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The Chink in the Reformation’s Iconoclastic Armor

Zombies in the Lights

A few days ago, I ended up in a really fascinating dialogue on Twitter with thoughtful worship leader, Jordan Atwell (@jordanatwell) and visual liturgy smart guy, Stephen Proctor (@stephenproctor). We were entertaining the question, in response to my tweet about this wonderful article, about what it looks like to pastorally engage visual aesthetics in worship. We tend to think of things like projection, screens, lights, and other visual atmospherics as either neutral cultural phenomena or (more negatively) as yet more capitulation to culture’s rock show idolatry.  Usually, all the conversations about those visual elements stop there. Either we’re relegated to pragmatic, technical conversations about the latest, coolest LEDs, gobos, robotics, and immersive projection, or we’re (not inappropriately) decrying the commercialization of worship through zombifying overstimulation.

But what if there’s another conversation to have? What if the discussion about lights and projection can be framed pastorally? I think the above mentioned article is a great example of what such reflection might look like with regards to screens and slide projection. But that’s not what I want to talk about in this post. 

The Debbie Downer of Visual Arts

Stephen mentioned what many do when these discussions get rolling—namely, that the Reformation’s iconoclasm (rejection of much visual art) threw out a lot of the helpful and sacred visuals of the church, impoverishing our “sacramental imagination.” Stephen, of course, is dead on. Perhaps some want to justify the Reformation’s general over-reaction to stained glass, art, and other aesthetic riches due to how far the medieval Roman church had gone in the opposite direction.

Nevertheless, I have observed a chink in the Reformation’s generally iconoclastic armor, and I believe we’re witnessing, slowly but surely, that chink being identified, yanked on, and peered through. The hole is getting bigger, and those of us who cherish much about the Reformation may find a way through Reformational principles to recover a sacramental imagination that can appropriately, imaginatively, and richly re-embrace the aesthetics that aid and abet a holistic worship experience (and a holistic faith). The Reformational chink is Augustinian affective anthropology.

Here’s what I mean. With the continued influence of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom (and now his more accessible simplification in You Are What You Love), more and more folks in Reformational traditions are awakening to the reality that human beings are centrally affective creatures. We operate, most fundamentally, out of what we love. Our affections, much more than our brains, are our life’s behavioral rudder. This is a notion rooted in Augustine, the early thinker who had more influence on Reformational thought than perhaps any other church father or mother.  (I should mention that hopefully this notion is rooted in Jesus…and I think it is [e.g. Luke 6:45].) Augustine’s view of the human makeup (his anthropology) is that we are centrally desiring creatures. Augustine believed that the Bible reveals to us an affective anthropology.

I believe that this anthropology was at least tacitly present in the minds of all the Reformers. But we find it leaking out particularly in the writings of Luther (scattered about), Melanchthon (his 1521 Loci Communes), and Cranmer (his homilies and in his Prayer Book). David Taylor also unearths aesthetic dimensions of Calvin’s theology in his dissertation. (I mention this, because Calvin is often the chief poster boy for the Reformation’s iconoclasm.)

The Aesthetic Portal to New Horizons

What we find in the work of Luther, Melanchthon, Cranmer, and Calvin are  expressions of affective anthropology that are in tune with some aesthetics. Cranmer, in particular, seemed very comfortable employing the riches of the rhetorical arts. Reading his 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books is like taking a journey through Erasmus’s rhetorical teachings: word couplets/triplets, evocative language, etc. Cranmer’s poetic prose was an intentional use of the art of language to engage the senses and emotions of the worshiper.

Cases like these help us to see that while it is fair by and large to call the Reformation iconoclastic, even the Reformers understood that aesthetics were a gateway to help form the sacramental imagination of the people of God. Could it be, then, that we can re-enter some much needed discussions about the aesthetic and pastoral use of visual arts (lighting, projection, color, haze, etc.), through the Reformational portal of affective anthropology? Could it be that Protestantism’s historic emphasis on affective spirituality will open up fresh pastoral discussions about visual aesthetics that neither remain in the superficial realm of pragmatics nor pharisaically dismiss all such talk as blind idolatry?

Not everyone will buy into this, but I, for one, am optimistic.


Reflections on Teaching My Worship Class

Last week, I was blessed to have a packed classroom full of thoughtful, engaged students. My aim with this week-long intensive Worship course at Knox Seminary was not to solve all the problems but to place these present and future worship leaders and pastors on some healthy trajectories. We spent a LOT of time in the Scriptures, but we also needed to ask important questions about how we read the Scriptures, because ones understanding of interpretation (hermeneutics)--especially that of the Old Testament--shapes ones sense of what parts of the Bible are applicable to worship now. We asked important questions about the Christ-centered nature of worship, through the lens of Trinitarian theology, Old Testament worship practices, and a Reformational anthropology strongly connected to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And we did all that while moving up and down the "abstraction ladder," making sure we weren't staying in ivory tower for too long without asking concretely how what we were studying applied to our given worship contexts. We laughed, stood in awe, and wept. We gained some new convictions and solidified some old ones. From my perspective, it was a huge success. I'd like to share, with a little more detail, some of what we went through, including readings and key insights.

Textbooks Used

The following texts were read by students beforehand to prepare for the class.

Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014). 

  • Entire book – 360 pages.
  • ISBN# 0801026989  |  Amazon

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

  • Part 1 (pp. 15-155) – 140 pages.
  • ISBN# 0801036402  |  Amazon

Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).

  • Chapters 7, 8, 9, & 10 (pp. 89-132) – 43 pages.
  • ISBN# 0310494184  | Amazon  

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, & Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001).

  • Entire book – 230 pages.
  • ISBN# 0801035775  |  Amazon

James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, & the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997).

  • Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2 (pp. 13-67) – 54 pages.
  • ISBN# 0830818952  |  Amazon

Along with portions of my forthcoming book, a critical article also explored was:

Michael A. Farley, “What is ‘Biblical’ Worship? Biblical Hermeneutics and Evangelical Theologies of Worship,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51, no. 3 (Sept 2008): 591-613.

  • 22 pages.
  • (Free online PDF

Day 1 - A Biblical Theology of Worship (I)

We began by examining the major Greek and Hebrew words for "worship," listening to Block's helpful categorization of them in three large groups of expression--attitude/disposition, physical, and cultic/liturgical. Against the broad backdrop painted by these worship words, we applied the language to the typically stunted ways we tend to use the the word "worship," allowing the biblical language to expand our imaginations. We then examined passages of Scripture that helped us to see some of the Bible's most broad governing thoughts about worship: (a) that corporate worship is a dialogue between God and His people, characterized by cycles of revelation and response; (b) that God is the proper object of worship, worthy because of who He is and what He does (and has done); (c) that we are worship's subject, called to offer a response of adoration, thanksgiving, devotion, etc. to God.

However, we camped longer on (c) to expose the incompleteness of Block's assessment of worship's subject, and for this we walked through various pages and statements of Torrance's work. What we learned is that a proper Trinitarian understanding of God yields Him as both object and subject of worship. In other words, worship's subject is not us, first and foremost, but the living High Priest, Jesus Christ, who offers up perfect worship to God the Father. By the Spirit, we all worship in Christ, echoing His prayers and praises after Him. This Gospel of worship's true Subject is a crucial element for understanding the role of worshipers and worship leaders. We engaged an in-class reading from church father Basil the Great as we examined John 4's statement about worship being done "in Spirit and in Truth," determining that this statement was nothing short of a Trinitarian read on what we had already discussed.

Day 2 - A Biblical Theology of Worship (II)

At the beginning of the second day, we took a step back from Scriptural examination to ask a critical question explored by Farley in his article: How are we reading the Bible to determine our theology of worship? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not simple, as Farley exposes.

We started the day by looking at the Reformed "Regulative Principle for Worship" (RPW) alongside the other major Reformational view, the Normative Principle (NP). We examined the debate between the RPW and the NP in its historical context during and in the generations after the Reformation, looking at the language and interpretation of the Westminster Confession of Faith and catechisms. We observed a spectrum within the Reformed tradition of how to understand the RPW, from the more "tight" interpretation by thinkers like D. G. Hart and G. I. Williamson to more "loose" interpretations by authors such as John Frame and R. J. Gore.

We then turned to Farley to understand the hermeneutical problems that are a part of determining a theology of worship. With Farley, we concluded that the Old Testament was often way too underutilized by evangelical interpreters. We made a case for a Christo-centric interpretation of Old Testament practices and forms for the New Testament church.

We turned, then, to the New Testament, to look at the typical passages that help us determine the "non-negotiable" elements of New Testament worship...things like Word, sacrament, singing, prayers, offering, etc. We determined, though, that the New Testament voice didn't offer the full story of how the Bible not only guides the elements of worship, but its structure.

We then walked through various Old Testament passages which exposed a consistent pattern of how the people of God approached Him, both individually and corporately, throughout salvation history, weaving in some insights from Block, Chapell, and Allen Ross. This consistent pattern, we determined, was strikingly similar to the shape that most historic liturgies of the Christian church took. We determined that the Scriptures offer general guidelines for worship structure that many of us have ignored or not fully seen...ultimately a worship structure that allows the church to encounter God in a Christ-mediated (not merely Christ-centered) fashion.

Day 3 - A Biblical Theology of Worship (III); Worship & Mission

On the third day, after reviewing the pattern of worship explored in day two, we sought to apply this pattern to various traditional and contemporary worship structures to see how a Christ-mediated worship structure could look through the lens of many different ways of worshiping--the Praise & Worship model, the Vineyard/Charismatic model, the historic liturgical (Word & Table) model, etc.--and I offered some "hybrid" options, like what I call a "Reformational Charismatic" model. We briefly touched on the perspective of worship-shapers like the Calvary Chapel movement, John Wimber, and Robert Webber.

At this point, we moved on from talking about the elements and structure of worship and into exploring worship's "grammar." We were interested in how we construct the words we use to talk to God and respond to Him in the worship service, peering particularly into the practices of the Reformers in this regard. We laid the foundation for this discussion by exploring three key Reformational anthropological insights: (a) simul justus et peccator; (b) the Old Adam; (c) incurvatus in se. We then looked at how one Reformer, Thomas Cranmer, used these insights as a kind of grid through which to sift the received liturgy, straining out works-righteousness from the grammar of worship through the way he edited worship's prayers. After this, we entertained an exercise where we examined, with this "Cranmerian eye," the words of popular worship songs, to work the muscles that would make us sensitive to what the Reformers were sensitive to. We concluded that if we are to take seriously the doctrine of justification by faith alone, we need to allow it to inform worship's grammar in the way the Reformers did.

Briefly after this, we turned back to the Christ-mediated, gospel-shaped worship patterns we previously explored and then looked at this pattern in light of an annual worship calendar. We explored the Old Testament annual cycles of feasts and festivals and then turned to John 5-10 to see how Jesus was proclaiming Himself the fulfillment of them. We determined that some kind of Christian calendar year may be warranted, even encouraged, by the Scriptures. We looked at the broad seasons of the Christian year and saw how they offer to the church a way of engaging the gospel story not only in a weekly fashion, but in an annual one.

We spent the remainder of the day exploring the topic of Worship and Mission, observing that they are too often separated in ecclesiological conversations. We determined, with the help of Jean-Jacques von Allmen, that Scripture sees worship and mission existing in symbiotic (mutually life-giving) relationship. They are both inherent in the Trinitarian life, and they are therefore part of the DNA (not departmental add-ons) of every local church. We asked the question of what contextualization of worship practices looks like, weaving in insights from Keller. We determined that contextualization involves perpetual three-way listening--to Scripture, to the Great Tradition, and to our local context--and when we listen in this way, we are engaging in the work of the Holy Spirit in and through all three (though most clearly and definitively in Scripture).

Day 4 - Philosophy of Worship; Worship & Formation; Architectural & Aesthetic Formation

Utilizing portions of my book, we began the fourth day by discussing the central questions we need to answer in forming our own philosophy of worship. The goal was to set the students on a trajectory to develop a succinct philosophy of worship statement that would be useful in formulating vision for their local church as well as entertaining various job opportunities as pastors and worship leaders.

We then moved on to an extended discussion of worship and formation. We walked through Smith's (maybe now classic?) treatment of affectively oriented anthropology and "cultural liturgies." After summarizing Smith, we brought in two other voices to round out the discussion, open-endedly, about important additional insights about how biblical change, growth, and formation works. We turned to a debate between Aristotle and the Reformers (particularly Luther and Melanchthon) about formation through habit, true change, and the bondage of the will. We read portions of Aristotle's Ethics and Melanchthon's Loci Communes to hear their voices in their contexts. Not necessarily solving all the problems, we did determine that habitual formation can only go so far before we need to reckon with the reality that "inside-out" change is only really possible when begun in the heart as a divine gift of transformational grace bestowed upon us by the Spirit through the work of the the Son. We concluded that formation must be thought about "within" this Gospel-centered structure for it to be truly formational in a positive, lasting direction.

We ended the day by talking about how architecture and other aesthetics shape and form people. We discussed, using diagrams provided by Block, the benefits and liabilities of different kinds of worship spaces and configurations. We walked through Coral Ridge as a test case, noting the pluses and minuses of a worship space like that.

Day 5 - Exam & Paper

The last day was reserved for an exam. My goal with the exam was to review the students' apprehension of the most important points, not nit pick the details. After the course, the students will be working on a paper due to me within the month. The paper includes their articulation of a philosophy of worship, their appraisal of the service structure and contents in their own local church, a "Cranmerian" analysis of a few worship songs in their local church. The final part of the paper is reserved for reflections on areas for pastoral growth for these future pastors and worship leaders.

Things I Learned

1) Teaching intensive courses is exhausting, intellectually and emotionally.

2) Teaching on worship is enriched when you get pastors and worship leaders in the same room. One of the blessings of this class was that the existing and future pastors in the room were forced to reckon with the voices and perspectives of worship leaders, who always see things from a slightly different angle. And, it was helpful for the worship leaders in the room to see these pastors wrestling through the issues from their perspective. And the fact that I am both an ordained minister and a worship leader means that I was able to help build those bridges and broker those discussions. I get both sides; I live in those tensions.

3) Teaching forces you to grapple with issues more deeply. When you have to teach something, you're often forced to pursue ideas further down the thought-path than you would in, say, the blogosphere. Students don't let you off the hook. They ask incisive questions and won't let you leave stones unturned. This is healthy, sharpening, but sometimes uncomfortable. And I'm grateful for it.

4) Teaching is nearly equal parts planning and improvisation. The most dynamic classrooms I've experienced have been the ones where the professor had a script, but knew how to jam on themes and variations. They had sensitive spirits for the rabbit trails, knowing which ones to go down and which ones to block off, and they recognized that often the greatest teaching moments happened on those side-paths, not the central one they had carved out. One of my philosophy professors, Douglas Groothuis, likened himself to the pedagogical version of a jazz musician. I felt, tasted, and enjoyed some of those realities last week. I didn't always do a good job, but I saw first hand the value of the interplay between my script and the improvised moments. And it was fun.

How Can One Get a Hold of the Content?

Knox Seminary filmed the class. It is in the process of being edited down, and it will be made available as an online course. If you're interested in the class, I imagine on a future date you'll be able to register for it and have access to the videos. You can contact the registrar, Lori Gottshall, for more details. At this point, we will see if there will be another opportunity for me to re-teach this class. I hope so! I've got some things that I'd like to make better. I'm so grateful to the leaders of Knox for giving me the opportunity to do this.


Why the Reformed Need to Look to Our Own Roots for the Seeds of Anti-Liturgical Worship

The history of the Reformed tradition of Christianity is beautiful and bizarre. When I was an outsider looking in (I didn’t grow up in the Reformed tradition), I thought the tradition's historical map was a lot more straight-lined than it was. I did not realize that within a generation or two after John Calvin, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, and Thomas Cranmer (I consider all these names, in varying ways, influencers in the Reformed reformation), there would be such a divergence of expressions of Reformed Christianity.

A Broad Landscape

When it comes to worship, the landscape is broader many people think. Certain Reformed thinkers will sometimes claim that a specific expression (e.g. Psalms-only singing, highly liturgical, practicing weekly Communion, more low/free church expression) is the one true way of Reformed worship. I think this perspective lacks both generosity and honesty. Perhaps there’s still more of Calvin’s understanding of the Bible to unlock when it comes to worship, but the truth is that Calvin (the beachhead of the Reformed reformation) was either purposefully ambiguous or irretrievably silent on some issues. And it’s my perspective (not all will agree) that this ambiguity in Calvin is why we’ve got so many tributaries of worship practices streaming from sixteenth century Geneva.

The "Heart" in Puritan Christianity

One of those tributaries is the Puritan stream, whose headwaters sprung from England but certainly spilled over the Atlantic into the emerging United States. Some evangelicals don’t realize just how much Puritanism runs through our veins, whether we’re Reformed or not.

One of the Puritan distinctives was a strong spirituality of the heart. In reaction to what they perceived to be the heartless religious ritualism of the established church, they strove to shake off all unnecessary pomp and circumstance. Simplicity and sincerity, for them, were marks of true worship--heart-borne and heartfelt. When these sensibilities commingled with the newness and looseness of the American frontier's westward religious expansion, we can see the seeds being sown for evangelicalism’s deep-seated suspicion of formalized liturgy and ritual in worship. This all comes together in worship historian Paul Westermeyer’s summation:

Heart religion, the part of the Puritan strain that did not want religion mediated by set forms, and the American frontier with no structured church life all pointed toward a future that would presumably avoid the marks of the church’s history, liturgy, and music.*


When I read this, I had an “aha” moment about my own Reformed tradition. For those of us in the Reformed tradition who value historic liturgy, we can sometimes get little cranky about other traditions that write it off or don’t take it very seriously. But the reality is, whether we appreciate it or not, we have our own tradition to thank (or blame). And, we need to be honest that at least some impulses of Calvin himself were the very seedlings that sprouted an anti-liturgical branch in the Reformed tree. Calvin was, after all, a theologian of the heart very much in the spirit of Augustine. You read in his Institutes an ongoing concern for empty religious practices that not only lack heart but almost deceive the practitioner as a kind of heart-substitute. You hear this, for instance, in his explanation of the cautions and joys of singing (Institutes 3.20.31).

The fact of the matter is that any liturgy (either the formal or the informal kind) will always carry in its DNA a kind of entropy. That means, left unchecked, our rituals will have the latent potential to downgrade into heartlessness because we are people who are always fighting the flesh. The Puritan strain of my Reformed heritage reminds me of this, and it also gives me a greater appreciation for and understanding of my fellow brothers and sisters who look at me funny when I get all excited talking about liturgy.

I am also reminded that liturgy must always be injected with heart and meaning by its liturgical leaders. Yes, even a rote liturgy has the power to shape, as James K. A. Smith has proven (even going through the motions is still formative), but do we really want to get there? Do we really want to get to a place where liturgy’s detractors observe so very little heart in liturgical practice that they feel forced to jettison the project altogether? The challenge of our Puritan forefathers and mothers stands before us.

*Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), 245.

Is it Okay to be Singing in Worship about Feelings I Don't Have?

I'm Singing It, But I'm Not Feeling It

A recent, edifying Facebook exchange I had with a friend this week about a lyric of mine got me thinking about the "dishonesty" we all feel when songs and prayers are sung and prayed corporately which DON'T reflect our current emotional frame.

It brought me back to the early conversations I had years ago with several rehymn movement pioneers. We all collectively said, "I just can't do it anymore. I can't sing these happy worship songs when I don't feel happy. I can't sing about living for Jesus every day when I know I don't live for Jesus every day." In reaction, we abandoned ship and found solace in the church's rich hymn tradition. It gave us language for sung prayer that we never had access to before--lamentation, fear, longing, delayed hope, eschatological angst. And so we all embarked on a collective, not terribly organized quest to re-give these songs to the church in our own ways.

What I describe in the above paragraph isn't really what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about emotive, evocative language that speaks very specifically to a certain moment of feeling. Should we write and sing worship songs that dabble in this very subjective reality? Or should we, away from our fleeting feelings, sing only of the unchanging Truth which is the the bedrocked lighthouse amidst the ever ebbing and flowing tides of our emotional state? 

I used to think the latter, not the former. Perhaps in reaction to the hyper-emotionalism of contemporary worship (which is increasingly a caricature more than a reality, despite its current detractors' insistence on saying the same old straw man-y thing they've been saying for well over three decades now), where it seemed like one worship song after the other was nothing more than a gush of subjective feeling devoid of any objective truth, I was throwing the baby out with the bath water in insisting upon a pure singing of Truth with a precision removal of all emotional prattle. Worship didn't need a feeling-ectomy.

A Friend Comes to the Rescue

But then a mentor came along. He immediately caught my attention because, first, he was a Grade-A intellect with all the theological pedigree of which I could only dream, and, second, the kind of worship content he was writing and the kind of worship he was leading was FULL of (maybe even over-saturated with) gushy, sappy, emotionally charged rhetoric. When I studied the worship services that this guy planned and led, I noticed that he was beating the hyper-emotionalists at their own game. My mentor's name is Thomas Cranmer, 16th Century Archbishop of Canterbury. 

What? An Anglican out-emotionalizing contemporary worship?!? I think so. Check out the charged language of this prayer of confession, penned by Cranmer:

Almighty God...we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we...most grievously have committed...The remembrance of them is grievous to us, the burden of them is intolerable: have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father.

This might sound stately and "Elizabethan" to our ears. For Cranmer and his original audience, it was quite the opposite. Its evocative language, its repetitious use of synonyms, its sensual words, its melodrama were all meant to drive the pray-er to desperation. Cranmer's liturgy is saturated with this kind of stuff.

My Conversation with Cranny

Therefore, this week I started having a little dialogue in my head with Cranmer. "So, Cranny [that's what I call him...I know, disrespectful...I bewail it], you've got to believe that there are going to be some Sundays when some folks are actually not feeling all that sorrowful about their sin. You know, those 'meh' weeks we all have? Why in the world would you put words in people's mouths that were so specific that they would inevitably alienate some who aren't feeling the feelings your portraying?" Cranmer gave me a few answers in this imaginary dialogue:

1) Look at the Psalms.

The more I read Cranmer's 1549 and 1552 liturgies, the more I'm noticing that his affective prayers and readings are often nothing more than allusions to and expansions of the Psalms. I'm probably just dense, and perhaps tried and true Anglicans have known this for years, but the extremist and quite desperate phrase "there is no health in us" from another one of his confessions, for instance, is nothing more than a quote from Psalm 38. Psalms like 13, 42, and 51 are great examples of "hyper-emotionalism." They grant us permission to experience God and life--and then sing about it--in an emotionally-charged way.

2) Remember the formation that happens even when you're saying things you don't really feel.

Just because some voiced feeling isn't actually felt doesn't make it unprofitable to say it. It just might be that it's setting up some training wheels on you so that when the waves of joy or difficulty hit, you're not whipped over on your side. It just might be that the repetitious voicing of joy might best prepare you to experience true moments of joy in the most deeply human and most fully Christian fashion. It just might be that "going through the motions" of sorrow will prepare you to repent in the best fashion in the moment when you actually blow it big. Emotional formation is a complex thing. We shouldn't discount the "numb" or disjunctive moments as being inconsequential. They are perhaps just not, in those moments, simultaneous in their experience of the verbalized word and the affect it's describing.

3) Objective truth might just be most deeply known when it is subjectively felt, not just intellectually assented to.

I was also hearing Cranmer tell me to remember what I read in James K. A. Smith's landmark, Desiring the Kingdom. (Though Cranmer obviously never read Smith, both of them were big fans of Augustine, who, distilled through the other 16th century Reformers [particularly Melanchthon], championed this anthropology.) If human beings at their core aren't so much heads on sticks but desire-based creatures, then it changes the game a bit on what "knowledge" and "understanding" are from the human perspective. Emotions devoid of objective truth might seem vapid, but emotions tethered to Truth might just be the deepest kind of full-orbed "knowing" there is. One of the reasons we want worship to be emotionally charged is simply because it's more honest with the way humans experience the world and its truths. When your loved one dies, there is a sense in which you experience that death most deeply not when you're informed of their passing (intellectual assent, a transfer of facts from one party to another), but when you're huddled up in a ball on floor, weeping your guts out. Worship needs to be emotionally charged because it is the most deeply human way to experience all of life. 

4) Not everything is for everyone at every time, but that's not a sufficient reason to dial down the emotional language.

Still, this is all going to mean that some folks just "ain't feelin' it." For all the above reasons and more, this simply isn't a sufficient enough reason to jettison the project. Life is messy, and emotions are complicated. Perhaps all this will be resolved when all our emotional, hormonal, and chemical disorders are rightly aligned and balanced with our new resurrection bodies on the other side of this very confused existence. But for now, things are just messed up, and so are we. I guess another way to answer this issue is to ask, "What's the alternative?" Do we strip our worship of all its emotional language? It sounds noble at first, because perhaps you're allowing people to feel purely what they're going to feel without any coercion. But what if people, this side of heaven, need more emotional guidance than that? It seems more pastoral to help people along by gently (or not so gently) encouraging, "Hey, this is what you should feel in this moment." You're confessing sin. You should feel pretty despondent. You're hearing the gospel. You should feel pretty relieved. You're lamenting. You should ache. This idea of emotional formation, then, actually becomes a positive reason to jam-pack our worship, not with aimless, nebulous, "feelings," but with intentional, pastorally-motivated language that provides appropriate emotional tethers to the various ups and downs of worship's narrative.

Well, thanks, Tom. Great points. It was nice talking with you. Stop by anytime. 


What if Theology is Best Learned in Worship, Not the Classroom?

I've been blown away, lately, by what liturgical theologians (scholars who study the forms and practice of Christian worship) call the distinction between "primary theology" and "secondary theology." Roughly, "primary theology" is the theology that is "done" through the experience of the people of God in the worship service. "Secondary theology" is what we typically think of as "theology"--abstract theory we study and ponder in books and classes.

Where is Theology Done?

In some of the worship circles I float in, we've talked a lot about how worship leaders need to have good theology and need to apply that theology to our worship so that we are more biblical and informed in our practice. In fact, I'm delighted by the awakening I'm witnessing among many young worship leaders I interact with who don't just want to be rock stars. They want to be faithful pastors and passionate theologians. These are all good things.

But I have a deeper question, which I don't think subtracts from or subverts what I just said. If anything, it adds to it. The question is, Where do Christians primarily DO theology? Where does and/or should theologizing primarily occur? I'm going to answer this question in a slightly different way than I think the scholars I've been reading (Oswald Bayer, Simon Chan, Aidan Kavanagh, Alexander Schmemann) would answer it but hopefully in a way that we can digest.

Knowing Through Worship

Worship, particularly corporate worship, is the deepest form of "studying theology." We know God most deeply and fully as we worship Him. Before we climb up the abstraction ladder of systematic theology textbooks and impressive philosophical theologians, we can simply ask, "How does the Bible speak of 'knowing God'?" When Martin Luther asked this question, he found the Hebrew word yada ("to know") deeply instructive. Adam "knew" his wife. God "knows beforehand" His people. These aren't abstract "knowings." They are a grasping and comprehension through feeling, by experience

Now, this sounds a little scary to us conservative evangelicals. It sounds like "stuff liberals say." It sounds like a slippery slope to heresy. We'll talk about that, but track with me for a second. If you've been reading my posts for a while, you've been following what we've been saying about James K. A. Smith's powerful observations in Desiring the Kingdom, namely, that we are primarily and fundamentally desiring beings rather than thinking beings. If this is true, then the best, most full way we "know" things is as our desires are engaged. Well, I think we can all agree that corporate worship is much more of a natural (God-ordained) context for desire-based knowing to take place than in a library with our head in a textbook or in a classroom with a laptop and a talking head up front.

Worship: Where We Talk TO God

Worship is where our awareness of who God is and what He has done spills over into embodied, affection-injected truth. This is because, unlike the classroom, we're not merely talking about God (abstract, secondary theology), we are talking to God (primary theology). We are not just thinking abstractly about the Trinity, we are participating in Him. It's one thing to cognitively "get" that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit enjoy everlasting, mutual self-giving love. It's another to stand in the middle of that love and experience it. This latter idea is the deepest sense of "doing theology," of "knowing God."

So what of classroom theology? Should it be abandoned? Not at all. Simon Chan explains:

Here is where the theologian comes in. There is no reason that [this person] could not also be doing primary liturgical theology if he happens to be a member of...the worshiping community... In fact, he may be able to reflect on their common experience more accurately and, along the way, correct others' primary expressions of their vital faith. Primary theology, in that sense, needs secondary theology if it is not to fall into error... We should therefore not make too sharp a distinction between primary and secondary theology. What the church should guard against is a secondary theology that is done outside the worshiping community, a theology that abstracts from and generalizes about the liturgy based on some supposedly "neutral" criteria.*

That's really good.

An Encouragement, and a Warning

I want to leave worshipers and worship leaders with one resulting encouragement and one warning. First, I want to encourage worship leaders and worshipers that you are theologians and you are actively doing theology the way God has meant for it to be done when you gather and worship. Sometimes I and others who write like I do give off the impression that unless you're seminary-trained voracious readers you shouldn't be doing what you're doing. Please forgive us. What you do, week in and week out, is of central value to the Church's "theologizing," whether or not you can distinguish between God's communicable and incommunicable attributes and different eschatological viewpoints. You are brokering the context where God's people most deeply and fully "know" Him and love Him. You stand on the front lines of the Church's theologizing.

Second, I want to warn you against becoming enthralled by speakers, teachers, and "theologians" who are not deeply invested in the life and worship of a local church. My next post this week will follow up with this thought by interacting with a few choice quotes from Chan about how lethal the divorce between worship and theology can be. Any abstract theology that is not "done" at some level through interaction with the Church's worship-life is not tapped into how God would have theology to be done

*Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 51.

Even "Lead Musicians" Have a Pastoral Impact Whether They Know it or Not

Methodist camp meeting (1839)Under-appreciated by us worship leaders is the role of music in the shepherding of our emotions. Sure, plenty of ink has been spilt blasting some worship leaders for using music as a tool for emotional manipulation (and this cuts both ways in the traditional and modern spectrum). But rarely has that kind of manipulation been identified as the dark underbelly of a very positive and inevitable pastoral enterprise--music as an emotional shepherd. 

The Church has a love-hate relationship with human emotion. Perhaps it's in our American psyche because of some of the trauma, joy, fear, and excitement of periods like the Second Great Awakening. Thinkers back then, like Jonathan Edwards, were on to something with all their talk of "affections." They knew it wasn't all hype. They recognized the wholeness--the Shalom--of a human being's constitution. They knew that the same parts of us that make up our "center of feeling" weren't so much to be squelched or tamed for the sake of piety. Instead, they insisted that our emotions needed to be rightly aimed and shepherded. Modern thinkers like James K. A. Smith get at this when they speak of the "habit-forming" nature of worship (see Desiring the Kingdom).

All this leads us to how pastors tend to think about "lead musicians." Some churches, by the leading of the Spirit I believe, have created a staff structure where a lead musician (a kind of artist in residence) is overseen by a pastor/elder in the planning and leading of worship. I've seen this setup work well in many, many contexts. However, the overseeing pastors need to recognize something. They cannot think that all they need to do is oversee the theological content and not the music. It's not enough to say, "As long as I give my music guy or gal good parameters about the lyrics to the songs that we sing, I can leave the rest up to him or her." The reason it's not enough is that irrespective of lyrics music has a shaping role on people, particularly on our emotions. 

This is not a call for pastors to micro-manage the creative process. It's not a call for pastors to tell their lead musicians what to play and how to play it.  (That would be exhaustingly unproductive on so many levels.) Rather, it's a call for pastors to have open dialogues with their musicians about how music guides people emotionally through the worship service. In my years of experience working with professional musicians in a variety of worship contexts, I have seen how this can be a blind spot for gifted and talented lead musicians, music directors, and arrangers. Lead musicians can be incredibly attuned to the emotion of a given piece of music (in fact, the best ones always are), but they might still simultaneously be uniformed about what emotion is right for what liturgical moment, which is something a pastor is (or at least should be) aware of.

The question is not whether our worship services have music which is or is not emotionally charged. All music, at some capacity, shepherds our emotions in one direction or another. The question is to what end are those emotions being guided? I talked about all this in a previous post on the worship leader as emotional shepherd, but I was reminded yet again how important this is when I read a larger section of Martin Luther's oft-quoted thoughts about music. I leave you with him:

Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and a governess of those human emotions [Luther used the Latin afectuum here, where we get the word "affections"]--to pass over the animals--which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found--at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate--and who could number all those masters of the human heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good?--what more effective means than music could you find? The Holy Ghost himself honors her as an instrument for his proper work when in his Holy Scriptures he asserts that through her his gifts were instilled in the prophets, namely, the inclination to all virtues, as can be seen in Elisha [II Kings 3:15]. On the other hand, she serves to cast out Satan, the instigator of all sins, as is shown in Saul, the king of Israel [I Sam 16:23].*

*Martin Luther, "Preface to Georg Rhau's Symphoniae Iucundae," in Luther's Works (Vol. 53): Liturgy & Hymns, ed. Ulrich S. Leupold (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 323.

Addressing Blind Spots for Non-Denominational Worship Leaders

As the years go by, I become more grateful for the journey and leadership of modern worship leader and pastor, Glenn Packiam.  God has planted him in the non-denominational, Pentecostal tradition and has given him a voice, along with a gift for writing both songs and prose.  He’s an Integrity recording artist with some great albums out there.  In fact, I think his latest album, The Mystery of Faith, is his best yet and is a testament to his most recent reflections on the blind spots that often befall modern worship.  (Check out my review of his album here.)

I’ve reflected many times on this blog how I see modern worship moving in a positive direction, with their increasing embrace of biblical depth, theological reflection, historical awareness, and liturgical appreciation.  You see it in the songwriting of most of the major heavy-hitting modern worship recording artists (Tomlin, Redman, Passion, Hillsong, etc.). 

Upon reading Glenn Packiam’s recent post and then his paper, “The Futurology of Congregational Music,” that he will present in a few days at Ripon College in Oxford, I’m even more encouraged that inroads are being made toward the non-denominational movement being more rooted in the broad, beautiful, and biblical tradition of historic Christian worship.

In his essay, Packiam writes:

Musical styles arguably function much like a language. Just as Bible translators like Wycliffe and Tyndale gave their lives for churches to be able to read Scripture in the vernacular, the move to “translate” worship into the language of a culture is right and good... But is translation all that has occurred? Did the modern worship movement simply trade pipe organs for electric guitars? Or has the very shape of corporate worship been changed and new forms been adopted? There is an implicit claim within the modern worship movement and the church growth movement with whom it is closely associated: forms and practices are neutral and therefore interchangeable.*

Packiam goes on to critique this implicit claim, largely through the lens and leadership of James K. A. Smith, who has received a lot of press on this blog, encouraging his readers that the form of worship is not neutral and has a shaping power. In the wake of the considerable impact of Smith's Desiring the Kingdom (2009) and Imagining the Kingdom (2013), what Packiam is saying is not new.  But what is new and intriguing (and encouraging) is that Packiam is saying it as a non-denominational worship leader TO non-denominational worship leaders. Packiam is challenging the unchecked hyper-pragmatism that we evangelicals are all too guilty of and non-denominational churches are particularly susceptible to.  

"Win the lost at any cost" sounds like the right thing. It sounds biblical. After all, didn't Jesus give it all on the cross? Didn't He leave the ninety-nine to go after the one? Indeed, He did. But it is a HUGE leap to say that method, form, and practice are 100% up for grabs, so long as the "content" is there. What Packiam is saying, and certainly what Smith has been saying, is that there is very real and formative content in the methods, forms, and practices of worship that we need to be paying attention to.

So what is Packiam's solution? Ironically, for a non-denominational, free-church leader, it's a return to the historic Christian liturgical structure fused into a modern worship service. Fascinating. Packiam's essay is $0.99, available on Amazon in Kindle format here.  It's well worth the read.  If you know worship leaders in the non-denominational sphere, I'd encourage you to pass this little gem along.

*Glenn Packiam, "Re-Forming Worship: A Futurology of Congregational Music for the Non-Denominational Church," self-pubished, 2013.

Rhythms of Grace - A Book Every Worship Leader Should Read

A few weeks ago, I picked up Mike Cosper's Rhythms of Grace (Crossway, March 2013) and quickly devoured it.  Mike is Pastor of Worship & Arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.  That I knew I would love and highly recommend the book is a no-brainer, because Mike and I have tracked along the thought-patterns of many of the same theologians, philosophers, thinkers, writers, and practitioners in the field of Christian worship today.  I want to point out a few things about the book, along with what I think are its best, must-read points and chapters.

A Biblical-Theological Structure & Emphasis

It's remarkable that for the first 50% of a book on worship, Cosper doesn't even mention music.  Instead, the first four chapters walk through telling the story of the Gospel in all of Scripture, particularly through the lens of worship.  It's beautiful.  

Understandable, Digestible, & Memorable

Another remarkable thing about Rhythms of Grace is in the presentation of the information.  It's one thing to know and believe something.  It's another thing to communicate it thoroughly and convincingly, yet with brevity and clarity.  Cosper excels at this balance.  It probably comes from the fact that he's taught on these subjects and ideas many times and has learned how to hone content into digestible portions.  Chapter 5, "Worship One, Two, Three" is a prime example of this.  There, he lays out a wonderful paradigm on how to think biblically about worship from the 10,000-foot view:

  1. Worship has one object--God.
  2. Worship has two contexts--scattered and gathered.
  3. Worship has three audiences--God, the Church, and the world.

The upshot of this simple paradigm is that many of our conversations about worship on the ground level would be so much more fruitful if this paradigm were in place.  So often, when we dialogue about "worship," we're talking past each other, not necessarily because we disagree, but because we're speaking about different facets (e.g. gathered, corporate worship vs. whole-life worship).  Frameworks like "worship one, two, three" establish concrete biblical-theological ideas so that we can speak the same language and actually talk to rather than talk past.

Distilling Recent Worship Thought

Rhythms of Grace acts as a primer for some heavier reads that some worship leaders find too cumbersome to wade through.  For instance, Chapter 6, "Worship as Spiritual Formation" is a rough distillation of the thought of James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom.  If well-intentioned worship leaders have picked up those books and put them down, overwhelmed by their density, I would heartily recommend reading Cosper's chapter.

The Three Strongest Chapters

Chapter 9, "Sing, Sing, Sing" - Not only is it a marvelous exposition and application of Colossians 3:16, it cuts to the heart of issues of musical style, preference, singing, and the role of music.  I've never seen anyone dive into the issue with so little splash and so much balance and biblical clarity.  Every worship leader must read this.

Chapter 10, "The Pastoral Worship Leader" - In this chapter, Cosper gave me a way to think about the ever-vexing questions of cultural relevance and "contextualization."  It is so clear and so convincing.  Cosper's paradigm, especially on pp. 176-179, will most likely forever be the way I think and talk about these issues.

Appendix C, "The Sound of (Modern) Music: Technical Challenges for Audio and Congregational Singing" - Who recommends an appendix?  I do.  It's short but incredibly incisive.  It is the best brief treatment on its topic I have ever read.  In it, you'll find a defense of loudness in worship, a parsing of the difference between "loud" and "bad," and a very brief summary on how this plays into everything from musicians and instruments to sound engineers and gear.  And the opening page levels the playing field by delivering a really cool, unexpected punch to the gut.

Get this book!