Weekly Worship Thought – Missing Something

4b2husoh_m0-zachrie-friesenI attended a funeral last week. It was not someone I knew, and it was held at a church I had not attended before. So, for better or worse, I entered the space with my worship detective hat on. I always like to see what other churches are up to and how they arrange their spaces for worship.

This was a modern church. Sometimes they get called “big box” churches (after the mega retail stores that look exactly the same everywhere). The building was a recent construction. All of the furnishings were new and up to date. On their website they say that you can expect:

  • a casual atmosphere
  • friendly people who’ll help you find your way around
  • today’s music and high-impact media
  • messages relevant to your daily life
  • clean, bright facility and kid’s classes

I guess those things are innocent enough. I can’t say that casual atmosphere and friendly people ever hurt anyone. I know all about these motives for ministry. The hurdle is set low for people who don’t understand church or don’t have a helpful experience of church. It is an easy facility to walk into and feel comfortable. It is disarming.

But that wasn’t exactly the experience I had at this funeral. Upon walking in the front door of the entryway I noticed the nice tile, updated signage telling me where things were, and heard familiar worship songs from everyone’s favorite Australian church gently cascading through the air. My spidey-church-sense was activated.

I peeked through the door into main worship space. And immediately I knew something was off. Something internally was not sitting right with me. I saw rows of chairs, a platform, drums and a keyboard, and very expensive lighting gear (motion lights and LED panels). The lighting was dimmed. There were 2 large screens at the front of the room (nothing being displayed on them). I turned back into the lobby area and tried to make sense of the uneasy feeling I had. What was missing?

After a few moments it hit me. The table. And then I identified the feeling. I had felt it before. It is this subconscious tug I feel every time I enter a space for worship and there is no table for God’s meal. Not only was the table missing, but also a cross, and a visible, accessible font. I realize there are different types of churches for different types of people. But my heart was heavy. And not because of the funeral. It was what was missing from the funeral.

How can we be comforted by God’s love without tasting the food that unites all people across time and space – the foretaste of the feast to come? In the desire to have an authentic experience in worship we can easily lose the most powerful signs and symbols we have of God’s presence.

Weekly Worship Thought – Breaking Down for Lent

breakingLent begins this year on March 1 with Ash Wednesday. I have begun to think about all the possibilities of our music and space for worship during the upcoming season. Lent is a time to reflect, to pause, to weigh the costs of discipleship, and to prayerfully prepare for marking time with Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In particular I am thinking about the music for worship in our gathered assemblies. What can be done musically to carry across the layers of meaning we find during the Lenten season? One idea I am exploring is breaking things down. In a musical sense, this means simplifying things. The simplicity of our instruments and ensembles can bring out the themes of Lent.

An article at WorshipLeader.com makes some suggestions for improving congregational singing that I think are helpful: I did not have my band play on every verse and chorus. Musical accompaniment has one major purpose: supporting congregational singing! The most important sound on Sunday morning is that of your congregation. Have the band stop playing occasionally and let the people hear each other. I promise they will sing louder and more heartily in response!” Breaking things down instrumentally and providing simplicity can help the assembly sing – a worthy goal regardless of the liturgical season!

Scott Weidler shared a tip for Lent in a recent ALCM email regarding unaccompanied singing: “Lenten simplifying may well mean singing some music without instrumental accompaniment. If this is new (and, perhaps, terrifying) to your congregation, Lent may be an appropriate time to introduce it. The human voice is the primary instrument given to us by God. Let’s find ways to amplify its centrality. Many settings of psalms, Lenten verses sung as the Gospel Acclamation, Sanctus, Lamb of God, and other music may appropriately be sung without accompaniment. If eliminating accompaniments completely is unrealistic, try to imagine how to minimize the instrumental leadership in order to maximize primacy of the human voice.”

Breaking things down can be done in many ways. It could be using acoustic instruments instead of electric instruments, hand percussion instead of full drum kit, or just using piano or unaccompanied singing. Try one of these ideas in your context.

Weekly Worship Thought – Cultivating Discipleship

rgypr4aysma-zbysiu-rodakBrothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:1-9)

Reflecting on the upcoming second reading for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, I think about the process of disciple making. The church in Corinth was getting a word of rebuke from brother Paul because of their lack of spiritual maturity. What was the sign of their immaturity? Dividing and separating themselves into factions. Not only were they splitting up based on which leader helped ignite their spiritual flame, they were also not treating each other with respect because of socio-economic differences (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). We might think we are so much farther down the path to maturity than the folks of Corinth were, but are we?

Then Paul gives this terrific agrarian image of what really happens in the process of discipleship. We are God’s field. Some people help plant us. Other people help water us. Some people make sure our soil is rich with fertilizer. Other people help prune us to ensure the best overall yield. Some people help us keep the pests away. God is everything else: the solar system, the earth, the seasons, the environment, and the atmosphere. Every bit of growth hinges on God. No growth is possible without God.

I cannot make a disciple. I can help cultivate discipleship in others.

I cannot be a disciple without others cultivating me.

Weekly Worship Thought – Counter-cultural Worship

You probably see the same things on social media that I see. Ever increasingly, when it comes time to compose the prayers of intercession for weekly worship, all I have to do is open Facebook to see what we should be lifting up in prayer. Disturbing posts like this have become all too common in my feed:

screen-shot-2017-01-27-at-12-46-31-pm

According to Nairobi, one thing worship does is stand against the prevailing attitudes and assumptions of the culture when they don’t align with Jesus’ gospel.

14237698_10154491382356804_4811150322787948244_n“Worship calls us to alternative visions, questioning and critiquing culture. Praising God may be at odds with what the surrounding culture deems worthy of praise. Worship needs to challenge us to live into the freedom we receive in Christ, a freedom from all that defies God. The counter- cultural lens asks us to reflect upon what in worship does not look and sound like the cultures we take for granted.” (“Can We Talk?: Engaging Worship and Culture,” p. 3)

Worship at Faith this Sunday will be counter-cultural by having the assembly sing in 4 different languages (Shona, Arabic, Chinese, and English). Out of the 8 pieces of music that will be used in worship, only 1 was composed in the United States. The other 7 all come from different corners of the world.

God’s kingdom has no borders or official language, besides the language of love.

Weekly Worship Thought – Prayer for an Inauguration

GalileeLutheran_ELWAlmighty God, you have given us this good land as our heritage. Make us always remember your generosity and constantly do your will. Bless our land with honesty in the workplace, truth in education, and honor in daily life. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance; and from every evil course of action. When times are prosperous, let our hearts be thankful; and, in troubled times, do not let our trust in you fail. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 77 (©2006 Augsburg Fortress)

Weekly Worship Thought – Silence

mv5bmjy3otk0nja2nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwntg3mjc2mdi-_v1_sy1000_cr006401000_al_I saw the film “Silence” last week. The new Martin Scorsese movie is getting a lot of buzz in the religious world. It raises many spiritual elements in a thought-provoking way: faith, doubt, iconography, apostasy, evangelism, and suffering to name a few.

I read the novel by Shusaku Endo (on which the movie is based) about five years ago. One of the most intriguing characters in the novel/movie is Kichijiro. He is the guide that the priests take back to Japan to show them the way. He ends up being the Judas-type character of the story. But the more I think about it, Kichijiro is like the church. As much as we whole-heartedly repent and turn to seek God, we just as earnestly jump back into our old ways. I’m reminded of the line from Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love…”

This film has stuck with me. Most movies I see don’t leave much of an impact, but I find myself still reflecting on this one. I recommend it if you get the chance. This is not a popcorn and soda type of movie though. It is sobering and very artistically done.

Weekly Worship Thought – #LectioCast

lectiocastI stumbled across a new podcast this last week. LectioCast is part of the Homebrewed Christianity family and features commentary on the lectionary texts for each Sunday. The podcast is billed as a great tool for preachers that like to procrastinate!

The latest episodes that I caught included Danielle Shroyer, who I believe I heard speak at an emerging church event in Austin (probably a decade ago) in conjunction with the release of Robert Webber’s book “Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches.

During a discussion of Jesus and the incarnational aspects of his life, one quote in particular stood out and I wanted to share: “Sin is the shallow answer. Solidarity is the deeper wisdom of what is happening on the cross.”

Weekly Worship Thought – Worship Leader Banter

4b2husoh_m0-zachrie-friesenJared C. Wilson has a post about 10 phrases that worship leaders need to avoid. I do my best to not say these things because they get under my skin when I hear others say them. For the most part they are theologically weak and hype-inducing babble-speak. Especially cringe-worthy is “God showed up.” As if the God of heaven and earth could be controlled or summoned by an incantation.

What is the alternative to babbling like a hype jockey? I am a fan of beginning worship and connecting moments in worship using short, scriptural phrases that center our heart and mind. Here are a few examples of what you could say instead:

  • Sing to the LORD a new song! (Psalm 96:1)
  • I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. (Exodus 15:1)
  • Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts. (1 Chronicles 16:9)
  • Sing to the LORD, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day. (1 Chronicles 16:23)
  • Sing the praises of the LORD, you his faithful people; praise his holy name. (Psalm 30:4)
  • Taste and see that the LORD is good. (Psalm 34:8)
  • But as for me, it is good to be near God. (Psalm 73:28)
  • I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. (Psalm 146:2)
  • Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. (James 4:8)

Weekly Worship Thought – Punishment

I have written about the song “Immanuel” by Stuart Townend before. I love using it during Advent because I think it provides a great narrative arc that compliments the story of the season.

Previously I’ve talked about altering the fourth stanza of text to deal with the “fear of hell.” In Jesus, there is no fear. The idea that God is looking to eternally punish anyone is suspect. “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (1 John 4:18)

As we sang the song recently, a new lyric jumped out to me. In the third stanza it says, “he was punished for a world’s transgressions.” As I have personally drifted away from a punitive, substitutionary atonement theory, lyrics like these stick out all the more. Violence begets violence. The idea that God violently punished the Son to make things even might be the source of many of our world’s problems.

I found this quote from Rene Girard helpful, I hope you do as well.

15349561_1086977804757369_5592371705421071603_n

Weekly Worship Thought – Sing a New Church

We sang a text for the first time in worship on Sunday. “Sing a New Church” is written by Delores Dufner, OSB and sung to the tune NETTLETON (Come Thou Fount). I found the comments section on the previously linked page interesting, as well as this post, “Bad Poetry, Bad Theology.” It seems that some Roman Catholics have a problem with the lyrics in this song.

From what I can gather, the problematic text is the refrain,

“Let us bring the gifts that differ,
and in splendid, varied ways,
sing a new Church into being,
one in faith and love and praise.”

I can appreciate the theological hesitation. And I think it is always beneficial and good to discern the texts we sing in worship. It is not a trivial thing to pastorally care for the sung theology of a local church. It seems that the primary hang up is the idea that the church can sing itself into being.

From a Lutheran perspective, I can understand the objection. The Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith” (Small Catechism). There is no church, and no church can be sung into existence, unless it is the Holy Spirit singing.

l66co3n4gxu-andy-leePerhaps “new” is the most problematic word. I understand the argument that there is only one church. Perhaps “sing a renewed church into being,” better captures the idea in a less heretical way. A new church is a renewed church, which is another way of saying reformation. And certainly the work of continual reformation in the church is performed by the power of the Holy Spirit. But that is not to say that we, God’s people, don’t have a part in the reformation of the church.

It is the prayerful labors of God’s people, centered in word, meal, and baptism, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that make God’s church renewed. I don’t think the church can enter renewal and reformation through passively willing it. I definitely think that singing has something to do with how the church becomes renewed and reformed.

What do you think? Are the lyrics orthodox or heresy?