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Gratuitous: We Worship as God Creates (Part 1)

God's Gratuitous Beauty - courtesy of National GeographicTrinitarian Gratuity

I’ve been getting a lot of spiritual mileage off reflecting on the Trinity, and Michael Reeves’ little book, Delighting in the Trinity,* has been the source of a lot of it.  I’ll no doubt be jamming on several Trinity-related posts over the next few weeks and months.

Reeves discusses the Trinity’s fountain-like qualities—a relationship overflowing with so much love that it spills outward in perpetual giving.  Creation itself, he describes, is the manifestation of that overflowing love.  He goes further,

As it is, there is something gratuitous about creation, an unnecessary abundance of beauty, and through its blossoms and pleasures we can revel in the sheer largesse of the Father (p. 57).

That is so true.  In one sense, we could say that the entire scientific enterprise of discovering, analyzing, and cataloguing the world is an exploration of the seemingly endless--indeed gratuitous--beauty displayed in creation.  There’s something no doubt perverted or mal-formed about a scientist who doesn’t periodically sit back from his or her work and just say, “Wow!”  Anything gratuitous has that effect.  Gratuitous beauty especially has that effect.

Our Triune God is a God who has chosen to not only make His world incredibly functional, but exceedingly beautiful.  Many theologians have pointed out how the ongoing scientific discovery of the immensity of creation (e.g. organisms in the ocean's deep, celestial bodies in space previously beyond our sight, microscopic complexities at cellular and atomic levels) serves to corroborate God's passion for beauty...not just that He likes it, but He almost can't help Himself in over-filling the world with beautiful things.  Any attempt at surveying the beauties of the world would lead us to one conclusion: God is gratuitous when it comes to beauty.  We can't possibly take it all in, yet it is for His pleasure, His glory, His majesty, His delight.  

Our Worship Reflects Our Theology

Worship thinkers often talk about how our worship itself reflects the kind of God we serve—that the elements, structure, and experience of worship all “explain” Whom we understand God to be.  So here’s the question for us: How does our corporate worship display that God is a Trinity Who revels in pouring out gratuitous beauty?  If confession reflects God's holiness, if songs of praise reflect God's joy, if prayers of thanksgiving reflect God's bounteous provision, then what about our worship reflects God's passion for an overabundance of beauty?

If you’re a Protestant like me, something in our DNA starts sending freak-out alerts to our brain.  We’ve spilt Reformational blood trying to get away from the “excesses” of our brother and sister Roman Catholics, and in the process some of our revolutionary grandparents swung that beauty-pendulum about as far away from the gratuitous-pole as possible.

SIDENOTE: The interesting thing about the modern worship movement (which has remarkably transcended some of these old wars) is that they’re experimenting in new forms of gratuitous beauty that don’t look much like the smells and bells of yesteryear and therefore evade some of our historical baggage.  I think back to the 2012 National Worship Leader Conference.  In one of the worship services, the sanctuary was absolutely taken over (every square inch of wall) by projected names of God alongside complementary backdrops.  The cultural critic in me wanted to cry “overstimulation,” but the aesthetician in me (and perhaps the best part of me that "hopes all things") exclaims, “Gratuitous beauty!”

SIDENOTE 2: I am so grateful for the renaissance of Christian reflection in and around the arts, coming out of places like Bifrost Arts, CIVA, Cultivare, and IAM and from institutions like Duke Divinity School, Gordon College, Union University, Belmont University, Fuller Seminary, Biola University, King's College (NYC), and people like Makoto Fujimura, David Taylor, Isaac Wardell, Jeremy Begbie, and my colleague, Dan Siedell.  Something about this resurgence is awakening our aesthetic palettes to crave beauty, such that I think, in our worship services, we’ll be seeing more experiments in gratuity over the next few decades.  Perhaps the old wars have been fought and run their course, and new generations are no longer holding the same grudges, such that we can healthily move forward.

In the next post, we'll explore just a few ideas about engaging lavish, gratuitous beauty in worship.


*Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IVP: 2012).

Great Worship Conference Headed Your Way!

Bifrost Arts Conference
"The Cry of the Poor"
Philadelphia, PA
April 22-24 

Today is the last day for discount registration for the second Bifrost Arts Conference.  The first conference happened two years ago, and you can read (and watch a video) of my experience here.

From day one, I have appreciated the (sadly) unique vision for worship that is cast by Bifrost Arts and their leader, Isaac Wardell.  This year's theme is "The Cry of the Poor," and here's their description:

This year’s Bifrost conference will explore the intersection of worship, community, and mercy. Speakers will include Makoto Fujimura (Director of International Arts Movement), John Witvliet (Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship), Greg Thompson (fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture), and Frère Emmanuel (brother from the worshipping community of Taize), as well as other panels and workshops.

We are also excited to have music from Sandra McCrackenPhiladelphia Choral Arts, the Bifrost Arts Ensemble, and The Welcome Wagon. We hope you can join us!

"Worship and justice" is a heavily explored theme in Scripture (especially the prophets), and under-appreciated in modern Western culture.  We need conferences like this.  The other value of a gathering like this one is that they elevate the "worship" discussion above merely music and technology (often the dominant themes of mainstream worship conferences) to issues of art, beauty, aesthetics, liturgy, and social action and concern.

Follow Bifrost Arts:


Get Bifrost's Music:

For more thoughts and ideas, check out Cardiphonia's post about it.



An Important Dialogue About Worship Music

This has been floating around in many of the online circles I run in.  It's a very, very good dialogue between three guys who I admire for thinking theologically and pastorally about worship--Kevin Twit, Mike Cosper, and Isaac Wardell.

Here are some of my takeaways:

  • On the topic of songs and "singability" of modern musical idioms:
    • It is often said that a lot of "contemporary" music is unsingable...too many flourishes, too many pop-vocal-isms.  People say that about U2's music--too high, too irregular.  And yet, for many reasons, you attend a U2 concert and you find thousands of people joining in songs, where many people who would normally say "I'm not a singer" or "I can't sing" find themselves singing away. There is something profound about this observation.

Click to read more ...


An Art Project Worth Supporting - Bifrost Arts

When I heard the first Bifrost Arts album, Come, O Spirit, a few years ago, I was excited to hear the wedding of the emerging Seattle-esque, pop-orchestral song style (perhaps made most famous by one of the album's producers, Sufjan Stevens) with historic Christian hymnody and liturgical service music.  It is a truly unique venture.

When I heard Bifrost's commander in chief, Isaac Wardell, share from his mind and heart at the Bifrost Arts conference earlier this year, I came away with an even deeper respect and appreciation for the (quite robust) vision of Bifrost Arts, of which music-making is only a part.  Bifrost's leader thinks theologically and biblically about worship, and God has given him a platform to reach and influence scores of young evangelical worship leaders who need to hear what he has to say.  

When you support Bifrost Arts by contributing to the seed money for their third album, it should be obvious that you're supporting more than a sweet, artsy album.

Please consider supporting this vision by contributing to the Bifrost kickstarter project.  


If you haven't heard Bifrost's material, here's a free sampler to get you started!


My Bifrostian Journey: Video Blog and Reflections

I decided to try my hand at video-blogging.  I hope that for those of you who weren't able to attend, you're able to see and hear more clearly the sights and sounds of what made this conference special.   

Cardiphonia has put together a great run-through of the entire conference.  Check it out.  And here are some of my random takeaways.

The Best Thing About the Conference: Love Challenges Hipsterdom
I'll be honest.  Bifrost Arts is just hip.  Sufjan is VERY in right now, and Bifrost Arts--a railcar on his musical train--has a musical style that makes one feel quite "cool" when listening to it.  One would have expected that this conference would attract hipsters.  And it did.  Fitted jeans, black-rimmed glasses, and beards were plentiful.  Anticipating all of this, my expectation was that the conference leaders were going to give off a "We're cool, aren't we?" vibe (which shows how little I often think of people, by the way...Lord, have mercy).  I expected pot shots at non-liturgical worship or subtle jabs that Bifrostian pop-orchestral styles were the ideal form for worship.  Isaac Wardell, the figurehead of the event, dispelled all such nonsense quite immediately.  I was impressed and even admonished by the humility and love-focus of leaders like Wardell.  The message was loud and clear: when the church is truly being the church under Christ, the gospel shapes local communities to be marked by love, self-sacrifice, and deference.  Perhaps my greatest takeaway from the conference, then, is a vision for church-wide worship discussions which can be formative rather than adversarial.  Worship is not about being cool, and I think everyone benefitted, in one way or another, from that meta-message.

In the Presence of Greatness
My video only gave a snapshot of the rich connection I had at this conference.  Over the last few years, as my blog has grown in reach, I've come into contact with some amazing people who I would consider "greats" in my field of pastoring in worship, music, and arts.  Some have been more professional-style online acquaintances.  Some have developed into full-blown friendships of resource-sharing and mutual prayer and support.  Many have been in between.  One of the blessings of the Bifrost Conference is that it attracted many of those people to one city for a few days, and I got to meet many of them, all at once.  Relationships beat out sleep this time.  I was blessed to finally put names with faces, and "online personas" with true hearts.  I was encouraged that there are a lot of great worship leaders out in Evangelcaland, thinking critically, prayerfully, theologically, biblically, liturgically, and culturally about local church worship.  I was blessed to rub shoulders with some truly gifted songwriters, like Bruce Benedict, Matt Stevens, Alex Mejias, Michael Van Patter, David M. Bailey, Rick Jensen, and Nathan Partain.  These are folks doing the painstaking but heart-driven work of setting old hymns to new music, and in some cases writing new texts and tunes for the church.  I don't know that any one of us will have breakout exposure, but meeting this iron-clad batallion gives me great hope that the collective work will continue to have an increasing influence on mainstream evangelicalism.  There's just too much excitement, too much vision, too much passion, for it to not take effect.

The Shape Note Surprise
I was shocked by how much I personally enjoyed Matt Hinton's breakout session on shape-note singing.  Perhaps the earliest uniquely American musical tradition, shape-note singing developed as a style of music education in the South and solidified into a movement.  The sound is atypical of Western music in that it breaks standard conventions for part-writing (e.g. parallel fifths).  I was taken aback by the joy and vigor of this communal enterprise.  My mother grew up in rural Alabama under the influence of this tradition, and though I am far from a southerner (I grew up in Hawaii), something in my soul stirred.  I think my roots were tickled.

Notes from the Conference
Some of my notes are more piecemeal than others, but if they're helpful, I offer them here.  I obviously missed some (great) sessions, either to decompress or to spend time with other attenders.

Greg Thompson - The Order of Worship and the Order of Love
Isaac Wardell - Formative Practices for Worship
Mike Farley - The Formative Role of the Body in Worship
Nicholas Wolterstorff - Does Your Church Building Say What it Should Say?
Isaac Wardell - Teaching Liturgy, Music, & Space in Your Congregation
Matt Hinton - Shape Note Singing
Kevin Twit - Hymns


Where Has All the Singing Gone?: The Bifrostian Vision

Isaac Wardell and Bifrost Arts offer a great reflection here.  In true Bifrostian fashion, the video is simple and artistic, with a strong and unique message.  Wardell speaks of Bifrost's own counter-cultural moves of in-home, in-art-gallery, in-church "hymn sings," where the goal is to enjoy the beauty of singing together in worship of God.  The vision cast in this video corroborates the mounting evidence that the tide is turning with younger Christians who are exchanging hype for history, lights for liturgy, passivity for participation, and hits for hymns. 

Choice quotes:

It seems like we're listening to more music than we ever have...but, we're making music together less and less.  We're singing together less and less... 

When I walk into churches, I notice a disturbing trend, that people are singing less and less in congregations.  While our music production values may be getting better, while many of us have churches that spend a lot of time thinking about the quality of the performance of our music, congregational voices seem to be fading into the background... 

More and more it seems like people show up to church and they expect to have a worship experience delivered to them rather than people showing up excited to sing together... 

I think it's important that we urge our congregants not to think of our worship services as a concert hall, as a time that we come to receive something; but to think of our worship services as a banquet hall where we come to participate in something together.

Bifrost Arts represents perhaps the "radical reformation" strand of the hymns movement in modern worship reformation, reforming not only text (through re-engaging old hymns), but music.  The indie, quirky, elegant, pop-orchestral, Sufjan Stevens-esque musical style is different and refreshing.  Folks like myself are on the other end of the spectrum, seeking similar reformation through building bridges by engaging the most widely expressed musical idioms.  Perhaps we're more analogous the "Lutheran reformation," seeking reform through as much continuity as possible.

Wardell's statements rightly question whether the musical idioms of mainstream evangelical worship music are conducive to the goals of musical worship, i.e. the glory of God through strong congregational participation.  Authors like T. David Gordon, author of Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns, obviously feel that the modern music enterprise is so bankrupt and devoid of substance that it cannot be redeemed (some day, Lord-willing, I will muster up the strength to write what I hope will be a fair but critical review of Gordon's book).  I think differently.  While I share some of those concerns articulated by Wardell and brought to their extreme conclusion by Gordon, I am comfortable to live in the tension, because: (1) I've participated in "arena worship" services that are successful in drawing the congregation out (thus proving that it's ultimately about the heart, not the level of production); (2) perhaps what we are doing by retaining culture's dominant musical idiom can be like a "gateway drug" for mainstreamers to begin to explore hymns in different, beautiful musical idioms, like those of Bifrost Arts.

In any regard, I give Isaac Wardell and Bifrost 100% of my support for their music and broader vision for a brighter day in Western church music.