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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.


Thoughts on Missional Worship

Occasionally, I guest post over at the Reformed Worship blog. Most recently, they published some practical reflections of mine on the relationship between worship and mission in a post entitled, "The Biology of Missional Worship." I highlight an important recent book on the subject and the great metaphors contained therein. And then, based on one of my favorite worship theologians, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, I offer an additional metaphor.

Usually, worship and mission are discussed in separate spheres, such that when they are finally discussed together, it often seems like we need to do a lot of reconcilation work. In another post, I talked about how some of the branches of the missional movement has tended to downplay worship. Likewise, we might say that there are some churches whose focus is so singularly on the corporate worship experience (all their resources of time, energy, and man/woman-power go there) often lose sight of the call to mission that is in the very DNA of what it means to be the Church. My plea in this post in Reformed Worship is for us not to see worship and mission in competition but in symbiotic (mutually life-giving) relationship. Again, I offer a metaphor that I think helps.

Go read the post! (And, keep in mind that these thoughts get fleshed out in greater detail in my chapter, "The Worship Pastor as Missionary," in the forthcoming book The Worship Pastor [Zondervan, 2016]).


An Unintended Consequence of the Missional Movement on Worship

God as Mission, Worship as Expendable

“God is missional in essence.” “God is a missionary God by nature.” “The Church doesn’t do mission; it is on mission.” All true. And I’m so grateful for the recovery of “sentness” as a part our essence as image-bearers of God. Mission isn’t optional. Thank you, missional movement. 

At the same time, with some of the missional movement, some unhealthy ideas have leaked in. In my opinion, they can be exposed with this question: Is it possible for the Church to be so sent that it is never gathered?

Some in the missional movement have championed a church-on-the-move philosophy—to be the church is to be serving, “building the kingdom” in the community. So they’ve replaced some (or sometimes all) weekly worship gatherings (prayer, singing, preaching, sacraments) for “worshiping through service” out in the community.

The problem with this approach is that you’re chopping your legs out from under you. Worship fuels mission. The circulatory system that pumps lifeblood to the world (mission) is missing its heart (worship). This issue was again brought up by a great article my friend, David Taylor (check out his site, Diary of an Arts Pastor), pointed me to. In “Christianity Cannot Survive the Decline in Worship,” Kazimierz Bem put it starkly:

The refrain I constantly hear is: “The Church of the future is the Church of service.” It takes all shapes and forms, but it always boils down to the same thing: Don’t focus on worship—“do stuff” instead! So, a denominational leader blogs that the vocation of churches is to be local community centers, food banks, day cares, or places for diaper drives…I cannot help but think to myself that we should stop ordaining people to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament and instead create an office of “Community Organizer" (with Brief Prayers).

Whew. It is probably not surprising that the missional movement of this brand/variety has taken greatest root in traditions of Christianity with lower view of ordained clergy and a more memorialist view of the sacraments. Because worship and its leaders don’t do anything particular and special, they're replaceable or expendable. Bem’s article is important; I encourage you to read it.

For the record, I try to say that the downplaying of worship in some missional thinking is unintended. However, sometimes I frankly feel like some of the folks (who have probably had bad, maybe even abusive, experiences in worship) have an axe to grind. Perhaps it is their zeal for mission that has them down on things that can get churches "staying put" in their ruts. I share that angst. Complacency has always been deadly. But that's not the fault of worship in essence but of worship poorly practiced, led, and conceived of. 

How Worship & Mission Work Together

I broke this all down in a post a while ago: "How a High View of Worship Challenges and Affirms Missional Thinking." One of the best metaphoric insights about this comes from one of my favorite worship theologians, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, a forgotten continental liturgical scholar who wrote an important but buried book back in the 1960s, Worship: Its Theology and Practice. (I really hope some publisher eventually reprints this work.) Von Allmen used the circulatory system metaphor above in a slightly different (and probably more helpful) way.* He likens worship and mission to systolic and diastolic blood pressure—one central core, the heart of God, pumps life into the system, and that life perpetually and cyclically gathers the Church in for worship and pushes the church out for mission.** Why do they work hand-in-hand?  Because worship is the goal of mission.  We are on God’s mission precisely because the world has been side-tracked off its central call—the worship and glory of God.  The world should be singularly and harmoniously gathered for the worship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but when human beings were manufactured and hit the market, we broke down pretty fast.  Mission is God’s “factory recall” of the world’s worship. 

If this really is the case, then those who are most intense about mission will be most intense about worship.  They will revel in the presence of God among the people of God.  They will “get” just how sweet and fulfilling it is to be in union and communion with the Trinity, and because they have so basked in that love, they are overflowing with desire to see others taste what they have tasted.  Apprehending, beholding, and encountering God’s glory in worship is one of God’s most effective inoculations against missional apathy.  In encountering the fullness of God, we experience the fullness of our humanity.  Worship shakes up our amnesia: we “remember,” as it were, who we were in Adam before and after Adam fell, and we experience who we are in our union and communion with the Second, Greater Adam—Jesus Christ.  In this remembrance, we taste for a moment our full humanity—the fullness of who we were designed to be and what we were made to do.  We experience wholeness, peace…shalom.  And then the inevitable “aha” occurs.  “This is what the world has been groaning for!”, we realize.  And at the Benediction, we are shot out into the world with all the centrifugal force that an encounter with God can muster, until we are sucked back in by God’s next summons in seven days, then re-energized and shot out. 

There's a new book out there that looks to be on target with what we're talking about here. I haven't read it, only thumbed and perused. It's in my queue. It's Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission, by Ruth Meyers. People I trust give it a major thumbs up.

Doing and Receiving

A Church that is always "doing stuff" is in a perilous position in an even more fundamental way, though. The Church is always, first and foremost, a group of receivers, not doers. In all our emphasis on being Christ's hands and feet in the world, we may forget Christ's hands and feet on the cross. Not in our minds/hearts, but in our practice (which shapes our minds and hearts), we can functionally forget the gospel...that faith is God's action, a Divine gift...that Christianity preaches Someone to receive, not something to do. In short, we can fall into the age-old confusion of fruit for root, when we begin to think of ourselves as doers, not receivers, by essence. 

Ironically, worship is good medicine here. Perhaps part of the reason it itches some missional thinkers is that in worship, we're all very passive. We're all receiving God's Word to us, God's grace for us. Even our singing, according to Scripture, isn't so much our action, but Christ's action through us (Heb 2:12), and not in our own power, but in the power of the Spirit. Before we become missional gift-bearers to the world, we must first, and perpetually, receive Christ as gift to us. This is why some Christian traditions call weekly worship "The Divine Service." 

Worship teaches us that "Christian service" begins with God's service to us by providing all the resources for His forgiveness of sins and justification of the ungodly. And then, as He fills us (perpetually and ongoingly), we go out, enabled to offer ourselves in service as living sacrifices.

*What follows is taken from that original post.
**Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 55.

What a New Jesus Culture Album Teaches Us About Worship

Justin Jarvis, Atmospheres

I've been listening to the newest album under the Jesus Culture umbrella, called Atmospheres. It's by my friend and fellow local Ft. Lauderdale worship leader, Justin Jarvis. We've shared coffee and way too large piles of pastrami at a local hole-in-the-wall. Atmospheres is an incredible live album with an amazing sound and overwhelming moments where great truth profoundly collides with raw experience. There are several songs that paint new, imaginative pictures of old, timeless truths, like "Taste" (with the killer line, "Your grace is a dream I cannot shake / taste and see, it's sweeter than anything"). "Born of God" is another great song, packed with the gospel narrative, linking Advent to Good Friday: 

1. Covered in flesh and blood, You came to us
Nothing of consequence to see
Inside of time and space, You laid Your life
Down on a cross to rescue me

Jesus, born of God
In the flesh, I will not forget
You lived and You died
What a love, what a sacrifice

2. Silent, You offered up Your body there
Numbered with murderers and theives
Bearing the weight of what I never could
You stood in my place and set me free

And O, the sacrifice
And O, the peace
You stood in my place and set me free

You bore the weight of what I never could
Immanuel, Immanuel, Immanuel, God with us 

Breathing Heaven's Air in Worship

But I wanted to draw attention to a specific song that carries with it a message about what worship is. It's a message I've talked about before--one that I believe the charismatic tradition has graciously illumined to the rest of the worshiping Church and maybe especially us cerebral Reformed types. "Shifting Atmospheres" is the song, and here are its lyrics:

1. We’re standing on the edge of something true
This moment is a holy one
And every dream a seed for miracles
This moment is a door for us

Taste and see all the promises of God
Live in you, and they live in me

Loud and clear, we are shifting atmospheres
With the heart of the One we love
No more fear, we will sing for all to hear
Of His love, His great love

Shifting atmospheres, shifting atmospheres

2. We’re prophesying now for bones to live
This moment breathes into the dust
A step of faith, a treasure for the brave
This moment is a door for us

Just believe all the hope of glory dwells
Here in you, and it’s here in me

Anything is possible with God
Nothing is beyond the reach of love
Anything is possible with God
Nothing is beyond the reach of His great love

Worship happens on foreign soil. I've heard worship described as "the embassy of heaven"--a place where national soil ceases to exist, and a piece of land is considered the sovereign sphere of another Celestial Country. In this respect, in worship, nationalism ceases to exist as the slain Lamb gathers people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (which, as a sidenote, should call into question our co-mingling of God and country in corporate, gathered worship...worship is, in essence, trans-national). 

What is remarable about Justin's song and about the charismatic tradition is that they really believe that God is TRULY present, breaking heaven into earth in the moment of gathered worship. And so do I. Imaginative theologians I respect use fancier phrases (Jeremy Begbie calls worship an "echo from the future," and Jean-Jacques von Allmen calls it an "eschatological event" where the Church "tries on her bridal garment"), but the essence is the same. Worship, because it is in Christ, is just like the Incarnation: heaven breaks into earth, and we "behold His glory, full of grace and truth" (John 1). This isn't wishful thinking or spiritualization; this is what actually happens. In worship, we "shift atmospheres," and we suddenly find ourselves not so much breathing oxygen as the air of heaven, the Holy Spirit, the Wind of God. O, for eyes of faith to see this as we stumble in, week after week, latte in hand and sin on our shoulders!

Ground Zero of Atmospheric Change

When the people of God gather together, worship itself, in whole, shifts atmospheres, if only simply because Jesus has promised to be there (Matt 18:20). And yet I really believe that God has ordained a ground zero of atmospheric change. We experience the atmospheric change, for sure, as we sing and pray together--thank you to my charismatic brothers and sisters that have reminded me of this, time and again. But we find the true gateway in what other traditions call "Word and sacrament"--preaching, the Lord's Supper, and baptism. We see these coming together in powerfully Spirit-filled moments in places like Luke 24, when Jesus both preaches to the Emmaus-sojourners of Himself in the Old Testament (Word) and then breaks bread with them (sacrament). Notice that it was only at the point of bread-breaking (not singing, not prayer), where their eyes were fully opened to see and experience the glory of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, where heaven broke in. 

What I love about Justin's song is that it doesn't let us off the hook that worship, borne from Word and sacrament, is not merely ritual but palpable experience of the presence of God and the atmosphere of heaven. In this regard, as others have said well, worship prepares us for "the rest of our life" by giving us one-hour "trial periods" and "dry runs" at experiencing the heavenly life. 

Every worship leader should long for this vision for their gathered worship experience. We should crave its felt-ness each week, and we should pray for its felt-ness over the people we lead and pastor. O God, help our unbelief!


How Worship is a Murderer

Many of us struggle to see gathered, corporate worship as helpful to our spiritual growth and vitality. And even if we find it helpful, we might lift an eyebrow at anyone who might say that it is instrumental or (dare say it) necessary. The irony for those of us who take lightly the weekly gathering of the people of God is that the spirit which rises up within us that says "I don't really need this that much" is the very same spirit that worship intendeds to kill. If worship had a Twitter profile, its brief description would have to include "Murderer." Worship was built by God to be a blood-thirsty attack dog with a keen appetite for something very specific in us. My favorite worship theologian, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, explains:

To declare that [worship] is optional, that it is not necessary to the continuation of God's work of salvation, is to despise the source of grace. ... By worship, if not by worship exclusively, the Church keeps open the wound which the resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit have inflicted on the self-righteousness of the world, and in this way too the process of salvation is continued.*

God designed worship to slay our self-righteousness.

We human beings are "bruised by the Fall" (Philip Bliss) in such a way that we are hell-bent self-justification machines. We know no other pattern than to hide our weaknesses and manufacture pseudo-strengths. Our instinct, when accused of wrongdoing, is to deny and defend. Our default, when we do the right thing (no matter how much we say it's "for the glory of God") is to pat our spiritual selves on the back and believe that God is more happy with us because of what we've done. When the Holy Spirit applied the work of Christ to us, God the Father delivered the mortal wound to the beast of our self-righteousness. But the beast, while bleeding out this side of eternity, is still snarling, clawing, lashing, biting, and lunging. It is this disgusting creature that Paul is talking about in the latter half Romans 7, when he finally cries out, "Wretched man that I am!" This tormenter of souls rises weekly, daily, hourly within us.

But we're not without hope. God has equipped a warrior to unsheath his gospel-sword every week to deliver another thrust into the thick flesh of our self-righteousness. That warrior is worship.

What von Allmen meant was that worship, rightly done, takes us on a needed weekly journey where we are reminded that we must come to the end of ourselves before we can fully see, appreciate, appropriate, and drink in the gospel. The beginning of worship should cast such a vision of God that we are blinded by His glory and leveled by His perfection. Worship gives us a picture of God's holiness that is so high and so "other" that we are jarred out of any sense of being able to attain it. During the week, our amnesia begins to set in, and our eyes go blurry, such that the mountain of God's glory starts looking like a gently-sloped hill. "I can climb that," we think. ("I can avoid these pet sins for a few days." "I can please God by being faithful in my devotions and Bible reading." "I can be a good mom and not lose my temper." "I can avoid those channels and sites.") We think, "God must love me more this week, because I've been pretty good."

And worship grabs us by the collar, slaps us in the face, and says, "Wake up, man!" It yells, "You're far worse than you ever imagined, because, look, look at God!" And, once again, the scales fall off our eyes and the placid, green, hills-are-alive peak you thought you were looking at is really a hulking Himalayan cliff. And there it is: the moment of impossibility, where God's gracious sword enters the beast yet again. Worship is God's gracious murderer.

But God is in the business of killing precisely so He can make alive again. However, instead of reviving our self-righteousness, He gives us an alien organism--His very Self, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. This is the moment in worship where, after we have seen God's glory and confessed our sin, God delivers the word, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." The gospel is good news, indeed.

Worship should be that epic...every week. 

*Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 115-116.

A Reason to Be Suspicious of Worship Bands

Jean-Jacques von Allmen was a Swiss Reformed theologian whose works on worship and liturgy were introduced to the world now almost a half a century ago. His Worship: Its Theology and Practice is still one of the most important worship books in my library (though it is now sadly hard to find), mostly because it feels like his keen observations and articulations have more bearing now even than when it was written back in the mid-1960s. This quote about choirs is a classic example:

We must be very suspicious with regard to what might be called the vicarious representative of the congregational liturgy, namely the choir. The growth of this institution took place from the fifth century, both because the liturgy of the congregation was becoming ever more complex, and also because the faithful became increasingly reluctant to commit themselves to liturgical life. We must basically agree with H. Asmussen when he writes: "A choir as the substitute for the congregation is quite unacceptable'; and that not only because it can upset the normal course of the service, and certainly not because it prevents the community from admitting the mediocre quality of its singing...but chiefly because it facilitates the congregation's surrender of its liturgical functions. If, then, we wish to have a choir, it should be given a precise duty; not that of supplanting the faithful in their characteristic ministry, but of educating them in the fulfillment of this ministry.*

Now, perhaps this doesn't ring for you, but substitute "worship band" anywhere you see the word "choir." Aside from the historical observation which doesn't fit (worship bands didn't begin in the fifth century), there's a pretty powerful observation packed in here.

Passionate About Active Participation

You and I live in a cultural age where the faithful are "increasingly reluctant to commit themselves to liturgical life," where worship is ever in danger of becoming a commodity of branded consumer goods. The warning von Allmen gives here is that what we do "up there on stage," whether we're a choir or a worship band, can contribute to and encourage the passivity toward which many folks are already inclined to lean. "I just want to soak in the great music." "Man, she has a great voice!" "Wow, that was a ripping electric solo!"

As worship leaders, we must tune ourselves to become hyper-sensitive to anything that discourages the active participation of the people of God in the songs, prayers, and actions of the worship service, and sometimes the performancism of it all--whether lit-stage, rock-band-led or organ-and-choir-led--can be a major deterrent. Von Allmen exposes what's at stake. To put it directly, we put ourselves in the place of Jesus, the only mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim 2:5). That's what von Allmen was getting at when he said that those up front can unknowingly become the "vicarious representative" of worship for the people. 

Vicarious Substitutionary Worship

I was at a worship concert a few years ago with a friend who remarked that the leader up front was singing in such a beautiful and un-follow-able manner that all my friend felt encouraged to do was to sit back and enjoy the leader's worship of God. "Why do I need to worship? He's worshiping for me, and he's looking like he's having quite a moment!" My friend was saying that sarcastically, but fairly, to point out precisely what von Allmen here is illuminating. Sometimes we, as leaders, can get so caught up in either our own special "worship moment" or in the glory of the music or service-structure that we fail to realize that we've left on a train that no one else is on. Sometimes, the worship band can either be so amazing or so loud (and I honestly believe, from experience, that these thresholds are context-specific and case-sensitive) that they become, in effect, the only ones worshiping in the room. The rest (the silent majority...the congregation) become passive receptors and spectators.

The irony, especially for modern evangelicals, is that in these moments we end up looking more like medieval Roman Catholics than Protestants. Suddenly, we're dialed back a half a millennium where Christians were trained that their sacrifice of praise was to sit and observe priests doing their priest-thing up front, elevating the host and chanting their indecipherable "hocus pocus." Worship, then, was largely watching the priest "worship for me," and we may be at a similar impasse now as we "observe" our worship bands do the doxological heavy-lifting.

Being Question-Askers and Culture-Shifters

Of course, there's plenty of blame to go around well beyond the control of the worship leader--cultural influences, individuals' sentiments, idolatries, and constitutions--but nevertheless worship leaders can and should ask the question of whether what we're doing up front is helping or hindering the cause of active participation of the congregation. Are our songs singable? Is the melody clear? Is our music descriptive and framing of the text? Do our prayers, readings, and transitions serve to encourage the "we-ness" of the moment, or are they merely our personal emoting to God before the people?

Each week, look out on the faces of the gathered faithful. Open your eyes a bit more often. What do you see? Of course, it will never be perfect. You will always have with you the yawners, the disinterested, and the downright "harrumphers." But, if you stick it out long enough with a local church, you've got the opportunity to observe and affect meta-trends and trajectories. You have the opportunity to influence not just strategies but culture. And over time, if you're sensitive, intentional, pastoral, and persistent, you will see more participators per capita than a year ago. What kind of worship culture will you influence? 

*Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 196-197.

Worship as God's Discomforting Eden

Eden, Texas...NOT the real EdenOne of the things that you'll find in Robbie Castleman's Story-Shaped Worshipwhich you will read in few other worship books these days, is a more robust way of looking at the Bible and its theology of worship.  You especially don't hear this kind of reflection on the Old Testament happening very often among New Testament Christians.

Eden as a House of Worship

Taking her cues from Peter Leithart,* Castleman encourages us to recognize how God's design and ordering of the tabernacle (see Exodus 25-40) was meant to cause Israel to remember Eden. The tabernacle is an artistic replication of the first garden.**  It seems that Moses himself (the author of the Pentateuch) was aware of this because of the way he described the creation account.  In a rather technical essay, Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham outlines eight ways in which Moses' account of the Garden of Eden was being described to its readers as an "archetypal sanctuary":***

  1. "Walk to and fro" (Gen 3:8) verbally hints at the same terminology used to describe the divine presence in the later tent sanctuaries (Lev 26:12, Deut 23:15, 2 Sam 7:6-7).
  2. The "Cherubim" guardians of the garden (Gen 3:24) mirror the traditional ancient Near Eastern view that such beings were guardians of holy places and sanctuaries (e.g. 1 Kings 6:23-28).
  3. The tree of life: the tabernacle menorah was a stylized tree, and a basic principal of sacrificial law is that fulness of life is to be found in the sanctuary
  4. Adam's job to "till" and "keep" (Gen 2:15) the garden are very specific liturgical words used to describe Levitical priestly duties later (Num 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6)
  5. God's "clothing with tunics" of Adam (3:21) is the language used of priestly ordination (Ex 28:41; 29:8; 40:14; Lev 8:13).
  6. The garden's water has many links with later sanctuary design (e.g. the rivers of Eden akin to sanctuary "water," which is often a liturgical symbol of life)
  7. The "good gold" (Gen 2:12) looks to tabernacle furnishings which were made of "pure gold."
  8. The tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:9) is described (Gen 3:6) with strikingly similar language to how the Law is described in Psalm 19:8-9, which was kept in the holy of holies.

What Does This Mean for Us?

The upshot of all of this for worshipers, pastors, and worship leaders is that the Bible encourages us to view our worship services as pregnant with cosmic meaning.  In other words, the event of worship catches us up into a kind of timelessness that should cause us to look both backward and forward.  God wanted the tabernacle to point to Eden precisely so His people would long for its restoration once again.  Good worship causes the people of God to long for the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21)--the newer and greater Eden, brought forth from a newer and greater Adam.  To put it in more technical theological language, worship is an "eschatological event" (everyone should read Jean-Jacques von Allmen [esp. chap 3] on all of this, too).  

Worship should be simultaneously fulfilling and dissatisfying.  People should leave a worship service feeling unburdened by the gospel of Jesus Christ, yet parched with unquenchable thirst for the consummation of all things. Christians should exit worship shouting, "Jesus came!" AND groaning, "Come, Lord Jesus!"  "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known" (1 Cor 13:12, ESV).

One more quick thought. What if our little worship skirmishes in our churches (song selection, what kind of liturgy, instrumentation, loudness, etc.) are not not only petty manifestations of our idolatry but evidence of worship's inherently dissatisfactory nature? What if we became more comfortable with the fact that worship is discomforting? What if we recognized that we should end a service feeling a little unsettled and not quite right? Perhaps that simple thought would allow us to inject a little more grace into our post-service "evaluations" and conversations about how "good worship was today."  

*Peter Leithart, A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2000). 
**Robbie Castleman, Story-Shaped Worship: Following Patterns from the Bible and History (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), 68-69.
***Gordon J. Wenham, "Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story," in I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Gen 1-11, ed. Richard Hess and David Toshio Tsumura (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 400-403.

Worship as an "Echo from the Future"

I was recently re-reading through sections of Mike Cosper's book, Rhythms of Grace (check out my review here), and I came across this brief concept that he had pulled from a lecture by Jeremy Begbie: 

[Worship is] an "echo from the future," a foretaste of something we'll see come to fruition when Christ returns and all things are made new, a not-yet life that we taste in part already. Today, we gather in exile, in the world but not of it, but one day the exile will end. God will rebuild creation, and not one corner of it will be stained by sin and rebellion. Until then, we have these momentary and imperfect glimpses and foretastes as we gather, hear the Word, and respond together. As flawed and imperfect as these gatherings are, they're the most truthful moment of our week, an outpost of the kingdom and a foretaste of eternity.*

Cosper is beautifully but merely distilling what one of my favorite worship theologians, Jean-Jacques von Allmen described when he called worship an "eschatological event," in his book, Worship: Its Theology and Practice. Eschatology is the study of things to come, and so when we say that worship is "eschatological" or an "echo from the future," we're saying that something of the future breaks into the present.  It's kind of like how we've talked in previous posts about corporate worship being "remembering who we really are" and "the most human thing we can do."  It's this idea that worship peers into that time when God re-creates the world, when He consummates His redemption of all things in Christ...and, in opening up that future portal (I know, it sounds Trekky), some of the future leaks back into the present.  It's like how even in the most sophisticated sprinkler systems, there's always some water dripping back where it shouldn't go beyond the one way backflow valve.  The difference in the metaphor, though, is that God actually intends for some of that leakage to occur.

When the future leaks into the present in worship, it has a sanctifying effect.  This is because, when we are jolted awake out of the slumber that the present age hypnotizes us into, we see what really will be (a world re-created, and a people reclaimed for worship), and we see who we really were created to be (a perfected people providing unceasing worship to the Triune God through loving Him and one another, forever and ever, amen).  It's like humankind rediscovering our OEM's owner's manual that we had long lost.  In it, we see our design, our engineering, how we were made to work, how we operate, what our ends and purposes are.  When we see the glorified Christ in worship, His light shines ALL THIS TRUTH onto us, and we become a bit more "eschatologically sanctified."  It actually changes us, slowly but surely.

Worship, planned well, led well, and faithfully executed in the Spirit, has this kind of power, because God has ordained it so. He gives unique sanctifying privileges to our weekly gathering. He does special work there that He chooses to do nowhere else.  Elsewhere, we can read of the future, study the future, and even ponder the future with others. But only in worship can we most acutely experience the future in the present.  And, to get very direct, the pinnacle of that experience occurs in the two-part event of the preaching of the Word and the Lord's Supper.  

So, the next time you're leading or participating in worship, open your ears.  Listen for those faint backward echos, where the song of the future reverberates into the present.  It's a most beautiful song.

*Mike Cosper, How the Church's Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 100; quoting Jeremy Begbie, plenary lecture, "Re-Timed by God: The Rhythms of Worship," at the Calvin Symposium on Worship, January 2010.