Worship Leading

Worship is War

rthymns-of-graceThe “worship wars” are never behind us. They are always with us. Just because your church has settled upon what style of music it is going to use come Sunday does not mean that worship has ceased to be a war for you or your church.

A few weeks ago I finished Rhythms of Grace, a book by Mike Cosper. It is an excellent book that would benefit every pastor (especially those who are primarily responsible for the worship order on Sundays). It speaks to the power of the worship service shaped by the biblical story of the gospel. Here is what he has to say about the “worship wars” in particular.

Whoever dubbed the debate over musical style a “worship war” failed to realize that worship is always a war. The declaration that there is one god, that his name is Jesus, and that he has died, has risen, and will come again is an all-out assault on the saviors extended at every level of culture around us. We’re taught to find a sense of hope in a political party, trusting in our duly elected saviors to make the world right once and for all. We’re taught to find our identity in our friend counts on Twitter and Facebook. We’re taught that a victory at work or good news from a doctor or a bathroom scale will satisfy us. We look longingly into the eyes of other human beings and believe that they can affirm us enough and love us well enough to end our sense of loneliness.

We believe these things because we’ve been taught them again and again. Like the ascending pilgrims of Psalm 121, we’re surround[ed] by clamorous mountains advertising happiness, sex, and power, all available for consumption. Our entertainment in television, film, and literature paints the good life this way, and it grips our heartstrings, calling us away to worship at the feet of these idols.

Worship isn’t merely a yes to the God who saves, but also a resounding and furious no to the lies that echo in the mountains around us. The church gathers like exiles and pilgrims, collected out of a world that isn’t our home, and looks hopefully toward a future. Our songs and prayers are a foretaste of that future, and even as we practice them, they shape us for our future home. (pg. 103-104)

Just before this Cosper quotes Jean-Jaques von Allmen:

Christian worship is the strongest denial that can be hurled in the face of the world’s claim to provide men with an effective and sufficient justification for their life. There is no more emphatic protest against the pride and the despair of the world than that implied in Church worship.

These are powerful words. Gathering for church with the body of Christ is a private protest against sin, satan, and all the false hopes and dreams this world offers and which vie for our affection. It is a public rebellion against the false gods of our culture that tempt us to believe satisfaction, joy, and deliverance can be found in anything other than God through Christ. Worship is war.

The following are my favorite books on worship. What are yours and why?

  1. Worship by the Book ed. by D. A. Carson
  2. Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation by Allen P. Ross
  3. Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship ed. by Ryken, Thomas, & Duncan
  4. Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice by Bryan Chapell
  5. Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel by Mike Cosper
  6. Worship Matters: Leading others to Encounter the Greatness of God by Bob Kauflin

Horizontal Worship For the Glory of God

We are a generation of worshipers – or so we like to think of ourselves. We have worship songs, worship teams, worship leaders, worship conferences, worship…well you get the idea. We know all about worship. But I wonder if we can learn anything else? And I am not speaking about learning new techniques or methods. I wonder if God’s word has anything to say about worship that we haven’t given thought to lately. And if it did I wonder if we would even accept it or if we are too entrenched in our practices, techniques, and understanding about worship to change.

I ought to confess that I am not a worship leader (or a music pastor). I do not make the musical decisions for my church much less serve in any public format through the vehicle of music. But I care about the music and worship in churches because I am a Christian and a pastor.

Much has been written regarding the vertical nature of worship and music in our churches. And this is just fine because worship is primarily all about expounding and exulting in the glory of God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. I do not want to add to that discussion here for there have been some worthy treatments of that subject. Instead I want to think about the horizontal aspect of our worship.

In the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossian believers, he writes: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” These songs are to flow from our identity in Christ (the elect of God, holy, and dearly loved – Col. 3:12). And they are to be sung “to the Lord” which is obviously the vertical aspect of our singing. But even more important for our subject is that this verse shows that our singing has a horizontal aspect as well.

In the context Paul is telling the Colossian believers what their lives ought to look like (and not look like). Those who dwell on and delight in the supremacy of Christ in all things (Col. 1:15-23), avoid the dead end short-cut of human spirituality (Col. 2:6-23), and instead remain grounded in the gospel-reality which has fundamentally changed them (Col. 3:1-4) will find their lives radically altered for the glory of God (Col. 3:5-4:6). And part of that radical alteration is that the word of God dwells in them richly.

Now we expect that those who let the word of God dwell in them richly would teach and admonish others. And if we put the period there it might make practical sense for pastors and teachers but not for everyone else. But Paul is not saying that preachers and church leaders ought to let the word of God dwell in them richly (though they should). He is saying that this ought to be an attribute of every believer (the “you” is plural and Paul is writing to the believers in the church and not to a small group of teacher/preachers). So how is every believer, assuming that we let the Word of God dwell in us richly, to teach and admonish other believers? Through singing! And not just any kind of singing but specifically in congregational singing. This is the horizontal aspect of all worship.

Why do I say Paul is speaking about congregational singing? I say this because we are to sing with the purpose of “teaching and admonishing one another.” And the only time that this “one another” or horizontal aspect of singing is possible (at least for the believers in Paul’s day) is when believers gather together for church. And notice that Paul isn’t speaking to the choir or the worship team but to believers gathered together – he is writing to the church. So as we sing to the praise of King Jesus (vertical) we also teach and admonish one another (horizontal). This is both an effect of our worship to God and a desire in our worship to God.

Here are a few of the many implications of this truth:

  • Christians need local churches. It is only in the context of the local church that this type of command makes sense. The reality that this points to is that we as Christians all have a responsibility to first, let God’s word dwell richly in us (a phrase worthy of much reflection) and then to build one-another up while we ourselves are being built up.
  • Congregational singing is a God-given means to his people to disciple one another. This means we need to give it a priority of place. If your church is the type of church where choirs, special groups, or worship teams do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to singing it might be time to rethink what you are doing. But I don’t think you ought to leave your church over this. That would be ridiculous.
  • Some of you love your worship bands. Others of you may value your organs (though I am inclined to think that there may be fewer in this category). (Whether you are traditional or contemporary in worship is outside the goals of this article.) But if congregational singing is a God-given means for discipleship in the church then maybe we can turn the volume down a little. I have been to far too many churches of both kinds where the drums throb and organ swells but nary a voice can be heard. How we expect to fulfill Paul’s command in a context like this is beyond me.
  • I think this means we need to sing – no really sing – as church members. This may be the most difficult for guys but it is needed nonetheless. Men, singing in church isn’t for pansies. It is about exulting in God and doing the hard work of building up others.
  • Here is another one for music pastors and worship leaders – stop singing songs about hugging Jesus or the like. Beyond just creeping every guy out it lacks any kind of Word-centeredness. Remember our singing is to arise out of the the Word of God dwelling in us richly and is to allow us to teach and admonish one another. It is hard to imagine many traditional hymns and modern praise songs doing either. If the songs that echo in our churches lack any doctrinal clarity (at best) but are robust with emotional terminology we ought not to be surprised when our people begin to mirror this reality.
  • It is also imperative that our music pastors and worship leaders continue to be those individuals who seek to be indwelt by God’s word. Mere musical ability is not enough. It would be better to have one with less polish but with a deep thirst for God’s word guide the church’s music ministry than to have a music pastor with little knowledge of God’s word but with extraordinary musical gifts. The former will lead the church in word-saturated, Christ-centered singing. The latter will be little more than a practitioner.

What are your thoughts?

Authentically Legalistic Worship

It was not long ago I attended a local pastor’s conference at a nearby Baptist college. In the general session we were led in worship by the college’s worship band consisting of students. They were a pretty trendy group that differed dramatically from the men in the session. In a moment of authenticity the young man leading worship revealed that he was studying for the ministry (great!) and decided to share a few words before we started singing. He then revealed that he had not been reading his Bible or praying much (not so great!) because he was really busy and we probably understood that because we were busy too. But then he said something even worse. He said that he felt ready to sing and worship God and lead in worship because that morning he had taken the time to get up early and read his Bible and pray.

For some reason I wasn’t inspired by this. Here is why: (more…)