It was so loud! You could hear it before you could see it. The combination of voices and the sound of loud instruments could be heard far away. It was a revival! Both young and old had come together for the first time, in a long time, to renew their dedication to the worship of God. But if you had been walking by, you would not be able to tell if they were happy or sad. Old patriarchs were weeping over forgotten memories of the way things used to be, and the 20-somethings were vibrant with excitement for the future. Regardless of the past, the future, or how they felt about it, they all sang responsibly with one voice,
“For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever towards Israel.” (Ezra 3:11)
This scene comes from the time of Cyrus, king of Persia, and the return of the covenant people of Israel to rebuild the temple. While we live in light of the fulfilled promise of a savior, I cannot help but think this scene accurately describes our worship today as well. We may not be celebrating the stacking of stones or the re-melding of gold, but as the Apostle Paul talks about in Ephesians 2, we are being built together into a holy temple for the Spirit of God to dwell with. This “building together” binds generations, connects our weeping to our shouting, and is so "loud" that all the earth hears and knows that the Lord is good, and his steadfast loves endures forever towards his people. Jesus proclaimed this gospel in Matthew 9:38, and this year the CCO has asked us to pray every day at 9:38, that the harvest would be full and the workers would be many. As we enter Advent and Christmas, I am reminded of the great Gospel song, "God Tell It On The Mountain" and pray that the Lord would inhabit the praises of his people in all corners of the earth. Will you pray with us?
“I need the emotions in order to worship”, a student leader honestly shared with me at one of the handful of campuses I recently visited. What she meant in context was that she needed the songs and experience of worship to affect her mood in order to feel like worship was successful. I recently watched an almost-twenty-year-old documentary called Merchants of Cool, which investigated the advertising industry and its focus on adolescents. It claimed that not only has the industry been able to hunt down authentic forms of “cool”, but that it also invents its own forms of culture to market to teens. In a similar way, as I talk with and teach students about Christian worship, I am increasingly aware that they have been sold, over and over, the idea that “authentic” worship happens in a setting where the mood is right and their affections are focused on a feeling of intimacy. While intimacy is a beautiful and welcome part of Christian life, many leaders, churches, and record companies have appropriated this piece of Christian truth and have capitalized on its power to attract followers. Our union with Christ is not dependent on how we feel in any given moment, but the focus on experience is often a stumbling block for many. I myself have to daily fight the tendency to make worship all about controlling the mood of the congregation, and it is no easy battle to fight.
As this particular student leader and I talked more about how true emotional worship is a response that happens when our hearts and our heads are connected, she gave me great hope. She told me that, when she was a freshman, the leader who led singing at her fellowship was going to graduate and that there was no one who was able to step into that role the following year. She told me that she decided to go on YouTube and look up how to play the piano. She told me that she just wanted people on campus to be able to sing together, so it was not important if she was perfect at performing or sounded like she knew what she was doing. She saw a need and stepped up. She is not alone. On every campus like hers, I meet students who step out of their comfort zones and decide to lead others in singing. It is not always pretty, or comfortable, or well thought out, but it is always beautiful.
Even though students are often sold a narrow and performance-driven version of worship, they still make sacrifices for the sake of community and fellowship. While their past experiences are telling them that they need to focus on creating the right “mood” for authentic worship to happen, their hearts cannot keep from singing, even if it feelsawkward and distracted. What these students need, and what I try to help them see, is that when worship is an expression of the whole person, mind, body, and spirit, it becomes less about setting the right mood, and more about responding to the gifts and situations God has placed us in. What I long for them to know is that their emotions and their worship are not bound by authentic performances or the feeling of intimacy, but they are free in Christ to offer their talents and their lives to God, just as they are. They need to know that worship is not about mimicking a powerful experience they had, or comparing themselves to their favorite artists. They need to know that they are free to sing the Word of God and emotionally respond to its truth in any situation, even if it feels awkward. I am inspired by the students I meet and I pray that they would be free to worship in small or large groups, with little or abundant talent, and in both “authentic” or “awkward” situations. Will you pray with me?
When I was a boy, my family made a trip down south to visit my great, great, grandfather's farm, where seemingly mythical family stories were true; stories of lopsided cows, losing land rights while gambling, bareback horse riding, and eloping children. Scotch-Irish hillbilly blood runs deep in my own story, but setting foot for the first time on the remains of an Appalachian mountain farm felt like a foreign land. I realize now that is probably exactly how my kin felt when they too, as poor immigrants, first set foot on the mountain they would later call their own. I can still hear my great grandmother talk about seeing her first airplane fly above her while working in the fields on the side of a mountain. It was no wonder then, that I was completely awe-struck when my distant uncle, the last remaining relative on the mountain, brought out a wooden box of Native American (probably Cherokee) arrowheads he found over time while plowing the fields with his tractor. I had only seen Hollywood portrayals of "Indians" as a small boy, and getting to hold authentic artifacts of past hunters and warriors was a dream come true. I sat there, in the living room of a nice trailer house, imagining someone sculpting and sharpening every ridge of the stones I held. One, in particular, was perfect. Jet black, and perfectly symmetrical, I just knew as a little boy, that someone had taken great pride in making and using it. "Maybe a bear was killed with this... maybe a human? Why was it discarded? I bet someone was sorry they lost it..." To my astonishment, our host offered it to us as a gift. I could not believe his generosity, but my surprise quickly turned into envy, and later that night, my siblings and I got into an argument about it. We all wanted it, not to appreciate its history or craft, but as a toy for our own pleasure. I had quickly turned cultural gratuity into an entertainment novelty. And then it happened. I can still feel the snap of the tip as I broke it while trying to test its strength. My father was furious and my siblings were angry. We tried to glue it back together, but it just was not the same. Sorrow, shame, regret, embarrassment; I felt all of them, but it was not until many years later that I realized why.
If Christian worship is only about music and ritual, style and form quickly become the most important aspects of our communities. As a boy, I tried to use a gift intended to honor our relationship with deep family roots as a tool for my individualized imaginations. I did not feel shame only because something old was damaged. As beautiful as the arrowhead was, I was sad because I knew that I had treated my family's trust with disregard. When the church treats worship like I treated that arrowhead, we end up using cultural treasures for selfish gratification. As beautiful as worship is, when it becomes about the experience, we end up breaking the gifts God has given us and scorn our relationships with him and his people. We try to "fix the problem of style" in our churches, but the glue we use only fixes our rituals, and not our hearts.
As a leader and trainer of worship, I feel the weight of cultural trust and expectation continually. Everyone comes to worship with different cultural expectations, and as they walk into the room, I feel the potential for both trust and doubt escalate. The way in which we hold each other's cultural artifacts during worship has great potential to build trust in a community, but it also has great potential to break the beautiful tools God has given us. At its core, worship is a spiritual expression of our love of God, but all human expressions come from a cultural context. Therefore, all worship is both intensely spiritual and intensely cultural. In a ministry, church, and country that is increasingly multi-cultural, my job as a worship leader and trainer is incredibly exciting. But as I hold an armful of different cultural expectations and try to faithfully steward different communities to express devotion to God, it is also incredibly exhausting. More than ever, I am aware that I cannot accomplish anything on my own, and I am deeply reliant on a network of people who pray against the dividing nature of the Devil and for the unifying love of the Spirit. Will you pray for me? Will you pray with me, that the church would be equipped to worship in its full range of expression?
Now, as an adult, when I hold the arrowhead, I am still in awe of its story and beauty. The fact that I damaged it in my youth is no longer a source of shame. Instead, it reminds me of the part I play in my family's history and leads me to humbly accept my own faults. An object that once caused my isolation is now something that unites me to my family. As the global Church worships, we bring all sorts of damaged pieces of ourselves, and as I teach others to worship, my hope is to help them see these fragments not as problems to hide away and avoid, but as opportunities for redeeming acts of worship. Will you pray with me that the Church, specifically the next generation of worship leaders, would be equipped to graciously enable the saints to offer their broken fragments to God as a spiritual act of worship?
While "worship" may be a word we all use, the practical, day to day nature of how Christians worship is diverse and multifaceted. The current vocabulary that people use to "like" or "dislike" worship resources forces people to polarize around a few narrow concepts and we miss the broad range of what music, God's word, and culture can offer. Instead, I have tried to develop vocabulary that is easy to use, gracious to a broad audience, and practical for Christians who are trying to find new resources. I avoid criteria such as "it's good or bad", rather, I have made four spectrums of worship elements that, when well done, help us worship with a broad range of usefulness. These criteria assume that the lyrics are true, the songs are well written, they are worshipfully useful, and stylistically flexible.
This simple visual review system is designed for quick access on your instagram feed, so head over there and follow new posts! Here is how it works:
This spectrum measures how an album or song uses scripture. Many worship songs, while not quoting scripture directly, are clearly inspired by or are concepts from a particular verse. An example of this is Bethel's No Longer Slaves, which is taken generally from Romans, but expands into other themes. However, many songs use direct scripture word-for-word, or verbatim, as their lyrical content, such as Kevin Twit and Mac Purdy's version of Psalm 73. By placing scripture usage on a scale from direct quotation to derivative theology, the conversation about lyrical content can become less antagonistic between Christian traditions and hopefully more useful for actual worship services.
This spectrum measures how a church or individual should engage with the music. Songs that are strong on the singing end means that a church could sing these songs as part of corporate worship. This includes singable melodies, rhythms, lyrics, ranges... However, what is singable in my church may not be singable in a different church. The sing-ability spectrum is based on the composers original audience, not all churches for all people. On the flip side, songs that are too complicated or vague for the congregation to sing are often designed to be listening songs for faith, either through personal use or special music. The goal for this spectrum is to help people differentiate between helpful songs that inspire them and songs that are suitable for singing at church.
This spectrum measures how the lyrics, or structure of the the song, function. Some song, like I Love You Lord, by Laurie Klein, spend time simply reflecting on an idea or feeling in worship. These songs are often also called Praise & Worship, have less lyrical content, and more dramatic or repetitive structures. However, reflecting songs can also be older hymns, like I Need Thee Every Hour, which stays focused on one idea. Expanding type songs focus on beginning with one idea and following it until it resolves. They tend to have more lyrics and less repetition, but could be from different musical styles. Many hymns, like Come Ye Sinners, are an example of this, but O Praise The Name, by Hillsong, follow the whole story of Christ's death, resurrection, and then our resurrection, so would be considered developing.
WHERE YOU HEAR IT
This spectrum measures where the song or album can be heard. Widespread music are songs that literally have a large following, like K-Love, Hillsong, Bethel, Elevation etc. Or it can also be songs the broader culture knows, like Amazing Grace or In Christ Alone. Contextual music is anything that has a smaller audience, but is still known and used in those contexts. Some examples of this are the retuned hymn movement, independent contemporary artists, and global music. The key to this spectrum is that it measures how likely other people will be familiar with the music, -not- exactly what it sounds like. There are way too many cultures, styles, and genres to try and classify in a helpful way.
What do you think?
My goal is to make finding worship music easier and more helpful to a broad audience. Let me know what you think! Feedback is important to developing helpful resources. If there is a song or album you think I should review, let me know!
Here are the slides and an audio recording of my Jubilee 2016 workshop on the Spiritual Life of an Artist.