The need to be relevant may be at the heart of more difficulties than the modern church realizes. In our day of highly produced Worship Programs, one wonders whether these events really produce worship, or whether it is relevant in spite of the pursuit of revalence.
Being relevant is important. We want to speak to people in terms of their real lives, their real struggles and the real world in which we live. If you visit the main site of the Worldview Church at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview (www.colsoncenter.org), you can do a search with the word “relevant” and find many articles dealing with the topic.
The pursuit of relevance, however, by many post-modern churches is a cause for concern. Although many herald their ministries as following the example of Paul at Mars Hill (Acts 17), close examination of their message and methods falls short of Paul’s actual ministry there.
Paul used idioms and references of the culture of Athens as a basis for the presentation of Truth: that there is a God that exists and is Creator and Lord of all things; that this God takes no form, yet mankind seeks for Him; that this God will hold mankind accountable and desires their repentance; and, finally, that Jesus Christ, having risen from the dead, is proof of God’s intervention in this world and will judge its inhabitants.
Many modern claimants to this method pursue relevance and cultural connection, but fall short of Paul’s unapologetic declaration of Truth. These churches, and those that lead them, seem to skirt the real issues of Truth and link their success at being “relevant” to positive press reports and large attendance. There is an excellent article at Touchstone Magazine by Russell Moore which articulates some of these thoughts in depth titled, “Retaking Mars Hill: Paul didn’t build bridges to popular culture.” I would encourage you to read it.
I place this pursuit of relevance in the arena of “entertainment” for this reason: It seems to me at the heart of the desire for relevance is simply that many simply want to be popular.
There is something not-quite-right with the image which portrays the average “contemporary” church worship experience. Without much imagination I can see the image in my mind because I’ve seen it so many times in magazines, in advertisements, and in videos of such churches. There are no windows. The lighting focuses all attention on the stage, and the sound system is state of the art. It’s a large auditorium seating several thousand. The seats are set up in some kind of semi-circle. The stage is crowded with variously dressed people – some shabbily, others somewhat nice. Some people are raising their hands, others have their eyes closed. Some guy with a guitar stands in the center in some worship-relevant pose. The audience, as well, is in various postures of “worship.”
When I see these pictures, I wonder. I wonder what would happen if we placed a popular non-Christian artist on the same stage? I wonder if performers on the concert stage often use the same mannerisms as those in a contemporary church (or is it vice versa)? I wonder if the lighting or sound production would be any different in a modern concert compared to one of these church settings? I wonder if the response of the audience would be much different towards the secular music star and the Christian music star, in that the audience shows various postures of worship in both settings? I wonder if we watched a YouTube video of a contemporary church performance with the sound off, if we could really tell the difference between that and the average rock concert with the sound turned off?
I wonder if this is really what Paul intended when he preached on Mars Hill – and became the poster boy for all things “culturally relevant”?
This focus on performance is accentuated by the volume level of modern church settings. I work regularly with many people in the planning and leading of corporate worship services. One of the underlying frustrations of those leading is their feeling of being disconnected with those they are leading. This is often caused by the need for performers to have their sound levels high enough to hear themselves and perform well, thus eliminating (or at least diminishing) their ability to hear the rest of the “community.” If a performer uses ear bud monitors, then they are completely cut off — which is a theological quagmire, and sets the leader in solid footing as a performer completely separated from those they are supposedly leading.
That this undermines the “communal” sense of corporate worship is significant. The modern needs of performer require that volumes on stage be loud enough for the musician to both hear their own performance, as well as those of the other musicians (or by using ear buds). Once that monitor level is set, the house speakers must be loud enough to provide a blanket of sound throughout the auditorium (whether it is a sanctuary or a gym) so that the “mix” approaches the quality of what the audience regularly hears in other forms of entertainment (concerts, radio, movies).
Once all of those volumes levels are set, it is often the case that the congregation can no longer be heard over the sound of the monitors and main speakers. In this sense, a communal sense is lost for we are no longer having a common experience of worship. If you pay attention, you will note that this causes some in a congregation to simply stop participating. Not only can they not hear those around them, but they can barely hear themselves. They stop singing and become spectators.
This, in part, is why the modern worship band often appears more as entertainers than worship leaders. The community of worshipers may not be actually having a communal experience, but play the part of an audience at a show.
We must rethink these things. The initial impetus for relevance has spiraled downward into a church culture that experiences little of real corporate worship, but excellent examples of how to entertain the masses that come to see them perform.
(Original Post on July 31, 2013 at the Worldview Church: http://www.colsoncenter.org/worshiparts/articles/20136-does-worship-production-really-produce-worship)
In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12)
The stylistic differences in corporate worship abound in today’s church. Although more modern forms of music have made inroads into the church setting, this has not necessarily led to the abandonment of liturgical forms, by which I mean the overall structure of the worship service. For example, many church traditions refer to the main pastor as the “Worship Leader.” Although others might lead songs, say prayers, or read from Scripture, in this view the overall responsibility for leading the worship service is with the pastor. It is the role of the pastor to plan and oversee all elements of public worship. On the other hand, many churches have an individual designated as the “Worship Leader” who does little speaking in front of the congregation (such as a pastor would do), but is considered the one responsible for constructing the “worship” elements of the service including music, readings, drama, etc.
The common idea is that corporate worship is dependent upon leadership. With this in mind, some of my recent reading has reminded me once again of the importance of being dependent upon God in our leadership of worship. We must be ready and willing for the Holy Spirit to move and guide us in all aspects of planning, rehearsing and ultimately performing the various aspects of a worship service.
That Jesus knew this was apparent. Our passage (above) notes that Jesus spent hours in communion with the Father. This particular passage refers to the night prior to His appointing of the Twelve Apostles is an illustration of the importance of prayer in making important decisions. Yet, in the same way, Jesus often slipped away to pray as part of His regular pattern of ministry. It is obvious that His ministry thrived because He was intimately connected to the Father by prayer.
There are many faithful saints who have recognized the importance of prayer in ministry, and I share the following quotes from just two men who saw the results of prayer in their own lives. Although these quotes refer to the pulpit, or to preaching, or to the preacher, I would like to suggest that as our modern churches have developed a wider presence of responsible leaders in front of the congregation, that these words apply to the pastor and the worship leader equally.
If you are a leader of a congregation from week to week, place yourself into these quotes.
A.W. Tozer, with his usual laser-like insights, reminds us that our effectiveness before the church on the platform is dependent upon our effectiveness with God in prayer. He wrote:
“No man should stand before an audience who has not first stood before God. Many hours of communion should precede one hour in the pulpit. The prayer chamber should be more familiar than the public platform. Schools teach everything about preaching except the important part, praying. The best any school can do is to recommend prayer and exhort to its practice. Praying itself must be the work of the individual. That it is the one religious work which gets done with the least enthusiasm cannot but be one of the tragedies of our times!”
Another author, E.M. Bounds, had a significant influence on Jim Cymbala and the prayer ministry of the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Page after page of his writings demonstrate not simply a philosophy of prayer and its importance, but he wrote from an intimate acquaintance of the reality of the power of prayer. Note the emphasis on the power that prayer brings to the leadership of the church:
“If prayer be left out of account, the preacher rises to no higher level than the lecturer, the politician, or the secular teacher. That which distinguishes him from all other public speakers is the fact of prayer. And as prayer deals with God, this means that the preacher has God with him, while other speakers do not need God with them to make their public messages effective.”
He goes on to show the reality of the work of prayer. Bounds knows it to be a serious undertaking that must be cultivated and developed in private in order for ministry to be effective in public.
“The prayer which makes much of our preaching must itself be made much of. The character of our praying will determine the character of our preaching. Serious praying will give serious weight to preaching. Prayer makes preaching strong, give it unction, and make it stick…It cannot be said with too much emphasis, the preacher musts be preeminently a man of prayer.”
I like that he connects our praying to our character. I think this is more than just style, but really speaks to our inner man. When we are dependent upon God for the power and effectiveness of our sermons, our music leading and even our public praying, then we are truly laying aside our pride in our own giftedness and allowing the Holy Spirit to bring His Word and truth to the hearts and minds of people. For this privilege, we should be thankful and grateful.
May we, as leaders, be preeminent people of prayer!
*Tozer quote from “Renewed Day by Day: A Daily Devotional” by A.W. Tozer, compiled by G.B. Smith (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1980), for January 10.
**Bounds quotes from “The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds on Prayer” by E.M. Bounds (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990), pages 413-414.
(Original Post on January 30, 2013 at the Worldview Church: http://www.breakpoint.org/worshiparts/articles/19181-from-closet-to-platform)
Actions Flow from Beliefs
Scripture regularly points out that our actions are the result of our thinking. More specifically—right actions result from correct thinking (1 Peter 1:13-16; Eph 4:20-24; 1 John 2:3-6; and others). Over and over again we are told to “prepare your minds for action,” (1 Peter 1:13), or to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Ephesians 4:23), or to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
Should we wonder that these same admonitions also apply to our worship? We all have heard horror stories about church splits as a result of changes in worship methods and styles. The tales of “worship wars,” in which opposing sides battle to place their preferred style of worship as pre-eminent over other styles, are only too familiar within the last twenty or more years. The striking truth of the matter is that much of this upheaval has little to do with worship style, although that is where the battle seems to rage. In reality, the underlying issue in these “worship wars” is a shortsighted and shallow philosophical and theological understanding about worship itself. Unfortunately, this shortage of insight resides in both the leadership and the laity.
If the right belief system can be established concerning worship, then extremes that cause divisions might possibly be avoided. As mentioned earlier, our thinking will direct and determine our actions. Thus, correct thinking about worship will guide our practice of worship. This will include a solid, broadly defined theological understanding of worship based upon Scripture. Our Scriptural and in turn theological understanding will lead to the transformation of our daily Christian walk. It will also include a realignment of some forms or patterns of corporate worship. Finally, it will allow for a complete experience of worship in all of its joy, sorrow and other emotions.
Recognizing the importance of our thinking is essentially a call for theological renewal. This theological renewal is at the heart of how we think about worship and is much broader than simply doing a study on worship as it found in various Biblical texts. Our theology of worship must be based upon a holistic understanding and foundation of what God meant for our relationship with Him. What it was like at the beginning, what happened that distorted it so grossly, and what He has done to restore (redeem) us to Himself. This pattern of thought—creation, fall, and redemption—is the classic pattern used in discussing worldview systems. Ultimately, our theology of worship unfolds out of our own worldview. Only in this broad-based picture can we truly develop theology which is both consistent with Scripture and tradition, yet adapts itself to our modern times and situations.
It is, therefore, imperative that we seek to mold our view of worship to one that is grounded in Scripture. We must seek renewal, not based upon new methods and theories, but by renewing our minds and hearts based on a study of God’s word. It is time to redeem worship theory and practice and return to foundational truths that transverse denominations, styles and cultures. It is, in short, time for reform. A.W. Tozer said it pointedly:
“Every spiritual problem is at bottom theological. Its solution will depend upon the teaching of the Holy Scriptures plus a correct understanding of that teaching. That correct understanding constitutes a spiritual philosophy, that is, a viewpoint, a high vantage ground from which the whole landscape may be seen at once, each detail appearing in its proper relation to everyone else. Once such a vantage ground is gained, we are in a position to evaluate any teaching or interpretation that is offered us in the name of truth.” (A.W. Tozer, Keys to the Deeper Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973, pg. 36-37.)
Tozer’s words continue to speak to the heart of what ails many churches today in the area of worship—theologically, philosophically and methodologically. There is no shortage of opinions out there floating through cyber-space, and in print, that fall short of recognizing the foundational theological issues that face our churches in the area of worship.
I hope that my thoughts will be a continuation of the discussion of worship theology. By saying this, I wish to recognize and appreciate the many men and women who have gone before me studying, struggling, practicing and writing on this subject—from whom I have studied, struggled, practiced and written. I also realize that my treatment of the subject of worship might be somewhat atypical in comparison to other studies.
There has been a lot of good work done in the last thirty years in the study and advancement of worship as a discipline and activity of the church. As I review the books on my shelf, and think through the various lines of discussion in current circles, it seems that much of what has been written deals with methodology. Whether it is revival and renewal in liturgical worship, focus and organization in “free” worship or a combination of the two, most topics deal with the practical aspects of the public or corporate worship service. Most often, the focus is on music—what is right, what is wrong, why we are right, why they are wrong, etc.
What I have not found in my reading and study is more than a few authors dealing with what I perceive as the heart of the matter, that is, what I would call a “theology of worship.” As you encounter this, and other portions of my writing, you will begin to understand why I feel this is so important, and why my discussion of worship will take unusual turns from the common patterns associated with this topic. I hope it will both encourage and challenge you to think further and deeper in regards to worship.
Please read with a heart of prayer, curiosity to explore further, a mind ready to stretch and grow, and a whole life desirous and willing to honor God in all that you do. In this journey, I will gladly join you.
(This is an excerpt from Mark Sooy’s book, The Life of Worship: Rethink, Reform, Renew available through the links at www.MarkSooy.com)
When asked about the “greatest commandment,” Jesus encapsulated in His response a broad perspective on life and relationships. Reflecting upon his answer at this time of year can help us as we move forward in every area of ministry. His answer gives us perspective.
Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’ The second is this, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
First, we must know God. This is the essential element of understanding life and all of our relationships. There is only one God, and we know Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is the Creator of all things, both seen and unseen, and we are part of His creation. Our very life is dependent upon Him, as well as our salvation. He is God, and we are not, though we often attempt to displace Him in His proper role.
Secondly, we must know others. In knowing them, we must love them. In loving them, we come to know them more fully. All of their idiosyncrasies, their foibles, their habits – both good and bad! As we take a look at others, we really see how needy they are, in every facet of life. We can see in their need the reality of their dependence upon God. Such is the human condition.
Thirdly, we must know ourselves. Our love for others is inherently connected to our knowledge and love for self. Too often we view ourselves separate from the others around us. However, we must overcome this delusion and realize we are the same as they. We need God’s supply and sufficiency each and every day.
So, really, there are only two sides here, rather than three. God is on the one side as Creator, Sustainer, and Provider. We and all the “others” are on the other side as needy and dependent upon God’s care and provision for us.
Keeping this in mind as we serve people in 2017 will help us keep the proper perspective. As we serve those around us, we serve them out of our own dependence upon the God whom they need as well. We are no better than they in this regard, whether they are believers or unbelievers, young or old. As we depend upon Christ for our life and our sustenance, we can be a light for others who search in this darkness. May we be faithful in showing forth His light throughout this New Year!