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Making Changes to Your Worship Service in the Light of Pastoral Care...what History Teaches Us

You're Not "Just the Music Guy"

We worship leaders tend to think too lowly of ourselves. "I'm just the music guy." If we don't say it, we often think it. Many of us are simply unaware of just how much we shape the people we lead. In fact, the way people are formed through our leadership looks strangely like the way disciples are made under other, well, pastors.

I've been jumping in an out of a teriffic old book called Pastoral Liturgy, by Roman Catholic liturgiologist, J. A. Jungmann. Toward the end of the book, Jungmann begins to jam on some under-thought-about themes of worship leading an pastoral ministry. Here's a great little section. If the word "liturgy" is tripping you up, just think, "worship."

The liturgy [i.e. worship] is the life of the Church...In all ages the priesthood [i.e. the pastorate] has seen its most sublime function to be the carrying out of public worship at the head of their assembled people. But in the times when the form of the liturgy was in a state of flux [i.e. when worship was changing] they had another special task as well. It had to create these forms and regulate them. What attitudes of mind lay behind the creation of these forms? Where do we find the key to the mystery of these varied and often enigmatic forms of words, to this alteration of reading, hymns, and prayers, to this wealth of movement and ceremony? Why, in general, this multiplicity of forms? The answer lies in the care of [the Church], for the Church...led by its pastors and even during its sojourn on this earth, are to offer worthy service to God and so to become sanctified. This care was decisive in the shaping of public worship. It accounts for everything.*

Jungmann goes on to explain himself, but let's focus on his main point and attempt to translate it to our context. Jungmann is asking the question, "What is to account for all the changes that worship has undergone over the years?" Jungmann's answer is, overwhelmingly a pastoral motivation. In other words, if we start to investigate the origins of why old liturgies were tweaked, modified, updated, reorganized, added to, subtracted from, etc., we find at their core a group of pastors committed to the belief that worship shapes the flock of God. Perhaps it is the case that if we want to study pastoral ministry at its finest (beyond the Richard Baxters and the Gregory the Greats who left us with golden reflections on the life and work of the pastor) we should look at the history of how worship was edited over the years. What a thought!

Compare & Contrast...Shifting Motivations?

Now, compare this with all the reasons we tend to give for wanting to change our worship practices. Just think about it. Chances are, you and I are all culpable in the shift of motivations: Whereas once worship was changed for pastoral reasons, now it is largely changed for pragmatic reasons. We do things differently because those new practices "work" better than the old ones. And the evangelical return back to more overtly liturgical forms of worship betrays that we are becoming aware of not just something deficient about all those changes, but actually mal-formative. Something in all the changes of our worship practices has begun to take its toll on us as a worshiping community. 

Hear me out. I am not decrying all the changes we've made. Nor am I decrying the fact that we've made changes. Changes aren't the problem. Again, it's the "Why." Why are we making these changes? One could say that, perhaps in the best of light, evangelicalism's worship changes come from a missionary impulse--a desire to "reach the lost at any cost." Our desire, as evangelists, is that the Gospel become clear and unobscured by unnecessary pageantry, formality, unfamiliarity, etc. This is a fair point. And certainly, mission and evangelism are parts of a pastoral instinct.

However, if we're going to go there (again, that's the best of lights), we still need to see that pastoral motivations and evangelistic ones might be overlapping spheres, but they aren't identical. Maybe, too, at some points they clash. The goal of this post isn't to go too far in critique. Rather, hopefully it serves as a bit of a wake up call to a whole realm of thought that has characterized church worship decisions for millenia. Church leadership made decisions about changing worship largely in order to care better for their local flocks

As we make decisions about changing worship, we need to spend some time asking not only, "Who do we want to reach out there?", but, "Who has God already brought us right here?" O Worship Pastor, who is before The people before us now are most obviously those that God has called us to care for because they're, well, there. A great set of questions to ask, when making a change to worship is: 

  • How does this change help us to better care for the people of our church? 
  • Will this change help people to see God more clearly? engage Him for faithfully? hear Him more fully? know Him more deeply? 
  • Will this change further our hopes that they are formed in the Gospel and shaped more deeply as disciples of Christ?

And, yes, all these thoughts are fresh on my brain and haunting me because I'm writing about them in my little contribution to the worship conversation. My book, The Worship Pastor, is due out in 2016, Lord-willing and the creek don't rise, as my mom would say. Read about it here.

*J. A. Jungmann, Pastoral Liturgy (New York: Herder & Herder, 1962), 369.

What Worship Curved In On Itself Looks Like

Thanks, Mockingbird

A Latin Phrase Worth Knowing

I’m a sucker for cool Latin phrases. Incurvatus in se, or “curved in on itself,” is one such phrase, possibly coined by Augustine and definitely expounded upon by Martin Luther.  The Reformer wrote:

Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.*

Me, Me, Me

It’s such a vivid picture. Incurvatus in se is that self-obsessed tendency in all of us to naval gaze.  Every human being is bent inward, even taking the good things of God and making them “all about me.” For Christians, incurvatus in se manifests itself in unhealthy levels of attention on our own Christian growth and spiritual formation. (Yes, this really is possible, and it may very well be at fever pitch in American evangelicalism.) We become expert self-analysts, tracking every notch of progress and regress, victory and loss, growth and atrophy. We engage in formal and informal scorekeeping of the hopefully upward mobility of our spiritual maturity. Did I spend time in the Word today? How many lustful thoughts did I have? Was my tongue controlled? Was my temper checked? Did I practice the presence of God? Did I exhibit the fruit of the Spirit? Was my prayer intentional and purposeful? Diagnostic questions like these aren’t bad in and of themselves, but they become destructive and antithetical to the Gospel when they are our dominant pattern. If “Christian living,” for you, is defined by your constant asking and answering of such questions, you are probably suffering from a severe case of incurvatus in se, because Christian living at its core has nothing to do with these things.

I-Can-Do-It Worship

Unfortunately, because this incurvature is such a fundamental reality for all of us, it has crept into our worship, preeminently in the songs that we sing and in the way that we sing them. Elsewhere, I and others have called such songs, phrases, and lyrics elements of “triumphalism”—that obsession with how we’re living for God, loving God, giving it all for God, etc. It’s in the “surrender” language we often employ, and it’s in the “I’m doing it all for you” and “I’m giving it all away” lines that we gush. It’s painfully ironic that as we sing such lines, though we’re singing to God, we may be actually reveling in ourselves. 

Desperate, In What Way?

Incurvatus in se also draws the line of demarcation between two different kinds of “desperate” worship. I’m a fan of desperation. Desperation is the right posture for a law-breaking sinner like me toward a God whose law is unattainably perfect. But there’s an incurvatus in se kind of desperation in worship, too. It’s the kind that is trying so unbelievably hard to show God just how passionate I am, just how committed I am, just how in love with Him I am, just how engaged I am. This kind of worship is desperate not because it’s needy.  It’s desperate because it actually thinks it has what it takes to make God happy with its effort, if it just tries hard enough. This desperate worship is obsessed with trying to prove that it’s good enough, passionate enough, sincere enough. This desperate worship, deep down, is filled with anxiety, trying so very hard to make God happy with its display of fervor. It is hopelessly curved in on itself, because it says, “See God? I’m doing it!”  And it is deeply delusional, because it is living under the lie that it’s actually possible for us, on our own, to give God pure worship that truly glorifies Him, unscathed by mixed motives and idolatry. It actually cheapens God’s holy standards for worship, which can be summarized: “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3-4, ESV).  This kind of worship really has very little to do with God and quite a lot to do with the self. 

No Power Within Me

The irony in all of this is that singing about my feelings for God doesn’t actually have the power to engender feelings for God, even if it’s backed by the most mesmerizing key pad, the most worshipful electric guitar reverb swell, or the most fervent BGVs. If we look inward, we’ll never find the kind of power we need to look upward.  Singing, “I’m not ashamed of You” over and over again has zero power to make us actually unashamed of Christ.  Pounding crescendos under repeated lines of “take it all, God,” no matter how loud, how repeated, and how supposedly sincere, lack all ability to actually cause the kind of giveaway we’re attempting to muster.  It’s as foolish as a car on empty looking for more gas in its own tank. I cannot make myself worship with more sincerity and passion by simply singing about how much or how hard I’m worshiping. I cannot make myself feel more truly worshipful by singing about my worshipful feelings.

To All Who are Curved In, Look Up

The fuel for all successful worship flows from one source, outside ourselves, in God’s gracious Word of pardon to us in Christ’s death and in God’s gracious gift of the perfect worship of Christ’s life. So what should the Christian hear and sing if he or she wants to give it all away, feel worshipful feelings, and actually grow in adoration of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Christ and Christ alone.  In Latin, then, the cure for incurvatus in se worship is solus Christus worship.

So it’s not that singing about our feelings for God or consecrating ourselves to Him is bad. In fact, such actions are rightful elements of worship, and they are all over the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 57:7; 45:1). But such actions must be done in the context of the Gospel, just as the book of Psalms is set in the context of the Christ-centered redemption of Scripture. They must flow from our singing, hearing, tasting, and seeing the finished work of Christ in all His glory. The problem with some of our worship sets and liturgies is that they're filled with a lot of our emotive response and very little with the Gospel. They're lop-sided, and therefore barren of fuel. As worship leaders and worship planners, then, we must be very aware of what we’re saying to God, the order in which we’re saying it, and the weight of its emphasis. The Gospel must be clear (to energize our response).  The Gospel must be first (to fuel our response).  And the Gospel must be overwhelmingly dominant (to contextualize our response).  Anything less is hopelessly curved in on itself. So, if you find your worship lifeless, lacking power, or running on empty, it's time to stop looking in and start looking up. 

(Speaking of all of this, if you want to see how incurvatus in se gets exegeted throughout culture--in movies, sports, and media--there's no better place than Mockingbird, which is where I learned the power of the phrase.)

*Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, qtd. in Mark Johnston, Saving God (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 88.

In Worship, We Forget About Ourselves in Order to Remember Who We Really Are

It's All About You, but it Radically Informs Me

Growing up in church, I used to sing a verse from a chorus which encouraged:

Let's forget about ourselves
And magnify His name
And worship Him

I appreciate the sentiment and intention.  We want worship to be God-centered, God-focused, and God-directed. "He must increase, I must decrease."  And most of us have well heard the penetrating critiques of the "me-centered" worship that has characterized not a small part of our modern evangelical doxology.  It's why songs like "It's All About You" and "The Heart of Worship" were written.  

However, "forgetting about ourselves" is only half the truth of what worship is and does.  Worship is also a huge jolt into remembering who we really are.  Weekly and daily, on conscious and unconscious levels, we are formed and shaped by visions of who we are, which compete with God's true Word of our identity.  We spring out of worship each week, and these false identities whisper into our ear lies about our true self--"You are your job achievements," or "You are your success as a parent," or "You are your reputation as a healthy, fit person," or "You are fine just as you are and merely need to accept yourself," or, most penetratingly, "You are an unforgivable sinner, too broken to ever be fixed."  Lies.  Painfully mal-forming, degenerating, corrupting, fragmenting, truth-twisting, life-smashing, soul-crushing lies.

Worship Rescripts Us

Similar to what I was saying when I wrote about how worship is the most human thing we do, Michael Horton writes:

Even if we are lifelong Christians, we forget why we came to church this Sunday until it all happens again: We come in with our shallow scripts that are formed out of the clippings in our imaginations from the ads and celebrities of the last week, only to be reintroduced to our real script and to find ourselves by losing ourselves all over again. It is not merely as we entertain the possibility of being a character in this story, or some other purely subjective strategy, that this narrative has the dramatic power to reconstitute us. Rather, it is as God the Spirit works on us through the proclamation of the Word that we are rescripted: our lives, purpose, identities, and hopes conformed to that "new world" into which the Word and Spirit give us new birth--instead of the other way around. Instead of our remaking God and his Word in terms of our experience and reason, we end up being remade--caught in the action of the divine drama.*

Some Takeaways About This Truth

This is not just high-level, un-groundable, esoteric stuff.  It's deeply applicable.  

For the worshiper:

  • It makes worship not merely experiential, emotional, or ritualistic, but formative. Worship becomes so much more deep than just getting a spiritual high or getting re-charged for a new week.  Worship becomes something that actually molds and shapes us.
  • It puts corporate worship on the top of our spiritual formation's prioritized task-list.  It throws out the window any sense of lackluster attendance, because it is our lifeline of spiritual health and centeredness, and in it are God's primary intended means of nourishing our souls.
  • It raises the stakes on active participation in corporate worship--engaging the whole self, to the best of your ability, at every moment.  Humanly speaking, there is a strong correlation between how actively we participate in worship and how formative it is. God can and does (thankfully) subvert this reality, but the truth is that the more we are engaged, the more we are shaped.

For the worship leader:

  • The stakes are raised on our worship planning. We can't just plan a fast-to-slow "worship flow" and think that we've done our due diligence.  We now have to analyze the content of that worship flow for its "remembrance-quotient."  We now have to ask ourselves, "Do the songs we sing, the prayers we pray contribute to God's proclamation of our lives being re-scripted around the identity, person, and work of Jesus Christ, or are we just vaguely emoting about and toward God?"  How much of God's script are we really disclosing to His people?  A partial plot-line?  A slide show?  A chapter?  A preview?  A trailer? God help us if our worship services are cliff notes of the gospel story.
  • The gospel of Jesus Christ moves front and center.  If the dead-center of our "remembrance" is the good news of who Christ is and what He has done, it behooves us to make EVERYTHING about worship point to that reality.  The more we move away from that, the more we contribute to our people's amnesia about who they really are.  Hear me clearly.  A sermon preached without the gospel of Jesus Christ, and a worship set planned without the gospel of Jesus Christ, regardless of how "Christian" it sounds or how "biblical" it seems, is neither Christian nor biblical because it is not ground-wired to the epicenter and source of its power--the gospel of Christ.  A gospel-less "Christian" worship service is as good and formative as a pagan service.  No gospel, no power. 

So let's remember this paradoxical truth.  We come to worship to place our attention outside of ourselves onto God, His promises, and His Triune mission of gathering the nations in to His intra-Trinitarian self-love, to the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit.  But it is precisely in the moment of forgetting ourselves and hearing that proclamation that we remember who we are--blood-bought, loved, adopted, justified sinners, completely loved by God in Christ.  And, in the midst of this remembrance of who we are, God is remaking us into who we will be.

*Michael Horton, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 52.

The Worship Leader as Sculptor of the Imagination

Wing detail from an antler-carving by Denver artist, Jake Weidmann(I love coming up with epic titles like this one.)

I believe in total depravity.  I believe that when our first parents fell, they crashed hard, scattering genetic carnage everywhere.  I believe that, though humanity is not as fully corrupted as we could possibly be, there is no part of the human person left untouched, unmarred by the scorch of sin.  It's easy to ponder the effects of total depravity on, say, our bodies, where we see systemic brokenness and decay in aging and sickness.  It's easy to ponder the effects of total depravity on our minds, as we can all confess to having evil thoughts, with even our best thoughts being a mixed bag of good and bad.  But have we ever thought about how our imagination has been corrupted by the fall?  

An decent online definition (via Google) of "imagination" is "the faculty or action of forming new ideas; the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful."  Have we ever reflected on how our creativity and resourcefulness, our idea-making faculties, have been stunted by original sin?  It makes sense, then, why truly great art is so laborious for artists.  It also makes sense, then, why this partially subconscious part of us is so prone to mal-formation by our corrupted environment.  We create, we idea-manufacture, out of our brokenness, and our imaginations are in turn shaped, rather subconsciously, by these products of our marred creativity.

What does this have to do with worship leading? As James K. A. Smith argues, the worship service can be the jumping-off-point for reshaping our desires toward kingdom ends.  But before Smith, David Fitch was writing about similar concepts, challenging our worship to be more than it is:

We just do not think in terms of defining good worship by the way that it forms people into good Christians. Instead, we look to the level of the worshiper's emotional involvement as a sign that we have worshiped God well. So when we plan our worship, we end up pursuing the arousal of emotions and the "worship experience" as an end in itself, which inevitably turns narcissistic...I wish to suggest that our worship services should be ordered so as to form our emotions and our experience into emotions and experiences that are faithful to God...

Evangelicals, however, rarely take the forming of emotions, experience, and imagination seriously. In modernist fashion, we assume these to be givens. So we structure the worship service around listening to a forty-five-minute preaching lecture that appeals to the individual mind, not one's imagination. Or we structure the worship service around singing praise and worship choruses for extended periods of time, appealing to one's stirred up emotions, not a reordering of one's emotions toward God.  In either case, the worship service can only reinforce what we already believe or feel. It cannot reshape us out of pagan experiences and emotions into the glory of God.*

It would be wrong to think of the worship leader as the ultimate sculptor of the imagination.  That is God's work, and God's alone.  He is Creator, and He is Redeemer.  He sculpts, and He refashions.  It's more precise to say that the worship leader possesses the tools--is even called by God--to be a graciously invited agent in the process of God's reclamation of our fallen imaginations.  

In this respect, the worship service must tell and retell a story--in fact, THE story--of redemption through Christ.  How well this story is engaged and explicated might very well be directly proportional to how well a worship service does in re-shaping our fallen imaginations.  Fitch and Smith are right when they warn that our culture pulsates mal-forming imagination-shaping messages, ideas, and dreams.  Do our worship services drop the bomb of the one story that sends a leveling shock wave across all these lesser dreams?  Do we not only know the story intellectually, hear the story cognitively, but also rehearse it physically, feel it emotionally (see my previous post about this), and engage it spiritually?  Does the gospel envelop us in the cosmic glory of our Triune God and captivate our imaginations such that, in the words of Charles Wesley, we're "lost in wonder, love, and praise"?

The evaluative question, then, for worship leaders, in helping to re-sculpt the imagination, is, "In how many different ways can we hear the gospel in this service?"  We can sing it in our songs.  We can pray it in our prayers.  We can receive it in preaching.  But we can also taste and see it in the Lord's Supper.  We can feel and visualize it in baptism.  And (what is often lost on evangelical worship), we can walk through it in the actual progression of content in our worship services (we often call this a "gospel-shaped liturgy").  

Something tells me that if, in our worship thinking and planning, we were to spend more time on this gospel-project, all the other things (like style, preference, cultural relevance, etc.) would much more easily fall into place.  As it is, we're often spending more time beating to death and hyper-analyzing these relatively lesser issues.  

So much is left unsaid about the mechanics of imagination-shaping, and it's a field of thought that I sense I'm just now on the edge of.  I'd be curious to see what kind of comments on the imagination-shaping front this post elicits.



*David E. Fitch, The Great Giveaway (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 96.



The Worship Leader as Emotional Shepherd

Music is intensely emotional, and worship leaders know it.  I've read plenty of articles and books that outline how worship leading takes people on an "emotional journey."  At best, these writers are encouraging worship leaders to understand how the worship service is, in a sense, a story, and that our job is to help guide people into experiencing that story with every aspect of who we are, including our emotions.  At worst, however, they are (sometimes unabashedly and explicitly) outlining a recipe for manipulation.  

The worship leader wields an intense emotional power.  From the way they present themselves (if they are viewable by the congregation) to the contour and elements of the service they plan (especially the music), they hold the ability to help mold the hearts of the people they lead, largely through the conduit of human emotion.  The question is not whether they hold this power--this sacred trust--but whether they will respond to this trust faithfully.  It's the difference between manipulation and shepherding.

Manipulation vs. Shepherding

The analogy of shepherding will be helpful in parsing out the difference between manipulation and faithful leading.  A good shepherd leads their sheep to places because he or she has a purpose in mind for the destination (away from predators or dangerous terrain, toward food and shelter, etc.), whose end is for the good health of the sheep.  Emotional manipulation in a worship service is like a shepherd leading people to certain pastures without knowing why.  Not all those pastures are necessarily the wrong place to go, but they have not fully investigated the purpose of going to that pasture.  Manipulation, at its best is "purposeless shepherding," or "partial shepherding."  A sheep-person waking up from the fog of manipulation will often first exclaim, "Wait, why am I here?"  It may be important to arrive in a worship service at the pastures of, say, joy and sorrow, but the question of why is often absent from the (most likely unintentional) manipulator.  This is one of the reasons that worship services, especially to postmodern, skeptic, young-adult Americans, feel like all hype and no substance.  

But the answer, contrary to many reactors to the emotional hype of certain forms and styles of worship, is not to get rid of the emotional journey but to rightly orient it on a faithful, well-worn path--the "ruts of righteousness" of Psalm 23.  Manipulation is about being forced.  Shepherding is about being led and guided, sometimes with an enticing, wooing voice, and sometimes with a gentle but firm rod.  Unfortunately, there are times where people mistake the rod as the forceful blow of a manipulator, as I've experienced.

Burned by Manipulation

In my short time as a worship pastor, I've encountered many people who have been burned by manipulative worship leading.  It often gets exposed when I attempt to more faithfully shepherd their emotions in the context of worship.  They respond with a lengthy, fiery email or an angry phone call.  Or, worse yet, I hear second-hand from someone else how put off they are by something I did or said in worship.  The defensive, idolatrous side of me wants to rail against them with a host of philosophical and theological arguments (a biblical theology of emotion in worship) about why they're wrong and I'm right.  But the best of me--the pastor God is forming in me--tells me that they need to be heard.  When we do get to that place of hearing (either at a coffee shop, or in my home or theirs), and the back-story of their emotional scarring is told, I am again reminded of the gravity of my job as a worship pastor in faithfully shepherding people's emotions in public worship.

Instead of expending negative energy exposing and crucifying what unhealthy emotional manipulation looks like in a worship service, I want to talk about how a worship leader guides people to experience and be nurtured in "faithful feelings" (as Matthew Elliott puts it in the title of his book).  It's all about what they are feeling and the content behind what made them feel that way.  In short, my job as a worship pastor, with regard to people's feelings, is that they experience the emotional contours of the gospel--the overwhelming glory of God, the crushing gravity of sin, and the greatness of grace.

The Emotional Contours of the Gospel

THE GLORY OF GOD.  The Psalms are full of faithful feelings responding to God's glory and power.  "Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth" (Psalm 100:1) displays one right emotional response to the glory of God--typified in the raucous act of shouting.  When I lead worship, my hope is not only that people know that God is glorious or believe that God is majestic.  I hope that they would feel it, too.  Music, as a servant of the text we sing, has the ability to engender and summon those feelings.  Certain rhythms, certain sonic colors, "describe" that glory and tap into our appropriate emotional response to that glory.  And as a pastor, knowing that music has this power, I want to shepherd people's feelings to rightly respond in that moment in body and soul, head and heart.  Some people consider this manipulation, but the difference here is that the aim of the emotional "content" is matching the aim of the propositional content.  Again, the difference between manipulation and shepherding is not about whether something led is summoning one's emotions; it is about whether something led is summoning the proper and appropriate emotions for the content of that portion of the service.  I don't want to "pump people up" at the beginning of the service.  I don't want to do some "high energy stuff" so that people "get excited." I don't want to just "warm people up" to be receptive to the sermon.  I want people to faithfully feel the glory of God, so they can, in turn, take the next step.

THE GRAVITY OF SIN.  When the glory of God is felt, the very next natural response is sorrow, and sometimes nearly panic.  When the thresholds shook, Isaiah's first response was to cry "Woe to me!...for I am a man of unclean lips" (Isa 6:5).  Feeling the glory of God, the next step was experiencing the gravity of His sin.  In a worship service, I desperately want to not only know it; I want to feel it.  And I want God's people to feel it, too.  I want them to experience the full-orbed, holistic sorrow of being a sinner in the sight of a perfect and just God.  I don't want to make people cry so that their hearts are soft and open for the go-for-the-jugular sermon.  I don't want to "get people into a certain emotional state" so that they're vulnerable for us to go in for the kill.  But I do want us to weep over our sin and feel deeply the anguish of human brokenness, so that the greatness of grace can germinate in fertile soil.

THE GREATNESS OF GRACE.  The reason we ought to be brought so low is so that we can look up to see (and feel) just how high and wide the grace of God is.  What descriptors bring out the emotions of grace?  Relief.  Joy.  Gratefulness.  Willing submission.  I don't want people to have an ecstatic experience for the sake of an ecstatic experience.  I want them to have an ecstatic experience so that they are brought to a deeper place of knowing the truth and effectual power of the gospel--and that "knowing" includes the emotions.  When you feel the gospel, you "know" and "understand" it more fully than you do when you just assent to the proposition that "Jesus died for me." 

The End Game of Faithful Emotional Shepherding

The result of a gospel-shaped emotional contour in worship is that people's feelings are rightly formed to travel a certain path, a gospel path.  And as these paths are repeatedly trodden, a Christian, in times of thirst and need, finds themselves going back to that path with instinctual swiftness, the way a deer that pants for water follows the familiar grooves in the ground toward the stream.  This is the formative power of worship's story.  The effectiveness of the Christian finding that path is at least partially related to how holistically they are engaged in the worship service, which is why it is important for the emotions to be engaged.  Metaphorically, a path becomes more well worn not only be how many times it is trodden, but by the heaviness of the one doing the treading.  So, as I'm treading, I want as much of me on that path as possible, so that the grooves get worn deeper.  I am "heavier" when my emotions are with me.  I didn't want to leave them by the side of the road several miles back because I'm scared of them getting abused.  I need all of me for this journey.  And the end game is that all of me becomes more familiar with walking the gospel path, so that in times of need, every part of me knows just where to go.  



How the Incarnation Informs Germophobia in Worship

(An exercise in random applied theology...)

Over the course of my leadership at several churches, I have had to dig deep to help pastor people through both legitimate and illegitimate concerns surrounding their germophobia.  There are two places in the worship service where these concerns most consistently arise--greeting and Communion.  When many churches practice their "greeting time," usually it involves shaking hands, sometimes holding hands, sometimes hugging.  In all these gestures, physical contact is made, and germs, bacteria, and viruses are more likely to spread.  The same is often true for many forms of Communion.  Unless the elements have been completely individualized (pre-cut, even pre-packaged) or prepared by latex-gloved hands (notwithstanding latex allergies!), they often come to the table already "tainted."  And then, when people receive the elements--picking up a cup, pulling off a piece of bread, or (buhm...Buhm...BUHHHHHM!) drinking from a common cup (!)--no doubt further germs are exchanged, increasing the likelihood of the spread of germs.  

(This is a total sidenote...but my friend, guitarist, and mandolinist, Erick Young, while studying biology in college, noted an interesting article that determined that, of all the forms of Communion, intinction [which we practice] was the one which introduced the greatest amount of germs into the elements.)

So, the question is not whether or not certain practices of worship indeed facilitate the spread of germs and sickness.  They do.  We must move on to ask, "Should we adjust or eliminate those practices for the sake of public health?"  For instance, should we encourage people to not touch each other during the greeting and just "air hug"?  Should we assign an extra elder at each communion station with hand sanitizer and ask the rest to wear gloves and surgical masks?  In all seriousness, here are the things that I consider:

1) We live in a society with a generally high value of public health.

We enjoy great medicine and world-class doctors.  We have quick access to all kinds of drugs and vitamins, and many of our cities are saturated with places to sanitize.  What a blessing!  The majority world does not know this kind of health.  So, when making a judgment call about all of this, our context is key.  I tend to think that we are generally much more healthy than most and can therefore stand to share a few germs, if greater priorities behoove us.  Of course, there are individuals with auto-immune diseases who might have to think more seriously than the rest of us average folk...but I'm speaking about us generally.

2) So much of our culture has been "de-sarxed."

Sarx is the Greek word for "flesh."  Many cultural commentators have noted that modern society is experiencing greater connectivity through technology while at the same time experiencing less and less physical, human interaction.  We're calling, texting, emailing, Facebooking, tweeting.  But human-to-human contact may be at an all-time low in Western society.  In such a climate, it may be easier for us to miss or discount the value of human-to-human physical contact, such that germ-containment might move up higher on the totem pole of values than perhaps it ought.

3) Our physical bodies matter to God.

It is a heavy-handed Greek dualism, not a biblical anthropology, that tells us that only the spirit matters.  God created the physical world and our bodies.  He will re-create both.  Though we may wrestle through philosophical questions of our core identity being physical or spiritual, our bodies are highly valued by God as being part of our identity as persons--who we are.  

Both Matt Anderson's Earthen Vessels and Valerie Hess and Lane Arnold's The Life of the Body speak amply to this issue of the value of the physical body, and they both point not only to God's creation, but Christ's incarnation, as a valuable, informative doctrine on the matter.  

4) Christ's incarnation encourages us to keep touching each other. :)

When God the Son took on flesh, the Triune Community made a profound statement about how far They would go for physical connectivity.  Christ would connect and interact with us physically, even to the point of death.  When He took on flesh, a value-judgment by God was laid bare--God cares about the physical realm.  It makes sense then that psychologists point to physical touch as a necessary part of human development and flourishing.  Physical contact is part of God's design of the way things ought to be, and the incarnation is Exhibit A.

My opinion, therefore, is that, while we can use wisdom and the best ideas that modern hygiene has to offer, there's something powerful that we would lose if we hyper-sanitized our worship practices.  It may just be me, but I actually like knowing that there are germs in the elements of Communion.  That picture serves to remind me that the Lord's Supper juxtaposes a tension of "mundane glory."  It is a mystery and life-changing encounter.  And yet it is made manifest in earthy wheat, yeast, and fruit, which are broken and crushed, as Christ was.  In a small way, too, when I share in the germs of my brothers and sisters (perhaps this sounds twisted), I symbolize (and maybe actualize) my willingness to bear their burdens (Gal 6:2), as Christ did mine (Isa 53:4).  All the more, then, not only do I need to shake hands, hug, and share in the bread and wine for my well-being in the spiritual body of Christ, I want to do so, even at a little risk to my physical health.  I want to be wise in keeping clean.  But I also want to trust God for the details as He calls me into deep, rich, life-giving, albeit dirty, community.  

So, in a society where human touch is at a painful, spiritually emaciating low, for Christ's sake (literally), don't give up the few chances we have in worship to model what the kingdom of God will look like when our Lord brings it to the fullness of consummation.


What Having a Worship-Oriented Sense of Time Does to You

James K. A. Smith, in Desiring the Kingdom, exposes how many of the structures of culture have a shaping effect on us, whether we know it or not.  We American Christians are most often used to processing the "negative influences of the world" through the grid of content, rather than form.  We rightly point out that the graphic depictions in movies (violence, sex, etc.) and the lyrics of songs--the content--have the ability to orient our souls toward depraved things. But have we processed how the forms and structures of society shape us?

Think, for instance, about time.  Our sense of time is governed by usually one of two things.  Either we "feel" time according to the January-to-December calendar year, or we "feel" it according to the summer-break-fall-kickoff routine engrained in us from the schooling system.  This sense of time shapes our decision-making and behaviors.  For instance, think of how your sense of work and rest is related to summer and fall.  Summer is a time to relax, and fall is a time to get serious.  Our cultural rhythms have very much shaped how we practice Sabbath, whether we are Jewish, Christian, or "irreligious."

Yesterday, for many Christians, was the beginning of a new year.  Did it feel like one?  For over a decade now, I've been in worship traditions that have oriented themselves around the Christian year--Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  I have to say that I think I'm about 25% there when it comes to "feeling" Christian time.  I desperately want the liturgy to sink into my bones so that my very inner annual rhythm is shaped like Jesus.  This advent, I really, really, really, want to feel what it means to long for Jesus to come.  I want to remember Christ's first advent so "hard" that this remembrance (this anamnesis) is actualized in the present and in turn becomes my longing for Christ's second real time.  I want my sense of identity, when Epiphany hits, to be grounded in the joy, wonder, and eye-blinding brightness that the wise men experienced when they saw Christ.  I hope that, during Lent, I actually feel like repenting and fasting, that I might somehow know Christ's own forty-day wilderness wandering in a more deep way.  And it's not at all that I should desire to somehow earn God's favor by orienting myself to "worship time" in this way.  It's that, with every fiber of my being, "I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection" (Philippians 3:10). 

One question often asked is, "Did Jesus have a worship-oriented sense of time?"  The answer is, yes, He most certainly did.  We forget that first century Jews were intensely liturgical beings, and therefore Jesus was.  In fact, though the first several chapters of the gospel of John are "liturgically lost" on us, they wouldn't have been so to a first century Jewish reader/hearer.  Especially in chapters 5-10, we see John being a very focused storyteller, proclaiming the message loud and clear that, as Christ participated in the Jewish festivals and practices, He was proclaiming Himself the fulfillment of them:

  • Jesus is the fulfilment of the Sabbath (John 5:1-47)
  • Jesus is the fulfilment of Passover (John 6:1-71)
  • Jesus is the fulfillment of the feast of Tabernacles/Booths (John 7:1-9:41)
  • Jesus is the fulfillment of the festival of Lights (Hanukkah) (John 10:1-42)

Much like it is with the law, Jesus didn't come to abolish believers' sense of liturgical time; He came to fulfill it.  In this sense, then, it's not just a "cool tradition" or a fun option to celebrate the Christian calendar year.  It's actually a biblical idea.  When we have a worship-oriented sense of time, we are claiming continuity of practice with the ancient believers of old.  And I'm not just talking about medieval Catholic liturgy, here.  I'm talking about the family of Abraham, into which we've been ingrafted.  When we engage the Christian year, we claim our worship kinship and lineage with the ancient Israelites who observed time around Christ, albeit cloaked and veiled.  Passover showed them Christ, the passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7).  The festival of booths pointed them of Christ, who would tabernacle with us (John 1).  Hanukkah oriented them to Christ, the light of the world (John 8:12).  So it is with us.  Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost all have the power to tatoo on the wrist of our soul a watch that says "Jesus."  God forms in us an intrinsic daytimer that says "Christ" on every page. 

For many non-liturgical folks, Advent is a gateway drug into worship-oriented time.  If you celebrate Advent intentionally, if longing for Christ starts to become you, you want more.  Advent and Christmas will wane, but you start longing for the centering, clarifying, identity-forming sense of time that was so palpable in December and early January.  That's, at least, how it was for me.  I started celebrating Advent, and soon I wanted all the other goodies.  The world's calendar seemed simultaneously more hyped and hollow, and I wanted something deep, historic, shaping, and meaningful.  

This can be yours.  But it takes practice.


Does Liturgy Work with the Poor, Illiterate, or Uneducated? 

I was recently in a friendly yet passionate dialogue with a pastor-friend of mine, for whom I have a lot of respect. We were wrestling through whether a more overt liturgy (one with readings, congregational responses and prayers, etc.) worked with more "simple" folk--people who think simply, need things simplified, and aren't attracted to high-level theological abstraction.  My friend contended that his context was one where high liturgy would not thrive because people weren't interested in heavy theology, antiquated language, and dense readings.  These "blue collar Christians" needed something simple, simple, simple.  I began asking myself the following questions: Is a more robust liturgy only appropriate for the white-collar intelligentsia?  Is liturgy unable to connect with uneducated or lower-income folks, or more simple-minded, non-doctrinaire Christians?

All this got me thinking, in particular, about a fellow pastor and missionary to Denver, Billy Waters, and the community that he serves, Wellspring Church, an Anglican parish situated in Englewood, one of the inner-ring suburbs of the Denver Metro region.  These older suburban communities are experiencing huge demographic shifts because of the gentrification occuring in central Denver.  The poor are being displaced to the first suburban layer of the city, and Wellspring is one of the churches that finds itself in the middle of this shift.  Billy and the other leaders have been faithfully following Christ and making disciples in their neighborhood for many years, now, and I shot him three questions about the above dialogue because I thought he might be able to provide a unique perspective to illumine the subject at hand.

ZH: Tell us about yourself, the church that you serve, and its worship context, including the worship service style/feel and the demographics of folks who come.

BW: The Church was planted 12 years ago. We started with about 15 people in my back yard. Our vision was/is to see fervent followers of Jesus in Englewood. From here, we desire to see a movement of new churches spring up around the Denver Metro area.  Our church and community demographics:

*Age spread at Wellspring: young families, students, singles, and a few people in their 50’s-70’s
*Socio-economics at Wellspring: diverse, though primarly blue collar
*Ethnic spread in Englewood (not yet realized at Wellspring): 75% Caucasian, 20% Hispanic, and 5% African-American

ZH: Some have said that a robustly liturgical worship service only works with intellectuals and "white-collar Christians." How does your worship context challenge that assumption?

BW: The liturgy has been, at least initially, a barrier to our illiterate population. After one or two months, however, they have it memorized. The liturgy has been tremendously formative for our homeless population and children. Many of our congregants utilize the forms in the prayers of the people as a template for their personal prayers. If you ask some of our kids what is the gospel, they will respond, "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again." Recently, a homeless woman came back from another church to give her testimony and she said that it didn’t feel like church because they didn’t have communion. There are countless examples of how liturgy has generated and formed kingdom desires. 

 When someone says, "the liturgy is a hindrance or weird," it is usually coming from people who grew up in another expression of church. We have found that those who have NO church experience think what we do is normal and that to not have liturgy is weird. These are the people we are going after. 

ZH: In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith argues that liturgy has a shaping power on people, even if at times everything isn't completely understood. How have you seen the liturgy shape people in your context?

BW: The passing of the peace challenges people to reconcile relationships. We have seen many times relationships restored at the peace and before communion. The holding of the hands and saying the Lord’s Prayer at the Table, reminds people that we are unified body. The confession screams that we are a confessing people. We have had people proclaim publically their struggle with pornography, approval, work-aholism, addiction to alcohol, prescription drugs, etc… The commissioning says we are a sent people. Any time we send someone out we do it at the commission. It is a powerful expression of mission and sentness.

All this seems to me to be a pretty powerful testimony about the power of the Church's historic worship modus operandi, regardless of someone's age or cultural or socio-economic background.  It corroborates what Smith has to say about how liturgy shapes people, sometimes without even knowing it.  Smith talks several times about liturgy's shaping effect on children and the mentally handicapped--folks who are supposedly "unable" to understand many aspects of the liturgy.  It just goes to show that repeated liturgy seeps into our soul, like water in cracks, waiting for the Holy Spirit to break us open in a Divine freeze.  The beauty of repetition is that foreign words and concepts become part of our soul's vocabulary.  Faithful, thoughtful worship "becomes" us over time. Our soul (whether blue or white collar...whatever that means, anyway) grows to the liturgy rather than the liturgy shrinking to us.