Rant 2: The So-called “Worship Wars”

While teaching a class at Trinity Western University, I gave what I thought was a brilliant lecture in which I explored the arguments of Barth and his contemporaries, and the “God is dead” theologians of their day – challenging my class to consider how the church should engage with its surrounding culture, and whether their own churches are ignoring the surrounding culture, transforming their faith to meet the culture, or translating their faith so that the culture will be able to understand it. When I asked for questions, one student raised a tenuous hand: “So… there are a bunch of old people in my church who only want to sing hymns. What should I do?”

It always seems to come down to that. One group of people wants to sing one type of song in church, while another group would rather sing a different type. Every workshop I’ve given, every class I’ve taught, every lecture I’ve delivered – someone has asked me that same question.

So here’s my response: I’m sick to death of the question.

Because it’s the wrong question.

Oh I understand why people ask it: music causes a deep, personal, emotional, and spiritual response – and music we are more familiar with adds a weight of memories to this response. Think of a song that accompanied a significant spiritual shift in your life – now imagine never being given the opportunity to sing that song again. It hurts, right?

And absolutely every church with any amount diversity at all has this problem – with varying degrees of conflict. (In fact, the problem is so pervasive, that I’ll probably have to deal with it in another blog post or two at a later date).

If this many churches deal with conflict in music choice, why is it the wrong question to ask? Because it’s a symptom question, not a disease question. It’s like asking the doctor to deal with my headaches while completely ignoring the brain tumor that’s causing them. The doctor might be able to make my headaches go away, but unless the tumor is dealt with not only will the headaches keep returning, I’m in danger of far worse.

The worship wars are not worship wars at all – they are music wars. And we can smooth over musical tastes all we want (trying to please everyone, or carving the church up into homogenous groups) – but we will still have a problem if we have no understanding of (or interest in understanding) what worship is and how to employ it in the church.

Yes, I know we still have to deal with the fact that different members of our congregations are familiar with (and love) a completely different era of songs – but please, let’s start asking questions that get at the deeper problems we have allowed to develop. If we do that, some of the symptoms may just disappear along with the disease.

The Seven Last Words of Christ: Readings for Lent

First Sunday of Lent

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”(Luke 23:34)

Jesus we come – to walk the road with you – to follow you to the cross. We prepare ourselves now to follow your footprints in the dust. To understand how you died. To understand how we die. To understand how you lived. To understand how we should live.

You forgave even those who took your hands and feet and drove nails into solid wood. Who, straining, lifted up the cross that held you and dropped it into place. You have forgiven them. When we ask for mercy, we are amazed to find that it has already been extended. You have forgiven us.

May we, in turn, forgive. Even before it is asked of us.

Second Sunday of Lent

“I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”(Luke 23:43)

Jesus we come – to walk the road with you – to follow you to the cross. We prepare ourselves now to follow your footprints in the dust. To understand how you died. To understand how we die. To understand how you lived. To understand how we should live.

In your darkest hour, you turned to reassure the man beside you – a stranger. You extended eternity to him, even as you died. When we suffer, we find your hand extended to us – we find strength in the life you give us.

May we, in turn, have the strength, even in our darkest hour, to turn to the stranger suffering beside us and extend your life to them.

Third Sunday of Lent

“Dear woman, here is your son.”(John 19:26)

Jesus we come – to walk the road with you – to follow you to the cross. We prepare ourselves now to follow your footprints in the dust. To understand how you died. To understand how we die. To understand how you lived. To understand how we should live.

You turned, in your suffering, to care for those who cared for you. You turned those you loved toward each other, and asked them to give each other the status of family. You have called us your sisters, your brothers.

May we, in turn, turn to those you love, to your church, and give them the status of family.

Fourth Sunday of Lent

“I am thirsty.”(John 19:28)

Jesus we come – to walk the road with you – to follow you to the cross. We prepare ourselves now to follow your footprints in the dust. To understand how you died. To understand how we die. To understand how you lived. To understand how we should live.

You were fully human – thirsty as you hung there, in the hot sun. You felt the urgent need of a parched throat and a dry tongue. You have quenched our thirst with your living water.

May we, in turn, choose to quench the physical thirst of others. May we, in turn, choose to quench the spiritual thirst of others.

Fifth Sunday of Lent

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”(Mark 15:34)

Jesus we come – to walk the road with you – to follow you to the cross. We prepare ourselves now to follow your footprints in the dust. To understand how you died. To understand how we die. To understand how you lived. To understand how we should live.

You were abandoned by God, alone in your suffering. You withstood what we could not, and promised to never leave or forsake us.

May we, in turn, be faithful to those around us, walking with friends and strangers through their suffering.

Palm Sunday

“It is finished!”(John 19:30)

Jesus we come – to walk the road with you – to follow you to the cross. We prepare ourselves now to follow your footprints in the dust. To understand how you died. To understand how we die. To understand how you lived. To understand how we should live.

You finished the work you came into the world to complete. You completed, and will complete, the world in which you came to work. You have completed and will complete your work in us.

May we, in turn, have the opportunity to join you in this completion. To take up your work, and to pull the yoke with you as our partner.

Good Friday

“Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!”(Luke 23:46)

Jesus we come – to walk the road with you – to follow you to the cross. We prepare ourselves now to follow your footprints in the dust. To understand how you died. To understand how we die. To understand how you lived. To understand how we should live.

After all. After everything. After the pain, the rejection, the sorrow – you entrusted your spirit to your heavenly father. Although you felt the forsakenness of sin in its fullest, you trusted your father. Now you entrust us to your heavenly Father – sitting at his right hand, and interceding for us.

May we, in turn, trust. May we learn the extent of your faithfulness. May we trust ourselves to you.

Easter Sunday

Jesus we come – to walk the road with you – to follow you to the cross. We prepare ourselves now to follow your footprints in the dust. To understand how you died. To understand how we die. To understand how you lived. To understand how we should live.

You consented to take on human weakness, being born as a baby. You healed the sick, gave hope to the poor, and freed the captives. You suffered sickness, and pain, and oppression. You were arrested. You were beaten. You were nailed to a cross. And you died. But then.

Oh but then.

After a long, dark wait – light conquered darkness.

Belated Anticipation

My Christmas tree is still up. I’m ashamed to admit this, considering the liturgical season of Christmas finished a week ago. It is, however, but a symptom of a larger problem: how to live in the present liturgical season while reflecting on the previous season and planning for the coming one. It’s an issue that every worship leader faces, in one way or another.

So Christmas is over, Epiphany flew by, we’re now in Ordinary Time, and preparing for Lent. This cycle, I’m discovering, can be exhausting – even for the most experienced of us. I’m discovering that celebrating the Christian calendar (especially in a church that does not have historical liturgies on which to draw) requires incredible organization and foresight, not to mention ninja multi-tasking skills. And that’s when the rest of life doesn’t impinge itself on your planning and reflection process.

So – not only is my Christmas tree still up, but my church plans for Ordinary Time are unfinished, I haven’t reflected on Epiphany, and I haven’t even begun my personal plan of reading through the gospels starting last week. I’m tired. And lately this constant pressure to follow the Liturgical schedule feels heavy. I feel as if I’m on a treadmill with no emergency cord.

Yet, even as I feel stress gathering in my shoulders, and panic breathing down my neck, I’m aware that something beautiful is happening. The edges of each season are blurring, and the connections between them are becoming clearer.

Christmas, divine celebration of Christ’s birth, is essential to our understanding of the revelation of God (the Epiphany). God reveals himself to us in many ways, but the key way in which we know who God is, and how he behaves, is found in his Son, and the way he lived as one of us. And as I begin my plans for Lent, I discover that the key way in which God is revealed through Christ is in his death and resurrection – that God would become a servant (Christmas); choose to heal the sick, free the captive, and serve the poor (Ordinary Time); and submit to death (Lent) is a profound revelation indeed (Epiphany).

These are connections that were made by theologians long ago – and I have known them for years – but the belated anticipation of each season that I’m experiencing this year (as I reflect, and live, and plan for each season) is making them come to life. If I can live, somehow, with my feet planted in the present season, and my arms stretched between the previous and the coming seasons, if I can facilitate this stretched-out-way-of-life for my congregation, I think we will come to know Christ better. I think we will learn to know ourselves better.

So no, I’m not keeping up. I’m running back and forth like a maniac. But maybe that’s a good thing.

Advent Carols

We all know which carols to pull out for Christmas, but which carols do we turn to if we really want to observe Advent rather than start our Christmas celebrations early?

Of course the two classics that are already familiar to most congregations are: “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” They work as Advent carols because they convey the sense of waiting and preparation that Advent entails. “Come” is the dominant word and theme, and these carols evoke both Israel’s longing for the Messiah, and our own longing for Christ to return and make all things new.

Other traditonal Advent hymns incude Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending, here sung by the Lichfield Cathedral Choir. T, Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding, and Rejoice, Rejoice Believers. These hymns speak of Christ’s second coming, and call us to prepare ourselves for his return. On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry calls us to confess our sins and prepare, once again, to welcome Christ.

Lest you feel that only hymn-singing congregations can celebrate Advent, however, allow me to recommend a few songs that, while not traditionally sung during Advent, certainly belong within a season of pain, waiting and longing. Laurell Hubick’s song Lift (unfortunately, all I have in the link to itunes, if anyone has chords, music, or a video for this song, please post it in comments) is a gentle way to enter into the disparity between what our world is, and what it should be, while still singing praise. Stephen Toon’s Even Though has a similar feel.

I would also commend to you a song that I found last year, when trolling through “holiday” music on itunes. It is an old carol that was traditionally used by beggars as Christmas approached, as a way of encouraging passersby to give more freely. It’s a haunting and repetative melody, and the lyrics are strongly moralistic, for which it has been criticised. As an Advent carol, however, it contains a confessional element (or a call to confession) that is very helpful in preparation for Christmas. I refer you here to Steve Winwood’s interpretation of the carol, but there is also a lovely acapella version by the The Watersons. The lyrics follow. Steve Winwood: “Christmas Is Now Drawing Near at Hand”

Christmas is now drawing near at hand
Come serve the Lord and be at His command
And God a portion for you will provide
And give a blessing to your soul besides
Down in the garden where flowers grow in ranks
Down on your bended knees and give the Lord thanks
Down on your knees and pray both night and day
Leave off your sins and live upright I pray
So proud and lofty is some sort of sin
Which many take delight and pleasure in
Whose conversation God doth much dislike
And yet He shakes His sword before He strike
So proud and lofty do some people go
Dressing themselves like players in a show
They patch and paint and dress with idle stuff
As if God had not made ’em fine enough
Even little children learn to curse and swear
And can’t rehearse one word of godly prayer
Oh teach them better, oh teach them to rely
On Christ the sinner’s friend who reigns on high

Advent Liturgies, 2011

Most of the scripture passages are taken from the lectionary. The other words I wrote in the hope that they will help our community to be honest about the darkness in which we wait – but also will encourage anticipation for Christ’s coming. So often we seem to think he could hold off a bit (until we reach a certain goal, or achieve a certain experience), but the reality is that we need him now – our world needs him now.

If you wish, you could repeat these readings and prayers each day, as a personal means of experiencing Advent. Light a candle. Create some space. And add to these words your own prayers for our world, for your community, and for yourself.

Week 1, Sunday, November 27: HOPE

Reading 1: Psalm 80:1-7; 17-19

Reading 2: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Lighting of the Candle: We light this candle as a symbol of Israel’s hope for a Saviour, fulfilled in Christ. We light this candle as a symbol of our hope that Christ might enter each of our lives and transform us. We light this candle as a symbol of our hope that Christ will return and make all things new. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Prayer: Dear Lord, we are surrounded by darkness. When we look at our world we see famine, injustice, and war. When we look at our community we see loneliness, sorrow, and pain. When we look at our own lives we see sin, fear, and shame. We are surrounded by darkness. But you, Jesus, are the morning star. The star that appears when night is at its darkest—and heralds the morning. Come, Lord Jesus, and awaken our hope. Come, Lord Jesus, and light our darkness. Come, Lord Jesus, and restore us, restore our community, restore our world. Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Congregation Sings: verse one only of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (no chorus).

Week 2, Sunday, December 4: LOVE

Reading 1: 2 Peter 3:8-15

Reading 2: Isaiah 40:1-11

Lighting of the Candle: We light this candle as a symbol of God’s love for us, for our community, and for our world. We light this candle in the understanding that we continue to live in darkness, because God desires to bring light more abundantly. We light this candle as a symbol of our love, which provides light to the world through the Spirit of Christ, as we wait for him to return and make all things new. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Prayer: Dear Lord, we are surrounded by darkness. We don’t understand why you allow famine and sickness. We don’t understand why you allow injustice and war. We don’t understand why you allow loneliness and pain. We are surrounded by darkness. But we understand that you love us. We see evidence of that love in the air we breathe, in the beauty we see, in the community you have given us, and especially in the gift of your son, Jesus Christ. Even as we long for your coming, we are thankful that your love holds it at bay—that more may come to you. As we wait, help us to extend your love to others. Come, Lord Jesus, and love beyond our understanding. Come, Lord Jesus, and let your tenacious love transform us, transform our community, transform our world. Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Congregation Sings: verse one and two only of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (no chorus).

Week 3, Sunday, December 11: JOY

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Isaiah 61:1-4, 10-11

Lighting of the Candle: We light this candle as a symbol of the joy we have in Christ. We light this candle in celebration of the good news we have received, and the good news that is surely coming. We light this candle in anticipation of the joy we will experience when Christ returns to make all things new. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Prayer:  Dear Lord, we are surrounded by darkness. Our joy is tempered by tears of sorrow. Our joy is tempered by pain and confusion. Our joy is tempered by news of the world’s despair. We are surrounded by darkness. But even in the midst of darkness, our joy cannot be repressed. For you have come to free the captive. You have come to make the blind see, and the deaf hear. You have come to bring peace to the nations. You have come to give sustenance to the poor, and to provide justice for the oppressed. Come, Lord Jesus, and teach us joy beyond circumstance. Come, Lord Jesus, and give us reason to rejoice. Come, Lord Jesus, so that our joy may be abundant, spilling from our mouths to light our community, and even our world. Come, Lord Jesus, Come!

Congregation Sings: verse one, two, and three only of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (no chorus).

Week 4, Sunday, December 18: PEACE

Reading 1: Isaiah 9: 2-7

Reading 2: Colossians 1:15-20

Lighting of the Candle:  We light this candle as a symbol of the peace given to us by Jesus Christ, our Lord. We light this candle as a symbol of our unity as the body of Christ, and in the hope of greater unity yet to come. We light this candle, in a world tainted by war, as a proclamation that the God of peace will bring justice and peace to every shore. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Prayer: Dear Lord, we are surrounded by darkness. When we look at our world we see hatred and war. When we look at our community we see anger and broken families. When we look at ourselves we see selfishness and discontentment. We are surrounded by darkness. But you, the light of life, have come to bring us peace—a peace that passes understanding, as we wait in our war-torn world for the light of your righteousness. Come, Lord Jesus, and heal our broken nations. Come, Lord Jesus, and heal our broken families. Come, Lord Jesus, and heal our broken hearts. Fill us with your peace. Come, Lord Jesus, Come!

Congregation Sings: verse one, two, three, and four only of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (no chorus).

Christmas: Sunday December 25 (or Saturday December 24); repeat on Sunday, January 1

Reading 1: Psalm 98

Reading 2: John 1:1-14

Reading 3: Titus 2:11-14

Lighting of the Candle: We light this candle as a symbol of our hope in Christ (light first candle). We light this candle as a symbol of Christ’s love for us (light second candle). We light this candle as a symbol of the joy we find in Christ (light third candle). We light this candle as a symbol of the peace of Christ (light fourth candle). And we light this candle in thankfulness for a creator who consented to become part of creation, so that we might know him better. We light this candle, rejoicing in the light of life that has broken into the darkness of the world. We light this candle, proclaiming that Christ has come, and that Christ is coming. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Prayer: Dear Lord, we are surrounded by light. We do not deny the darkness that still lays hold of our world, of our community, of our lives—but we recognize that your light is greater. Your hope is stronger. Your love is wider. Your joy is deeper. Your peace is more substantial. We welcome you here. We rejoice over the unimaginable mystery of your incarnation with Simeon and Anna. We sing for joy over field and city with the angels. We kneel by your humble cradle with the shepherds. You have come. And everything is different. May we draw nearer to you this Christmas. May we share your hope. May we extend your love. May we be filled with your joy. May we experience your peace. Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Congregation Sings: All of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” including the choruses!

Advent, Not Christmas

Besides Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter, Advent is probably the most widely celebrated Christian season – or is it? As the weather gets colder, and the snow finally sticks to the ground, our thoughts turn to… Advent?

Each year on November 1st (Canadian storekeepers seem to feel that they can leap over Rememberance Day straight to Christmas – orange and black come down and red and green go up), the glitz, glitter, and glorias break out in every store. Every piped-in song contains the tuneless rhythm of “jingle bells,” and every available retail space is crammed with tinsle, trees, lights, and the latest Christmas trend (this year it seems to be “shoe ornaments”). The commercial world wants us to skip right past any sense of waiting and run full steam ahead for the holiday of holidays: Christmas.

I’m not about to compare churches to retail frenzies (although in some cases there are, perhaps, comparisons to be made). What I am about to do is to bemoan the fact that the church, too, hops directly over Advent and into Christmas.

For most churches, especially those that don’t follow the habits and traditions of the liturgical year, when we decorate the church three to four weeks before Christmas we are beginning a long-drawn-out celebration of Christmas, rather than beginning the season of Advent. We put up our trees and lights. We start singing Christmas carols. We begin (sometimes) hearing sermons about Christmas. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with any of these activities. It’s just that there’s something missing.

Christmas is a season of triumph and joy. We rejoice in the coming of our King; we rejoice in the knowledge that God lowered himself, and took the position of a human baby so that we might know him better. Advent, by contrast, is a time of sober reflection and preparation. Advent is the experience of waiting with Israel for the Christ – and waiting together as the church for the second coming of Jesus. It’s the fast that makes the feast taste extra good.

What are we missing when we skip over Advent?

The fast before the feast, yes – but also something else. Advent gives us the opportunity to tell God that things are still not right down here. We weep over the state of the world; we bring to God those things in our own lives that aren’t right. Advent establishes in the people of God a renewed sense of longing for Christ’s second coming – for the day when all things shall be renewed under the lordship of Christ. As we wait with Israel, we feel some of Israel’s pain and desperation – and we join our own pain and desperation to it. We see oppression, war, and hunger in the world and we acknowledge that this is not the way things should be, that this is not God’s intention for the world. We stand in the face of injustice, sorrow, and sickness and say: “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

Christmas contains none of this longing, and rightly so. Christmas is pure celebration of the fact that Christ has come – but our celebration will ring false if we don’t first acknowledge, through Advent, that we desperately need him to come again.

Why Bono and the Band Are Some of the Best Worship Leaders of Our Time

Bono and The Edge on June 1, 2011, in Edmonton

When I attended my first U2 concert a little over a year ago, I was startled to discover midway through the concert that I was praying aloud. Three weeks ago, as I again experienced U2 360, this time in Edmonton, I had the same experience of vacillating between a rock concert and a worship service. I’ve been to a lot of concerts, some Christian musicians, most not, but no matter how much I enjoyed them, I don’t think I ever felt like praying out loud – I definitely didn’t do so.

(Big aside: I realize that, in calling U2 worship leaders, I’m raising all kinds of “worship of what” flags for you. I know that not all fans of U2 are Christians [a brief survey of the crowd in my immediate vicinity on June 1st would have told me that, if I didn’t already know], and Bono obviously did not lead 65,000 people to Christ at Commonwealth Stadium on a warm Wednesday night in Edmonton. Now let’s move on.)

I’ve spent much of my time between June 1st and June 21st wondering why U2 concerts sometimes, if not always, become worship experiences (and getting way too fascinated by set lists, thus delaying this post almost inexcusably). Here’s what I have come up with: 5 reasons Bono and U2 are some of the greatest worship leaders of our time:

  1. FAITH: The band clings to Christian faith, as can be seen in their lyrics, in their music, and in the way they use their music and their fame. I have heard all the arguments about lifestyle, mistakes made, hoarding wealth, and buying into superstardom – to some extent I sympathise with these arguments. I don’t feel any need defend the band’s behaviour, but I think it’s fair to say that they have clung to Christ through the maelstrom of fame. It may be a beleaguered faith, a limping faith, a faulted and pock-marked faith – but it is faith nonetheless. And which of us, honestly, can say that our own faith is smooth and pristine?
  1. PREPARATION: U2’s set-lists are carefully crafted. The band never hesitates, never misses a beat – the audience is pulled from song to song through one beautiful transition after another. And these transitions are not just musically smooth, their content adds deeper layers of meaning to surrounding material, and provides fresh perspective on old songs. I don’t have space to dig into the details of set-lists, but after my research I am more convinced than ever that an incredible amount of time and effort goes into the planning of a single U2 concert. The audience is guided carefully from start to finish, and by the end of the concert they are no longer in exactly the same relationship – to each other, to the band, or to the world – as they were when the concert started. To phrase it with a more liberal spreading of cheese: Bono and the band take the crowd on a journey.

    Bono breaks the stage/audience barrier

  1. CONNECTION: I have never seen anyone connect with an audience the way Bono does, and I’m speaking specifically of Bono now (it’s hard to imagine Adam, for example, fully engaging with the crowd). Bono throws himself, heart and soul, into each concert he plays and, for that span of time, he belongs to that crowd. There’s no other way to describe it. I was privileged, for my first two U2 concerts, to be right in the pit, 3-4 people back from the stage, front and center. It was a great location from which to observe the extent of Bono’s relationship with the crowd. He is so connected that he will shift in mid-stride to keep up with the audience. Because of this, he lingers when the crowd needs to linger; he moves on when the crowd is done. He connects personally with individuals in the pit: pointing and waving at people, looking people in the eye, singing to people rather than at them. He connects with the wider audience by playing to the cameras. He is constantly finding unique ways to break the barrier between stage and audience: swinging out over the crowd, throwing things into the pit, using bridges and 360 stages, and pulling people up on stage… (it embarrasses me to say this, but his connection to the crowd is such that I am personally convinced that he winked at me during the concert on June 1st). By connecting intimately with his audience, Bono ensures that they not only watch the concert, but feel that they are participants.
  1. ATTENTIVENESS: Bono is not only connected to the crowd, he seems extraordinarily attentive to the Spirit during his concerts. I know there is no way I can establish this as fact, beyond a shadow of a doubt, but here are my observations. At times, during a concert, Bono will simply stand with his eyes closed, sometimes with his arms in the air, sometimes with his lips moving. Almost inevitably, this signals a change. The band will continue playing the same chord progression and, after a brief while, Bono begins to sing something different, repeating a phrase of an earlier song, or one he just finished, or the upcoming song, or something else entirely. He sings in a slightly irregular rhythm, or changes the melody just slightly. The crowd quiets, and becomes more attentive. And then something shifts. I have no other words for it, and cannot describe it more concretely than that. Sorry. I can merely say that I am convinced that, in those moments, Bono is seeking and receiving the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  1. RESPONSE: Whether or not you like U2’s blatant promotion of social justice (some would say bullying toward), you have to admit that the band puts together a pretty strong call to action. Every audience at a U2 show expects and receives a great experience. Every audience leaves feeling pumped up. And absolutely every audience knows what they are expected to go out and do after the concert. Make the world a better place. Give the future a big kiss. Get involved.

So… why do these five elements make U2 one of the best worship bands of our time?

  • FAITH every worship leader/band should have. That’s a given.
  • Good PREPARATION, is essential (read my rant on the topic). U2’s careful attention to transitions helps to guide the congregation from one song to another, from one part of the service to another.
  • Bono’s CONNECTION with the congregation ensures that congregation members are involved as participants rather than merely as audience.
  •  By being ATTENTIVE to the Spirit as he leads, Bono is able not only to shift with the congregation, but to move them according to the Spirit.

But what I’m most impressed with, and what I feel is most lacking in our worship leading – what U2 does successfully over, and over, and over again – is to lead their audience in a RESPONSE. They consistently answer, strongly and clearly, the question: now what?

All too often in our worship services we are content to sing one more song of praise and then “dismiss” the congregation – as if school is over for the day. Even school children get homework.

What is the point of a weekly worship service? To encourage one another, yes. To hear the word of God, certainly. To teach and be taught, no doubt. But what we so often miss is that a worship service should send people out. Should call people to do something.

Not every person at a U2 concert comes away with a deeper love for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some people there will inevitably be worshiping other gods (perhaps Bono or the band; perhaps the god of social action or left-wing politics). But every single person will leave knowing the answer to the question: “what now?” How many people will leave your service this week knowing what difference the word of God, the people of God, the Spirit of God, the three-personed God should make in their daily lives? How many people will leave your service this week having been called to love God and neighbour with the choices they make? How many people will leave asking “now what?” and how many will have the answer, and therefore be equipped to fulfill God’s mission in the world?

June 1, 2011, Edmonton

Rant 1: “Just Throw a Few Songs Together”

A couple of months into my first job as music director of a church, I called a guest preacher to ask about his text and the substance of his message for the upcoming Sunday. “Oh I don’t know,” he answered. “Just throw a few songs together, it’ll be fine.”

Thus begins the first post in a series I will simply call my “rants.” My former housemates used to (more than) occasionally roll their eyes and say “here comes the rant,” when they recognized one of my triggers. I will refrain, in these posts, from digressing into my standard rants about things like Hertz Rent-a-Car, land use policies (or lack thereof), and dog owners who think their dog is God’s gift to everyone. Since this blog is intended to be focused on worship theology, I will limit myself to worship-associated rants. I will also do my best to write as I see it, rather than censoring myself to avoid ruffling feathers. Feel free to air ruffled feathers in your comments.

(Never use Hertz Rent-a-Car.)

Having just said I would be happy to ruffle a few feathers, I’m now going to offer a caveat or three before I launch into this first rant:

  1. I believe strongly in the work of the Holy Spirit. Certainly the Holy Spirit can move powerfully through a few songs “thrown together.” Certainly the Holy Spirit can move powerfully as I plan with little or no information about what the rest of a service will look like.
  2. I realize that preachers are perhaps not used to the types of questions that I ask before planning a worship service. The response of “just throw a few songs together” is sometimes given because a preacher feels I’m asking for information he or she can’t provide at the moment, rather than because the preacher feels that worship should be planned in this way.
  3. Although I have heard the above words far too frequently there are, of course, a myriad of preachers (and others) who place a high value on congregational worship, and who have an astute sense of the time and effort that goes into planning a worship service.

Alright. Caveats over – gloves off.

My biggest concern about “just throwing a few songs together” is the underlying assumption that this is all worship is. It is a dangerous and potentially damaging assumption. As stated in my post on Subliminal Liturgy, gathered worship forms our congregations (thinking of the service as a whole now, with music acting as one part of that whole): it forms our behaviour inside the church and outside; forms the way we think about God; forms the way we think about the world; forms the way we think about ourselves. If we treat any part of our gathered worship lightly, we are in danger of shaping our congregation passively (at best) and negatively (at worst). There is nothing in scripture that leads me to believe we are to treat the worship of God lightly or casually.

So “throwing a few songs together” implies a dangerous attitude toward worship, but – if I’m honest – it’s the implied lack of respect for worship leaders and the work they do that gets under my skin and rankles. It takes hours and hours to research/write/deliver a sermon. I know this to be true because I’ve done it myself. Most members of a congregation will affirm the amount of time it takes to preach a good sermon. What drives me absolutely batty is that those same understanding individuals, and often the pastor as well, while agreeing that the sermon is a time consuming and important task, think it’s a matter of minutes to put together the rest of the service. Choose a few of your favourite songs; throw them up in the air; see how they land; and then just get up there and play. (Note to readers: Please congratulate me on my forbearance in not using strong language here.)

It generally takes me 10-20 hours to research (yes, research)/plan/practice/lead a service. Other worship leaders will take more or less time, depending on their process and (sorry if this sounds overly frank/harsh) on the value they themselves place on the act of gathered worship, and on the task they have been given. Since I realize the above estimation of time may be surprising to some, and therefore will demand some justification, I thought I’d share my planning process with you.

How to plan a worship service in 10-20 hours:

  • Speak to the preacher, generally asking four questions: what text are you preaching from; where do you plan to start; where do you plan to finish; and is there any specific response you feel this passage requires from the congregation.
  • Read the passage and its context several times, preferably aloud.
  • Work through a mini-exegetical process focusing on the following questions: how is the original audience led up to this point; what is the text communicating; what does the text say about God; about the church; about us as individuals; what kind of response does this text demand from God’s people?
  • Spend time in prayer, asking God to reveal his word both in the text itself, and through the Spirit (speaking a particular word to a particular congregation at a particular time).
  • Begin to pull songs – anything that rests briefly on, leads to, or provides response for the thoughts and ideas that are now circulating.
  • Spread songs out and begin to group them, tracing themes and working through how a congregation might be led up to the particular word of God that will be preached. Keep in mind the standard elements of the service which must be included (congregational prayer, announcements, kids message, offering, etc.), and note which songs might provide an opportunity for the congregation to respond fittingly.
  • Begin to play through some of these groupings, determining how songs fit together musically and thematically. Note where additional transition might be needed and how songs can be fit together in such a way that they add meaning to each other.
  • Consider additional elements: write a spoken liturgy or prayer; determine what participation children will have in the service; determine if there is an additional biblical text that compliments the sermon text, or adds an additional layer of meaning; examine transition points to determine how best to lead the congregation through them (scripture, prayer, liturgical reading, musical shift, etc.)
  • Write out an order of service, complete with who will be leading the various elements, and how they will fit together.
  • Practice the service as a whole to ensure timeliness, to affirm that the service will assist people to move from one place to another (rather than simply circling a theme), to map out any difficult musical transitions, and to match musicality to meaning.
  • Ensure that details are in place: correct words available to congregation; necessary participants on board; ensure participants are informed of their part in the service and how it fits into the rest; ensure that all needed objects (music, decorative elements, readings, additional instruments etc.) are printed out/gathered.
  • Practice with others (if there are additional musicians), paying special attention to transitions and tone.
  • Lead congregation through the service.

Maybe I’m a bit of an anomaly. Maybe I take things a bit too seriously. But I don’t think so. I think we are intended to treat the worship of God with careful consideration, with respect, with joy, giving it the weight of our time and effort. Giving it the weight that it is given in scripture.

God’s set-up of Israel’s worship of him is not a brief and un-detailed “throwing together of songs.” It spans chapter after chapter of text. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 1/3 of the Torah (first five books of the OT, Israel’s founding text and therefore ours) is concerned, in one way or another, with how God’s people do, do not, or should worship him. God’s set-up of Israel’s worship involves complex structures, rituals, and planning; involves careful attention to detail and joyful contribution of time, resources, and effort; involves careful reading of surrounding culture and avoidance of cultural worship practices that would lead God’s people astray.

Surely, then, our own worship, our own planning, should be more than “throwing a few songs together.” Not only can we do better than that – if we are to follow God’s ways with his people as portrayed throughout scripture – we must.