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Entries in idolatry (10)

Monday
Nov022015

The Difference Between Worshiping God and Worshiping Worship

(a reworked post from 2011)

“Idolatry happens when we take good things and make them ultimate things.”  ~Tim Keller 

The following comparisons are meant to be provocative and evocative. Even if stark statements like these generalize and absolutize a bit too much, one thing I have learned from reading the reformers is that the discipline of "dialectic," as they called it (roughly, the practice of pitting ideas and statements against each other for the sake of disputation and dialogue), yields a lot of helpful clarifications. So, I encourage you to take these in that light.

These observations have overflowed from the boiling pot of my own wayward heart and ministry. Read one way, these are my personal confessions on public display. At one time or another, I have been guilty of crossing the line into all of these.  Truth be told, for followers of Jesus, “worshiping God” versus “worshiping worship” is less an issue of either/or and more an issue of both/and--part of our lifelong journey of being simul justus et peccator.  Christians who have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them and yet still fight the sin in our members know that even our best praise is mixed with some idolatry.  As Coral Ridge's weekly doxology sings, "My best good works are powerless to satisfy Your righteousness." May the Spirit continue to root out our idolatry and beat back the flesh.  Lord, have mercy.

* * * * *

Worshipers of God care less about their personal preferences in worship.
Worshipers of worship care intensely about their personal preferences in worship.

Worshipers of God are more easily blessed in worship.
Worshipers of worship are more easily bothered in worship.

Worshipers of God approach worship as receivers and vessels.
Worshipers of worship approach worship as appraisers and evaluators.

Worshipers of God tend to approach their pastors and worship leaders more often with words of encouragement and thankfulness.
Worshipers of worship tend to approach their pastors and worship leaders more often with words of criticism and admonishment.

Worshipers of God more instinctively flex when elements are out of their comfort zone.
Worshipers of worship more instinctively bristle when elements are out of their comfort zone.

Worshipers of God are inspired by beautiful art to love God more.
Worshipers of worship are inspired by beautiful art to love beautiful art more.

Worshipers of God easily overlook and forget glitches and “errors” that happen in worship.
Worshipers of worship fixate on and can’t get past glitches and “errors” that happen in worship.

Worshipers of God tend to leave a “good” worship service loving God more.
Worshipers of worship tend to leave a “good” worship service loving worship services more.

Worshipers of God tend to leave a “bad” worship service loving God more.
Worshipers of worship tend to leave a “bad” worship service bothered.

Worshipers of God tend to leave worship with a renewed sense of awe and thanksgiving.
Worshipers of worship tend to leave worship ready to dialogue about what worked and what didn’t.

Thursday
Jul242014

Worship Leading, Ageism, and the Fear of Getting Old (Repost)

Five years ago around this time, this blog started with the goal of encouraging theological reflection, biblical depth, historical engagement, and cultural relevance in worship and worship leading. It has gained a steady readership, especially in the last two years, and I want to re-introduce new readers to important old content that has the ability to get lost unless you happen upon it via Google or search posts by topic. Throughout this year, I will offer reposts of what I believe are the more significant articles written in the last five years.

This article was one of the first to grow some legs and elicit important responses and comments. It touched a nerve that a lot of worship leaders feel but few talk about.

*****

Talk show host Dennis Prager is well-known for saying that his generation—the boomer generation—is the stupidest generation in American history. This comment, perhaps extreme, summarizes the multitudinous errors of that generation of young people that grew up and ushered in the large cultural changes in the United States in the 1960s.  One of those errors is the worship of youth.  The phrase “youth culture” would have been unintelligible prior to the 60s, but now it is common speak.  The glamorization of youthfulness affects everything from marketing and entertainment to presidential elections and local church ministry.  And obsession with youth culture has affected the ministry of worship, as well.

I had a recent phone conversation with a worship leader friend of mine who leads music on the other side of the country.  In a candid moment, we were both expressing concerns about the longevity of our jobs as local church music leaders.  We wondered whether, in ten to fifteen years, we would be viewed as out-of-date, irrelevant, washed up, and cheesy—one of those old guys trying to look and act young.  Ultimately, we questioned whether we would be as effective in doing our task once we started “looking old.”

No worship leader really voices it.  No congregation overtly acknowledges it.  But many of us think there is something lacking in a worship leader who has gray hair or smile lines.  He or she must not be truly “with it” and up on trends (another value exposed which needs to be challenged).  He or she wouldn’t be capable of authentically crafting and leading a musical style that is current and fresh.  They might be just fine in a traditional or blended worship environment, but if we want to “reach young people,” a forty-something at the helm is no good.

This is lamentable.  And (to make up a word) repentable.  That we were even having such a discussion tells us that culture’s obsession with youth has invaded the heart of the church.  What does the Bible have to say about being old?

Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding? (Job 12:12)

I thought, “Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.” (Job 32:7)

At the window of my house I looked down through the lattice. I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who had no sense. He was going down the street near her corner, walking along in the direction of her house. (Proverbs 7:6-8)

The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old. (Proverbs 20:29)

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father.  Treat…older women as mothers. (1 Timothy 5:1, 2)

Prior to the 60s, the elderly were much more celebrated in culture.  Most native cultures—from Native Americans to native Hawaiians to native Africans—favor the aged as the source of knowledge and wisdom.  Such cultures actually look to the elderly for guidance for the future (imagine that!).  Nowadays in the West, the elderly are irrelevant cultural cast-offs.  They are the Dalit caste of modern America.  We quarantine them in homes.  In church meetings, we roll our eyes when old Mr. Jones stands up and wags his finger in the air.  And we worship leaders brush off their comments like dust on our feet.  And we move “forward.”

Though I’ve never heard it from a single one of them, I’d bet that every twenty-something who’s been a worship leader for more than a year has had the thought, “What happens when I get older?”  (Implication: I have to do something different, because this can’t work.)  I know a few forty- and fifty-something worship leaders who are currently looking for positions in churches, and I know that the market is tougher for them. 

This ageism is more than just bias and prejudice.  It’s sinful idolatry.  And I’m guilty myself of playing into the hands of these gods every time I entertain a fear of getting older or judge an “older” worship leader as irrelevant or out of touch.

The truth is: the more I’ve gotten to know the generations of worship leaders above me, the more I realize that the Bible is true.  With age comes wisdom.  Churches should desire older worship leaders.  Though youth should not be despised (1 Timothy 4:12), biblical wisdom reminds us that being young carries liabilities against which we need to be on guard.  I long for my generation of worship leaders to have open and honest conversation about this evil bubbling under the surface.  I long for us to confess it, to repent of it, and to seek its change.

Thursday
Aug092012

Gutsy Worship Leading, Confronting Idols

Amos, 18th c. Russian Icon (Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi monastery, Karelia, Russia)Because leading worship is a pastoral endeavor, it makes a lot of sense that most, if not all, facets of pastoral ministry would show up in the work of a faithful worship leader.  In many ways, we can dissect the role of a pastor by examining how a person with such gifts mirrors (albeit in an extremely secondary way) what theologians call "the threefold office of Christ"--Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King.  Could it be that in worship leading, the first of these three tends to go most underserved?  In what sense is worship leading a prophetic endeavor? 

Think, first, about the fact that worship stands at the core of what all human beings do.  Think, secondly, that we all (Christians and non) have a big idol-worship problem.  Think, thirdly, that the role of a prophet is often to forthtell Truth into the idolatry of the people of God and the broader culture.  (Think here, particularly, about the prophets Amos and Hosea.)  So, there is an aspect of worship leading that is responsible to sensitively and graciously confront one's own idols and the idols of the flock over which God has given you care.  I'd like to share a story along these lines.

Not long ago, I was visiting a worship leader friend who serves a local church in a major college football town. He relayed to me a little story that both cracks me up and lights my fire.  It’s an example of a worship leader appropriately and strategically challenging cultural idols.  It shows his pastoral heart and zeal for the worship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Driving through this pigskin-loving city, it didn’t take long to pass by the towering stadium.  It was like encountering a modern-day Roman coliseum, symbolic of all the trappings of those cultural centers of antiquity.

My friend relayed to me how much church attendance is impacted by (get this) Saturday night football games, especially if they’re home games.  The number of folks gathered for corporate worship dips dramatically.  In some forum where this worship leader was speaking to a significant amount of the flock, he asked a bold question to the group, simultaneously loaded with both humor and truth.  The dialogue went something like this:

“Hey, how many of you folks are going to the worship event on Saturday night?” 

(Confused or blank looks in response.) 

“You know, the big one, where 20,000 people are coming?”

(Continued confusion.)

“You know, the one where Florida will be there?”

(Registration begins to occur.)

My friend said he got some “ahas” as well as some pushback.  Without saying much, he said much.  He was able to point out how many of our big cultural events truly are “worship events.”  He was able to challenge the cultural idols of football.  He was able, in a backhanded way, to help expose the superior allegiances that we hold above our Triune God. 

You don’t have to be obnoxious to be a prophet.  If you did this kind of stuff on a weekly basis, you probably will drive a wedge between you and your congregation.  But, if there are strategic times when, guided by the Spirit, you choose to expose areas of growth for your people, it can be a powerful tool in the arsenal of properly pastoring the people of God. 

Finally, just in case you’re still unconvinced that an innocent little game with helmeted men running after a leather oval could rise to the level of idolatry, check out this insightful post by Rod Dreher on the underpinnings of the Penn State scandal.  And, in the spirit of James K. A. Smith, maybe the next time you’re at a football game you’ll be able to exegete all the liturgy and liturgical acts taking place in the bleachers and on the field.

I'd love to hear, in response:

  • Some of the other ways that a worship leader functions prophetically (it might generate some blog posts or great future discussions)
  • Other examples you've encountered of worship leaders taking this role seriously

 

 

Related post:

 

Monday
Jun182012

Why We Need the Call to Worship

In our weekly printed bulletins, we have a sidebar column that acts as a commentary and explanation for what we do in our services. This "Worship Notes" section contains short paragraphs on the significance of various elements of our worship. We explain everything from the meaning and origin of the Doxology, to why we preach sermons, to the significance of the Lord's Supper, to backgrounds on the songs we sing. Here are four worship notes on the Call to Worship--the beginning of the service where we hear God's summons to gather and praise His name.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Jun202011

Treating Sermons Like a Wine Tasting

Walter Kaiser writes:1 

According to the “New Homiletic” [a term coined by David Allen], every sermon or lesson from the Bible must chiefly be “interesting.” But what biblical support could we give for this assertion?

Click to read more ...

Monday
Jun062011

Worship Leading, Ageism, and the Fear of Getting Old

Talk show host Dennis Prager is well-known for saying that his generation—the boomer generation—is the stupidest generation in American history. This comment, perhaps extreme, summarizes the multitudinous errors of that generation of young people that grew up and ushered in the large cultural changes in the United States in the 1960s.  One of those errors is the worship of youth.  The phrase “youth culture” would have been unintelligible prior to the 60s, but now it is common speak.  The glamorization of youthfulness affects everything from marketing and entertainment to presidential elections and local church ministry.  And obsession with youth culture has affected the ministry of worship, as well.

I had a recent phone conversation with a worship leader friend of mine who leads music on the other side of the country.  In a candid moment, we were both expressing concerns about the longevity of our jobs as local church music leaders.  We wondered whether, in ten to fifteen years, we would be viewed as out-of-date, irrelevant, washed up, and cheesy—one of those old guys trying to look and act young.  Ultimately, we questioned whether we would be as effective in doing our task once we started “looking old.”

No worship leader really voices it.  No congregation overtly acknowledges it.  But many of us think there is something lacking in a worship leader who has gray hair or smile lines.  He or she must not be truly “with it” and up on trends (another value exposed which needs to be challenged).  He or she wouldn’t be capable of authentically crafting and leading a musical style that is current and fresh.  They might be just fine in a traditional or blended worship environment, but if we want to “reach young people,” a forty-something at the helm is no good.

This is lamentable.  And (to make up a word) repentable.  That we were even having such a discussion tells us that culture’s obsession with youth has invaded the heart of the church.  What does the Bible have to say about being old?

Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding? (Job 12:12)

I thought, “Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.” (Job 32:7)

At the window of my house I looked down through the lattice. I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who had no sense. He was going down the street near her corner, walking along in the direction of her house. (Proverbs 7:6-8)

The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old. (Proverbs 20:29)

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father.  Treat…older women as mothers. (1 Timothy 5:1, 2)

Prior to the 60s, the elderly were much more celebrated in culture.  Most native cultures—from Native Americans to native Hawaiians to native Africans—favor the aged as the source of knowledge and wisdom.  Such cultures actually look to the elderly for guidance for the future (imagine that!).  Nowadays in the West, the elderly are irrelevant cultural cast-offs.  They are the Dalit caste of modern America.  We quarantine them in homes.  In church meetings, we roll our eyes when old Mr. Jones stands up and wags his finger in the air.  And we worship leaders brush off their comments like dust on our feet.  And we move “forward.”

Though I’ve never heard it from a single one of them, I’d bet that every twenty-something who’s been a worship leader for more than a year has had the thought, “What happens when I get older?”  (Implication: I have to do something different, because this can’t work.)  I know a few forty- and fifty-something worship leaders who are currently looking for positions in churches, and I know that the market is tougher for them. 

This ageism is more than just bias and prejudice.  It’s sinful idolatry.  And I’m guilty myself of playing into the hands of these gods every time I entertain a fear of getting older or judge an “older” worship leader as irrelevant or out of touch.

The truth is: the more I’ve gotten to know the generations of worship leaders above me, the more I realize that the Bible is true.  With age comes wisdom.  Churches should desire older worship leaders.  Though youth should not be despised (1 Timothy 4:12), biblical wisdom reminds us that being young carries liabilities against which we need to be on guard.  I long for my generation of worship leaders to have open and honest conversation about this evil bubbling under the surface.  I long for us to confess it, to repent of it, and to seek its change.

Thursday
May052011

Worship Without the Gospel is Not True Worship

Any worship we participate in, without engaging the good news about Jesus Christ and what He has done, is false worship.  It is idolatry.  It is self-justification.  My friend and up-and-coming pastor, Nathan Hoag, brought back from the Gospel Coalition Conference the April 2011 edition of TableTalk, which contained a wonderful little article by Donald Whitney on “The Gospel & Worship.”1  Here are some choice quotes which work really well as stand-alone reflections on how the good news relates to corporate worship.  The third quote is my favorite:

There may be nothing in the realm of religion by which people vainly attempt to establish their acceptability to God more than by acts of public or private worship. As a result, worship can degrade into one of the most legalistic activities a person can pursue.  In the minds of many, you are right with God if you go to church…Though perhaps they do not expressly state it, they believe that because they discipline themselves to regularly attend an event where the gospel is proclaimed, they have sufficiently participated in the gospel.

The gospel takes the natural, worldly view that worship is a person justifying himself by reaching up to God and corrects it with the truth that worship is a person responding to the God who has reached down through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

People do not decide to become worshipers of God; rather the gospel produces worshipers.

God made our hearts, and He made them to find their greatest joy and satisfaction in Himself. So when, through the gospel, we “come to know God, or rather be known by God” (Gal. 4:9), our hearts turn to God and open in worship to Him like flowers turn and open to the sun. Thus it is that worship begins with an understanding of the gospel.

We also need the gospel during worship in part because of the sins we commit in worship. We may sing, speak, or pray thoughtlessly or hypocritically in various moments of worship. The application of the gospel to our minds and hearts in worship encourages us that our sins during worship are forgiven and that the Lord receives us even though our worship is imperfect.

Love of the gospel and love of worshiping the God of the gospel are inseparable. A true grasp of the former leads to devotion to the latter.

 

1Donald S. Whitney, “The Gospel & Worship,” in TableTalk, 35.4 (April 2011), 58-59.

Thursday
Apr212011

Tradition vs. Traditionalism: Worship, Idolatry, and the Heart

Part of the reason Lent exists is for us to confront our sin and idolatry head-on... 

"Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition." - Jaroslav Pelikan, U.S. News & World Report, June 26, 1989

When God called me to my church almost four years ago, I sensed that a primary call of mine would be to help pastor our congregation, both corporately and individually, away from traditionalism and toward a Christ-centered embrace of tradition.  I'll be candid in my analysis of the situation. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we are one of the last standing evangelical churches with vibrant traditional worship.1  To be sure, there are churches in Denver with strong traditional worship, but most of them do not have evangelical pulpits.  And certainly there are churches in Denver with committed, orthodox preaching, but almost all of them are “contemporary,” stylistically.  This puts us in a very peculiar place because, as evangelical churches have swung away from traditional worship, we have become a haven for what I call “evangelical traditionalist refugees”—people whose hearts most intimately connect with traditional worship who have no other place to go for evangelical preaching.  (There are, of course, many things to lament about how deeply embedded consumerism is in the evangelical psyche, such that we find ourselves in this place, but that is for another time and another post.)

The net effect of our church being a Traditionalist Refugee Camp is that, left unchecked, this has a hardening effect on the ethos and mindset of our people.  Our worshipers have often left their previous churches scarred, alienated, and hurt.  They therefore enter our doors with pain and sometimes a chip on their shoulder.  They find like-minded commarades—a community which shares their values and sensibilities—and they tend to, often in private conversation or small groups, disparage other forms and expressions of worship.  The deep wounds feed fear of change.  Fear of change begins to grip the heart, and a healthy appreciation of tradition is corrupted into a worship of tradition.  This is traditionalism.

The difference between tradition and traditionalism is an issue ultimately of the heart.  Tradition is a beautiful thing.  In fact, tradition is necessary to truly be the Church.  The Church, at any point in time, must recognize that it is a trans-temporal community.  Saints who have gone before and saints who will follow are, ongoingly, our brothers and sisters.  One of the reasons we embrace Church tradition is simply because it is part of what it means to truly be the Church.  To ignore tradition would be to cut ourselves off from a huge part of the body of Christ, the “catholic Church” (in the words of the Apostles’ Creed).  But, as Tim Keller has said time and again, idolatry occurs when we take good things (like tradition) and make them ultimate things. 

How can one know when tradition has been corrupted into traditionalism?  It’s all about symptoms which betray the root disease.  Symptoms can include:

  • reaction of fear, defensiveness, or anger when any deviation from the norm takes place
  • an unloving or judgmental attitude toward those who do not embrace tradition as you do
  • a persistent need to speak your mind about the matter to and with others
  • a strong penchant toward defending tradition at every turn
  • comments which use possessive and personal pronouns: “what speaks to me,” “what I love,” “my preferences,” etc.

What is the cure?  The cure is only apparent when an adequate diagnosis is given.  We could encourage traditionalists to “be more loving” or to, in the words of Philippians 2, “consider others better than yourselves.”  We could preach against the sins of bitterness, fear, and wrongly-expressed anger.  But none of these things get at the heart of the matter.  The issue lies at the throne of the heart.  If tradition reigns on the throne of your heart, you will defend it at any cost.  You will find fault with anyone who challenges it.  You will protect it as a loyal servant would his or her lord and master.  You will judge those who do not equally revere it as you do.  Lords, masters, and kings demand that kind of allegiance.  The diagnosis, then, is ultimately misplaced affection.  You love tradition more than you love Jesus.  No, you would never say that, because, theologically, you know that’s wrong.  But your actions betray what’s truly in your heart.

When Christ is on the throne of your heart, tradition cannot be corrupted into traditionalism.  Christ reigns, without peer.  When we love Christ more than tradition, we can say, “Though I don’t go hog-wild over repeating refrains, drums, blocks of songs, and electric guitars, I recognize that some are freed up to engage with God there, and I’m not going to break fellowship over it.  I’m going to sing alongside my sister, giving it my best.” And by the way, this goes both ways.  When it comes to worship, if the gospel is taking root in a community of faith, we will see the kind of mutual submission described in Ephesians 5.  We will see people joyfully laying down their preferences.  The lion will lie down with the lamb, babies will play in snakes’ dens, and traditionalists will worship with contemporary folks.  We will see contemporary folks laying down their idolatries of, in the words of T. David Gordon, “contemporaneity-as-a-value” (i.e. what’s new is what’s best) and embracing tradition because they love all of Christ’s body.   

 

1 The label “traditional” is nearly as broad and nebulous as “contemporary,” of course, and I share a grief over the deficiencies of these terms and over the division in Christ’s church that such polarization has caused.  Nevertheless, I haven’t found better terms to use as I seek to speak into this issue.  Our traditional worship, if I can speak in spectral terms, puts us on the 75-mark between “low church traditional” (0; more Baptistic/revivalistic) and “high church traditional” (100; more Anglican/classical/liturgical).  So our service tends to have a Presbyterian liturgical structure, a more classically-oriented stylistic expression with choir and organ, alongside occasional revivalistic expressions.