Here is the video of the sermon from Good Friday at Faith Lutheran in Bellaire, TX. I pulled ideas from several sources including Rob Bell (myth of redemptive violence) and Richard Rohr (Jesus came to change our minds about God). Sorry for the technical difficulties, we were trying out a new camera.
One of the things I enjoy most about my calling in ministry is being a resource to others. One of the things that drew me to the Lutheran understanding of faith is our connectional polity. Churches aren’t designed to be individual islands in the ELCA. We are connected to each other. We are connected to our neighboring churches in Houston, we are connected to our sisters and brothers across the Gulf Coast Synod, we are connected to all the other ELCA churches around the country, and we are even connected to other Lutherans across the globe. One of the most common signs of our connection is when we share resources. I really enjoy being helpful to others and supporting the work of the church both near and far.
I was asked by the ELCA worship staff to write some Frequently Asked Question articles for their website. These are common questions the churchwide office gets asked, and my responses are meant to be helpful, guiding suggestions on how to address these concerns. Last month, seven of the articles I wrote were published on the ELCA’s website. Here are some excerpts:
- “In general, the postmodern worship practices of emerging churches are reactions against the pragmatic, baby boomer-oriented, seeker-sensitive movement. Instead of “services” of worship, emerging churches frame their assemblies as “gatherings” that are not afraid of a return to more liturgical forms. The gathering is highly experiential, focusing on the participation of those assembled, often through stations that guide people to interact with prayer, scripture, art, poetry, and other spiritual exercises.”
- “Music for worship provided by a worship band must be done with the same sensitivity and care as any other type of sacred music. The worship band must frame their role in worship leadership as subservient to the assembly’s voice.”
- “As a core function, video projection should be used for enhancing the environment for worship. In serving the liturgy, it should not be distracting but aide the space for worship as the body of Christ gathers.”
- “The pace of technology can be difficult to grasp. Technology that at one time cost churches thousands of dollars to utilize now would cost hundreds of dollars. The cost of technology continues to diminish. At the same time the performance of technology continues to increase.”
- “There are many options when it comes to the video projector component. Generally the most important specification will be the light output of the projector, measured in lumens. The higher the lumens, the brighter the projector will be. It is necessary to take into account the brightness of the room in which the projector will be used.”
- “Worship is always being evaluated. Although it may be informal, everyone that is sent forth from an assembled worshiping body has evaluated that service in one way or another. Evaluations might be based on any number of things: the number of people in attendance, the length of the sermon, the pronunciation of the reader, or the number of flubbed notes by the musician.”
- “The sounds of a worshiping assembly should be reflective of the culture that it is planted in. The musical gifts that are present within a local church should be used to make worship contextual.”
I experienced some backlash this week after sharing a Patheos article on Facebook. The article, “How Offering Different Worship Styles Contributes to Church Decline” by Jonathan Aigner has made the rounds recently.
One commenter referred to the article as “toxic waste,” said I was wasting my time, and claimed I was starting a “worship war.” I found it hard to understand why there was such fiery backlash. Most of the objections were because they felt the author was invalidating any style of worship other than his personal preference. They seemed to think that the author was advocating for one, and only one way of worship.
To be upfront, the author is coming from a Baptist, evangelical framework which could be a reason for some of the backlash. And the author did take some potshots at contemporary worship: “Sentimental worship is just as toxic as contemporary worship.” Perhaps it was because I was just skimming the article, but when I read I tend to skip over the less helpful parts and focus on the things I think are said well. For example, one of the highlights for me was this excerpt:
“When we tell our people that we’re here to connect them with God through their own preferences, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.
When we suggest that corporate worship is about fitting everyone just right, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.
When our strategies for church growth hinge on making the worship life of the church fun, entertaining, and easy, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.
When we design worship services to flow seamlessly like a theatrical production, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.”
I have long questioned whether offering multiple styles of worship within one congregation is all that helpful. Is it a quick fix, a patch job, any easy way out of the slow, painstaking work of building a community that actually appreciates one another and puts their needs second to their neighbor?
Can we really claim to be surprised when church members act immature or self-centered after we have programmatically catered to their whims and preferences?
There are good reasons to offer multiple styles of worship. I think you could say that a church in a metropolitan, or ethnically diverse suburban area is being contextually faithful by offering multiple styles. But do we lose something by not learning each other’s songs? Are we missing a depth and richness of our song when it is stylistically monochromatic?
The real worship war is not about musical style or preference. The real worship war is about narrative. Who gets to be the main character in our worship? Whose story is the reason we assemble in worship?
If you were to visit a church in North America today, chances are you would be faced with a choice: contemporary or traditional. Occasionally there might be a third option of “blended.” There might also be additional styles of worship offered (emerging, recovery, Taizé, liturgical, etc.). Faced with these choices, those assembled are practically begged to answer the questions, “What is my preference?” “What do I like?” and “What works for me?”
These choices for worship have come to be expected in many churches. Is there anything wrong with them? Perhaps they are a cultural phenomenon in a society bent on individualization (a symptom of the Burger King ethos where you can “have it your way”). Perhaps they are the church’s most missional effort to reach as many people possible with the gospel of Jesus. However, a church that encourages self-preferential behavior seems to run against the path of discipleship that teaches, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). What style would worship take if those assembled regarded others as better than themselves?
Reframing the style question
When a new church is birthed or when an existing church launches a new opportunity to assemble for worship, do they ask, “Are we going to be traditional, contemporary, or blended?” Do they look at what the largest church in town does and duplicate it? Is there another way to discern what style of worship a church should employ? Maybe a church has decided that offering multiple styles of worship has become divisive and done more harm than good. Perhaps their question is, “How do we move past traditional and contemporary?”
“Traditional,” “contemporary,” and “emerging” are merely labels. There are instances when our labels are not necessarily helpful or accurate. (see also, “How is worship traditional? How is worship contemporary?”) Regardless of their benefit or precision, these styles for worship have developed and the labels have become affixed to the church’s conscience. In order to move past these labels, a better question may be needed: “How do we figure out what our local worship should sound like?”
“Jesus whom we worship was born into a specific culture of the world. In the mystery of his incarnation are the model and the mandate for the contextualization of Christian worship. God can be and is encountered in the local cultures of our world. A given culture’s values and patterns, insofar as they are consonant with the values of the Gospel, can be used to express the meaning and purpose of Christian worship. Contextualization is a necessary task for the Church’s mission in the world, so that the Gospel can be ever more deeply rooted in diverse local cultures.” (Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture, 3.1)
The Nairobi Statement reasons that worship, as it dynamically relates to the given culture in which it is enacted, is contextual. Worship cannot be disconnected from the time and place in which it is enacted. Many of the factors pertaining to how worship is offered are determined by its particular context. “We call on all churches to give serious attention to exploring the local or contextual elements of liturgy, language, posture and gesture, hymnody and other music and musical instruments, and art and architecture for Christian worship.” (Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture, 6.1) Faithful worship does not ignore the people or culture in which it is located.
Suggestions for making worship contextual
To return to our reframing question: “What should our local expression of worship sound like?” Contextual worship makes use of the music, language, and artistic forms of the local culture the church is planted in. This means that Lutheran worship in downtown New Orleans will potentially be radically different than Lutheran worship in rural Montana. Regardless of how radically different they appear in form and content, they both remain faithful enactments of Lutheran worship. The willingness to connect to the surrounding culture and become contextual make their worship faithfully Lutheran, not their predilection for Baroque-era European music. Contextual worship requires rooting into the neighborhood. There are no shortcuts to contextual worship; real, relational, outwardly focused ministry is the only way to discern context. Contextual worship does not imply a disregard for global music or the historical practices of the church.
The sounds of a worshiping assembly should be reflective of the culture that it is planted in. The musical gifts present that are present within a local church should be used to make worship contextual. The Holy Spirit, equipping her for ministry, gives these gifts to the local church. Many churches have a preconceived idea that worship should sound a certain way, requiring particular instruments for worship to sound that way. Instead of hiring a drummer or hiring an organist because of the perception of what worship should sound like, worship should sound like what you are.
The sounds of contextual worship, produced by the people that God has gifted to a church, should be current and modern, as well as reach back into the history of our faith.
P.S. For further analysis of how to enact faithful, Lutheran worship that is also transcultural, counter-cultural, and cross-cultural, see Can We Talk? Engaging Worship and Culture.
As a resident of the Houston area, Hurricane Harvey has made an impression on me. We take storms of this caliber very seriously. So seriously that schools close for multiple days and churches cancel Sunday worship services. We are better safe than sorry. Flooding and dangerous roadways are the biggest concern.
With so many churches canceling worship services on Sunday, there have been several devotions made available for home use. Here is a list of litanies, prayers, and devotions I found for use in times of inclement weather. Feel free to share others that you may know.
- A Liturgy for Times When Storms Arise (from Celebration in Cypress, TX)
- A Liturgy in a Time of Storm (from Kindred in Houston, TX)
- Litany in Response to a Hurricane
- Prayer Book for the Hurricane and Tornado Seasons (from Thomas Weitzel)
- Storm Sunday Liturgy (from Australia)
- In the Eye of the Hurricane (by Kwasi Kena)
- A Hurricane Liturgy (from Lent and Beyond)
- Resources Created from Hurricane Katrina (from The Text This Week)
- A simple liturgy posted by Bishop Mike Rinehart to Facebook:
Light a candle.
Pray: O God, with all your faithful followers of every age, we praise you, the rock of our life. Be our strong foundation and form us into the body of your Son, that we may gladly minister to all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Look up these texts, read and discuss:
The coastlands look for deliverance…
If God had not been on our side, the raging waters would have overwhelmed us…
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…
You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it…
Pray for the church, the world, your family, your congregation, the needy, the dearly departed.
Pray The Lord’s Prayer
Bless one another and share the Peace.
Thank you to everyone who attended the TUNE UP gathering on Saturday, August 5, 2017. Thank you to the volunteers and Messiah Lutheran Church for hosting us. Thank you to Larry Bose for capturing our day together with photos. This was our fifth year of TUNE UP and we are so blessed that you came and learned with us.
We had over 70 participants from 19 different churches all around the Houston area join us for this day of training and networking. The gathering began with opening worship and presentations from Brian Hehn, Clayton Faulkner, and Richard Birk. They covered the subject of diversity in church music with each presenting on genre, selecting songs pastorally, and why we should incorporate hymns into band-led worship. Then everyone divided into instrumental/vocal/tech tracks, and conceptual tracks. The instrumental tracks were divided by specific area (worship leader, acoustic/electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboard, drums, vocals, and sound tech). Conceptual track offerings included sessions on improving your worship band, running an effective rehearsal, increasing congregational singing, and using video technology. During the “Coaching for Bands” session a volunteer church band from Autumn Creek Baptist Church in Houston received feedback and help with their music from a panel of track leaders.
We want you to know about these helpful resources from some of our track leaders:
- Richard Birk has an ensemble called “Jazz Sunday” that provides music for churches on Sunday mornings.
- Michael Brady has a podcast called “The Worship Lab Podcast” that has great info for worship leaders and church musicians.
- Brian Hehn is launching “The Center for Congregational Song” with an event this October in Dallas.
Thanks for a great event and stay tuned for future event announcements…
1 All God’s children have a safe haven where they gather in God’s Spirit.
Rescue is found in God’s Spirit, embodied in the community of God’s people.
2 All people have an advocate and a provider in God.
God shelters from hatred and harm and raises up in the power of the resurrection.
3 There is no thing, good or evil, in all our living and dying that can separate us from God’s love.
All God’s children receive mercy and pardon because God knows their stories. God knows their troubles.
4 In times of plenty, and in times of hardship, God is there.
God is purifying us so that we might last longer and flourish.
1 Children of the heav’nly Father safely in his bosom gather;
nestling bird nor star in heaven such a refuge e’er was given.
2 God his own doth tend and nourish, in his holy courts they flourish.
From all evil things he spares them, in his mighty arms he bears them.
3 Neither life nor death shall ever from the Lord his children sever;
unto them his grace he showeth, and their sorrows all he knoweth.
4 Though he giveth or he taketh, God his children ne’er forsaketh;
his the loving purpose solely to preserve them pure and holy.
Text: Carolina Sandell Berg, 1832-1903; tr. Ernst W. Olson, 1870-1958
Text © 1925 Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, admin. Augsburg Fortress.
Faith Lutheran Church began to hold the Easter Vigil in 2012. Some of our long-term members can recall gathering for worship on the Saturday before Easter decades ago, so technically 2012 was not the first time the Vigil was held at Faith. However, Faith began to celebrate the Vigil anew in 2012. That means that this was our fifth year to gather on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday.
I’m not going to sugar coat it: this service is not easy. It is not the most “user friendly” worship we offer. It starts late (8:00 PM). It runs long (nearly two hours). There is a procession from outside the building to inside the gym. There are SIX scripture readings (but I want you to know that there are 12 readings assigned for the service, so it could be worse). The air conditioning turned off half way through the service. I could go on, but you get my drift.
Why is it so challenging? Our version of the Easter Vigil is modeled after what we know the church did based on historical documents from the first several centuries after the resurrection. In the first centuries of Christianity, believers would gather together and hold vigil, all night long from sunset on Saturday till sunrise on Sunday. The church would be gathered in prayer in one part of the building, while in another part of the building, final preparation was being made for candidates for baptism. These candidates had in some cases been preparing for three years. Three years of gathering with the believers on Sunday, hearing the word read and the gospel proclaimed, and then being ushered out of worship into a separate space for further explanation and instruction. There time of preparation was intense and included fasting and exorcisms.
Why did it take so long? Mainly because the church didn’t assume that their candidates understood the doctrinal basics of the faith. But also because these candidates weren’t simply transferring their name to a new church directory or joining a country club. They were undergoing the radical transformation that we call conversion. Their thinking, their livelihood, their origins, their idolatry, and everything else about them were called into question. It was a slow, measured, weighty process. These churches weren’t interested in the assembly line production of Christians. This was slow-growth, organic, artisanal discipleship.
Now you see some of the rationale behind the First Steps @ Faith catechumenate. Our motivating factor is slightly different though. We think that it is relational connectedness that is most needed for a newcomer in this day and age. More than fully grasping what it means that Jesus is both human and divine, more than renouncing our idolatrous ways of being, we think that candidates need to know that they are loved and cared for by a group of people called into community by God’s Spirit. That is the bed of soil that the seed of faith is planted in.
I have many favorite parts of the Easter Vigil, and one of them is how we gather together for this service. We start outside around a fire. If you’re a fan of camping you will get this. There is something magical about being outdoors around burning wood. If we try to explain the magic we can trace it all the way back to the origins of what it means to be human. What set us apart from the other animals is that we learned how to use tools and start fires. So gathering around a fire outdoors is perhaps one of the earliest, oldest cognitive memories of humanity. Fire is also a central symbol in our faith. God led Israel by fire through the desert. God spoke to Moses in a flame. All the way down to the narrative of Easter, where around the fire Peter denies even knowing the Lord. We start the service around a fire. But not any fire, a new fire, signaling a new way of being that is burning into our world.
If you’ve never been, make plans to attend the Easter Vigil next year.
On Easter Sunday at Faith we only offered one style of worship in our sanctuary services (we offer a Chinese language service in our gym). This was a change from how we normally do Sunday mornings. Normally in the sanctuary we have one Heritage service (organ and choir) and one Gathering service (band-led).
After noticing the low attendance at our Gathering-style Christmas Eve service last year, we decided to experiment. For Easter, we only offered the Heritage style worship service. Why? Because our hunch was that people think Easter (and Christmas) should feel like “church.” Despite what hundreds of thousands of people who go to big-box churches might lead us to believe, in our context, for church to feel like “church” it needs the historical flavors of our tradition. That would be organ, choir, vestments, formality, liturgy, and hymns.
Oddly enough the building was packed and no one asked, “Who took away my worship service?”
What is the point?
I’ve been reading a new book about the emergence of contemporary worship in the church (for an upcoming book review in the ALCM CrossAccent journal). The book chronicles the Anaheim Vineyard church as it swelled in growth through the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the components that are considered today to be the backbone of contemporary worship were synthesized at this church (a continuous set of worship songs; intimate, God-directed language; openness to God through music, etc.).
As I read the book, the one thing I am struck by is what many mainline churches have left by the wayside in their adoption of contemporary worship practices: the work of the Holy Spirit. The Anaheim Vineyard was a pentecostal-ish church with the gifts of the Holy Spirit on display in their worship. Speaking in tongues, prophetic words, healings, and other charismatic signs were regular parts of their worship. Participants would show up to church an hour before the service in expectation for God to move. I’m left wondering if we are missing something?
My impression is that, for the most part, mainline churches that employ contemporary worship practices have “taken the meat and spit out the bone” of the Anaheim Vineyard experience of worship (or maybe we just kept the bone). We have hijacked the parts of their worship that we think (hope) will cause people to encounter God (and attract them), but tossed out the questionable parts that don’t jive with our theology or make us squirm. It reminded me of 2 Timothy 3:5, “They will keep up the outward appearance of religion but will have rejected the inner power of it.” (Forgive me for pulling a sentence out of context.)
What is the inner power of contemporary worship? What is the inner power of any worship?
If the church is not filled with the breath of God’s Spirit as it worships, regardless of the style, there can be no inner power.