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Wednesday
Apr202016

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.

Monday
Jan252016

The Case for the Emotional Worship Leader

My Facebook feed blew up this morning with this intense and quite moving footage from a New Zealand wedding. They're engaging in a sincere and powerful Haka ritual, and though I don't understand a word of it, I think I get it...and I think you do, too.

Our Love-Hate Relationship with Emotions

Let's face it. We evangelicals have a checkered past when it comes to emotions and worship. The Second Great Awakening--that early nineteenth century movement of westward-sweeping revivals--polarized the various Reformational and evangelical traditions. The wild reports of mass conversions following emotionally-charged revival meetings elicited usually one of two responses. On the one hand, the movement was greeted with great success, and its accompanying methods were championed as the way forward for evangelicals. On the other hand, emotionalism was looked on with great suspicion. Charges of false conversions and manipulation abounded. 

And we evangelicals today have inherited this schizophrenic relationship with emotions and worship. With a very broad brush, we can say that it tends to be (just as it was then) the more "thoughtful" traditions (i.e. the ones that place high emphasis on biblical fidelity and theological precision) that are more skeptical of dragging that clumsy bag of emotionalism into the worship service. Out of these traditions today, one can hear in their criticisms of today's worship the echoes of the tracts put out against the "enthusiasm" of the Second Great Awakening some two hundred years ago: "it's all just sappy emotionalism;" "they're just brainwashing congregations;" "they're encouraging you to turn your brains off and 'just feel'."

Because our suspicion of emotions is buried deep in our historical psyche, even a post like this, entitled, "The Case for the Emotional Worship Leader," is greeted with at least a raised eyebrow.

Emotions and Worship's Punchline

I've been doing a lot of thinking over the last few years about the nature of emotions and their relationship to worship. One of my best friends, who recently completed his Ph.D. at Baylor specializing in the philosophy of emotions, has been a mentor from afar...occasional dialogues, texts, emails, and book-exchanges. I've read books like Robert Roberts' insighful Spiritual Emotionshelpful sections in Jeremy Begbie and Steve Guthrie's Resonant Witness, and key portions of Brian Wren's Praying Twice. I've studied Reformational worship leaders and liturgical architects like Thomas Cranmer, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, and Martin Luther, who all pre-dated the Second Great Awakening, in hopes of learning from what responsible emotional worship leading looked like before we developed some of our hangups. And I've certainly done a lot of prayerful "practition-ing" on the local level, in dialogue with the pastors, musicians, choir, and worship leaders at Coral Ridge.

I've come to the conclusion that we've got a lot of ground to plow when it comes to emotions and worship. I don't really know what it looks like on the other side, but I do know that our historical PTSD over the abuses of the Second Great Awakening have had the residual effect on many of us of stunting our emotional engagement in worship. I have explored these things in the most succinctly systematic fashion I can in my book, The Worship Pastor, in the chapter entitled "The Worship Pastor as Emotional Shepherd"...which will be released (thankfully) mid-October of 2016 (updates of the book's progress here).

Now that I've raised these issues, I want to ask a few questions about the above video. I'll first tell you about my reaction: I was deeply moved. I was deeply moved because on this sacred day, there was enacted an historic ritual, and this ritual was performed with intense amounts of sincerity and heart. The ritual may have been foreign to us, but if you're like me, you found yourself nearly weeping at the end. 

God seems to have created us all with a kind of emotional resonating chamber that reverberates on similar frequencies to one another. A ritual from a culture half a world away from me echoes in my heart simply because emotions are a human, trans-cultural reality, and when they are on display in an intense and authentic way, they immediately begin to ring in my soul. Emotions, surrounded in ritual, are a powerful thing. This bride, groom, and these other men were doing something that led the other people in the room (and you and me). They took us somewhere. They took us on a journey of tension and release, whose punchline was, "Welcome to the family...we are for you, not against you."

Worship has a punchline. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ. And what if we worship leaders could wisely, responsibly, and faithfully tap into our own emotions so that that punchline has a greater opportunity to resonate with others? What if our rituals can surround (and appropriately safeguard) our emotions while nonetheless setting them free? What if, in our leadership, our emotions could be so appropriately deep and sincere that they cannot help but resonate?

I'm not talking about hyper-emotionalism and breakdowns on the platform. I'm talking about something that's very context-specific, but nevertheless bold. From the stateliest liturgical setting to the freest charismatic moment, what if we could find a way to emotionally lead that was faithful to the ritual and excited all the best frequencies of the emotional resonating chambers in the room?

How do we go about it? How do we toe the line between faithful shepherding and careless manipulation? Where's the boundary past "emotional resonance" to emotionalistic carelessness? These are all very important questions, and we need to answer them. For now, I just want to try to blow open the issue so that we can continue faithfully and pastorally responding to these questions, and a wonderful New Zealand wedding ritual moved me to do so.

Monday
Sep282015

The Gift of the Early Era of CCM

CCM's Story is My Story

For me, historical reflection on Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is always autobiographical. My life is intertwined with its development, because its songs are the songs of my upbringing. Isn’t it always the case that the songs present during our most formative and developmental years of faith stick in us perhaps more deeply than any others? Perhaps it’s the power of nostalgia, or perhaps it’s something deeper.

CCM is certainly disparaged by a lot of folks right now. It has fallen under scrutiny for its trite expression of Christianity, its suffering-less-ness, its fake or ignorant positivity, its moralistic therapeutic deism. A charitable read of its early history, which would involve listening to the hearts and testimonies of some of its founders, movers, and shakers (not just coldly analyzing historical anecdotes or other thinkers’ analyses), speaks a different message, which I’d like to highlight.

The Blessing of Being "Imprinted"

I was sitting on my couch last week, thinking about Psalm 24’s hefty rhetorical Q & A: “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart.” I was thinking about my dirty hands and my impure heart. I was thinking about Jesus’ hands and heart being the only answer to this Psalm, and then out from under my subconscious popped that early chorus from my childhood: “I Lift My Eyes Up” (1990), by Brian Doerksen. That setting of Psalm 121 became my prayer to Jesus that morning. A simple prayer of need, turning my eyes, yet again, off myself and onto my only Hope.

I started reflecting on the amount of Psalm-chunks I know by heart simply because early CCM (which, back then, wasn't a capitalized acronym...just a lower case descriptor) gave them to me in digestible, meditative portions (think “I Waited for the Lord On High” [Psalm 40], “As the Deer” [Psalm 42],  “To Every Generation” [Psalm 90]). Now before we jump to the usual critical places—“they were partial and didn’t display the spirit of the whole Psalm,” “they were affixed to trite music,” “they were cheesy,” etc.—let’s take a step back and ask what was happening at the time...what the founders were thinking.

A Presbyterian Gets Schooled by a Calvary Dude

Not long ago, I had a conversation with Chuck Fromm, one of the founders of Maranatha! Music and one of the thinkers behind many of the early project (including Psalms Alive, where we got a lot of these songs). He told me…now keep in mind that Chuck is a Calvary Chapel Jesus Movement dude speaking to me, a young Presbyterian…that his inspiration for getting these projects was none other than John Calvin, who employed the best poets and musicians he could find in his day to reimagine Psalm-singing for Genevan worshipers. Chuck pointed me to a few resources I had overlooked (particularly an obscure PhD dissertation which was underappreciated for its contribution to the Calvin/Church music discussion).

Back then, Chuck wanted to cut through what felt like layers, webs, and jungles of church music that felt like it struggled to get to the heart of things and re-engage the simple, Reformational model of singing Psalms, believing that these “new songs” (because they were Psalms) had the power to re-focus, re-energize, reform, re-ignite, yes inSpire worship. You gain some of this perspective if you read Chuck’s booklet, New Song: The Sound of Spiritual Awakening.

Semper React-amanda

Every generation of church music is reacting and attempting to correct. And now, many of us are reacting to CCM—its commercialization, its triumphalism, its absence of grief and suffering. But, what I’m noticing, the more I listen to the hearts and stories of the people who cherish what I am quick to vilify, the more I find the history more nuanced than I had dared believe. God only knows what’s on the other side of all this liturgy-love for guys like me…once we get old and liturgy is no longer in vogue, feels dead and needs a fresh overhaul. Hard to imagine, right? I’m sure it was hard for the early CCM songwriters, artists, and worship leaders to foresee a time when the music and songs they wrote and produced would be so criticized.

Certainly, CCM has broadened, evolved, morphed, and pressed well beyond the original vision of the early founders. And certainly there are many things to challenge and critique. I guess my hope with this little post is that, for all the complaining we do about the "state of evangelical worship" (When will the unhelpful critical posts cease?), we don't miss the hearts and, yes, the wisdom of what good we can find there. Many of the CCM founders are now in their retirement years, and they really do have a lot of long-term wisdom to share with the rest of us. The older you get, the more you're able to view chunks of history broadly and cyclically. The new, young "reactors" always need the seasoned, old "sages" to point out their blind spots. 

But this means that we, while committed to our convictions, need to keep our fingers out of our ears and at least keep one palm open before the rest of the world. There is always more to receive.  

Monday
Jul272015

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.*

"Aha"

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.
Wednesday
Oct292014

Luther's Case for Psalm-Singing

Ligonier on Luther and the PsalmsWorship leaders and thinkers who stand in the Reformed worship tradition emphasize the importance and necessity of Psalm-singing. In fact, there are several smaller Reformed denominations who are chiefly known as "psalms-only" worshipers, meaning that the only songs they sing in worship are tuned translations and versifications of the Psalms. John Calvin, the father of the Reformed tradition of Protestant Christianity, was an outspoken champion of the supremacy of Psalms in worship. He encouraged Psalm-singing in the Genevan Church of his day, and he commissioned well-known artists to craftily set Psalm-versifications to rousing, rhythmic tunes.

Though Calvin was by far the most outspoken of the Reformers on this subject, it's worth bringing up the fact that Luther also had a very high view of the Psalms. And though he would never argue for a Psalms-only approach in worship, we can derive from his emphasis on Psalms that he would have thought that Psalm-singing would be a healthy, centering practice for the Church. I was reminded of all this as I plod my way through a very dense book on Luther's theology, Oswald Bayer's Theology the Lutheran Way:


In Luther's opinion, the Psalter contains the whole Bible in a nutshell and can therefore be called "a mini Bible." He lets it stipulate the "manner" and "practice" of his relationship to God, the world, and himself, not only in general but also in particular, as in the development of his concept of meditation. It is no accident that Psalm 119, the very psalm that teaches Luther the true practice of meditation and its true understanding, is also the psalm that teaches him how to understand theology as a whole.*

One of the things I'm learning about Luther's understanding of theology and the Christian life (those two are one and the same for Luther) is that the Psalms were central. If we have any thoughts of Luther's theology, we immediately think that, for Luther, his biblical ground zero would be Galatians, Romans, or some other Pauline epistle that distills the essence of the whole of Scripture in the concept of justification by faith alone through Christ. And while this is fair, we could equally say that, for Luther, the Psalms are where this theology is done, practiced, and lived.

It would make sense that the only inspired songbook for Christians (and Jews) would very much be a "mini-Bible." And though not direct, enclosed in this emphasis is a case from another reformer besides Calvin for Psalm-singing. So let me point out a few choice resources/avenues:


  • For more traditional, hymnbook-oriented congregations, check out this great one-stop-shop, Psalms for All Seasons.

  • For contemporary/modern stuff, check out this wonderful post at Cardiphonia, cataloguing both specific psalms and then some collections/projects at the end.

  • Write your own: there's nothing like a local worship leader setting Psalms for his or her own congregation. Google search "metrical psalms," look up Isaac Watts' psalm-settings, and add tunes to them!


*Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 52.

Tuesday
Oct142014

If You're Interested in Deeply Studying Gospel Centered Worship

If you're like me, thinking about furthering your education in the area of worship studies, you're less interested in flashy admissions campaigns and impressive campus acreage. I want two things: A handful of great professors zeroing in on excellent subject matter.

There's a lot of talk out there about "gospel-centered" this and that, and a lot of people have spilled a lot of digital ink explaining how diluted and convoluted that discussion has become. Such is the fate of "gospel-centered worship." Nevertheless, if I myself were to put flesh on the bones of that phrase, I'd want to do it in a similar spirit to the theology and worship of a particular time and place in history. This time and place has gone under-appreciated, under-mentioned, and under-studied in our typical "gospel-centered worship" discussions. I'm talking about the English Reformation. 

Something special occurred in England in the 1500s as the Reformational streams from Calvin and Luther converged in those Western isles. Two things were happening in the lives and hearts of some key movers and shakers. First, the doctrine of justification by faith alone was rocking their world and radically reorienting the way they saw and thought about everything, from theology to farming. Second, those movers and shakers were in the process of reforming worship around this doctrine, rewriting liturgies through the lens of grace.

In short, sixteenth century England was a distillery for a kind of 200 proof gospel-centered worship. Honestly, the more I read and think about it, the more I want to read and think more about it. 

And this is why I'm going to be switching my doctoral emphasis to the newly-created Theology and Worship of the English Reformation track at Knox Seminary in their modular Doctor of Ministry program. Full disclosure: Knox sits across the street from the church I serve here in Ft. Lauderdale, and many of the professors are now my good friends. That said, I have not been asked, coerced, or bribed into this post. :) It's not propaganda. I believe in the subject-matter. I believe that studying it could unleash a fresh doxological reformation in the church. And I would love it if some of my friends and readers, who may be ready for something like this, would join me in this program.  Here's the track description:

The Theology and Worship of the English Reformation Track is designed to equip those in ministry to understand the doctrinal and liturgical reforms of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The received traditions of Catholic faith and practice were rethought in 16th century Britain along the “evangelical” lines of the Reformation, resulting in a consistent though broad Protestantism lived and expressed through the Book of Common Prayer. The early English evangelicals did find a middle-way of sorts, but not as is often imagined a via media between the Reformation and Rome. Rather, the English Reformation listened to and learned from both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions and attempted to express and embody a Protestantism that could include both (or at least not exclude either).

This track encourages an understanding of the mutuality of theology and worship and considers the complexity of contextualization, as well as the process of learning from the past for the sake of the present.

That last part is what I've found most intriguing about the worship revolution happening during the English Reformation. It was a project in contextualization. And that is so much of what good worship leaders do--wrestle with contextualizing timeless, Spirit-filled truths and traditions for new generations of worshipers.

The four scholars heading up the track are thinkers I can vouch for. I've sat under the teaching of all of them in one way, shape, or form: Ashley Null (the world's leading Thomas Cranmer scholar), Gerald Bray (a walking encyclopedia of church history, but particularly the Reformation), Jonathan Linebaugh (one of the most integrative thinkers I've ever met), and Justin Holcomb (just plain coolness).

So...if any of this is intriguing, take the next step and check out this amazing, one-of-a-kind program. It's built for full-time practitioners (like me) to jump in and out of intensive studies. It's not a "worship degree." I think it might actually be better than that. 

Thursday
May292014

An Important Worship Conversation Happening in the Blogosphere

Two worship blogs I regularly follow, authored by two worship leaders I highly respect--David Santistevan and Jamie Brown--have engaged in an important exchange, asking the question about what the "real problem" is with evangelical worship today.

It began a few weeks ago with Jamie's post responding to his (and my) experience at the National Worship Leader Conference in DC. Here is the crux of the problem, as Jamie articulates it:

Throughout the conference, at different sessions, with different worship leaders, from different circles, using different approaches, and leading with different bands, I picked up on a common theme. It’s been growing over the last few decades. And to be honest, it’s a troubling theme. And if this current generation of worship leaders doesn’t change this theme, then corporate worship in evangelicalism really is headed for a major crash.

It’s the theme of performancism. The worship leader as the performer. The congregation as the audience. The sanctuary as the concert hall.

It really is a problem. It really is a thing. And we really can’t allow it to become the norm. Worship leaders, we must identify and kill performancism while we can.

David's post, in response, came two days ago:

The problem with modern worship isn’t the lights. The problem with modern worship isn’t the writing and singing of original music. Matter of fact, I believe we need more songwriters writing more songs…better songs. The problem isn’t the dimly lit room. The problem isn’t the big rock band and creative music. Our hearts don’t know their need for Christ. We are not desperate. We are not broken. We don’t approach Sunday with expectant, faith-filled, repentant hearts. We aren’t hungry for Jesus.

Please read both their posts to understand what they're saying. They're both making important points. Both posts have received lots of comments and incited plenty of (helpful) social media dialogue. In commenting on David's post, Jamie wrote:

I totally agree that we need to acknowledge and express our desperation for Jesus. Many times, dead worship exists because we don’t know our need for a Savior. I’m right with you. But is the solution to sing more songs about desperation? Is the solution to people’s lack of awareness of their desperation to engage their senses, turn the lights down, turn the stage lights up, or sing newer songs? No. The answer to desperation is not more desperation. The answer to desperation is exaltation. We exalt Christ. Clearly, loudly, boldly, and sweetly. Our job is to exalt Jesus. And when he is lifted up, he does the drawing people to himself. And then people are satisfied.

There's something in what both David and Jamie said here that is zeroing in on some of the ultimate core issues, and this is where a good understanding of God's "two words" of Law and Gospel--a HUGE Reformational distinctive, championed by Luther, Calvin, Beza, and Ursinus--is deeply illuminating. The "Law-Gospel distinction" (see Michael Horton's helpful explanation here) tells us, with Paul, that God's communication to us basically comes to us in two forms: Law ("do this for me") and Gospel ("I have done this for you"). They each have job descriptions. One of the preeminent tasks of God's Law (among other tasks) is to show us our desperation. God's Law, whose bar can be summed up as "be perfect as Your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48), exists primarily to drive us to Christ by revealing our inability to keep it. We hear God's Law most clearly in Scripture, but we feel echoes and iterations of God's Law in ten thousand voices each and every day. It is the voice of "you don't measure up." We feel it when we see a person more fit than we are. We feel it when we get passed over for a job promotion or receive less than A+ on a paper. We feel it in our relational brokenness. We feel it, in the words of Jamie, when we rightly experience what it's like to truly "exalt" God: He is perfect, and we are anything but. 

When we truly hear the voice of the Law, it has a crushing effect. The Law causes desperation. Then, and only then, can the Gospel sweep in with all its relieving good news: "Though you are wholly inadequate, there is One Who has come to do for you what you could never do for yourself." God's two words: Law then Gospel. The beauty of God's design here is that it is only the Gospel that can both satisfy and supply the energy for what the Law demands. If we want to become good Law-keepers, no amount of telling us to obey the Law can do that. It is simply not the Law's job description to fulfill what it demands. The Gospel does this. It transforms our heart to want to obey the Law.

If there is truly one central problem with evangelical worship today (and evangelicalism in general), it is the confusion of these two realities and the resulting havoc it wreaks on our worship. Here's how this plays out in this discussion. Jamie's point is that worship leaders misunderstand their role vis-a-vis God and the congregation, and he's right. We worship leaders who tend to inflate our own self-importance begin to slip into entertainment mode. David's point is that worshipers need to come to grips with their desperation, and he's right. The Law, which emanates from a proper "exaltation" of God ("Wow, God, You are SO marvelous...SO perfect, SO holy, SO pure"), makes us desperate ("I'm ruined, because I recognize I'm NOT that nor on my best day could live up to that"). The performance-beholden worship leader and lackluster worshipers need to be reminded of their brokenness. And then we need the worship-producing good news.

The kind of worship that begins to chip away at the problems, the idolatries, and the bad practices of all worship everywhere is worship that begins to appropriate the weight of Law and Gospel to their fullest capacity. It is worship that makes much of God's glory, then much of our inadequacy, then much of God's lavish grace in Christ. When these realities receive their proper attention and ordering in our worship, I won't go so far as to say that the "problems" solve themselves, but I will say that they're finally set within their proper context to be dealt with.

A worship leader (most likely unknowingly) addicted to the limelight doesn't have a realistic view of themselves (which the Law gives), because if they did, they'd be screaming in what they do, "Don't look at me! Look at Jesus!" (which is precisely what Jamie was encouraging). A worshiper obsessed over secondary issues to the point of not engaging in worship also lacks a clear diagnosis of their own problem (which, again, the Law provides) and needs to understand their desperation (which is what David was encouraging). And, we would all say, the only way out of this for all of us is to allow the finished work of Christ to be declared, retold, re-sung, and re-lived in our gathered times. And this is what the Gospel provides. 

Monday
Nov262012

Why Worship Leaders Should Have a Philosophy of Preaching  

"John Chrysostom Preaching in Constantinople," by Ambrose DudleyWhether or not a worship leader is a recognized and “formal” pastor in their local context, worship leaders, by virtue of what they do, perform and fulfill a pastoral function.  In other words, planning and leading worship is intrinsically pastoral.  Whether you like it or not, if you are a worship leader, people are spiritually formed (for good or ill) by the content and form of the worship services you craft and lead. 

Preaching is (rightfully) the domain of the ordained (whether formally or informally), called pastor of a local congregation.  But sometimes that reality makes the worship leader believe that they don’t need to worry about preaching at all.  I would encourage worship leaders to revisit how they think about preaching, whether or not they ever preach a sermon or speak into their preaching pastor’s sermon preparation and execution.  Here’s why:

First, sermons are not stand-alone, isolated “happenings” in a worship service. 

They function as a part (albeit an important one) of the worship service as a whole.  A sermon functions within the flow of the service’s greater story.

Second, sermons are acts of worship. 

Through Christ and by the Spirit, the one delivering the Word of God is engaging in an act of worship, and the ones receiving that Word are worshiping through their attentive listening.  We should cease any notion that we first have “a time of worship” and then the sermon.  That betrays a truncated view of what worship is (usually people saying that equate worship with just congregational music, failing to realize that our prayers, special offerings, receiving the Lord’s Supper, baptisms, scripture readings, and other elements are all worship, too), and it often overly inflates the role of music to near sacramental status.

Third, a worship leader should be actively concerned with how the entire service shapes the people of God from beginning to end. 

You aren’t just concerned with the musical portion of a service.  You’re thinking through how elements progress up to the sermon and leading out of the sermon. 

Fourth, different philosophies of preaching reveal differing (and sometimes competing) ideas of what a sermon is and does. 

Is a sermon primarily pedagogical?  Is its foremost purpose to cause people to know the Bible better?  Is it an exegetical lecture?  A verbal commentary?  Is its purpose to equip people to “live Christianly”?  Is it a motivational talk?  Is it a time of communal story-telling?  Is it replaceable?  Expendable?  How a worship leader answers these questions determines how they see the sermon fitting into the larger context of the worship service.  Just to tip my hand, and as a model for one option on a philosophy of preaching, I believe that sermons exist to reveal Christ to the people of God (and to the world), causing the Church to “worship on the spot,” resulting in change, growth, and mission.  The preached word becomes the pathway on which the Living Word comes to His Bride, and the Bride responds with greater amazement and adoration of her husband.  In short, the sermon is both an act of and catalyst for worship.  A worship leader who gets this knows that part of his or her job is to encourage the people of God to grasp and engage this at deeper and deeper levels.  What the worship leader believes about the sermon becomes especially evident in what they say and do just after the sermon, leading into any other elements to follow.  (Think about that for a while.)

Fifth, a worship leader’s philosophy of preaching affects service planning. 

For instance, if the sermon is the pinnacle of a worship service, then a worship leader should plan sermon-centric services, with all the songs, prayers, and words leading and pointing to that end.  However, if the sermon is a (necessary) part of the narrative of a service but not necessarily its pinnacle, a worship leader thinks differently about the structure and flow of what come before and after.  Under the latter model, a worship leader thinks more like a story-teller than a thematic producer. 

Where to go from here

If you find the above reasons compelling, what are some next steps in honing in on a philosophy of preaching?  First, I’d encourage you to have a conversation with the (other) pastor(s) you work with.  Hammer out a philosophy together, or seek to understand the philosophy already implicitly or explicitly in place.  Second, I’d be happy to recommend a few resources and individuals who have shaped my own philosophy:

  • Tim Keller & Ed Clowney, “Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World” – a FREE seminary course on iTunes U; this truly changed everything for me
  • Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preachers and Preaching – robust, compelling philosophy of what preaching is and does, heavily influenced by the Puritan stream of Christian thought
  • Karl Barth on the “three fold Word of God” – this can get a little hairy for conservative evangelicals, and I don't subscribe to everything Barth upholds, but I have found his understanding of Christology eye-opening when it comes to the biblical understanding of the logos as it relates to preaching; you can read more about it in the first book of his massive Church Dogmatics
  • Michael Horton’s writing on preaching – here is a good online starting place
  • The early church fathers – interestingly, all the above-mentioned folks trace their theology back to Calvin, who was simultaneously a serious student of Scripture and steeped in the writings and thought of the early church fathers; their philosophy of preaching, especially evident in the way they preached the Bible, has been (quite recently for me) influential in my thinking