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A Pastoral Reflection on Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"

I've been preparing as a student for a most unique course on "Doctrine for Preaching and Pastoral Care," with Dr. Jonathan Linebaugh at Knox Seminary. It will happen in a few weeks. He has us reading some unconventional (and splendid) material. The course is particularly designed to intersect with my English Reformation tract, as it is attempting to exposit the pastoral heart behind the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Along with a few great theological books, we have been tasked to read novels by George Eliot, Mark Rutherford, Thornton Wilder, and William Inge, and poetry by Oscar Wilde and Samuel Johnson.

Below is what I would describe as a "pastoral exposition" of a moving poem by Oscar Wilde, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." Do yourself a favor and spend an hour soaking in this poem.

* * * * * * *

Where Souls In Pain Find No Comfort

How can a guilty murderer look toward his day of execution with restful surrender, without guile or self-deception? Oscar Wilde’s answer is, “In Christ.” The “Ballad of Reading Gaol” recounts a prisoner’s observation of another prisoner’s peace and freedom as he approaches the hangman’s noose—the unavoidable consequence for killing his wife in cold “blood and wine.” The convict’s freedom was evident in the prison yard—a “light and gay” bounce to his step, and a wistful gazing at the sky as if to say, with Dorothy, “There’s no place like home.”

The narrator exposits the gracelessness of prison, where “souls in pain” find no comfort—not from the Chaplain, not from the Sheriff, not from the Governor, not from the guards who watch the death-bound murderer weep and pray. The other guilty prisoners look upon him and see their own eventual fate, and they dread it. This dread accounts for the shock they experience as they observe his peace. Their “endless vigil” of anxious prayer the night before the murderer’s execution is contrasted with his deep sleep. And he goes to the gallows a free man, freer than anyone in the prison—including Chaplain, Sheriff, Governor, and guard. The noose is the murderer’s gateway to Paradise.

Hopelessness Leading to Hope

Wilde’s prisoner would agree with Paul Zahl that perhaps the best exterior sign on a church’s door should read “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,”[1] for salvation and freedom only begin at the end of Hope, “in the cave of black despair” (II.3.4). Wilde’s murderer found no freedom until he found no hope in himself and was forced to look out and up. And when he looked up, he found that “only blood can wipe out blood, and only tears can heal.” He found “Christ’s snow-white seal” (V.17.3-4, 6). The doomed prisoner discovered the only thing that would set him free: “the loftiest place is that seat of grace for which all worldlings try” (II.8.1-2). The murderer discovered that, even while he was yet a murderer, Christ died for him (Rom 5:8).

Wilde’s ultimate point, though, has less to do with the murderer and more to do with everyone else (including you and me). After a blunt critique of society and the justice system in Part V, Part VI offers the punchline—we are all the murderer. In the Spirit of Christ in His Sermon on the Mount, Wilde ratchets the bolt of the law, so that none can escape its bind:

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword! (VI.3)

The Futility of Separating Wheat and Tares

Perhaps Wilde would have pastors see that there is very little (really no) good in sorting our congregations into the good and the bad. We are all prisoners. We are all murderers. The only response, then, is grace and comfort to every last one of our parishioners. Wilde initially implies that perhaps no word of grace can exist for prisoners of this sort (and therefore us): “What word of grace in such a place could help a brother’s soul?” (III.6.5-6). But he doubles back on the question toward the end, claiming that the Word about Christ is that word of grace which can help. I translate Wilde’s warning to pastors: that pure and precious word of grace is especially given for preachers to proclaim from pulpits.

Wilde’s indictment of pastors is perhaps most pointed in his few mentions of the Chaplain who, in response to the murderer’s anguish, called twice a day and “left a little tract” (III.3.6). In the end, the Chaplain’s ministry was as cold as the Governor who, instead of seeing a person before him, saw the need to uphold “The Regulations Act,” and the Doctor who, instead of seeing a person before him, felt it better to be clinical about death. This all feels a bit like Jesus’ storied reply to the man's self-justified question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). For pastors, then, we must be careful to not make ministry to all the “prisoners” around us clinical and formulaic. We must see that every last one of us is hurting.

Let Us Preserve the Pulpit (and the Worship Service)

May the final gauntlet thrown down on the Chaplain never be thrown down on us:

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonored grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save. (IV.22)

Let us preserve the pulpit, not for good teaching, good advice, good will, or (God help us) good fun. No, let us preserve the pulpit for Good News. Wilde would tell pastors that graceless preaching is “pitiless and hard,” and leads only to soul-rot (V.11), hastening people to their graves beside which such preaching would neither kneel to pray nor offer its cruciform seal.

Perhaps, then, the Governor, Doctor, Chaplain, and guards can be seen as metaphors of what not to do in the pulpit, and what not to do in pastoral care. We are not ultimately executors of God’s law, clinical diagnosticians of our people’s sickness, tract-tossers of Christian platitudes, and gatekeepers whose sole job is to tow the line of church discipline. We are heralds of a Word of peace to a people nightly tormented by guilt.

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” helps me see that even the most hardened person before me is really “the little frightened child” who “weeps both night and day” (V.5.1-2). God, give me eyes to see and ears to hear.


[1] Paul F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 232.

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.


On Seminary Worship Classes and Lack of Training for Pastors and Worship Leaders

Over the last few weeks, I've gained some perspectives I didn't have before. I have new viewing angles on what I perceive as a continued problem that relates to the multi-layered reality of why worship leaders and their lead pastors often struggle to truly work together in that most central experience of the Church--worship. These insights have been gained as a result of being on the other side of this arena (for the first time for me, really), looking at the game from a totally different perspective.

Convos at Samford

Last week I was in Birmingham spending some great time with the excellent, way too talented worship faculty team at Samford University. Dr. Eric Mathis and soon-to-be-Dr. Emily Andrews (she's working on a thesis...stay's going to be dynamite) brought me in to guest lecture for a few classes and then give a two-hour workshop on what it means to lead worship from a pastoral perspective (yes, some the content of my book that comes out this October). Eric, Emily, and I shared many conversations in between the "on" moments, reflecting on the joys and challenges of the academic system. Ultimately, for people like Eric, trying to design degree programs and curricula to thoroughly equip emerging worship leaders in the 21st century, there are a host of understandable tensions that one must faithfully manage. Worship programs can't be designed ex nihilo. They must operate within the broader scheme of the academic vision of the institution. They must play well with others. Where the rubber meets the road: the simple fact is that there probably aren't enough credit hours to thoroughly train undergrads in all the theory and pragmatics of worship leading. The tension folks like Eric and Emily feel is that you need full training on the one hand in Bible and Theology and on the other hand in music. It always seems like worship degrees struggle to offer both robust theological/theoretical training and thorough musical training. After stepping into the university context for 48 hours, I get it. And I don't know that there are easy answers.

Prep at Knox

Simultaneously and by God's providence, I find myself in the final stages of preparation to teach THE worship course that Master of Divinity students down here at Knox Seminary will take in preparation for ministry. From the practitioner's perspective, I always looked back on my own seminary worship training with heavy gobs of criticism. I felt like my one worship course was woefully inadequate to prepare me and other pastors for one of the most important and ongoing things we do. I lamented all the pastors out there who I sense are operating out of an under-developed philosophy and theology of worship. But again, now I'm on the other side, prepping to teach that very course. I'm feeling the weight of it, and, if I'm honest, I'm already predicting failure for myself. I don't want to let these future pastors and future churches down. At best, I can offer a few central hooks to hang some really important ideas in hopes that these smart students will follow up on the trajectories I aim them toward.

Tackling the Problem

How do we tackle the very real problems here? To me, it seems like a key toward change, growth, and more health is relationships. On every level, from the academy to the church, the day won't ultimately be won merely through massive curriculum overhauls or increased credit hours in worship for divinity students. Relationships will win the day.

On the academic side, we need worship faculty who can bridge the relational gaps between them and their superiors (the deans, president, and other visionaries of the institutions) and between them and their peers (the other music and Bible faculty...both of whom can understandably look upon these hybrid "worship" people with great suspicion). We need talented people on the worship faculty who have the pedigree and chops to be respectable among the theologians and the musicians. This is a tall order, I know, but it needs to be said. We need worship faculty who understand the role of relationships among all these parties for the sake of forward progress. These relationships need to be genuine and heartfelt, otherwise they downgrade into mere academic politics, which helps no one and hurts everyone. 

I also perceive, on the academic side, that the academy needs to (continue to) extend a hand to the church and invite thoughtful practitioners to speak into the programs that they're developing...maybe even help teach in them. We need academics who sympathize with the pragmatics of on-the-ground worship pastoring, and we need practitioners who are thoughtful enough about their craft to be of use and help to the academic institutions. Another tall order. But, again, more achievable when people on both ends pursue genuine relationships, true friendships. 

On the church side, we need bold pastors who will initiate formative relationships with their worship leaders. Just recently, after having given several "worship pastor" presentations in Grand Rapids and in Birmingham, I'm struck by the amount of worship leaders coming up to me who desire to read my forthcoming book alongside their pastors. This is very telling. The subtext is that not only do we need worship leaders who will start to view their jobs more pastorally. We need pastors who will start viewing their worship leaders the same way. And we need to bridge the distance, once again, relationally. 

Could it be that for pastors, professors, and worship leaders, coffee shop conversations will be just as much an engine for change and growth as think-tanks, curriculum research, and workshops? 

I can't get away from the fact that our three-in-one God exists as a unified Community of persons, forever pouring themselves out in mutual self-giving. I can't get away from the fact that our one God's relationships drives His planning, not the other way around. 


Come Take a Week-Long Worship Class With Me - March 2016

Knox Seminary | AT704 | Worship

Join me March 7-11 at Knox Seminary in Fort Lauderdale! This is an open invitation to worship leaders and pastors wanting to deepen their understanding of worship, liturgy, and pastoring. It's tailor-made for people on the go who can't commit to a semester's worth of class but might be able to do some good reading ahead of time and then break away for a week. My hope is that pastors would see the value of something like this for their worship leaders and then funnel some of the church's resources to get their worship leader down here. It's a Master's-level course, so it's not for the faint of heart, but I promise (as someone who is a practitioner first and a philosopher second) that the applicability of this course will be rich and vast. We won't stay in the realm of theory but will be able to address the real and pressing questions before worship leading in the 21st century. I'm putting the finishing touches on the syllabus as I write this, and here's the course description & objectives.

Course Description

This course will explore the theology and philosophy of Christian worship, particularly from a Reformational perspective, with an eye toward practical implications for worship in the twenty-first century. Its aim is to provide existing and future pastors, worship leaders, and other church leaders with the necessary foundational anchors for future biblical reflection and application in their own local worship context. 

Course Objectives

At the end of this course, the student will be equipped to: 

  1. Synthesize the broad Scriptural witness into a biblical theology of worship, with a knowledge of the most important biblical passages that apply to worship’s philosophy and practice.
  2. Defend the philosophy of Christ- and Gospel-centered worship and craft services with this preeminent vision.
  3. Answer some of the most important questions before the Church about worship today, including: worship’s relationship to mission, contextualization, active participation, etc.
  4. Articulate a philosophy of worship to aid the student in current or future church leadership opportunities.
  5. Explain and implement a pastoral vision for worship leadership, with special attention to worship as spiritual formation.

The Content of the Class

To say the same thing in another way, we're going to explore three facets of worship thinking and practice: biblical theology, liturgy, and pastoral ministry. (1) I want to expose the class to the broad biblical witness about what worship is and does (BIBLICAL THEOLOGY); (2) I want to argue for and train students in what it means to implement a historically-rooted, Christ-centered worship service structure which can fit a variety of styles and contexts (LITURGY); (3) I want to inspire students toward a pastoral vision of what worship leading is all about...a kind of sneak peek at the content of my book (PASTORING).

The Books We Will Read

We will read all or portions of the following books ahead of time so that our pump is primed. The class will not be a regurgitation of the material but it will use it as the foundation and jumping off point for important discussions. 

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

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

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

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

We'll also read excerpts from Tim Keller, Mike Farley, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Simon Chan, and yours truly, to be read in class or distributed by PDF beforehand.

The Format of the Class

The class will be a mixture of lecture, in-class reading, and lots of dialogue and discussion. For those taking it for credit, there will likely be an exam on the last day and a paper due several weeks after the class has ended. But people are free to audit the class, as well, which frees you up from those other things.

For Pricing & How to Apply/Enroll

Very simply, contact Lori Gottshall at Knox Seminary, and she will set you up.


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. 


How One Worship Pastor Prepares for a Performance of Handel's Messiah

This Friday, at Coral Ridge, choirs from our church and and school (Westminster Academy) will join some of South Florida's finest soloists, some of the best players from Miami's musical scene, and organist Chelsea Chen to perform what will no doubt be a stellar interpretation of G. F. Handel's Messiah. They will be conducted by Renee Costanzo, director of the choral program at Westminster Academy.

The longer I dabble in this field of "Worship & Arts," the clearer sense I get of the kinds of things that go into being uniquely called as a worship leader who functions in a pastoral manner. One of my most viral posts ever was my comparison of the difference between a "lead musician" and a "worship pastor."...and for good reason. New and rising worship leaders are hungry for a model that transcends the relatively thin and non-lasting allure of rock-star-dom (just ask my friend, Stephen Miller). 

Our church's preparation of Handel's Messiah has given me a chance to stretch my wings when it comes to be what some call an "Arts Pastor," and here are three things I have learned and am attempting to do to be pastorally engaged in this moment.

1. A Worship Pastor Can Be a Cheerleader for Artists

When our choir director and choir began preparing for Messiah this Summer, I wanted part of my role to be supporter and encourager. Throughout the journey, I tried to send texts and emails as well as offer words of encouragement to everyone involved. As any artist knows, the emotional, physical, spiritual, and psychological labor and trauma that goes along with engaging, preparing, and presenting a piece of art is off the charts, and the last thing artists need is a whip-cracking dictator reminding them of deadlines and obligations. Part of my job was to attempt to be a pressure-valve operator, releasing angsty expanding gasses of stress with words of affirmation and encouragement. There have been moments along the journey where artists have been at near burn-out, and my job was at least in part to stand in the gap for them, help them solutionize creative ways to relieve their burdens, and even provide emergency-room-style moments of triage and respite.

2. A Worship Pastor Can Intercede for Artists and Encourage Them to Pray as Well

In quiet moments, when my thick skull was broken into by the Holy Spirit, I was reminded to pray for the artists involved and for the audience God would gather. It is so counter-intuitive to hard-working, do-more-try-harder, efficiency-addicted Americans like me to think that our chief work is the surprisingly passive activity of prayer. Yet releasing art-making and art-receiving into the hands of God is one of the most important things we can do.

At the same time, when we started on this journey, I reminded the choir that performing Handel's Messiah is oddly one of the most opportune moments to reach out to the city with the raw message of the gospel. When else would non-Christians voluntarily submit themselves to a barrage of musical meditations on pure Scriptural texts, hand-picked by the compiler to tell the story of Jesus throughout the whole Bible?  Then, as we were nearing the home stretch of the performance last week, I shot an email to the choir, again reminding them to pray. From personal experience, I know that it actually blesses the artists and the art-making when they themselves pray for all of that. Part of my job, when the artist is a Christian, is to remind them of this sacred joy of their art-making. It's a perennial problem for us artists that, in the frenzy and fervor of the process, we forget to pray and minimize its importance. The pastor in this moment graciously stands in that gap.

3. A Worship Pastor Can "Spiritually Curate" Artists' Work for Their Flock and City

Honestly, this has been the most exciting part of this process. I've chosen to do something for the performance which I think, though not unheard of, is quite unique. I've chosen to attempt to pastorally "curate," in a non-invasive kind of way, the experience of the art. It started, for me, with some research into Messiah--its context, origins, libretto, and composer--and then engaging in some consulting with people far more experienced than I am. Shortly after procuring Calvin Stapert's great book, Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People, I sat down for coffee and French pastries with two friends who live in this world of art- and theological-reflection far more than I--Dan Siedell, Art Historian and Residence at the King's College, NYC, and Jono Linebaugh, Professor of New Testament at Knox Seminary. My simple questions to them were along the lines of, "How do I make the listeners' experience of Messiah both purposeful for the mission of our church and honoring to the work of art?" Their insights were profound, yet simple. They encouraged me to not turn the experience into an intellectual and historical enterprise of "educating" the people about the piece. Instead, they advised me to do some simple things to help "aim" people's affections at both the intentions of Handel and his librettist (Charles Jennens) and our church's mission to "declare and demonstrate the liberating power of the gospel" so that the people would feel, through the art, the story of Jesus.

The fruit of this was to create simple "column notes" in our program which connected to various sections of the libretto, encouraging people with action verbs to "listen for," to "feel," to "hear," to "remember" various aspects of the piece's music as it connected with the text and their lives.  So, for example:


The repeated long notes followed by short notes were a Baroque device used to signify the pomp and splendor of a king. Hear His entrance, filled with glory and pain. The overture’s second half summons us to dance to its rhythms, giving a foretaste of the joy Christ will one day bring to His people.

CHORUS ("And He Shall Purify")

Following the ARIA, the CHORUS is relaxed in tempo and key. Hear how the “purification” is comforting, yet not without pain.

CHORUS ("Surely He Hath Borne")

Notice how the strings are rhythmic throughout the first section about our griefs and sorrows but contrastingly elongate with the voices in uncomfortable dissonances when the text speaks of His wounding and bruising. Pause over the injustice the Perfect One being punished for our imperfections.

The notes are meant to be simple, so that people don't tarry too long on them. They are a waymark, a pointer. They are intended to start people on the track so that they listen well with right intentions while not getting bogged down in "artistic analysis." In this way, I'm trying to "spiritually curate" the art. I have no doubt it could be better, but this is my broken attempt at being faithful to this call in this moment. 

The Hope in All of This

The hope in all of this is not for an "enhanced artistic experience." It is for people to do what I think the librettist and maybe Handel intended--to provoke awe at the story of the Baby for whom "nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you." It is to promote (in the language of James K. A. Smith) the aiming of our affections toward the ends humanity was created for--adoration of the Son, to the Father, by the Spirit.