Category Archives: church

Reflections on Corporate Worship

Corporate worship is not only the crux/cornerstone of what we DO as the Church, but of who we ARE as the Church.

If this is the case, why are so many people dissatisfied with what that looks like in practice; some to the point of abandoning ‘going to church’?  How have those who officiate church services gone wrong?  How have those who attend (or used to attend) church services gone wrong?

Church History according to Me in my Small Corner

“Church” was fairly simple to begin with, just sort of hanging out and enjoying it.

A while later, some world leader guy converts to Christianity (apparently for fairly ambiguous reasons) and decides everyone should join him.  I’m guessing there’s some sort of link here to how the church became a little bit more like the church that was kind of early, but without being the Early Church?

So the Not-so-Early-but-still-earlier-than-now-Church, all used to be in a language only the clergy understood, so some guy caused a bit of a stir until eventually the bible etc were beginning to be in the vernacular and things got a bit better.

No, I don’t mean Eugene Peterson.  But he did a pretty good job too, à mon avisRob “WHAP” Lacey, not so much.  And I don’t know if its fair to say, but some people might be taking it too far.

Don’t tell Ballymoney I said that.

Then for a while, lots of people decided that they didn’t particularly like the way things were being done, for lots of different reasons and so went off and did it the way they liked.

Fair enough?

Some thought things were too fancy, some thought things were too dull, some thought things were too emotional, some thought things were too intellectual.

Recent History according to MIMSC

More recently (à mon avis), people thought things weren’t friendly enough and so started a movement of church services more geared to ‘fellowship’ and making sure people were included and words like ‘missional’ and ‘integral’ began to emerge as part of the vernacular.  Except that in defining themselves in these ways means that people’s expectations of being welcomed and befriended are raised waaaaay high to the point where they’re just all the more disappointed when they feel excluded/undervalued etc.

Increasingly, churches are shaping their corporate worship around the desires/preferences/felt needs of those who attend.

Increasingly, people are walking away from corporate worship.

These are statements, not critiques.

My question is that if my opening statement is true, where do YOU think our corporate worship is failing to be a true expression of who we are as the body of Christ in the world?

Discuss…?

Once you’re done discussing, you can research the first Christian Church Meeting (unless you’re of a sensitive disposition).

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Preach it, sister!

Sunday afternoon I was at a church service where a woman preached and kicked butt!

It was wonderful.  I think it might be the first time I’ve been in your ordinary ‘run-of-the-mill’ context (rather than a conference I mean) and have been not only engaged and impressed by a woman’s preaching but also touched and ministered to in a very real way.  No offence if any of you women reading think I’ve heard you preach by the way – sorry!  But I’m pretty sure this is the only time it has happened in a church service.

I think I’m probably always rooting for a woman speaker to be great, and I have heard others who are good and have definite potential to be great.  But I think the difference here was that this woman seemed experienced. She seemed to truly enjoy what she was doing, rather than it being under some kind of “I-grew-up-being-told-I-could-never-do-this-but-now-I’m-being-told-I-can-so-I’m-damn-well-giving-it-a-shot-(please-don’t-shoot-me)” pressure to try.

Roll on the days when more women are experienced in this field!  Roll on the days when more women are given the freedom to enjoy these kinds of gifts!  Roll on the day when…

Oh, no, wait… Let’s not ruin this with a sarcastic, ungracious comment about Certain People.

😉

Preach it, sister!

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Worship Wars III : We’re all in this together

My last post on Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out without Dumbing Down : A Theology of Worship for this Urgent Time finished with this quote :

I need public worship to bring me a holy and merciful God who shows me my sinfulness and yet offers the possibility of repentance and forgiveness… I need an assembly of people who ask God to be God in their lives and thereby proclaim God’s power, faithfulness and gracious healing. (p93)

We saw the dangers of playing to our culture’s individualistic self-seeking by tailoring our church worship services to attract new people or please people in general.  There are delicate but significant nuances found in the counteraction to these ideas.  We must move away, both as those who lead worship and those who participate in it, from this individualism that is so engrained in us by our culture.

We are not, however, moving away from it just for the sake of moving away, but rather because as the Church, we are called to embody God’s Kingdom and His created order.

An integral part of who we are as humans created in the image of God and who we are as the Church, is precisely that : who WE are.  WE are a group, a community, a family of followers of Jesus.  If what we’ve said about worship forming our character is true, then our worship ought to be firmly community focussed, community driven.

Eugh – and then I trip and fall over my own words.

How can worship be ‘firmly community focussed and community driven’ without retoasting toast and diminishing our focus on the infinite truth of God’s character???

Good question.  Let me explain…

It comes back to our illustration of the parable of the Lost Son and what it says about the character of the Father that He does not say the son is not worthy.  I said this :

…because God is our Father and we are His children, the fact that worship is all about him is inextricably linked with our well-being.

So, rather than worship focussing on how the community shapes worship, worship focusses on God – who is the essence and model of community (as the Trinity embodies what it is to live in relationship) – and worship is therefore shaped and shapes according to that truth.  Man.  There’s a whole blog post in itself…

Anyway, hopefully it’s clear that I’m saying we think about the community of worship because GOD is community and so I’ll have greater freedom to express my reflections without having to restate that in every paragraph.

What does it look like, therefore, to plan worship (and participate in worship) which revels in the God who created us for and calls us to community?

Marva says this :

Our preaching and hearing of the Word, the way we use liturgical forms, our participation in the sacraments, our song, art, and architecture all contribute to create the sense that God is with us (plural) and that we respond by dwelling in His new world. (p140)

God is with us

I remember when I first heard Crooked Shore question the practice of closed eyes during worship, I was surprised to find myself in agreement.  I’d never really thought much about it as I have a terrible memory for lyrics and so closing my eyes while singing is barely ever an option, but it makes sense that if God is with us, I should at least be able to see who I’m worshipping with.  Another practice which undermines the sense of community in corporate worship is the number of songs that express their sentiment in the first person : “I will offer up my life”, “Here I am, humbled by your Majesty”, “You are the only one who sets me free”…  Marva Dawn would add a third: practice of expressing subjective (that is personal, depending on each individual, changing according to many factors…) emotion in worship songs.  Too often, worship becomes about what’s going on with ‘me’.  As worship leaders, we need to work hard to remind ourselves and those we lead that God is at work in US as a community of His people.

The community of the King

In worship, the church is identified as the people of God, committed to the lordship of Christ p131

The church is not seeking to counteract/subvert culture and establish itself as separate from ‘the world’ just for the sake of being different, but because God’s Kingdom life is true life.  The church is a community of people who are seeking to live in the reality of God’s Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven – a community who are building (being built into) a new kind of society over and against that of the world.

There is something completely other about corporate worship – let’s not pretend that to come together in a church service is the same as a ‘worship time’ at home alone, or even with a couple of others.  Many, I imagine (and I have heard some), say that they prefer what they experience when they are alone or with two or three like-minded friends; that they cannot connect to worship in a church service the way they do on these less formal occasions.  This is, perhaps, a valid way to spend time worshipping God but the experience it affords is often then set up as an aspiration or even expectation for corporate worship in a congregational setting.

When we lead worship in a way that puts personal preference and entertainment above the importance of the church community and gospel inclusiveness, we are undermining the purpose of the church in the world.  When we seek to lead worship under the lordship of Christ, personal preference or cultural relevance must take a back seat.

Drawing people into the common heritage of the Church

I think so far one of the subjects covered in this book that I’ve really enjoyed poking around with my brain-fingers, is the importance of the church’s heritage when it comes to corporate worship.

A little while ago, I did some thinking about the bible with my good friend JC (that’s Jayber Crow by the way) and I was greatly enlightened as to the role of the faith community in writing, canonising, understanding and applying the word of God.  So, I suppose in some ways, Marva Dawn’s thoughts have been stirring that up a little more in a way that is even more interesting and practical to me as a worship leader.

Once again, I have to admit, she often comes across as a little bit grumpy and I have trouble separating my feeling about that with an objective view on what she’s stating is a valid form of worship or not in regards to how we teach and integrate the church’s heritage.  But I am really intrigued about her encouragement to churches to continue to use liturgy, hymns and rituals in order to create/sustain/nourish a sense of collective memory, understanding and practice within our congregations.  In this way, we link people not just to each other, but to the greater community of faith of the worldwide, historical church.  By invoking the heritage of the faith, we model the life of faith not only to those well-versed in kingdom living, but to our children, to those new to the community and to those outside of the community looking in.

There are dangers, of course, in this pursuit.  Many churches in an honest desire to remain true to their heritage, have been traditionalists for the sake of tradition (for example those who fly certain flags in their sanctuary because its always been done, regardless of the message it sends…) and lose sight of the true heritage they originally claimed to be pursuing.  In some ways, this kind of rigid adherence to perceived heritage is possibly why some other churches throw the baby out with the bath water and go in the absolute opposite direction, serving Mountain Dew and tortilla chips at communion, or even replacing communion with a game of volley ball… (source “Emerging Churches” Gibbs/Bolger).

I’ve always sought to use familiar forms and ‘old’ hymns where possible when leading worship, but partly if not mostly in order to please as many people in the community as possible.  However, this gives a whole other incentive as to why to discover and perpetuate the forms with which my grandparents and those before them were familiar – even in the context where many members of the church are first-generation – or saved later in life – Christians.  Particularly in our light-speed moving culture.

As we bathe in and walk with the heritage of the Church together, we enrobe ourselves in the story of God’s movement in and through His people down through the ages.  We live and breathe the truths of God’s grace at work in the world.  We eat and drink His life until He comes again.  We worship…

Together with all the saints, worldwide, we worship.

Together with all the saints, down through history, we worship.

Together, we worship.

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Worship Wars II : You are what you eat.

Following on from my last post reflecting on Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out without Dumbing Down : A Theology of Worship for this Urgent Time, I’d like to think some more about what she says in regards to the effects of our culture on the ways we as a church worship together.

We noted :

1) the impact of media bombardment on our ability/motivation to respond with actions to the infromation we are presented with;

2) an increasing desire for intimacy and community with a growing cluelessness as to how to create it authentically; and

3) the dangers of playing up to society’s desire for entertainment.

This time, we’ll look a little more at another aspect of contemporary culture :

4) individualistic self-seeking.

This video did the rounds a few years ago, so its hardly new, but it still made me smile…

Corporate worship is about God and yet many arguments about it are concerned with personal tastes and the needs of the congregation.  We often place a high importance on the quality of the music in order to attract or keep young people/new people/musical people/*insert appropriate people type*.  Here’s a Marva quote :

Music often becomes the scapegoat after pastors have failed for years to train congregation members to evangelise in their daily lives… if such reaching out has not occurred over the years, sometimes churches suddenly switch music and worship styles in order to “attract” people.  The music of the faithful Church is suddenly jettisoned to compensate for long-term failure to be the Church… (p166)

We back up our own desires for better music by saying we need it to make church more appealing to outsiders – an admirable motivation, perhaps, but even here we’re saying that worship is for ‘us’ as the created rather than for the Creator, n’est-ce pas?  For me, to shape the ways in which we ‘do’ worship in our services first and foremost around those outside (or even inside?) our local church is like putting toast in the toaster to make bread.  In other words, its backwards!

So, if you put toast in the toaster and claim that what comes out is “bread”, you start to change what people understand as bread – see what I mean?  If you retoast toast, okay, there’s something bread-ish about it, but its hidden under all those layers of toasting, you know?  Similarly if we redesign our worship services by putting them through our culture and its needs and demands first, what comes out will be worship-ish, but will we not have lost the hot-from-the-oven, crispy on the outside, soft and fresh on the inside satisfying goodness of true worship “bread”?

For those who LOVE toast, this is probably not a helpful metaphor, but go with it, k?

The problem with redefining the definition of “bread” as pertaining to what you get after you put toast in the toaster, is that our perception of the goodness of “bread” (whilst we may still appreciate it) is distorted and our gourmet world is made that little bit smaller.  Now, if humankind loses all sense of how good true, fresh bread can be (and it arguably has forgotten the value of many real homegrown/handbaked foodstuffs in the face of microchips and GM veggies…) it would be sad and serious.  But imagine the consequences of a church and society for whom ‘worship’ is retoasted toast – what does that do to our idea of God???

I’m not a fan of the kind of self-abasing theology that talks of human beings as ‘nothing’ or as ‘unworthy’ even, so although it may seem that I’m saying worship has nothing to do with us and everything to do with God… well… I am.

BUT.

It is important that we hear that correctly.  Let me use the parable of the lost son(s) as an example (Lk 15:11-32).  When the son who ran away and squandered his inheritance comes back, he says “I am not worthy to be your son…”, the father does NOT say, “No, you’re not, but sure let’s forget about that and have a party”.  He (having already demonstrated his eagerness to welcome back has son by running out to meet him on the road) says “Quick!  Bring the best robe and put it on him… Let’s celebrate his return!”.  To even for one second consider the possibility that a son is not worthy of his father’s love is to call into question the character of the father.  In a parent-child relationship, the love is nothing to do with worthiness, but (in a perfect world of course) rather it is a given in the very nature of that relationship.

Therefore because God is our father and we are His children, the fact that worship is all about him is inextricably linked with our well-being.  So you see, as I touched on briefly at the end of the last post, our means of worship have the power not only to communicate the true character of God, but also to form that character in us as we feed on Him.  As we worship, we are drawn closer to him.  As we see Him more clearly, we love Him more dearly.  As we trust Him more fully, we reflect Him more truly.

You are what you eat.

I’d love to hear some of your questions and thoughts about what this might look like in the nitty gritty of planning and ‘executing’ a church service?  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some more Marva:

Genuine praise of God involves all our emotions and needs, not by focussing on ourselves, but by proclaiming God’s truth and God’s attributes and actions on our behalf… (p90)

Praise encompassing all of God’s character provides a safe haven within which we can face ourselves and acknowledge the truth of our brokenness, rebellions and idolatries… (p91)

I need public worship to bring me a holy and merciful God who shows me my sinfulness and yet offers the possibility of repentance and forgiveness… I need an assembly of people who ask God to be God in their lives and thereby proclaim God’s power, faithfulness and gracious healing. (p93)

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Worship Wars : The Show must (not) go on

I’ve been reading Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out without Dumbing Down : A Theology of Worship for this Urgent Time and want to use it as a spring board to do some ‘verbal processing’ about the way we facilitate worship in our church services.  ‘Worship’ is not just ‘singing songs’ and so this is a much bigger picture.  However, as a musician charged with the task of leading sung worship in the context of leading the whole church service, music and singing will play a big part in how I look at this issue.

Just so you know.

I haven’t yet made it to the end of Marva’s book – its not quite the easy read of Now let’s move into a time of nonsense by Nick Page – but if I don’t start to write about it, I’ll give up!  My general impressions thus far are somewhat muddled.

I heard Marva Dawn give some seminars once in Belfast a few years back and was mightily impressed and challenged by what she had to say.  I also have several friends I respect who respect her greatly.  So I guess that off the bat, I was expecting to feel the same about this book.  I have to admit, though, I can’t help feeling sometimes that she’s just a little bit grumpy and cynical when it comes to what she thinks and says about the state of things.  She’s particularly NOT fond of all things technological (tv, internet, popular culture…) and constantly points the finger in that direction for everything that is wrong with the church (I’m slightly overstating for sake of argument).  In saying that, her observations and conclusions are often right on the money and she draws some ‘prophetic'(?) conclusions about the consequences these things have on individuals and therefore church communities and their practices or lack thereof.

So my starting point is that – to outline some of the consequences she highlights of our modern culture on church culture…

1. Television etc bombarding us with so much information about so many different people/places/issues that we are rendered impotent – being overwhelmed then diminishes our ability and motivation to act on what we see and hear.  This therefore impacts how we view the world in general and then, of course, faith – its easy to listen to sermons, enjoy the information but do nothing with it.  This has a knock-on effect with our ability/motivation to think critically about the information we are presented with which in turn impacts the foundations of how people learn and grow in faith, or not as the case may be.

2. Loss of intimacy skills due to internet etc – so we try to whip up this feeling of intimacy in sung worship.  “Lacking sincere intimacy in congregational fellowship we often put false pressue on worship to produce feelings of intimacy” p28 “Now a great number of people know they need community and do not know how to create it authentically.” p33

3. Playing up to the culture of entertainment.

This is the one I’d like to focus on just now…

I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to ‘up front’ things.  In the context of a church service, I like things to run smoothly, be clear so as not to distract people from the ‘journey’ of a service.  But I’ve long been uncomfortable with church events that run so smoothly and are lit so spectacularly and with music practiced so down to the last ‘millimeter’ of sound that people feel like they’re attending a concert rather than participating in corporate worship.

In different chapters in her book (eg 4,6,7), Marva Dawn, talks about how what we do in a worship service models and forms the character of the people participating (and therefore impacting the ‘culture’ of the community).  On this point of worship services like concerts, or “Entertainment Evangelism” as she calls it, she says this :

 “If people are saved by a spectacular Christ, will they find him in the fumbling of their own devotional life or in the humble services of local parishes where pastors and organists make mistakes?” p50

When we create perfection and ‘slick’ worship times, what picture are we painting of the daily Christian life?  What expectations are we engendering of what it looks like to follow Jesus when there are no guitar solos, no fancy lighting and no spine-tingling cymbals and only busy traffic, a flickering computer screen or a baby crying?

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Its missing something…

That was a phrase in a conversation I just had about church.

I wish I could say I don’t know what he means.  I’m afraid that what we are missing is a true experience of the Holy Spirit.  People long for true connection in a church service – not just with God, but with the people around them.  Are we expecting too much of those couple of hours on a Sunday morning?  Are we not expecting enough?

This isn’t exactly the post I’ve been considering writing.  I’m hoping to write something more about “worship” in church services (including and beyond singing), but this conversation has thrown me a bit.  See, I’m sort of used to having these sorts of conversations with people who’ve been around the church for a long time and who are a little jaded or frustrated by a continued apathy or cultural faith-expression.  But this guy’s new to it all and already is saying something is missing.  I suppose I was naive to assume that ‘non-churched people’ would immediately warm to some kind of supernatural-ness and other-ness of a church service (that is if they don’t find it all just weirdly alien and  frankly a bit cuckoo…).

The conversation was flowing in and out of this guy’s desire also to experience a sort of miraculous ‘sign’ or proof of God’s existence.  An audible voice, a dream, writing on the wall… Not an unfamiliar desire for many of us, not least me.  And there I am, hearing in my mind’s ear, Jesus’s warning about those who seek for signs and wonders not really believing even if/when they get them and that, therefore, signs and wonders aren’t necessarily all that.

And yet, and yet.

And so here I am, “verbally” processing this question, this longing to know more deeply, to experience more profoundly, the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of my church community, in the life of my friends, in the life of those around me.

Is there at work a spirit of separation, though?  God created us flesh and bones.  Do we seek to escape the nature of who and what we are?  These clothes of flesh that wither and fade, that are weak and dependant on so many external things.  Is our desire for a more ‘tangible’ experience of the Spirit a gnostic trap, where the bread and wine of daily, bodily living in faith seems dull and frankly a little bit too messy to be palatable.  If that is partly true, then where does the good part begin?

I wrote a little while ago about dynamite, and I suppose these thoughts are linked with that too.  Jesus didn’t come as a super hero, the Iron Man…  he came as a baby who presumably had to be potty trained and taught how to say “Father” before he was able to apply those words to anyone.  In our hurry for ‘signs’, are we ignoring the miracle that is breathing in?  And then breathing out?  In our longing to see ‘wonders’, are we ignoring the miracle of someone picking up the bible and finding its ancient stories relevant to today?

In grasping for the beyond, are we missing a beauty in the “ordinary”?  We were created to be human, perhaps the Fall means that we are no longer satisfied with that

And yet, and yet.

Any thoughts anyone?

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Was it meant to be dynamite?

I’ve heard a lot of Christian talks in my lifetime.  It seems that in a fair number of those talks, the idea that the bible and that the gospel are explosive (or could be so) featured so heavily as to have been engrained in my head.

I’m just wondering… Is the bible meant to be ‘dynamite’?  Is the gospel?

Its just… well, when I think about it, the idea of the bible of the gospel exploding in a great big BANG doesn’t seem to fit.  There is something slow and steady about scripture, something growing, something expanding.  Like sunrise or sunset – where you can’t quite tell the moment where they begin and end.

The whole smell of the Jewish culture in the Old Testament, the simplicity with which churches met and began to grow in the New Testament… Yes, there are moments of great drama and ‘explosion’, but is it not mostly the simple bread and wine of daily life under a new King?

We are exhorted and exhort people with the message that the power of scripture and the gospel are incredible.  Which of course is true.  But do we do more harm than good when we light a fire under people and tell ’em to go and use dynamite to change the world?

Dynamite is powerful and impressive – you certainly can’t go hiding your dynamite under a bushel.  Dynamite is effective, speedy and the results are immediately discernible – not just by the one who lit the fuse.

So what happens when our use of the ‘dynamite’ is more of a fizzle than a bang?  What happens when our use of the ‘dynamite’ brings no visible results and certainly not speedily or even effectively?  What does it say about our lives when they are… frankly… normal?  No wham-bam-pizazz here.

Too many times people (especially young people) are being told to go and shine, go and change the world, go and… blow up the bastards!!!

That may be paraphrasing a little.

What does that mean for the kid who is shy?  What does that mean for mother of two small children who barely sees the outside world never mind have time to light a fuse?  What effect does that have on the capable, dynamic young person who has grown up in a quiet country church with very few outlets for ministry?  What does that look like for a new church-plant in secularist Western Europe whose members are not yet on spiritual meat?

Running around talking about chucking dynamite seems like it could leave people feeling useless, stressed, arrogant and dissatisfied…

It seems to me (tonight as I think ‘out loud’ onto this blog) that everything about the way Jesus came was on the small-scale.  A town no-one wanted to go to, a young girl no-one would know of, a birthplace less than immaculate… A carpenter from a town no-one thought of, from a people who’d been crushed and despised for centuries, hanging around with a bunch of nobodies…  New life coming to prostitutes, tax collectors, undesirables.  A criminal’s death.  Angels witnessing to ‘little women’, powerful preaching from unschooled fishermen, centres of learning for tradesmen and non-scholars …

Yes, all of it had an incredibly life-changing, profound effect on the cosmos but yet happened in such ‘ordinary’ circumstances

If we’re talking about ways to ‘get people’ with the gospel, dynamite is a pretty messy way to do it – I’d think its much more along the lines of putting the frog in the cold water and heating him up…!

How would it affect us if we thought of what the church is doing as a heating up rather than a blowing up?

We’d be less concerned with being impressive.  Fewer ‘slick’ youth programs and polished worship bands, more real relationships and genuine engagement with truth.  Depth rather than height.

We’d be less concerned with efficiency.  Fewer 12 step-plans to greater holiness, more stickability when the going gets so tough it seems to be going nowhere.   Faithfulness rather than results.

We’d be less concerned with seeing results, fast.  Fewer unrealistic expectations of what it takes to know God, more actual living with and knowing God. Endurance rather than ‘success’.

The power at hand is indeed incredible, but does that mean we wrap it up in red, light a fuse and stand back to watch the explosion?

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