“Still”: A 5- Day Devotional

Earlier this year, Integrity Music release a 5-day devotional that I had written to accompany a wonderful new instrumental album called ‘Still‘ by a fabulous UK band called ‘Rivers & Robots’. (One of their other albums– ‘Eternal Son‘–  is always on in our home, thanks to a friend who gave it to me on vinyl, and to my son who can’t get enough of it!)

Anyway, when the devotionals first released, there was a problem with my voice– it was pitch-shifted lower by some sort of technological fluke. Instead of being soothing, it sounded like Kylo-Ren trying to feed you some propaganda. Well, all that is sorted now, and these sound much better. I hope they will bless you and provide you a little respite in this noisy and chaotic world.

DAY 1

 

DAY 2

 

DAY 3

 

DAY 4

 

DAY 5

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Advent Video Devotionals: “When God Comes Near…”

24/7 Prayer, an amazing movement and ministry led by Pete Greig, has launched their Advent video devotionals. These are wonderful, 3-4 minute videos helping us reflect on the coming of Christ. The theme this year is “When God comes near…”

Pete, along with several friends– Daniel Grothe, Andrew Arndt, David Perkins, and more–filmed these short devotionals. I had the privilege of doing three of these videos. The podcast, ranked tops in the UK, can be subscribed to on iTunes here or on YouTube here.

Here’s my first one, Episode 5:

Here is Episode 6:

Here is my final contribution Episode 7:

The Problem With Our Critique of Modern Worship, Pt. 1

What are the repeated critiques you hear about modern worship?

It is so noisy.

And why is every bridge a monosyllabic chant? (eg. ‘whoa…oh oh…)

It looks too much like a concert.

The songs are so repetitive.

It’s too much about ‘me’.

I am sure there are more, but let’s just take these five. I will focus on the first three in this post, and on the last two in the next installment.

First, the critique of noise and the use of non-sensical, monosyllabic words.
I have combined the first two because both find very interesting parallels in ancient Israelite worship. Fuller Seminary’s Old Testament professor John Goldingay writes:

‘The onomatopoeic verb most commonly translated “praise”, halal…which lies behind that noun tehilla, suggests that praising means saying lalalala. The derived expression “hallelujah” is thus an [eruption] combining this verb with the short form of the name of Yhwh…’

Wait…so ancient Israelite praise was often an eruption of repetitive monosyllabic sounds? It gets better. Goldingay continues:

‘Alongside the formlessness of shouting and ululating that expresses the untamed and undomesticated fervor of praise is the form and order or music that also enhances praise as it channels and thus enhances that fervor…’

And what sort of musical accompaniment ‘enhances that fervor’? Why, a rhythmic noisiness, of course.

‘The key musical aspect to Israel’s praise is rhythm. We have little evidence of melody or harmony in Israelite music; the musical aspect to worship would likely not strike a Western person as very musical at all…

The function and nature of sound would thus resemble those of the crowd at a football game or the work of a rapper more than those of regular Christian worship.’

The parallels with ancient Israelite worship are not insignificant or incidental. I grew up in non-denominational, Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, and almost every teaching on worship I heard was rooted in the Old Testament: patterns of the Tabernacle of David and the Temple of Solomon, the stories about the Ark of the Covenant, the Hebrew words for praise, the Psalms, and on and on. This is not to say that there was no reflection given to what makes worship Christian. We understood how the three symbols/figures central to Israelite worship– temple, priest, and sacrifice– are fulfilled in Christ. And what’s more, we understood (if only dimly) that what is true of Christ is true of us: because He is the temple, the priest, and the sacrifice, we have become the temple, priests, and living sacrifices. The influence of Old Testament worship texts was not set in isolation from or in opposition to the New Testament or a Christological understanding of worship.

But it was set in opposition to personal preferences or cultural norms of ‘expressiveness’ (or lack thereof) and loudness. For instance, in many non-denominational worship settings– especially those of a Pentecostal or Charismatic persuasion– the congregation is exhorted to not stay silent but to ‘make a joyful noise’ or to ‘lift up a shout of praise’. Psalm 150 is read to encourage the use of any and all instruments–and by extension, the full range of musical creativity– to ‘let everything that has breath praise the Lord!’

While Goldingay notes that in some Calvinist traditions, music that overpowers the voice is problematic (as it was for Barth), for those steeped in ancient Israelite worship, the louder the better!

Goldingay states it strongly:

‘Its systematic insistence on noisesome worship issues the Psalter’s closing exhortation to intellectual and socially activist readers of the Psalms, reminding us that sharp thinking, heartfelt sincerity, moral integrity, joyful feelings, loving commitment, willing obedience and social involvement are not the only important things in the world…’

Where does this leave us? Perhaps it should chasten us from being too hasty in condemning a certain worship style or musical approach as being ‘unbiblical’…when what we really mean is that it doesn’t fit our culturally-conditioned mode of expression. (Would it be painting with too broad a brush to suggest that Western European approaches to music in worship favor a quieter, ‘accompaniment’ approach, while Eastern– and perhaps African– approaches to music accentuate rhythm and volume?)

Next, the critique about the resemblance to a rock concert.
For those loosely familiar with my work over the past few years, you know that I have challenged the church— at times quite sharply— to work more attentively to align the visual elements of a service (lights, stage, layout…even architecture, where possible) with the verbal elements. Too often we say it’s all about Jesus while the image magnification continues to put our worship teams in focus.

So, this critique has considerable merit.

And yet, we are too careless in applying it. See a church with lights? Ah, it must be a rock show. See a band front and center? They must be ego-maniacs. Yet it is not simply the presence of a cultural form in Christian worship that matters; it is how Christians inhabit that form.

There is a parallel here in Biblical studies. When a young bible student discovers that there were Babylonian stories of a ‘Job’-like character, he may be initially dismayed. Oh no. The Bible is not true after all. It is simply borrowing well known ancient myths and reworking them. But such a conclusion would be a mistake. For it is not simply the presence of the myth that matters; it is how the Israelite storytellers ‘inhabited’ that myth— how they made it their own and re-worked it. And the differences make all the difference. With Job, it matters greatly that YHWH speaks to Job, whereas the Babylonian god, Marduk, does not. YHWH is not simply transactional, giving back what was lost; YHWH is fiercely personal.

And so in worship services, we must not be lazy and look only for similarities between a church service and a rock concert. We must also pay attention to the differences.

Here’s an example. At a recent conference our church hosted, our worship team came out to lead after a well-produced, creative and inspiring video opener. Now, the genre of conference opening sessions says, “Open big! Capitalize on the excitement! Build the momentum!” To be sure, there is nothing evil about doing that. Yet, Jon Egan—my friend and the worship pastor at New Life Church— chose to subvert the script. They came on stage unspectacularly. Jon was hidden behind the other leaders playing a floor tom drum for the first song, a mid-tempo number with no added hype.

Think more deeply: What are the other elements of the ‘rock concert’ cultural form? A front man or woman, lights (focused on the lead singer), perhaps music that capitalizes on the emotion. But you know what our team did? There were six people across the front, and the darn thing about even numbers is no one becomes the center. When Jon— surely the one in everyone’s mind who should be the leader— finally did speak, we were four songs in and in a worshipful frame of mind. And during the song that he did lead, the lights all of sudden went dim, silhouetting the band, drawing our focus further upward on God.

Now, this is simply one example. You can think of others. And it does not solve all our problems with borrowing the rock concert form. But that’s the point: there is no easy way through this— no easy critiques and no easy defenses.

We must constantly wrestle when we borrow cultural forms; we must work intentionally and attentively to let all the elements— sight and sound and action— center on Christ and proclaim the Gospel.

But such carefully work won’t be the result of cheap critiques of modern worship.

[Goldingay’s quotes are from his ‘Old Testament Theology, Volume Three: Israel’s Life’, pp. 173-175.]

READ PART TWO HERE.

The Communion Liturgy at New Life Downtown

Every once awhile, I am asked what our liturgy is at New Life Downtown. Our service flow (in general) can be found HERE. But the most ‘liturgical’ part of the service– i.e. the part that uses the ancient prayers, practices and sequence– is when we come to the Lord’s Table.

While I am an ordained Anglican priest, I serve as a pastor at New Life Church, a non-denominational, charismatic church, where I have been on staff for over 14 years. Fortunately, a trademark of Anglican worship is its adaptability to different contexts.

Almost all these words are from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The only tweak I’ve made is in the way I announce forgiveness in the ‘absolution’ section. We have the band on stage during all of the below, providing a soft, worshipful bed of music. Once the invitation is given (the last section of the communion liturgy), the worship leader begins the song she has chosen for that week. From Easter to Advent, this is the longer section of musical worship, where we sing 4 songs.

Below, the bold are the ‘movements’ or sections of the Eucharist liturgy; the italics are an abbreviated version of the instructions I give.

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CONFESSION (All):
Take a moment and let the Holy Spirit nudge you about ways that you can surrender, ways that you can turn away from self-reliance and toward a dependence on God. Now, let us pray this prayer together:

Most merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved You with our whole heart;
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of Your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in Your will, and walk in Your ways, to the glory of Your Name.

Amen.

[UPDATE] WORDS OF ABSOLUTION/FORGIVENESS (Me):
May the Father of all mercies cleanse you from your sins and restore you in His image to the praise and glory of His name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

[UPDATE] THE PEACE:
The peace of the Lord be with you! Now turn to one another, and pass on the Lord’s peace, speak His life and His love to one another.

EUCHARIST PRAYER:
Me:             The Lord is here
All:              His Spirit is with us.

Me:             Lift up your hearts.
All:              We lift them to the Lord.

Me:             Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
All:              It is right to give Him thanks and praise

WORDS OF INSTITUTION (Me):
On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

MEMORIAL ACCLAMATION (All):
Christ Has Died, Christ Is Risen, Christ Will Come Again.

THE EPICLESIS– ‘Come, Holy Spirit’ (Me)
Stretch your hands forwards as a Kingdom of priests:
“We pray you, gracious God, to send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant.”

Lift your hands up in surrender:
“Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom.”

THE INVITATION (Me):
“The gifts of God, given for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

Related articles

Five Marks of a Good Liturgy
The Liturgy: What the Community Builds Together

What We Sing About When We Sing About God

Ever wonder what we sing about?

Lester Ruth, Research Professor of Christian Worship at Duke Divinity School, decided to find out. Ruth examined the CCLI Top 25 lists for North America since those lists first appeared in 1989. He discovered that in the almost 25 years since, 100 songs had appeared in those lists.

He then indexed the nouns and verbs in those songs for a comparative study he was doing between contemproary worship songs and evangelical hymns. You can read his paper (with this appendix) HERE.

I offer four observations, listed here with no comment:

NOUNS: We address God generically– with no name– TWICE (8% of the songs) as often as we reference the Trinity (4% of the songs).

VERBS: We sing about human action roughly 1.5 times more (562 times) than we sing about divine action (380 times).

Our favorite verb for God? Save.

Our favorite verb for us? Praise.

But lest we get nostaligic about the “old hymns”, Ruth’s research was a comparative study of contemporary worship songs with Evangelical hymns, and the hymns (about 200 years old or so) don’t fare too much better. See his slides comparing verbs HERE and comparing nouns HERE.

 

Proclaiming our Faith in Worship: How the Creed Tethers Us to Our Story

One of the main reasons we gather as the people of God is to remind ourselves of who God is, what He has done to make us His people, and what it means to live as the people of God here and now. One of the key ways we do this is by proclaiming things that the Church has proclaimed throughout the centuries. When we rehearse these truths about God together, we remembed that we aren’t the first ones to travel thie Way, and that we aren’t the only ones who are following Christ now. In making these proclamations part of our worship, we keep ourselves tethered to the Story of God and His people.

Watch this 2-minute first:

Excerpt #1 from Chapter 3 of “Discover the Mystery of Faith”:

        The object of our faith is a Person, not a proposition. We do not place our lives in an idea or a doctrine or a system or a set of values. We place ourselves in the personal God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Proclaiming the creed, then, is an act of worship, not a recitation of doctrine. Faith, after all, is not simple agreement or the acknowledgment of certain propositions or hypotheses. Faith is the placing of your whole life within God, the only One who is faithful enough to hold your life, redeem it, and save it.

        There is no worship without faith, and there is no faith without worship. It is faith that leads us to worship and worship that enlarges our faith. Why should our greatest, most central and unifying profession of faith, the Nicene Creed, not be part of our congregational worship?

        …Early Christians spoke these words of worship and belief in the face of ridicule and scorn, confessed and clung to these words even when they knew that they could lead to their death. The creed, after all, didn’t form out of thin air at the Council of Nicaea. The words and phrases show up early in the Church’s life, early enough for Paul to say that he himself was only passing on what had been given to him.

        The question we must ask is this: “What sort of faith will we hand down to our children?”

        If the rope is no longer tethered to the house, how will we find our way home as we wander about in the snow? And how will we lead our children there? What will keep their faith? Unless we remain tied to our Story, our faith is sure to flounder. Worse yet, it may die with us.

Excert #2 from Chapter 3 of “Discover the Mystery of Faith”:

        Proclamations like the Nicene Creed remind us that we are not the first and we are not the only. It is also important to remember that the Creed is not the only proclamation that does this for us. There is also “The Lord’s Prayer” and many of the aforementioned creedal formulas or statements in Paul’s New Testament letters. There are the old Hebrew prayers and the Psalms, as we explored last chapter. There are also the early Christian songs—songs based on Mary’s song (the Magnificat), Zecharias’ song (the Benedictus), and Simeon’s song (the Nunc Dimittis).

        All of these are old, well-worn words, prayed by mothers and fathers and sons and daughters in times of trial and on occasions of joy. These words form paths, a trail to walk on. When we say them, sing them, or pray them with worship and faith in our hearts we can remember how many others have prayed these words before us. We can think of the great church fathers, the Bishops and theologians, the peasants and farmers, the missionaries and martyrs. We can imagine all the saints around the world who gather each week on the Lord’s Day and say these very same words and sing them and pray them with one voice.

        All of a sudden, we are no longer alone. We are caught up in the great company of saints, praying alongside David and Jeremiah and Paul. We realize that we are not the first to face despair or hunger or fear. We are not the only ones desperate for mercy and redemption. Our joy of being found by God’s grace is multiplied in the praise of all the saints, in heaven and on earth.

        We are not walking up this mountain alone.

        The beauty of this truth came to me not in a Gothic cathedral or a remote monastery, but in a dusty cement building in the middle of an African village. I was on a trip to Swaziland—a country with the highest rate of HIV infection in the world—when we visited a community of orphaned and vulnerable children that our church supports through a partnership with Children’s Hope Chest. We greeted the local pastor who visited these children several times a week. We met the women who cooked them meals with the money that came in from our sponsorship.

        And then came the children. Singing. Dancing. Playing. Thrilled with stickers and face paint and games and songs and stories and lessons, they made the afternoon pass like a heavenly moment. When one of the local ministers stood to conclude our time, she told the children that it was time to pray together.

        I closed my eyes, waiting for a short, sincere prayer. Instead, in stumbling unison, their voices rose.

        Our Father, who art in heaven,

        Hallowed be Thy name.

        Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

        My eyes opened, blurring with tears. I caught the eyes of the others on our team. We gently shook our heads, all of us thinking the same thing: We pray this prayer…almost every Sunday!

        Give us this day our daily bread.

        Oh…what this simple, biblical phrase meant for these children. I could never say these words the same way again.

        Forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

        Like the parents who abandoned them? Like the family members who chose a life that led to disease and ultimately to their demise, leaving these children to fend for themselves?

        For Thine is the Kingdom,

        the power and the glory,
        forever and ever,
Amen.

        Amen. There is a rope to ties us to our Story; it is the same rope that binds us to each other. It reminds us that even in the most fearsome storm, when faith is all we have to guide us for our sight has gone, we will not falter.

        Others have come this Way before.

        Others walk it even now.

        The Creed, the prayers, the Psalms, and the Scriptures…all of these bind us to the Story, tether us to the narrative of God’s redemption.

        May we all find our way home.

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Who Is “Church”? Pt. 2

In Part 1 of this blog series, we said that in order to answer the question of “who the Church is”, we needed to first ask who Jesus is, and then ask what His salvation is. I walked through two examples of how we tend to answer the series of questions– Who is Jesus? What is Salvation? Who is Church? What is Mission?— and then offered an alternate set of answers from what I observe in the Book of Acts.

All this is foundational. But it is a paradigm shift. Most of us are not used to seeing Church as anything but individuals united by a common purpose— reaching the lost (fill in the word of choice: evangelism, discipleship, mission). BUT…

Church is not a collective of individuals but a community— one family, one body, made of diverse parts who are not members together of an organization but who are members of one another.

Church is united not by a common purpose but by a common identity: we have been marked as the people of God, drawn into the life and fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are, as my pastor is fond of saying, sons and daughters, not slaves and orphans, or even God’s task force or missional operatives. The New Testament’s favorite image for the Church is a household: a family.

——————–

So, what does all this mean for our gatherings, our worship services? Who is Church for?

In one sense, the Church is in the world for the world. We are blessed, broken and given for the life of the world, because we are in Jesus and He was blessed, broken and given for the world. More than that, we are in the world as a sign in the world: we are, as I mentioned in part 1, an alternate society of sorts, showing the world that a new King is now on the throne and this is what it looks like to live under His reign. In this large sense, the Church as the people of God are in the world for the sake of the world and to be a sign of God’s Kingdom in the middle of the world.

But what about the gathered Church, not the scattered Church living out in the world?

Some say it is to reach people, to go “wide” on Sundays and then “deep” on Wednesdays or in small groups. But while that addresses the need for the Church to be both deep and wide, I think it is still answering the wrong question.

The question that not many today are asking is why the Church gathers at all? If we fail to undestand this, we will treat Sundays in a utilitarian way: do the most good for the greatest number of people. So, if a movie series does the trick, go for it. Or if launching a series on sex on Easter is the way to draw them in, by all means go ahead. Or if rock and roll is what the kids are into, ditch the choir and the organ and let ’em have it. The missional movement, I fear, is a reaction to this so-called “attractional” method. No, they say, if you want to reach people, go to them.

There is merit to both approaches and yet both the missional and the attractional seem to me to be built on the same faulty premise: the Church is here to reach people!

But what if the Church is not first about reaching people but about BECOMING a People? Certainly part of the identity involves being sent into the world to “bear witness in word and deed that Jesus is King.” And certainly that witness looks like serving our city and eating and drinking with people in their homes and inviting them into our homes. But all that flows out of an identity.

You know what the Church has said about the reason it gathers? From the early Fathers to the Reformers, you’d be hard-pressed to arrive at a different conclusion than this:

The Church gathers in worship to be formed as the people of God.

We gather in worship. To center on Christ. To be drawn into the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To hear the Scripture proclaimed. To receive the Sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.

As we worship, we are formed as the people of God. The table is where families find their identity. At the Lord’s Table, we find our shared, communal, familial identity as the People of God. We are one not because of shared interests or personalities or income levels; we are one because Christ has made us so. Gathering in worship at the Table reminds us of that. No, more than that: it forms us as that People.

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This discovery of how the Church talked about itself long before church growth experts showed up in America has messed me up in good way. I can’t think about Sundays the way I used to. It’s not just that I can’t let the “end justify the means”; it’s that I have begun to see a different end: not reaching people but becoming a People.

You see, for decades church leaders have told us that how we worship–what we do when we gather– is just an expression of our faith, so adjust it according to the people you want to “reach.” But for centuries, the Church Fathers have told us that how we worship actually shapes our faith, so choose wisely. I wrote about the difference between those two approaches and the consequences they have on our faith, not only as individuals but as the community of believers worldwide. Find our more HERE.