The Real Worship War Is Not About Style

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?

Advertisements

Hymns in the New Testament – Philippians 2:5-11

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This passage, known as the “Christ Hymn,” is one of the most well-known parts of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It casts a vision of the fullness of Jesus’ identity. We hear the juxtaposition of Jesus’ humanity and deity. This hymn calls us to imagine the heights of his glory and the depths that he stooped down to in the incarnation.

An introduction to the book and structure of the letter to the Philippians:

It is significant that these are not just words, but lyrics. Paul was quoting an artistic representation of the person and work of the crucified and risen Christ. The use of hymns was not uncommon in early Christian worship, or in the surround culture.

“That the early Christians sang hymns is no surprise, for in addition to sharing a common meal and offering sacrifices, libations, and prayers to a deity, singing a hymn to honor and worship that particular god was common practice for ancient Mediterranean religious groups. To sing a hymn to a god or to a supremely powerful king or ruler was considered an act of worship, a way of bestowing respect and benefactions upon one whose powerful acts were worthy of divine honors.”[1]

It is possible the text of the Christ Hymn was used in another way in worship, perhaps as a creedal statement or responsorial reading. The origin of the lyrics is also unknown. Paul could have written it. It could have been previously composed by another author and already widely disseminated amongst the early Christian communities.[2] Or perhaps it was not well known and Paul was attempting to promote the hymn and advocate for its adoption in the church’s assemblies.

The text for the hymn makes several major theological points. First, it testifies to the preexistence of Christ (vs. 6 “he was in the form of God”). This idea is affirmed in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…of one Being with the Father.” Jesus, the eternal Word of the Father, “was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). This theological concept has Jewish roots in the preexistent figure of divine Wisdom found in Proverbs 1:20-33, 8-9, Wisdom 7:22-10:21, and Sirach 24.[3]

Second, the hymn points to a contrast between the first and second Adam’s choices. The first Adam was created in the image of God but desired to be higher through eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In turn he was brought lower, forced to work the soil for survival, and banished from the garden (Genesis 2:15-3:24). The second Adam (Jesus, Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49) was created in the form of God yet willingly went lower into a human form that was subjected to suffering and death. In turn he became exalted to the highest place through his humility.[4]

Third, Christ’s humility to the point of death reframes another Jewish source, the suffering servant found in the prophet Isaiah (53:12). The bending of knees and the confession of tongues at the exaltation of Jesus is also a quotation from Isaiah (45:22-23). This hymn would have been a word exhortation to the community at Philippi. “If the one in the ‘form of God’ could humbly abdicate the dignity of his original status so as to suffer in order to show love for humankind, can the Philippians refrain from following his conduct?”[5]


“Let the Same Mind Be In You” is a musical setting of this passage that I wrote/recorded:

 


Join the Discussion – If you’d like to collaborate further and share your ideas, join the “Hymns in the New Testament” Facebook group.

For further study check out:

[1] Joshua W. Jipp, “Hymns in the New Testament”, n.p. [cited 13 May 2018]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/passages/related-articles/hymns-in-the-new-testament

[2] Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 350.

[3] Michael Cook, “Christ Hymn,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 357.

[4] Cook, “Christ Hymn,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 357.

[5] Cook, “Christ Hymn,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 357.

Hymns in the New Testament – Introduction

The church has always been a singing church. Song was tied to the life of the church from the very beginning. This is largely because of the rich heritage of our Jewish ancestors. Since the time of David music has been inextricably linked to worship. In his time he wedded the use of instruments and singing to the temple’s worship offerings (1 Chronicles 25:1-8).

The singing tradition of Judaism was carried forward when the disciples gathered for Passover. Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, joined his disciples for a meal and concluded with singing (Mark 14:26, Matthew 26:30).

The writer of Luke’s gospel chose song as the vehicle for Mary (Luke 1:46-55), Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), Simeon (Luke 2:29-32), and the angels (Luke 2:14) to express their exuberance at the incarnation.

Paul and Silas lifted their voices in song and were miraculously liberated from their prison (Acts 16:25-34).

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (Colossians 3:16). Song was a sign of thanksgiving. The church was encouraged to continue the use of the Psalter from the Old Testament, as well as sing new hymns composed to the crucified and risen Lord. “Spiritual songs” are believed to be short, repetitive, spontaneously composed pieces of music that flowed out of dwelling in the Lord’s presence.

Some of the lyrics to the hymns of the early church have survived. How do we know they were hymns? “Most biblical scholars use the method of form criticism—looking for clues that suggest a biblical passage had an earlier use than its current literary location—to locate hymns that have found their way into the New Testament compositions. These include: parallel statements, vocabulary that is distinctive to the author, the frequent use of pronouns, and elevated prose. If one uses these critical criteria, one will likely conclude that such passages as Phil 2:5-11, Col 1:15-20, 1Tim 3:16, Heb 1:1-3, and 1Pet 2:21-25 may very well have had earlier literary lives as actual hymns sung by early Christian communities.”[1] Much similar to today, these hymns strengthened the faith of believers, provided instruction, and helped to unite the hearts of all those gathered.

It is significant that we only have the lyrics to these hymns and not the musical notation. Similarly, the music that accompanied the Psalms has not survived. I believe that is by divine design. I can imagine that if ancient musical notation had survived, it would be a divisive issue among churches (not that we struggle in creating divisions around music). Churches would be labeled as those that use the correct music and those that do not. The notation would be idolized and placed on a pedestal. Churches and their musicians would continually reference backward to the original music, making sure they were in line with the performance practice and style of the original.

Instead we have freedom. The church has wide-open spaces to explore the creativity that God has endowed us with. The church is freed to translate music into the sounds of the surrounding culture. The church sings a million different songs in a million different contexts. In this God frees us to not be confined to the past, but to express our hearts in the way that is best suited for when and where we are.

Join the Discussion – If you’d like to collaborate further and share your ideas, join the “Hymns in the New Testament” Facebook group.

For further study check out:

[1] Joshua W. Jipp, “Hymns in the New Testament”, n.p. [cited 13 May 2018]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/passages/related-articles/hymns-in-the-new-testament

How do we make worship contextual?

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?”

 

Nairobi statement

How do we makeworship contextual-

“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.

 

Weekly Worship Thought – 5 Good Reasons to Sing in Church

Why do you like to sing? There is something transformative that happens when our soul and body connect to the melody and text of a song. Here are what I consider to be the top 5 reasons why we should be singing in church. These ideas are adapted from Dennis L. Bushkofsky and Craig A. Satterlee, The Christian Life: Baptism and Life Passages. Augsburg Fortress, 2008. p. 55.

  1. Singing is communal. Singing in church is meant to be more than a bunch of solo voices forming notes at the same time in one space. When an assembly breathes together at the same time, creating the same pitches and harmonies, something unites all our solo voices into one. We become connected to everyone in the space. This connection seeps out of the current time and place and touches all believers from past and future and across the world.
  2. Singing nurtures faith. You are what you eat. In the same fashion, you believe what you sing. The story of God’s creation, reconciliation, and new creation is best learned in the psalms, songs, and hymns that have sustained generations before as well as those yet to come.
  3. Singing shapes memory. The songs that nurture our faith also give us the handlebars to hold onto our faith when crisis and frailty arrives. The songs of our brothers and sisters can lift us up and remind us of God’s faithfulness when we need it. Sometimes we need to sing for others. There will be times when others need to sing for us.
  4. Singing opens us to the Spirit. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters at creation, God makes a home amidst our praises. When we sing in community the hardened parts of our heart are broken open. We become open and receptive to how God is moving around us.
  5. Singing builds trust. When I open my mouth and sing in church I am instantly vulnerable. What if I stick out? What if I sing out of tune? What if I sing the wrong word? What if people think my voice is ugly? There is nothing like vulnerability that provides a place for trust to grow. And church is the one place where we should be able to trust that we are loved.

Weekly Worship Thought – Disney Don’t’s

Earlier in the week I scrolled across a video on Facebook. It was a recording of a pastor leading his Sunday assembly in the singing of a song from a popular Disney movie.

This is a big no-no. Here are a couple of reasons why:

Legality – Disney songs are not covered by your standard church music licenses. You need special permission to use their songs in a live performance. To publish a video of you using their song you would also need a mechanical license. Disney is very protective of their content. Our church made the mistake of publishing the title of one of their movies in an announcement. They quickly let us know about what licensing was needed to host a public gathering that featured one of their films. Don’t steal their content. You can’t afford the legal consequences.

Assembly song – Disney songs are not written to be sung by a worshiping assembly. As sentimental and charming as they are, their music wasn’t designed to be sung by average Joe parishioner. The range of notes and rhythmic complexity don’t translate to a large group of non-musically trained singers. They are meant for soloists and small ensembles.

So my advice – leave the Disney songs for the movies. There is plenty of good stuff to sing!

Weekly Worship Thought – Faithfulness

This has been an upside down week! Our air conditioner quit working in our house almost a week ago. In Houston, in July, that is a big problem. Our thermostat has been reporting 96 degree temps inside the house at 10:00 PM. To escape the heat we stayed in a local hotel for a few days. After that we have been graciously hosted by some of our sweet family nearby for another few days.

Despite the inconsistent schedule, frustration with the repair moving slowly, missing our comfortable home, and living out of suit cases, we are finding the silver lining. In all of the challenges and changes, God is faithful. We observe that we are provided for and loved despite not knowing exactly where we will sleep or when we will get back home.

It reminded me of the Psalm from last Sunday, and specifically the first verse. Psalm 89:1 says,

“Your love, O Lord, forever will I sing;

from age to age my mouth will proclaim

your faithfulness.”

Last week I wrote a little song to go with this verse.

God is faithful even when things seem like they are failing and not going according to plan.

Weekly Worship Thought – Worship Leader FOMO

Do you know what FOMO is?

Wikipedia says, “Fear of missing out or FoMO is “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent”. This social angst is characterized by “a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing”.

I think worship leaders can get weighed down with FoMO. There is this subtle voice in the back of the worship leader’s mind that suggests there is new music and it needs to be sung this week. There is a fear of missing out on the most current worship songs. “If I don’t use this song that (popular Christian artist) released this week, then people are going to leave and go to the church that did.” Or, “If I don’t use this song that (mega church) used last week then people are going to feel like we aren’t relevant anymore.”

Or perhaps the actual fear is not being able to post to social media that you were on the cutting edge of using that song first?

Instead, I feel our call is to select songs pastorally. What does that mean? That means that songs are selected for worship that will reflect and meet the needs of the people who are actually assembled with you. Which is different than selecting songs for the sake of staying ahead of a trend. Our call is to lay down our preferences and lift up others preferences for the sake of the church being the embodied hands and feet of Jesus in the world.

Weekly Worship Thought – Every Table is An Altar

This is a new worship song I came across called, “Every Table is An Altar.”

If I were going to use this song, I might arrange it leaving the Bridge section out. An 11 minute ballad isn’t for every church. I think the song is lyrically strong enough without the Bridge. Especially if you use the Pre-Chorus in place of the building Bridge section.

The lyrics are striking. I’m drawn to them because they connect the tables of our everyday lives to Jesus’ radical table fellowship. They remind me of the sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts…Let us give thanks…”). They also recall the Emmaus Road story:

Verse 1:
Every table is an altar
Every breath is a gift from you
Every moment is a treasure
Every day is a kiss from you

Pre-Chorus:
So let our hearts
Be awake, be awake

Chorus:
Break the bread, pour the wine
Let our hearts, come alive
In your presence, in your presence
Let our fear, fall away
Let our faith, rise today
In your presence, in your presence
Jesus

Verse 2:
Every stranger has a story
Every story’s being told by you
We’re all children on a journey
Jesus only you can lead us through

Chord chart can be downloaded here.