Five Ways to Improve Congregational Singing

By Keith Getty

“My wife, Kristyn, and I recently returned from a tour where we had the privilege of sharing our music in cities across North America. As we do on our tours, we partnered with most of our concert sponsors to host a lunch and time of discussion with local pastors, worship leaders, and other church musicians.

In each of those leadership events, I posed the question, “What are the things you ask yourself on Monday morning, in reviewing Sunday’s services?” Generally, the responses centered around production values, stylistic issues, people management, pleasing the pastor, or finishing the service on time. I do not recall that any one asked, “How did the congregation sing?”

It seems curious that in a generation that has produced innumerable conferences, articles, blogs, and even university degree programs on “worship,” the topic of congregational singing hasn’t been raised more often.  But even if we had been discussing congregational participation, would we know what goal we’re aiming to hit each week?

I do not pretend to be qualified to write a theological treatise on this particular subject. Congregational singing is a holy act, and as I organize my thoughts, I hear my old pastor, Alistair Begg, reminding me that in our song worship, we have to be spiritually alive (dead people don’t sing), spiritually assisted (through the enabling of the Holy Spirit), and spiritually active (committed to daily walking with the Lord).

I offer here some practical advice on strengthening our congregational singing, drawn from both our experience as musicians and also what we have seen and learned in our travels.

1. Begin with the pastor.

Look at any congregation not engaged in worship through singing and the most consistent correlation is a senior pastor equally as disengaged. Ultimately the buck stops with him in congregational worship.

Every pastor must be intimately involved in the language being placed in the congregation’s mouth, for that singing ultimately affects how they think, how they feel, how they pray, and how they live. The congregation should be treated as those who have been invited to a feast at the table of the King; don’t hand them junk food! C. S. Lewis believed singing completes our faith, explaining in his book Reflections on the Psalms, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” This is why I believe many of our pastoral heroes such as Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle, and Philip Schaaf produced hymn books in addition to preaching and teaching. Other leaders such as Horatius Bonar, Richard Baxter, and John Calvin wrote hymns themselves.

Pastors not only have a duty to be involved in preparing for the time of congregational singing, they also have a responsibility to personally model and demonstrate the importance of it. We need pastors who constantly delight in their congregation’s singing and the musicians who serve them and who also joyfully and authentically participate themselves.

Pastors, take up your duty in this act of worship called congregational singing. Worship leaders, pray for your pastor faithfully and do your part to develop a thriving relationship with him. The most influential worship leaders in history have almost always had close (though often tense) relationships with their pastors.

2. Sing great songs.

If congregational singing is a holy act, and if we are what we sing, then we can’t be lazy in selecting songs. We must sing great songs—songs that artfully exult Christ with deeply meaningful lyrics and melodies we can’t wait to sing. Better to have a small repertoire of great songs (that you will sing well) than a catalog full of songs recycled for sentimental reasons or chased after because they are the “latest” thing.

Writing or selecting great songs is not an exercise in lyrical propaganda or marketing. It is not merely laying scriptural truth alongside any melody. It is an art form that arrests our emotions and intellect in mysterious ways. Just as a master chef selects ingredients that are at the same time nutritious, aromatic, and flavorful, the selection of songs for congregational singing must excite at a number of levels.

Great songs have stood the test of time. They have been passed on to us from our fathers, and we should pass them along to our children. Assemble any Christian group, and practically everyone can join you in singing “Amazing Grace” confidently and passionately. We’re drawn to sing great music, much like we’re drawn to stand in awe of a beautiful painting.

There are great new songs—they breathe fresh air into our singing and help connect age-old truth with modern sounds. These are appropriate, too, though harder to find.

Recently I invited two unbelieving friends to a Christian event. The artists on stage played songs with interesting lyrics but awful melodies. I asked my friends what they thought about the concert. “These people obviously don’t take their subject matter very seriously,” one friend replied. Now, I know for a fact this is not true. But art ultimately expresses life, and low-quality songs do not reflect spirited, serious believers.

3. Cultivate a congregation-centered priority in those who lead.

From the individual who leads music, to the worship teams standing up front, to those of us who follow as members of the congregation, it’s vital to build a culture where everyone realizes our corporate responsibility before God and to each other is to sing together. Throughout Scripture, the command to sing is given to God’s people more than 400 times. Ephesians 5:19 instructs believers to address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Week after week, we are spiritually renewed, realigned, and sanctified by singing to the Lord and singing to each other as the body of Christ.

Sadly, some of the churches with the newest facilities and most forward-thinking pastors are weakened substantially by lackluster congregational singing. It is an awful witness for outsiders to watch believers so disinterested in singing to their Creator and Redeemer.

Many of our common challenges—the overly exuberant drummer, the diva-like background vocalist, the subversive choir member, or an unhealthy priority on performance—can be corrected when we teach and encourage those involved in our music to be excited about using their many rich and colorful gifts for the purpose of supporting the congregation. Every singer, instrumentalist, and choir member should share in facilitating the high calling of congregational singing.

4. Serve the congregation through musical excellence.

Scripture often commands us to make music that is both good and excellent. For example, Psalm 33 tells to both “shout for joy in the Lord” and also play our instruments “skillfully” (verse 3). This instruction is consistent with our calling as believers to work heartily at whatever we do, as for the Lord and not men (Colossians 3:23). The music need not be complex or style-specific, but we must take seriously our role in such holy activity. This leadership requires people who are trained and well-prepared. As with all work that involves creativity (whether preaching, mothering, or running a business), we should constantly seek to be fresh, interesting, and connected with our congregations. Listen to new music, arrangements, and sounds. Examine our heritage of liturgies for insight to ordering the song service. Reach across the aisle, meeting with leaders from different churches and denominations to learn about their music selections.

In scoring for films, the composer and performers use all of their musical excellence in service of the story. In similar fashion, the singers and musicians should bring to bear their musical excellence in service of the congregation. There is no dichotomy between musical excellence and congregational worship provided the excellence is given in service of the congregation.

5. Manage the congregation’s repertoire intentionally.

Having progressed in each of the areas above and putting them into regular practice in services, be intentional about what is sung and when. Don’t treat your library of congregational choices like selecting “shuffle” on you iPod. Instead, be intentional in ordering the service, heeding Eric Alexander’s caution that congregational praise begins with God and his glory, not man and his need. Ask why you are singing at a given point in the service, and be sure that the selection for that moment is appropriate. Also, learn from the rich heritage of liturgy and how it provides a pathway of ordering songs for a service.

And finally . . .

Why not in 2014 begin the Monday morning review by asking, “How did the congregation sing?” and, “How can we help them do it better?” Starting here, we may find that the other questions begin to resolve themselves.”

-Keith & Kristyn Getty, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgcworship/2014/02/18/five-ways-to-improve-congregational-singing/

Annoying Things in Worship Songs

A classic from Jeremy Pierce:

Here are some of the things I really hate in a worship song.

1. Too simplistic, banal, lacking in depth, shallow, doctrineless: Consider that one that just talks about unity among brothers that only mentions God in passing at the very end.

2. It’s so repetitive. I mean, come on, how many times can you repeat “His steadfast love endures forever” before you start thinking the song is going to go on forever? Examples: here and here.

3. For some songs, the focus is too much on instruments, and the sheer volume leads to its seeming more like a performance than worship and prevents quiet contemplation.

4. There might be too much emphasis on too intimate a relationship with God, using first-person singular pronouns like “me” and “I” or second-person pronouns like “you” instead of words like “we” and “God.” This fosters a spirit of individualism, and it generates an atmosphere of religious euphoria rather than actual worship of God. Worship should be about God, not about us. Or what about the ones that use physical language to describe God and our relationship with him? Can you really stomach the idea of tasting God?

5. Some songs have way too many words for anyone to learn.

6. It patterns its worship on experiences that not everyone in the congregation will be able to identify with. If you’re not in the frame of mind or don’t have the emotional state in question (e.g., a desperate longing for God), then what are you doing lying and singing it? Worship leaders who encourage that sort of thing are making their congregations sing falsehoods.

7. Then there’s that song with the line asking God not to take the Holy Spirit away, as if God would ever do that to a genuine believer.

8. Then there’s that song that basically says nothing except expressing negative emotions.

9. Finally, there are those songs that have like four or five lines that people just either have to repeat over and over again or just sing briefly and never get a chance to digest.

At this point I’m so outraged that people would pass this sort of thing off as worship that I’m almost inclined to give in to the people who think we shouldn’t sing anything but the psalms.

Oh, wait. . . .

-Jeremy Pierce, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2014/02/11/annoying-things-in-worship-songs/

Worship and the Davidic Kings

“In the Old Testament no credence is given to kingship which does not share the character of obedient sonship, whether this be in the kingship Psalms or in the wider kingship theology of the Old Testament. The king was Yahweh’s ‘beloved’, the son of his choosing and the object of his gracious affections. In response, the kings of Israel were to love the Lord and his Law, and lead the nation in covenantal faithfulness to him. They were to shepherd the nation with integrity of heart (so Ps. 78:70-72 cf. I Kings 9:4f.), and to walk in humble worship and adoration before the Creator God who had adopted Israel as his son, and appointed them to rule over this chosen nation….

It also laid upon the king covenant obligations to walk in obedience to the Lord, such obedience being particularly emphasized in the matter of worship. Such worship would be faithful to Yahweh’s covenant Law, as expressed externally in theTemple, but as known internally in the attitude of a humble and obedient heart (cf. Ps. 51:17)….

Thus one of the prime aspects of his shepherd/guardian role over Israel was the preservation of true worship…including the removal of the high places and the promotion of true worship in the Temple. The reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah are particularly commended in this regard…

In short: where the kings of Israel led the nation in true worship of Yahweh, blessing was the result, and their reigns were commended in the writings of the former prophets. Where they refused to lead the nation in their covenantal obligations regarding worship, they and the nation reaped the curses of God’s judgment. Their epitaph is entirely negative, often linking them with ‘Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin’ (e.g. 1 Kings 16:26; 21:22; 22:52 etc.), especially by raising up false worship centers and encouraging idolatry…

The anointing of Jesus with the Spirit at his baptism thus identifies him as the covenant king of Israel, who is both the vice-regent of God and the covenantally obligated ruler of God’s people. His mission as the great Davidic King would hinge entirely on his worship of God. Its successful outcome would be a worshiping people, led by his own faithfulness to the throne of his Father. Jesus’ role as the purifier of the Temple (e.g. John 2:13-22) and the transformer of worship (e.g. John 4:19-24) is thus fully fitting for his kingly ministry over Israel and for his construction of a new Temple, far greater than that of Solomon or Herod.”

-Noel Due, Created for Worship: From Genesis to Revelation to You, Fern,Ross-shire, Scotland, Christian Focus Publications, 2005. 10-11

And Can It Be?

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself (because of) love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

-Charles Wesley, 1738

His Final Interview: C.S. Lewis on the Future and Space Travel

Randy Alcorn quoting C.S. Lewis’ last interview and speaking on the glory of God in the universe.

“Shortly before he died November 22, 1963 (yes, the same day as John F. Kennedy), C. S. Lewis granted his final interview to Sherwood Elliot Wirt, of Decision Magazine. It’s a fascinating interview. I found the final two questions and answers interesting:

Wirt: What do you think is going to happen in the next few years of history, Mr. Lewis?

Lewis: I have no way of knowing. My primary field is the past. I travel with my back to the engine, and that makes it difficult when you try to steer. The world might stop in ten minutes; meanwhile, we are to go on doing our duty. The great thing is to be found at one’s post as a child of God, living each day as though it were our last, but planning as though our world might last a hundred years.

We have, of course, the assurance of the New Testament regarding events to come. I find it difficult to keep from laughing when I find people worrying about future destruction of some kind or other. Didn’t they know they were going to die anyway? Apparently not. My wife once asked a young woman friend whether she had ever thought of death, and she replied, “By the time I reach that age science will have done something about it!”

Wirt: Do you think there will be widespread travel in space?

Lewis: I look forward with horror to contact with the other inhabited planets, if there are such. We would only transport to them all of our sin and our acquisitiveness, and establish a new colonialism. I can’t bear to think of it. But if we on earth were to get right with God, of course, all would be changed. Once we find ourselves spiritually awakened, we can go to outer space and take the good things with us. That is quite a different matter.”

-C.S. Lewis, September, 1963

“As a fan of his space trilogy, I especially love Lewis’s final answer in light of the biblical teaching of a new heavens and New Earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). In such a new universe, with a new outer space, might people build and travel and explore to the glory of God?

The stars of the heavens declare God’s glory (Psalm 19:1), yet how vast and distant they are. God made countless billions of galaxies containing perhaps trillions of nebulae, planets, and moons. Not many in human history have seen more than a few thousand stars, and then only as dots in the sky. If the heavens declare God’s glory now, and if we will spend eternity proclaiming God’s glory, don’t you think exploring the new heavens, and exercising dominion over them, will likely be part of God’s plan?

As a twelve-year-old, I first viewed through a telescope the great galaxy of Andromeda, consisting of hundreds of billions of stars and untold numbers of planets, nearly three million light years from Earth. I was mesmerized. I also wept, not knowing why. I was overwhelmed by greatness on a cosmic scale and felt terribly small and alone. Years later I first heard the gospel. After I became a Christian, I found that gazing through the telescope became an act of delighted worship.

From the night I first saw Andromeda’s galaxy, I’ve wanted to go there. I now think it’s likely I will.

It’s hard for me to believe God made countless cosmic wonders intending that no human eye would ever behold them and that no human should ever set foot on them. The biblical accounts link mankind so closely with the physical universe and link God’s celestial heavens so closely with the manifestation of his glory that I believe he intends us to explore the new universe. The universe will be our backyard, a playground and university always beckoning us to come explore the wealth of our Lord—as one song puts it, the God of wonders beyond our galaxy.”

-Randy Alcorn, 03-05-2012, http://www.epm.org/blog/2012/Mar/5/his-final-interview-cs-lewis-future-and-space-trav

The Lord is our Salvation

The LORD is my strength and song,
And He has become my salvation.

The sound of joyful shouting and salvation is in the tents of the righteous;
The right hand of the LORD does valiantly.
The right hand of the LORD is exalted;
The right hand of the LORD does valiantly.
I will not die, but live,
And tell of the works of the LORD.
The LORD has disciplined me severely,
But He has not given me over to death.

Open to me the gates of righteousness;
I shall enter through them, I shall give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD;
The righteous will enter through it.
I shall give thanks to You, for You have answered me,
And You have become my salvation.

The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief corner stone.
This is the LORD’S doing;
It is marvelous in our eyes.

This is the day which the LORD has made;
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
O LORD, do save, we beseech You;
O LORD, we beseech You, do send prosperity!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD;
We have blessed you from the house of the LORD.
The LORD is God, and He has given us light;
Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I give thanks to You;
You are my God, I extol You.
Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good;
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

-Psalm 118:14-29

Pizza and Coke for Communion?

Great Article by Clint Archer at the Cripplegate today: http://thecripplegate.com/pizza-and-coke-for-communion/  A great reminder of why we celebrate communion the way we do and the importance of being intentional about our practice of the Lord’s Supper.

“Have you ever thought of these provocative variables in the form and substance of the Lord’s Supper:

•Should we not emulate the NT church’s practice of sharing an entire, sit-down meal?
•Must the bread be unleavened?
•Must the wine be alcoholic?
•Must the wine be red or can we useChampagneinstead?
•Where does one draw the line? For example, can pizza and Coke count as communion? I.e. can the bread be sweetened, or have a topping? What about milk and cookies?

 

Makes the blood boil a bit, doesn’t it? You may have got stuck on the milk & cookies on, and you would probably say: “Obviously not, don’t be dumb.” And you’d be right to say that…but why?

Here are some principles by which we can make these decisions.

1. Jesus instituted a practice of breaking and sharing bread and wine, therefore the substance of the meal must correlate with his intention.

Thus breaking bread is essential, as it represents the breaking of Christ’s body. The bread represents the body. It was the symbol Jesus selected, perhaps because he also called himself the Bread of Life (John 6:35).

This is why he said “Do this in remembrance of me” as he broke the bread. He clearly meant “Break bread.” Not, break a cookie, or cut some pepperoni pizza slices.

The question as to substance is, Does it correlate to what Jesus intended? Wheat crackers, unleavened pita, or even your regular store-bought breadloaf all accurately manifest the image of Christ’s body being broken as bread.

Likewise the contents of the cup is significant. At that Last Supper it was most certainly alcoholic wine, as there was no other kind available. Fermentation can only be delayed by refrigeration, invented later than 33AD. The wine may have been highly diluted, but this is speculation, and thus not stipulated in Scripture as a requirement. After all, Paul had to rebuke the Corinthian gluttons to not get drunk on the communion wine (1 Cor 11:21).

But today’s non-alcoholic grape juice is still an accurate manifestation of the symbol. The cup was intended to symbolize Christ’s blood being shed. Also, Jesus clearly said that he would not drink of the “fruit of the vine” until the kingdom comes (Luke 22:18). This pries open the category to include any fruit of the vine, like grape juice, or even perhapsChampagne (calm down, it’s just wine made in a region ofFrance calledChampagne).

Though the white color is usually a no-no for conservative types, it must be noted that the color of the communion wine is never mentioned in Scripture, it is only assumed, and therefore should not be stipulated as an unwavering regulation in our churches. And yes, the bubbles are ok. Fermenting grape juice always produces bubbles, it’s just a matter of quantity, which again has not been limited by Scripture.

On a practical note, we use grape juice and never wine because of the epidemic prevalence of alcohol abuse in our society. Those who are repentant drunks find it unhelpful to be tempted back into their debauchery each time they are trying to remember the shed blood of their Lord at church. Our grape juice is not legalism, it’s courtesy.

2. Jesus instituted the practice for us to remember his death, namely his broken body and shed blood, therefore the form of the practice must be an accurate reflection of his original intention.

So, it doesn’t matter if we recline or line-up or remain seated in our pews, as long as we all share. It does appear the Corinthian congregants each had a meal (1 Cor 11:21), but Paul rebukes this practice. The object of the exercise is to share a common piece of bread. Whether this is done as part of a sit-down meal (which I observed with believers inIsrael), or by queuing at table, or being served in the pew, it is the sharing that is symbolic.

It was a distinct moment in the mail that Jesus said “Do this” as he broke bread and “likewise” has he passed the cup (Luke 11:19-20). The “this” was referring to the moment of breaking and sharing, not to the whole meal. Which, incidentally, is also why foot-wshing is not one of the ordinances (as the Bretheren movement takes it to be). It was done as a precursor to the meal, but not part of the “this” we are instructed to perform; neither does foot-washing aid in the remembrance of the death of Christ through symbolism.

Some insist that there is only one cup and that it should be passed around. But the command was to “Take this [cup] and divide it among yourselves,” (Luke 22:17). There is no stipulation on how to divide it. At our church, for example, we divide the grape juice into single portion shot-glass-type cups that are distributed. I have also divided the wine among 300 Russians the other way: a single cup complete with floaties and lipstick marks.

As long as the form is an accurate representation of the Lord’s intention, it counts.

The Lord’s Supper is one of the most precious events on our calendars. It should be experienced with reverence, purity, and joy. The elements employed should reflect this attitude. So no Oreos and chocolate milk. At the same time, there has been given us tremendous liberty to accommodate various cultural norms and denominational quirks.

Let’s keep the main thing the main thing, and not spend too much effort straining out the gnats or other floaties in the communion juice.”

-Clint Archer, 03-05-2012

Is Easy Worship Enough for God?

A great new article on worship that is both convicting and inspiring. Check it out at: http://www.stonewritten.com/?p=1718. A great question, am I willing to die at the altar of God; am I willing to fully surrender myself to Him everyday?

“One of my favorite definitions of worship comes from the famous Hasidic Jewish Rabbi, philosopher, and mystic, Abraham Joshua Heschel. He defined it this way:

‘Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.’

I come from a faith tradition that places a lot of emphasis on outward, passionate expressions of worship. And so naturally I have learned to love it when I can sense God’s presence in powerful ways in the context of corporate worship. However, the other side of the coin is that I have too often approached worship based on my feelings. The truth is that worship has a little to do with feelings, but it has a lot more to do with perspective.

Here is some perspective. It can be an awful thing to approach the altar of God. Altars are where things die. And if God is calling you to the altar he is indeed calling you, at least in some way, to die. Perhaps death sounds a little melodramatic. But we will always lose something at God’s altar. And we hate losing. We hate losing things we are holding onto because possessing something, even something trivial, gives us a sense of control. And we hate to lose our sense of control because our illusion of control is often what gives us a sense of life. And of course all of us hate to lose our life.

The paradox is that the altar that will take my life is also the threshold that will give me new life. Jesus said it this way, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it” (Matt 10:39 NLT). This is not just true in salvation, it is true of every altar that God puts before me. There are many stories in the bible in which this is illustrated. I am going to use the Exodus.

We all know the story. God used signs and wonders to miraculously deliver the Israelites from the hand of Pharaoh. Not only did the Israelites escape, they escaped with serious loot. Once they got out of town God allowed Pharaoh’s heart to change (again), so that he would be determined to pursue them. Of course, God told Moses that he was doing all of this so that he could deliver them in even more spectacular fashion. One would think that after all the Israelites had witnessed this would be an exciting proposition. But remember what we said about our fear of altars? Of losing possessions? Of losing control? Of losing our lives? Sure enough the Israelites did not enjoy approaching this altar anymore than the rest of us. Here was there response in Exodus 14:10-12:

‘As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”’

I would take the time to poke a little fun at the Israelites if it were not for the fact that I have uttered similar cries so many times. Moses appears to be the righteous one at first when he responds in 14:13-14 this way:

‘Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”’

However, that was evidently not the response that God was looking for, and presumably the inward prayers of Moses took on a different character than his brave exhortation to the Israelites.  For God immediately responded to Moses with this in 14:15:

‘Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.”’

It is all kind of humorous as a detached observer. The Israelites screaming that they are going to die. Moses trying to scream over them to be brave and be still, while inwardly crying out to God for help. And God snapping at Moses and telling him to stop crying and start moving. It must have been chaotic. I know the feeling, because it is the feeling of the storm of resistance that hits us as we approach the altar of God.

But herein lies the point. When these types of thoughts and feelings are swirling about us we tend to check out of worship. Yet, it is for those very moments that worship was made. Certainly there is a type of worship that is happy, carefree, and light. But the kind of worship that is preceded by threats and fears, confusion and darkness–that type of worship is what I call altar-ing worship. It has the appearance of death in front of the threshold, but it has the surprise gift of life on the other side. We are afraid of the threat of the altar going in, but surprised to find ourselves altered coming out. When we have been altered by the altar we have experienced altar-ing worship.

Did Moses and the Israelites “see the world in the light of God” on the other side of their altar? When they reached the other side they immediately burst into song and dance. Miriam the prophet grabbed a timbrel and led all of the women in song and dance. Their perspective had changed. Their feelings had changed, too. They were lavishing in altar-ing worship. Take another few minutes to meditate on their song. But before you do, consider that thing that you are holding onto. Perhaps this is the day that you lay it down at the altar, and pick up your timbrel on the other side.

I will sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.
 

The LORD is my strength and my defense;
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The LORD is a warrior;
the LORD is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
are drowned in the Red Sea.
The deep waters have covered them;
they sank to the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, LORD,
was majestic in power.
Your right hand, LORD,
shattered the enemy.
 

In the greatness of your majesty
you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger;
it consumed them like stubble.
By the blast of your nostrils
the waters piled up.
The surging waters stood up like a wall;
the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy boasted,
‘I will pursue, I will overtake them.
I will divide the spoils;
I will gorge myself on them.
I will draw my sword
and my hand will destroy them.’
But you blew with your breath,
and the sea covered them.
They sank like lead
in the mighty waters.
Who among the gods
is like you, LORD?
Who is like you—
majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
working wonders?
 

You stretch out your right hand,
and the earth swallows your enemies.
In your unfailing love you will lead
the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them
to your holy dwelling.
The nations will hear and tremble;
anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the people of Canaan will melt away;
terror and dread will fall on them.
By the power of your arm
they will be as still as a stone—
until your people pass by, LORD,
until the people you bought pass by.
You will bring them in and plant them
on the mountain of your inheritance—
the place, LORD, you made for your dwelling,
the sanctuary, Lord, your hands established.
 

The LORD reigns
for ever and ever.”

An Open Letter to Praise Bands

Great article by James K. A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/2012/02/open-letter-to-praise-bands.html

Dear Praise Band,

I so appreciate your willingness and desire to offer up your gifts to God in worship. I appreciate your devotion and celebrate your faithfulness–schlepping to church early, Sunday after Sunday, making time for practice mid-week, learning and writing new songs, and so much more. Like those skilled artists and artisans that God used to create the tabernacle (Exodus 36), you are willing to put your artistic gifts in service to the Triune God.

So please receive this little missive in the spirit it is meant: as an encouragement to reflect on the practice of “leading worship.” It seems to me that you are often simply co-opted into a practice without being encouraged to reflect on its rationale, its “reason why.” In other words, it seems to me that you are often recruited to “lead worship” without much opportunity to pause and reflect on the nature of “worship” and what it would mean to “lead.”

In particular, my concern is that we, the church, have unwittingly encouraged you to simply import musical practices into Christian worship that–while they might be appropriate elsewhere–are detrimental to congregational worship. More pointedly, using language I first employed in Desiring the Kingdom, I sometimes worry that we’ve unwittingly encouraged you to import certain forms of performance that are, in effect, “secular liturgies” and not just neutral “methods.” Without us realizing it, the dominant practices of performance train us to relate to music (and musicians) in a certain way: as something for our pleasure, as entertainment, as a largely passive experience. The function and goal of music in these “secular liturgies” is quite different from the function and goal of music in Christian worship.

So let me offer just a few brief axioms with the hope of encouraging new reflection on the practice of “leading worship”:

1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship.

Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular “form of performance”), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there’s nothing wrong with concerts! It’s just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice–and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of “performing” the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can’t hear ourselves sing–so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become “private,” passive worshipers.

2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship.

In other forms of musical performance, musicians and bands will want to improvise and “be creative,” offering new renditions and exhibiting their virtuosity with all sorts of different trills and pauses and improvisations on the received tune. Again, that can be a delightful aspect of a concert, but in Christian worship it just means that we, the congregation, can’t sing along. And so your virtuosity gives rise to our passivity; your creativity simply encourages our silence. And whileyou may be worshiping with your creativity, the same creativity actually shuts down congregational song.

3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship.

I know it’s generally not your fault that we’ve put you at the front of the church. And I know you want to model worship for us to imitate. But because we’ve encouraged you to basically import forms of performance from the concert venue into the sanctuary, we might not realize that we’ve also unwittingly encouraged a sense that you are the center of attention. And when your performance becomes a display of your virtuosity–even with the best of intentions–it’s difficult to counter the temptation to make the praise band the focus of our attention. When the praise band goes into long riffs that you might intend as “offerings to God,” we the congregation become utterly passive, and because we’ve adopted habits of relating to music from the Grammys and the concert venue, we unwittingly make you the center of attention. I wonder if there might be some intentional reflection on placement (to the side? leading from behind?) and performance that might help us counter these habits we bring with us to worship.

Please consider these points carefully and recognize what I am not saying. This isn’t just some plea for “traditional” worship and a critique of “contemporary” worship. Don’t mistake this as a defense of pipe organs and a critique of guitars and drums (or banjos and mandolins). My concern isn’t with style, but with form: What are we trying to do when we “lead worship?” If we are intentional about worship as a communal, congregational practice that brings us into a dialogical encounter with the living God–that worship is not merely expressive but also formative–then we can do that with cellos or steel guitars, pipe organs or African drums.

Much, much more could be said. But let me stop here, and please receive this as the encouragement it’s meant to be. I would love to see you continue to offer your artistic gifts in worship to the Triune God who is teaching us a new song.

Most sincerely,

Jamie

Let’s Have More Worship Wars

Thought provoking article by Russell Moore. Read the entire post here: http://www.russellmoore.com/2012/02/13/lets-have-more-worship-wars/

“…But the more I reflect on what I like, and why, the more I’m convinced that my preferences are almost entirely cultural and nostalgic.

I’m not saying aesthetics don’t matter in worship. The Spirit equips God’s people to sing and to play and to write music. So when music is not good this is often evidence of, at worst, disobedience, and at best, misappropriation of talents. And the Scripture commands us to worship in “reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28).

Worship is directed toward God, yes, but worship arises out of a specific community. The psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are teaching ( Col. 3:16). They build up the rest of the Body. That’s why we’ve got to care about what, and how, others hear when we are “addressing one another” (Eph. 5:17) musically.

What I am saying is that most of our varying critiques of musical forms are often just narcissism disguised as concern about theological and liturgical downgrade. That’s why I think we need more, and better, worship wars.

Thankfully, we don’t hear as much about “worship wars” these days, but I wonder if that’s because of growing maturity or if it’s simply because we’ve so segregated ourselves into services and congregations that reflect generational and ethnic and class-oriented musical commonalities. Maybe we need to reignite the wars, but in a Christian sort of way.

What if the war looked like this in your congregation? What if the young singles complained that the drums are too loud, that they’re distracting the senior adults? What if the elderly people complained that the church wasn’t paying attention to the new movements in songwriting or musical style?

When we seek the well-being of others in worship, it’s not just that we cringe through music we hate. As an act of love, this often causes us to appreciate, empathize, and even start to resonate with worship through musical forms we previously never considered.

This would signal a counting of others as more significant than ourselves (Phil 2:3), which comes from the Spirit of the humiliated, exalted King Jesus (Phil 2:5-11).  It would mean an outdoing of one another, in order to serve and show honor to the other parts of the Body of Christ. And, however it turned out musically, it would rock….”

-Russell D. Moore, 02-13-12