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Thursday
Dec082016

On Worship's Boundaries

Just yesterday, Reformed Worship put up a post of mine on worship's boundaries. Next year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and I've been thinking a lot about the pastors, thinkers, and theologians who ministered in the wake of Luther's posting of the 95 theses.

One real "aha" moment of my reading of Luther for doctoral work came in the idea that Luther's articulation of simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinful) isn't merely a statement about the human condition, but a statement about eschatology. In other words, it's a statement about the cosmic reality in which we find ourselves. We find ourselves in an overlapping of ages, a "simul" of worlds--the Old World, which is passing away; and the New World, which is breaking in by the power of the Spirit through Christ.

A lot of our errors in worship--a lot of our over extended emphases--can be categorized as attempting to break through the boundaries set by either reverting back into purely "Old World" thinking (forgetting that Christ has come and inaugurated a Kingdom) or pressing too victoriously into "New World" realities (forgetting that the Old World, while passing away, is still here).

Luther's lesser known work, Only the Decalogue is Eternal, is mind-blowing. He is so vivid, so clear, in how he articulates the human experience of this overlapping of worlds.

So...go checkout my post, "Luther and the Eschatological Boundaries of Worship," over at Reformed Worship. Happy Advent.

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
Mar142016

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.

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
Sep212015

Why the Reformational Insight is So Important for Worship

In a couple of weeks, I'll be taking a doctoral course at Knox Seminary on the theology of Martin Luther. Needless to say, I've been neck-deep in the writings of this Reformational bulldog. Right now, I'm reading through J. I. Packer's translation of Luther's The Bondage of the Will. The book's back cover reads, "The Bondage of the Will is fundamental to an understanding of the primary doctrines of the Reformation. In these pages, Luther gives extensive treatment to what he saw as the heart of the gospel. Free will was no academic question to Luther: the whole of the gospel of the grace of God, he believed, was bound up with it and stood or fell according to the way one understood it."

There it is, right there. One can be tempted to think that a treatise on "free will" will camp out in the realms where our Calvinist v. Arminian debates typically take place...the age old question of Divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But for Luther (and Calvin, I might add), an understanding of the will drills down to the fundamental bedrock of the way the gospel works in a person's life. Luther's biblical insight, which turned out to be THE fundamental insight of the Reformation is that "our will can do no good of itself" (p. 81). It is impotent, corrupt, and in need of Something from the outside to come inside and change it. This insight is EXTREMELY important for how we think of worship, how we pray, how we write songs, how we lead, how we approach God. But, before we get there, one more thing...

Worship and the Victorious Christian Life

We evangelicals have been trained to think (contrary to the Reformation), that this issue of the bondage of the will is merely a getting-in-the-door thing. In other words, we are consciously or subconsciously taught that non-Christians have bound wills and once God saves us our wills are freed up now to make the right choices. So now, we can appeal to one another's "renewed" wills in the pursuit of the Christian life. In other words, I can preach to my fellow Christians a do-more-try-harder Christianity because their renewed wills now have what it takes to respond favorably. We need to be clear. This is NOT a Reformational idea. In fact, it's precisely the kind of spirituality the Reformation found contrary to the gospel.

For the Reformers, the "victorious Christian life" is missing one crucial piece of the puzzle--what Paul calls in various places the "old self" (Rom 6:6; Eph 4:22; Col 3:9), the "sinful nature" (Rom 7:18, 25), and some uses of the "flesh" (Rom 7:5; 8:3-13). In theological terms, this victorious life has an "over-realized eschatology," meaning, what God will bring to completion in the End (a completely renewed life) is thought to be too fully present now. God has indeed replaced a heart of stone with a heart of flesh, and He has indeed put a new Spirit in us to move us to follow His decrees (Ezek 36:26-27), but this end-game anthropology isn't complete. All this newness is still at war with the devil, the world, and the flesh. The life of Christian victory doesn't take into account that we live in an already/not yet tension of partial renewal with the promise of more to come. And this misstep has rather deadly consequences for the Christian life and for worship.

Just "Worship Harder"

If I believe that a barrage of appeals to the will of a Christian will be enough to move a Christian to do the things requested, I've stepped out of a Reformational understanding of how Christianity works. Let's get real specific, real fast. Can not much of our worship these days be identified as heavy doses of attempting to coax people's wills to "worship harder" and make emboldened, grandiose commitments to God? 

Let's talk about song lyrics. Frankly, I'm growing weary of all the recycled "I/me"-lyric debate out there. I think it misses the point. People's criticisms of worship being too I- and me-focused have become way too knee-jerk to be helpful. If the mere presence of first personal pronouns in a worship song is a criterion for immediate dismissal, we'd have to cut out a large chunk of the Psalms. It must be deeper than whether a worship song addresses me or addresses God. The real problem comes when "I" am making claims about what I am doing for God--"I'm laying it all down for You"; "I'm giving it all to You"; "I'm living for Your name." It's not that these statements in worship are wrong. It's that we have way too much of them. And the Reformers would point out that our worship songs' heavy use of this kind of language betrays and underpinned theology that gives far too much credit to the will and far too little to the flesh.

We might call this kind of language "responsorial" language...what we say in response to the wooing, coaxing, heart-changing power of the Gospel. But that's all it is: response. It is not the Gospel. But, make no mistake, for this kind of response to be engendered, it needs the Gospel, again and again. If our worship songs want to actually produce the kind of commitment they often script, then we need swing the weight of the content way more over to the Gospel side so that we can release the gas pedal from our very works-based approach to lyric writing.

*  *  *  *  *

In short, one of the fundamental Reformational insights is the inability and bondage of the will, while many times our worship today presumes quite the opposite--that our wills are actually more free than they are, that the flesh is not a formidable enemy, that the Gospel has actually completed its work in us so that we can just "get on with it." We must, time and again, come back to this key biblical insight as kind of "drunk tank" for the Old Adam, who gets quite inebriated when he hears all this "you can do it" talk. Old Adam gets sober when he is told, again and again, "You can't, but Christ did."

It's time that our worship sober up. Our bound wills are forever in need of the love of Christ which compels (2 Cor 5:14). Any other compulsion is ultimately ineffective.

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.

Friday
Oct242014

The Murderous Intent of Baptism (and Why Worship Leaders Should Care)

Baptism should be on the radar of every worship leader because baptism is an act of God amidst the gathered, worshiping church. And if we all had perfect eyes of faith, baptism would feel every bit as communally euphoric as the most epic, heart-wrenching worship song we know. Here's why.

Whether we baptize babies or baptize those mature enough to profess faith, we tend to feel baptism as a communally pleasant experience. And it is. We have the opportunity to witness a sign and seal of God's saving work through Jesus Christ, and as we do so, God whispers to every one of us, "Don't you remember? I've promised to love you...forever." But baptism is at least as morbid as it is pleasant. 

In our sensational age, most of us have seen, either in real life or in vivid color on the big screen, acts of violence and murder that turn our stomach and take our breath away. The knife scene in Saving Private Ryan and the ending of Braveheart (not to mention every episode of The Walking Dead) are those kinds of moments for me. I watch, I wince, and, overwhelmed by the brutality, my heart says, "This is too much!" 

This kind of feeling should at least dawn on us as we experience baptism, whether we are the one being baptized or the onlooking church. Paul describes baptism, not merely as a symbol of, but a bona fide experience of, death: "Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death" (Rom 6:3-4).

Martin Luther (in keeping with Paul) describes faith as "a living, busy, active, mighty thing"--a gift from God, an alien invader graciously planted within us to hunt and to slay the Old Adam. In other words, faith has a bloodlust for our self-righteousness. Baptism, then, is one of faith's first declarations of intent to drown the Old Adam. Baptism is a prelude to the torturous journey of faith's slow, steady removal of the Old Adam's oxygen supply, as it wraps its hands around his neck and pushes his head under the water.

This is why we might say that the Christian's lifelong journey is a downward one, because it is a journey where God defeats our self-righteousness and replaces it with Another's. Christian growth happens on a path where our self-righteousness is being dismembered, limb by limb. And baptism is God's assurance that it will happen. Of course, baptism also displays "newness of life," but that only can happen after death.

If all this is true, then worship leaders should take heed. Baptism is a deeply powerful, Spirit-filled thing. It should get chalked up there with all the most overwhelming charismatic experiences we've had in worship. Baptism, worship leaders, is not an invasion or interruption of your worship set. Baptism is worship, and part of the reason I've described it in such shocking (but hopefully biblically faithful) terms is to help us see that, if we look with the eyes of faith, it is every bit as powerful and evocative as those pinnacle moments when we're weeping and singing our guts out. And, worship leaders, we should attempt to think about what baptism could look like in our worship services and contexts if we viewed it as part of our job to provide music and a liturgical flow that appropriately surround this holy moment. 

(I might finally say that all this was inspired by a re-reading of a German Lutheran theologian, Oswald Bayer, so if these ideas of faith-as-gift, Old Adam, and baptism are new or intriguing, check out this rather dense book.)

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.