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Manufactured or Responsive Worship?

I was struck recently by the thought that worship in the modern and popular mode may be a manufactured worship, rather than a responsive worship.  In other articles, and in my book (The Life of Worship), I have discussed the mischaracterization and mishandling of John 4:24, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.”  Often directed at some kind of feeling one must have to truly worship, the verse is actually about the spiritual reality of the believer and has little to do with feelings, atmosphere, or other elements of the worship experience.

In his treatise on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Martin Luther swerves into this idea and places some perspective on the manufactured praise that was offered in his day as worship.  I will allow his words to speak for themselves, but I wonder how much of our modern worship is manufactured rather than responsive?  Are you sure that your corporate worship is a response to God’s person and work?

…to think to worship God with many words and a great noise, is to count Him either deaf or ignorant, and to suppose we must waken or instruct Him. Such an opinion of God tends to His shame and dishonor rather than to His worship. But when one ponders well His divine works in the depths of one’s heart, and regards them with wonder and gratitude, so that one breaks out from very ardor into sighs and groanings rather than into speech; when the words, not nicely chosen nor prescribed, flow forth in such wise that the spirit comes seething with them, and the words live and have hands and feet, yea, that the whole body and life with all its members strives and strains for utterance — that is indeed a worship of God in spirit and in truth, and such words are all fire, light and life. As David says, in Psalm 119:140, 171, “Lord, Thy word is exceeding refined;” and again, “My lips shall utter a hymn” even as boiling water overflows and seethes, unable to contain itself for the great heat within the pot.*



*Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, Vol. 3, “The Magnificat” (Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Company, 1930), 160.

Missing Stories in Worship

During a recent class session, I was teaching on how stories are taught through the lyrics of various hymns.  Since we were close to the Reformation Day holiday, we talked through Luther’s great hymn: “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”  In the lyrics of this hymn, we found a short, powerful story about the Christian life, including its dangers and its hope.

Before we look at Luther’s story, let me share several insights regarding the use of stories in modern worship settings.  There are several kinds of lyrical content in worship music that can be found throughout the centuries.  One of these is a testimonial kind of song, in which the writer is responding to what God has done in their lives and being thankful and worshipful for His blessings.  Another form is a teaching kind of song, in which the writer is explaining something about God or Christ (such as their attributes like “greatness”) and calling the worshiper to respond.  Further, we find songs that include the stories of the Bible in the lyrics.  These kinds of songs remind us of God’s works through the telling of stories.

I’m sure we could determine other forms of lyrical content, but in general these three cover most songs.  What is striking is the relative absence of certain of these forms in modern worship settings.  By and large, modern worship songs fit in to the category of personal testimony.  The lyrical content is a personal response to God’s work in a person’s life.  After that, we find a few songs that contain teaching elements that are mostly focused on the attributes of God.  However, in reviewing a list of the most popular modern songs used in modern worship settings, there are very few that tell a story within the lyrics.  I find this unhealthy and unbalanced; since it demonstrates a self-focused worship that sees personal experience as the most important element of worship.

In contrast to this modern imbalance, it seems to me that there was a greater reliance on the telling of stories in the history of Christian hymnody.  St. Francis of Assisi (13th Century) created a tapestry in his song “All Creatures of our God and King.”  In this song, he uses story-telling devices to take the worshiper on a tour throughout creation, calling all of God’s created things to join in worship which ends with a celebration of God as Trinity.  James Montgomery (19th Century) used a changing perspective to tell the story of the nativity from the viewpoint of various participants in “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” We hear about Christ’s birth from the viewpoint of the angels, the shepherds, the sages, the sinner, and even from that of Jesus.  Again, this song ends with a celebration of God as Trinity.

Returning to Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress,” let us consider the story within these lyrics.  Upon considering the words of Psalm 46, Luther penned his hymn as one to remind us of the reality of the difficulties and hope within the Christian life.  Verse one begins by juxtaposing these two realities:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Luther sets the stage by placing God as the Fortress and Helper of the Christian in an epic battle, for our “ancient foe” (Satan) is determined to make our lives miserable – for he hates us as Christians, and anything that reminds him of God’s reign over all things.

In verse two, Luther helps the Christian keep a balanced perspective and notes that if we, in our own strength, sought to win this war we would surely lose.  However, we are not alone in this battle.  Not only is God the fortress and refuge, we have “the right Man on our side.”  Christ, in fighting for us, will win the battle that Satan and this world “with devils filled” is fighting against us (verse three).  In fact, in the word of Christ (the gospel), there is enough power to topple the Devil and all of his plans.

But this is not all, for another powerful weapon is in the Christian arsenal.  The “truth to triumph” resides within us.  Verses three and four bring out the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, along with the presence of God’s word.  There is powerful truth found by understanding God’s word and seeing life (and death) through God’s eyes.  This life is not all there is.

And as Luther comes to the end of his story telling, he comforts the Christian by coming full circle back to the safety and refuge we find in God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) in both life and death:

The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill:  God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

By crafting these lyrics in a holistic fashion, Luther has fashioned a story telling about the reality of the Christian life.  Ours is a life lived within a battle.  Satan is attacking relentlessly, and though at times difficult, our help comes from God, through His Son and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Because of Christ, we are victorious.

It is this kind of holistic story telling that seems to be markedly absent, for the most part, in modern worship song writing.  This is but one example that the central focus of modern worship is the tendency toward a shallow, personal experience.  Personal experience is not enough to live a victorious Christian life.  While the modern worship movement remains focused in such a way, the true worship of Christians will be limited and anemic.  Biblical worship, by nature, is much more than a personal experience.


(Original Post on November 12, 2013 at the Worldview Church:

Book Review – Martin Luther’s Catechism

Book Review

Review of Martin Luther’s Catechism

By Mark Sooy

My Christian upbringing was one that was full of church activities and events.  My parents sang in the choir, and included me as early as Junior High age.  There were various meetings during the week and work parties on the weekends (particularly the copying and folding of the bulletin for Sunday).  And, of course, there were Bible studies and youth meetings along with Sunday Services and Sunday School classes.

I recall during my young teenage years spending time during a series of Saturday mornings attending a membership class.  We studied basic Christian doctrines and the history of the church and denomination of which we were a part.  At the end of it all, though my memory is somewhat cloudy, we answered some questions about what we believed and about our relationship with Christ.  Once complete, I was a member of the church.

Missing in this short story of my life was the use of a Catechism.  That is, a concise and direct synopsis of the most important of Christian beliefs.  Something I could hold onto and take with me.  Something I could refer to later, and reflect upon day by day.  Somehow I think there are many modern Christians who have missed the benefits of a Catechism, and I would like to heartily recommend the one penned by Martin Luther.

Luther actually wrote two Catechisms commonly referred to as the “Shorter Catechism” and the “Larger Catechism.”  Although varying in length, they both cover the same material.  The shorter of the two was written with the intent of simplicity and memorization, for teaching children and new believers.  The longer one was written more broadly for Fathers to use in teaching their families and for Pastors in teaching their congregations.  It had more commentary than the shorter.  (These are readily available in many versions.)

Luther’s intent can best be summarized in his own words, from his own preface in the Larger Catechism.  Note his intentions for both knowledge (faith) and daily life (faithfulness):  “Being a faithful, earnest exhortation addressed by Luther to all Christians, but especially to all Pastors and Preachers, to diligently exercise themselves daily in the knowledge of the Catechism, which is a short summary and extract of the whole Bible, and to continually put it into Practice.”

The structure of the Catechisms is basic.  Luther desires to cover the “three most important parts of Christian instruction.”  These three parts are (in order):  The Ten Commandments, The Apostles’ Creed, and The Lord’s Prayer.  Once complete, he also spends time covering the two sacraments that he recognized:  Baptism and The Lord’s Supper.

Luther makes the point that these teachings of the Bible are so important that even he, a Doctor of Theology, must study them daily by meditating and praying through the various portions of the Catechism.  This was Luther’s heart – to hear the word of God!

Although I would never want to call into question the methods of my teachers and parents, for they did lead me to Christ and teach me His ways, I have still found this to be a welcome addition to my own devotional life and often find myself yearning to sit with my Catechism and drink of the richness found within.  Maybe you will too.

Worship in Fear, Love and Trust

“Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good? (Deut. 10:12-13)

This passage, which is the beginning of a more complete statement on worship in Deuteronomy 10:12-21, reminds me of Martin Luther’s admonitions in his Catechisms to fear, love and trust God in every aspect of life. Luther notes that the first of the Ten Commandments reads, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:2-3).

As a professor of Old Testament studies, and based upon his reading of the first commandment, Luther saw that fear, love, and trust were based upon the character of the object being feared, loved, and trusted.1 To have “no other gods” besides the one God is a response of faith to the promise of God to be a Father to His children. Once this relationship is properly established, and believed in faith, the other commandments and the life of worship Moses is calling for (in Deuteronomy 10) flows from the love of Christ and love for our neighbors, rather than from the burden of laws and requirements.

The word fear refers to the recognition and awe of God in His greatness, but also fear in the realization that God is so great and His children so unworthy. It is not a condemning fear, but an understanding that we are utterly incapable of earning His favor and only stand before Him out of His grace and the work and righteousness of Christ.

Reflecting thoughts from Deuteronomy, the writer of Hebrews recognizes the importance of understanding God in proper perspective.  “Show gratitude,” he writes, “by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29).  It is far from his mind that this should scare the believer, in that sense of the word fear, but it is in the writer’s mind that having the proper perspective on God’s holiness and righteousness should cause us to stop before making excuses for our own shortcomings.  We are to gratefully serve God for His grace and mercy, realizing that judgment is only averted because of His grace in the work of Christ.

Love for God is responsiveness to His love for His children. God’s provision of every need as our Father and the Preserver of all things comes to His children out of His grace, based upon no merit of their own. All that we have and call our own are gifts of our Father: self, family, friends, property, good government, employment, peace, health, good weather, etc. Everything within and without are from God and our response should be one of thankfulness.

Note that our love for God is interconnected with our fear of God.  Fear gives us the right perspective on what we deserved in judgment, and how far His grace and mercy has reached to redeem us.  Love is our responsive attitude of gratefulness, by which we rejoice in our lives by serving God in all that He has entrusted to us.  There are many ways in which worship can be described as a response, and these ideas are clearly demonstrated in these verses in Deuteronomy.

We are to trust in God as a child trusts a father. We are to find refuge and safety in Him and His provision.This faith, or trust, should have as its object the One that determines the core of our identity—it determines who we are. If this faith is misplaced, our identity is misplaced, but when centered upon God and His grace, then we have the gift of the right object of faith, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Trust is the inevitable outcome of fear and love.  We gain perspective through fear, respond gratefully in love, and find peace and rest in our trust of God’s unfailing care.  Although our circumstances in life may be difficult, and we may wonder how we will make it through another day, God’s faithful care for us supports and strengthens us.  And often, through us, His faithfulness is carried into the lives of others – because He has shown His faithfulness to us, we can encourage others in the midst of their difficulties (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

At a very basic and underlying level this fear, love, and trust of God gives us a complete perspective. And, it gives us a balanced perspective in every area of life. When we truly understand who God is, how He cares for His people, and how He loves and provides for us we also begin to understand who we are as His children. We are entirely dependent upon Him for all good things and owe Him our gratitude, our service, and our livelihood. In this complete and balanced perspective, the response of worship encompasses our entire lifestyle so that work, play, love for family and friends, corporate worship services, and everything else become an interwoven tapestry of worship and declaration of God’s glory.  It is this that we celebrate in our worshipping community each week.


See Luther’s discussion of the First Commandment in his Large Catechism. Also reference Paul Althaus’ chapter called “God’s Will for Men” in his work, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 130-140.


(Original Post on October 22, 2013 at the Worldview Church:

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