of different ways, from choir and organ to folk). It's called "Come Witness This Gospel to Me," off our new album, Come and Make Us Free. Personally, it's my favorite on the album and probably took the most out of me to write, which is saying a lot, given how emotionally charged the album is.

The truth is that this isn't just a Good Friday text. It's an Invocation for any service of the year. After all, worship is nothing more and nothing less than God's divine service to us, where the Father showcases the glory of the Son through the witness of the Spirit.

Below is the text, but if you want a peek behind the curtain to see what I was thinking theologically and experientially when I wrote it, check out the article just published on LIBERATE: "He Saw the Whole Bloody Thing Go Down."

One little note about the recording: I love the way the strings always sag on the underside of the pitch. It makes the song feel more heavy and grievous. It's like they're both the mourning of the Spirit and our straining to believe.

Happy Remembrancing.

Come Witness This Gospel to Me

chord chart | lead sheet | piano music


1. O Holy Spirit, O One who was there
To witness the anger that God didn't spare
To witness a verdict both just and unfair
O Holy Spirit, O One who was there 

2. You saw on His face all the judgment of hell
My story of shame that I cannot untell
How heavy my burden of blame when it fell!
You saw on His face all the judgment of hell 

Come witness this gospel to me
Remembrancer, this is my plea:
Preach Christ till He's all that I see
Come witness this gospel to me 

3. You saw in His dying the death of my sin
The Son's bleeding body, I'm hidden therein
Where all of my poison He drank deep within
You saw in His dying the death of my sin 

4. You're preaching a grace that is forever free
There's no condemnation, no wrath left for me
I hear "It is finished" from Calvary's tree
You're preaching a grace that is forever free 

Now witness this gospel to me
Remembrancer, cause me to see
That Christ is my one victory
Now witness this gospel to me 

You witness this gospel to me
Forgiveness eternally free
And always Your child I will be
You witness this gospel to me 

O Spirit, the truth I now see
You witness this gospel to me

Words & Music: Zac Hicks, 2014
©2014 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP)

True Worship from the Heart and How it Happens

Album art from Matt Jackson's terrific record!Many worship leaders (including me) are vexed by the question, "How do I get my people to worship?" I can't tell you how many times I've been asked that question by fellow songleaders. I can't tell you how many times I've heard or read some speaker or writer on the topic. I was never fully satisfied with some of the answers I got. Often times they were pragmatic "tricks of the trade" like raising the volume, creating seamless worship sets, or moving from fast songs to slow songs (championed by the so called "praise and [then] worship" model). I want to swiftly cut through the tall grass and ask two questions which I have found satisfying starting places to begin answering this greater question: (1) Where does true worship begin, and (2) How does it happen?

Where True Worship Begins

J. I. Packer was the first to help me grasp a very important distinction between knowing about God and knowing God. He said,

How can we turn our knoweldge about God into knowledge of God? The rule for doing this is simple but demanding. It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.*

In a recent sermon podcast, "Beholding the Love of God," Tim Keller put it similarly but more poetically:

Knowing God is when the truth (about God) overflows the mind into all the rest of you...when it all of a sudden makes your rationality go crazy... It flows out into your feelings, it flows out into your will, it flows out into every part of you.

True worship begins in the human heart, the seat of his or her affections, and it begins when knowledge of God (who He is and what He's done) spills over from mind to heart. Put another way, worship begins in a human being at the moment when theology begins to gush. Two places in Scripture are illustrative. 1 John 3:1:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.

I think the ESV here soft-sells the emotion of the apostle John. I like the King James' rendering of the opening Greek word for "see": "Behold." I also think that the translation could stand an exclamation point or two. As Keller points out in his sermon, it's as though John pauses from the teaching of his epistle to simply marvel. All of a sudden, John is gushing. John is showing us what worship looks like. It is the overflow of truth, spilling forth in praise.

Paul does the same thing, even more gloriously, at the end of Romans 11. After eleven solid chapters of gospel-gold, Paul must stop and doxologize:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!...For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Pass the plates, folks. It's time to explode in praise. True worship is like an uncontrollable alien bursting forth from the chest of the unsuspecting theologian. In all true believers, theology simply cannot stay caged in the confines of the person. It breaks free.

(I might just briefly point out here what I've said elsewhere. I'm fully on board with the thought-pattern of those who see that "going through the motions" of ritual is not a vain, empty enterprise. Ritual has a shaping-effect, even if our heart is not engaged. But the best, truest, fullest worship happens when all that ritual intersects with and flows forth from the human being's fullness, integrity, and shalom.)

How True Worship Happens

Based on all the things said above, it may sound like we are in control of said heart-gushing. We might think, "Well, okay, if I just try harder to let the things of God spill over into my heart, I'll be a more integrous, authentic worshiper." Though we've said that true worship begins in the human heart, this is really only true from our experience. The truth is that worship can only begin when a catalyzing Agent, outside of ourselves, prompts us to do so. True worship only happens by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In both the above instances with John and Paul, it's not most accurate to say that John and Paul are gushing the praises of God. It is really the Holy Spirit in them gushing forth with adoration of the Father and the Son. True worship is really a Trinitarian enterprise that we get sort of "caught up in." It's as though, in meditation upon the truths of God and His great salvation in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit revs up the engine of praise in our heart until it's roaring, guzzling gas, and firing on all cylinders. When the Father and the Son are displayed in their glory it is as though the Holy Spirit becomes a little kid who sees a popiscle placed before Him. He can't help but scream and dance for joy at the sight. 

This is the "Trinitarian moment" that happens in us when we worship. This is why some hymn writers rightly describe worship as a "rapturous joy." True worship feels like a kind of rapture, where we're beamed up into the glorious intra-Trinitarian light.  Sometimes it happens as we let things "sink in," and sometimes it just hits us out of nowhere.

So how do we get people to worship? Well, first we acknowledge that we actually don't. It's a work of the Holy Spirit. That said, we should be aware that as worship leaders we are called by God to be the ones to prepare the soil for the buds of worship to burst forth. The question then becomes, "What causes the Holy Spirit to gush?"  Well, Jesus does. His Gospel does. This is the essence (I think somewhat lost on my charismatic brothers and sisters) of what "Spirit-filled worship" looks like (read more about that here).

*J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1973), 23.

What is Spirit-Led Worship?

When I enter into dialogues about worship with other leaders from other traditions, I sometimes get the sense that certain traditions think they have the corner on the market when it comes to being truly "Spirit-led" and "Spirit-filled."  I've even heard, both first- and second-hand, criticisms of services I've led or been a part of that seem utterly "devoid of the Spirit."  Many times, those criticisms could be translated quite accurately as "lack of emotional fervor."  While I'm all for emotional fervor, I'm also all for thinking the biggest thoughts we can about God, and I think sometimes our discussions of the Spirit's work in worship are very limited and limiting.  I have written about what Spirit-filled worship looks like before, but I found myself, once again, recently jamming on Trinitarian theology and read a great explanation of "Spirit-led worship" worth sharing as an extended quote.  Robin Parry's Worshipping Trinity (now in its second edition) is one of the best, comprehensive takes on Trinitarian worship out there.  In fact, I can say that in many ways my chapter in Doxology and Theology is a distillation of a lot of the same ideas.  The greatest part about Parry's book, though, is that it sits in dialogue with modern worship and is very accessibly written.  Here's what he has to say about all of this:

Spirit-led worship is thus not the reserve of Pentecostals and charismatics; rather, it is the heritage of all genuine Christian worshippers. "Spirit-led" worship is not a theological synonym for "loud" worship or "bouncy" worship or "worship-led-by-a-rock-band." Spirit-led worship can be very loud and energetic, but it can equally be meditative and candle-lit. Spirit-led worship may be found where incense rises and liturgy is sung just as much as it may be found where flags are waved and the singing is in tongues. And the converse is true--all that glitters is not gold, all that shouts and shakes or glows and rises before the Lord is not worship.  

Spirit-led worship is worship that is sincere and honest. It acknowledges our need of God's assistance and sees that only in Christ are any offerings we make acceptable. Acceptable worshippers come to God in weakness and humility and receive grace in a time of need. Spirit-led worship is not insecure worship, ever-anxious of rejection by God, but confident worship that delights that everything necessary has already been done. It is not arrogant self-promotion (thinly disguised as humility) but humble confidence in the one in whom we have been brought to trust. God requires worship and God has offered that worship on our behalf in Christ--and by the Spirit God enables us to offer ourselves to him through Christ. Our response to God is a participation (enabled by God) in God's own response to God...worship is "a gifted response" for which we can claim no credit.

The Spirit's guiding role in worship is one that Pentecostals and charismatics often recognize. The Spirit is the worship leader who enables us to be led by Christ in worship. In the charismatic traditions there is a very deep appreciation of the Spirit as the worship leader who orchestrates gatherings of the community.  Spirit-led worship will exalt Jesus and the Father. It will have an intercessory edge, for we will be led to share in the Messiah's prayers for the world...  The Spirit will also create communities in which everyone is empowered to offer worship through Christ in the Spirit. This may be through liturgy which, contrary to the views of some in my own charismatic free church tradition, can (and should) be very uplifting...and participatory... The Spirit generates fellowship, unity, and community between Christian and Christian as well as between Christians and Christ when we worship. He does not make us all the same but enables us to love and embrace each other in all our diversity (1 Cor 12). If our communal worship is not like this--if it excludes people from participating or simply draws people as individuals towards God but not towards each other--then we need to start asking hard questions about whether it is as Spirit-led as we may like to imagine.  Spirit-led worship will also have an appropriate openness to the new and unplanned. The Spirit blows where he wills and gives gifts to whomever he wishes to (John 3:8; 1 Cor 12:11).  Here is where liturgy can sometimes actually shut us down rather than open us up to the work of the Spirit.*

Well-said.  Well-put.  Challenging across the board.  Parry reminds us well to lift our eyes higher and higher about the work of the Triune God in our worship services.

*Robin Parry, Worshipping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship, 2nd ed. (Eugene: Cascade, 2012), 79-80.

The Sunday After a Really Great Sunday

Last week, I posted about one of those rich, powerful Sundays that happened at Coral Ridge.  It was one of those days when many gathered were caught up in the gospel-story and deeply impacted as we entered, confessed, remembered our pardon, gave, listened, received, tasted, and saw.  My charismatic brothers and sisters call it "God showing up."  It's one of those sweet moments where a little bit more of heaven is cracked open for the viewing and God manifests Himself more palpably in comfort and grace, especially at His Table.  

If you're like me, you immediately start getting nervous on Monday.  "Well, how do I top that?" you think as you begin to plan or finalize next week's service.  The performance pressure creeps in, and you begin to try to pull out all the stops to manufacture what happened so organically and unexpectedly.  And then, when that Sunday rolls around, you're almost doomed for failure.  The Sunday after a really great Sunday is never a great Sunday.  Or at least that's what you think.

I'm reminded of the apostle Peter in Matthew 17, who knew that He was experiencing something super-special as He witnessed Christ's transfiguration.  "It's good for us to be here."  Can't we just stay here a bit longer?  I want every Sunday to be that Sunday.  

The reality is, though, that God doesn't seem to work that way. Over my decade-plus career now as a planner and leader of worship services, I've learned a few things about how to navigate the Sunday after a really great Sunday:

First, we can't read into such powerful Sundays that God is blessing us with more because we've been good.  

That's a slippery slope graded on really bad theology.  Because what's the flip side?  Is God removing His blessing the following week because we've been sinful and rebellious?  That line of thinking totally bypasses the finished work of Christ and discounts that God's pleasure in us isn't based on our performance.  God isn't some kind of Presence Genie, dolling out portions of His glory consummate with how much we rub His lamp with our good works.  He's the Father of Grace, pouring out all of His Son, by His Spirit, as a once-for-all sacrifice so that we might enter into His presence and experience Him with confidence.

Second, we need to recognize that we're dancing along the edge of God's mysterious will.  

"The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8, ESV).  Jesus said this in the context of His famous, secret conversation with Nicodemus about what true salvation looks like.  We can easily extrapolate outward when we see that as God's will blows through by His Spirit, it would be foolish of us to try to fully deconstruct the "why" of the given moment.  Now, for us and last Sunday, I do think there was a corellation between the prayers of the people and God's glory among us, simply because I believe in the efficacy of prayer and Scripture tells me that when we ask, He gives (Matthew 7).  But that's about as far as I want to press it.  I'll use it as a partial, limited stab at a "hindsight analysis," but I'll also be careful not to press it forward into a formula for next week. Formulas like these (if we just pray hard enough, God will show up) slip into what I talked about in the previous point and discount the mystery of the way God's Spirit works.  

Third, we need to remember the better criteria on how to judge a "successful" worship service. 

There's an unhealthy view out there that believes that the only "successful" worship service is one where we feel something ecstatic.  That view leads us down the dangerous road of the first point of hyper-analyzing ourselves, our church, our works, our prayer life, and our performance to root out what we did that caused God's removal of His pleasure and presence.  Again, that kind of thinking is downright wrong, and it is also plainly Satanic--we begin to manufacture accusations, where Christ has said, "It is finished."

It is far better to judge "success" of a worship service based on whether we as worshipers and worship planners have been faithful to do what God has asked us to do in a worship service.  Have we been faithful in engaging elements of worship that Scripture encourages us to?  Have we been faithful in connecting to how that Scriptural call has been realized over the ages in the (in the words of Jim Belcher) "great tradition" of the Church?  Those two questions, in short, can be summarized in, Have we been faithful to display, enact, enter into, and respond to the Gospel story in worship this week?   This moves away from measuring success based on internal feelings and moves toward measuring it based on external revelation.

But, again, please don't read into this, "If we're faithful to do these things, God will bless us with His presence."  I'm not saying that.  What I'm saying is that a good Sunday is good because of Who was displayed, not what was felt.  

You just can't hit a home run every time at bat

I'm reminded of something our homiletics (preaching) professor drilled into us in seminary.  "You can't hit a home run with every sermon," he would say.  He urged that the important thing was to get on base.  Make contact with the ball, and run.  And every once in a while, the connection will be just right, it will soar into the stands, and the stadium will go electric.  This is a healthy, down-to-earth metaphor for worship.  The Spirit determines whether or not the contact is just right.  That's His job.  Our job is to remember the rules of the game and be as faithful to swing that bat when the ball flies by.  And then, if something magic happens, we rejoice and glory in the moment as best as we can.  But, next week, when we approach that plate, we're back to square-one fundamentals, and when we hit that single, as we're jamming to first, we rejoice nonetheless that God is faithful, that Christ is our salvation, and that the Spirit is our Comforter, Guide, and Friend. 


Why the Spirit is the Artist’s Best Friend

"May Hour of Pentecost," by Makoto FujimuraBringing Life & Bringing Beauty

There is an interesting link worth pondering between the Holy Spirit’s creative and aesthetic roles.  Scripture speaks often of the unique role of the Spirit in vivifying—bringing life.  Job 33:4 exclaims, “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”  Isaiah prophesies, “The Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest” (Isaiah 32:15).  The Psalmist cries, “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:30).

No wonder, then, in the Trinity’s group-strategy of our salvation, the Spirit is tasked with the role of “new birth.”  “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6).  In Trinitarian soteriology (the theology of how we are saved by God), the Father chooses and calls, the Son accomplishes the work, and the Spirit, as the life-giver, applies the work of the Son to us. 

Making Life is Making Beauty

When we take the Spirit’s life-giving roles one step further, we enter quite naturally into the realm of aesthetics, because the lines between bringing life and bringing beauty are fairly blurred.  To vivify is to beautify.  Think of the people you know that you might describe as “full of life.”  Don’t they also seem beautiful to you?   Or think of those perhaps semi-attractive people you know of whom you’ve said, “Once I got to know them better, and saw their [full of life] personality, they seemed more attractive, more beautiful.”  When life bursts forth and grows, it’s intrinsically beautiful, isn’t it?  Nature reflects this in spring.  Humans reflect this in conception and birth.  It makes sense, then, when Job says, “By his breath [or Spirit], the skies became fair.”  Creation is not just a constructive endeavor.  It is an aesthetic one.

Why the Spirit is the Artist's Best Friend 

This helps us understand why the Spirit is the artist's best friend:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.”  (Exodus 31:1-5, ESV)

I often pray with the musicians I work with before the service something like this prayer: “God, fill us up with your Holy Spirit to make beautiful art to You today.  Establish the work of our hands that the beauty You make in us might serve to inspire Your people to sing mightily unto you.”

If it really is true that all the world runs on Trinitarian fuel, then certainly every creative, beautiful endeavor, though marred by the fall, human frailty, and sinful privation, is the work of the Spirit in us.  The beauty we make is more than just echoes and reverberations of God’s beauty; it is the very Power of God, through the Spirit, in us.

Discipling Artists in this Truth

One of the ways we worship pastors can help make disciples of artists is to remind them of the Spirit’s work within them.  We should be quick to point out that God cares enough about art and beauty that one of the central roles of one of the Persons is to uphold, supplant, sustain, indeed inspire that human enterprise.  We should encourage them that their work has value not only because it might impact lives but because it is simply beautiful…and beautification is central to the heart of God.  We can edify them by reminding them that their art-making is, in fact, evidence that God is at work within them.  The beautiful outcome of their craft is a sign that God is near.

The understatement of the century: the Spirit is the artist’s best friend.


What Does Spirit-Filled Worship Look Like?

"Holy Spirit Coming," by He QiThere’s a lot of talk about what the Spirit does in worship.  Often, we hear assumptions about His work through comments like, “Wow, the Spirit was really moving this Sunday!” or, “I really felt the Spirit’s presence during that song.”  Often times, we equate the Spirit’s presence and power with spontaneity coupled with ecstatic emotional experience.  I do not want to take away from this in what I am about to say, because I believe that when the Spirit moves in us, that movement is often accompanied by surprising, unmanufactured, full-bodied, whole-personed experiences, which include our emotions.  Goosebumps do often accompany the Spirit’s work.

But goosebumps are not equal to or the litmus test of the Spirit’s work.  I get goosebumps when the air conditioner is blowing on me the right way or when my wife massages my feet.  I get goosebumps when I hear a touching story, listen to a stirring piece of music, or observe a striking piece of art.  So how can we know what is truly the Spirit’s work among us, particularly in worship?  To be sure, much, perhaps most, of the Spirit's work is mysterious to us.  But God has revealed to us a measure of His ways, and this is where Trinitarian theology makes a huge difference.  To answer this question, we need to turn to the very Spirit-breathed Scriptures (“Spirit-breathed” is actually redundant in biblical language) to ask, “What does the Bible say about the role of the Spirit?” 

The Spirit’s Work is to Preach Christ to Us

Let’s just look at one passage, John 15:26:

[Jesus said,] “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.

It’s pretty clear.  One of the Spirit’s principle jobs is to testify about Christ to the hearts of men and women.  But “job” isn’t the best word.  Really, the Spirit delights, revels in displaying the Son.  We can even say that the Spirit lusts after making much of Jesus.  If that language seems too strong for you, check out Galatians 5:13-26 ("desires" means "lusts"), upon which Tim Keller comments in a sermon, “The Spirit has Jesus pinned up all over His wall.”  In other words, the Spirit Himself gets goosebumps whenever He thinks of the Son.

Some of us here are tempted to think that the Spirit’s testifying about Jesus is basically for non-believers who need to “get saved,” but in John 15, Jesus is speaking to His disciples, urging them to be comforted about what the Spirit will ongoingly do for them, and, therefore, for us.  We never move beyond our need for the Spirit to perpetually testify and witness Christ to our wandering hearts, again and again.  We never “arrive” at moving beyond needing to hear the good news of the gospel. 

Spirit-Filled Worship Transforms Us BY Displaying Jesus

What does this mean for worship, then?  It means that if we want to talk about worship being “Spirit-filled,” we first and foremost aren’t talking about something experienced but Someone proclaimed to our pensive, doubting, fearful hearts.  Worship is Spirit-filled when Christ is on display!  This is precisely His work!  Its what He loves to do!  And I don’t know if you’ve experienced it like I have, but when Christ is on display in preaching and in the sacraments, and when we respond through prayer and singing about Him and His work, goosebumps and other emotionally ecstatic experiences often follow for those who truly engage worship in the power of the Spirit.  This experience is not only an ecstatic one, but a transformative one.  2 Corinthians 3:18 goes on to explicate the Spirit’s work:

And we all, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Puritan theologian Richard Sibbes describes it this way:

The very beholding of Christ is a transforming sight. The Spirit that makes us new creatures, and stirs us up to behold this servant, it is a transforming beholding…A man cannot look upon the love of God and of Christ in the gospel, but it will change him to be like God and Christ. For how can we see Christ, and God in Christ, but we shall see how God hates sin, and this will transform us to hate it as God doth, who hated it so that it could not be expiated but with the blood of Christ, God-man. So, seeing the holiness of God in it, it will transform us to be holy. When we see the love of God in the gospel, and the love of Christ giving himself for us, this will transform us to love God.*

Wow!  If this is true, then Spirit-filled worship is sanctifying, too!  And the work of sanctification happens not as we try harder to conjure up “worshipful feelings” about God and not as we try harder to please God with our outward worship, but as we behold Christ! 

Planning Spirit-Filled Worship Services

Some people don’t believe that “planning” and the Holy Spirit can be used in the same sentence.  Some say that the Spirit is purely spontaneous and any attempt to plan is an attempt to thwart, quench, and domesticate the Wind that blows where it wills.  But, we must remember what was spoken above.  Yes, the Spirit works mysteriously and powerfully, but the Spirit’s work, without a doubt, is to display Jesus.  So, if we as worship leaders, pastors, and worshipers desire to walk in step with the Spirit when it comes to planning and participating in our worship services, we will see to it that, from top to bottom, the elements of our worship make much of Christ, from our praying, to our preaching, to our singing, to our participation in the sacraments. 

Too often we worship leaders think that the way for people to “get into” worship is to plan for a bunch of songs that take people on an emotional journey of intimate encounter with God.  We often select songs that point inward to ourselves—what we want to do for God, or how we feel about God, or how we’re trying to experience God in a given moment.  Though this may feel good, it doesn’t necessarily line up with the way the Spirit predominantly works. 

We may be fooling ourselves into having a “spiritually moving” experience when what we really need is for the Spirit to move, not by making much of us, but by making much of Christ.  The irony is that Christ is made much of when we actually seek to make little of ourselves, humbling ourselves to confess that we are broken, rebellious, stiff-necked people.  Spirit-filled worship, then, becomes more of a reality when we seek, not to exclaim what we want to do for God, but when we confess our failure to offer anything to Him of worth and value.  This should make us think twice about singing with gusto “triumphalist” songs that exclaim, “I’m living for You,” or, “I’m giving it all away.”  There’s a place for that, in consecration and in response to the finished work of Jesus, but we short-circuit the Spirit’s display of Christ when we either jump to that language too quickly or when we give such language dominant and repeated airtime.

But on the flip side, when we chose to make little of ourselves and much of Jesus, every Sunday becomes a true “Christ event,” and then we will see what happens among us as the Spirit fills, stirs, and moves.

*Richard Sibbes, “A Description of Christ,” in The Works of Richard Sibbes (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1862-1864), 1:14; qtd. in Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), 92.