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?

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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 – Hurricane Liturgy

hurricane liturgy

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.

Weekly Worship Thought – TUNE UP Recap

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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:

Thanks for a great event and stay tuned for future event announcements…

Weekly Worship Thought – Slow Down

I’m finding myself in the middle of one of the busiest seasons of my year. Probably even the last decade. I knew this time was approaching, as all of these events were on my calendar for months in advance. Sometimes the deluge of stuff arriving at the same time sneaks up on you.

I am preparing for our fifth annual TUNE UP worship gathering this Saturday. Around 75 church musicians are coming together for training and networking. I am also preparing video content and workshops for the ELCA Rostered Ministers Gathering that starts next week. And I’m in the middle of an online Greek course at Wartburg. And I’m trying to work ahead at church so I’m not too far behind when I get back late next week.

It is hard to sustain focus with so many things needing attention. It feels like there are lots of little fires burning – and it is hard to remember which ones I need to fan and which ones I need to put out. The most helpful thing for me in a time like this is lists. I have a weekly task list for church that helps me prepare everything needed for a Sunday morning. And I have a punch list for the TUNE UP gathering that I rolled over from the previous year to help me remember all the details that lead to a solid event.

In the midst of working ahead at church I peeked at the first reading for next Sunday (tenth Sunday after Pentecost). It is the story of Elijah seeing God on the mountain. Not the wind. Not the earthquake. Not the fire. It was the silence. God was made known to Elijah in the silence. Not the power and the activity, but the stillness. That is a hopeful story for me this week.

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.