And here’s the cool part – I get to be a part of their newest collective, the Worship Design Collective. I join a team of ~20 other contributors: a community of thought leaders and practitioners — worship leaders, pastors, creative directors, entrepreneurs, songwriters, professors, artists, theologians, and farmers (perhaps both literal and figurative) — committed to networking and encouraging worship leaders with the richness of the Wesleyan theological vision and tradition (though I am not part of the Wesleyan tradition, I have some good friends that are). As one member mentioned on our first conference call, it’s kind of like The Avengers of worship leaders, though instead of saving the world, we just hope to encourage each other in designing and leading worship with excellence in the power of the Word and Holy Spirit – though maybe those goals are more similar than I think.
Even after 4 years of worship leading, I feel like I’m still just a beginner as a worship leader, but I’ve also gained some wisdom along the way, and I’m excited to be able to share my thoughts with a wider audience than just this personal blog. Some folks on the blogging team are way more experienced than I am, so I’m excited to learn from them as well.
If this collective sounds like something you may be interested in being a part of, I’d highly encourage you to check it out. Here’s where you can find us:
And here’s a video of Seedbed’s Sower-In-Chief, JD Walt, sharing a bit more about the vision behind the Collective:
So check it out! My future blog posts related to worship will be cross-posted here and there. Be sure to comment/share my posts (not here, but on the Worship Design Collective site) when they come out :-). I heard a rumor that the blogger who gets the most page-views wins a free toaster.
Conferences are great. At the beginning of June I travelled to Trinity School for Ministry to attend “Spirit and Sacrament: Integrating Modern Worship with Traditional Liturgy,” a 3 day worship conference designed to equip and encourage leaders from traditions across the liturgical spectrum. It was refreshing to hear worship leaders, filled with love and wisdom, speak about joys and struggles, successes and failures, and to speak candidly about the heavy weight placed on our shoulders Sunday after Sunday. By the end of the conference I looked up to these leaders, not because of the size of their churches, amazing bands, flashy albums, or any other external success, but because it was clear that they have huge pastoral hearts, want to see Jesus glorified, and want to build up the church for the sake of His name.
I was also encouraged by being reminded of my convictions. As I met with fellow worship geeks from across the country, I was reminded that I am not so weird after all…or at least, if I am weird, I’m not alone! We all desire theological accuracy and depth in lyrics; elegance and economy in melodic writing; ways to draw the congregation into deeper worship expression; worship forms and models that help people become more like Jesus every week.
Liturgy was, is, and ever shall be CONTEXT-DRIVEN
Since the conference was hosted by TSM, and organized by Andy Piercy [web | twitter], Director of Worship Development for the Anglican Mission, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was at the center of our worship. Piercy reminded us that when Cranmer first complied these texts and wrote these prayers, they were to a specific people at a specific time. They were a direct reaction and indeed a correction to the theological mis-steps of the Catholic church in that day. When the religious climate of the post-medieval church was fear, guilt, and shame, Cranmer sought to reveal grace and gratitude. The liturgy was not an end in itself, but a means by which the nation would be converted; from guilt to grace, from fear to gratitude.
Glenn Packiam [web | twitter | blog] also pointed out archeological evidence of this paradigm shift. He showed us this chapel fresco from medieval England:
Then he showed a modern restoration of what the painting might have originally looked like:
We can see clearly an exalted and ascended Christ at the top of the picture. Great! But looking closer we see naked figures being tormented by demons, impaled on spears. Packiam pointed out, that at one point, this may have inspired worship in an authentic way, we are not medieval Christians, so we can’t assume they see it the same way we do. Indeed, we must fear God and love God. The reformers decision to whitewash these details was not out of hatred of art, or of the traditions of the past, but to better align the message preached by the walls of the church to the message preached by the sermons, prayers, and other ministries in that current context. When the post-medieval church was showing a powerful Christ standing above the chaos and torment of the world and hell, Cranmer was showing that Christ said “COME unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. (St. Matt. xi. 28.).” Read more about that story over on his blog.
Of course we need both, but the lesson here is that if any one is too-emphasized, we need a correction. As liturgists, we ought to be seeking the right words for our context. Are we too comfortable in our sanitized Christianity that is all about love and not about personal transformation? Then we need the Holy Sprit to convict us of sin, and an encouragement to move from apathy to action. Are we burned out on empty religious gestures or tiresome church programs? Then we need the Holy Spirit to refresh our souls and lead us to truly rest. As a diverse church, we have people from all different perspectives who may be searching for different things. Some come to church to pray earnestly in a peaceful space, others come to worship through song, to be poured into through a convicting sermon. It’s our job as leaders to listen to the congregation, hear where they are coming from, and lead them to a greater love for Christ and the world.
A Modern Example
I was greatly encouraged by Aaron Niequest [web | twitter], who shared with us about a new liturgical service born out of the place you would least expect: Willow Creek Community Church. “The Practice” was created from the idea that worship is formative (thank you James K.A. Smith), and instead of thinking of a worship service like a classroom, maybe we should think of it like a gymnasium. By engaging in ancient devotional practices, we were encouraged to see worship not only as something we do to glorify God, but something God does to us. It is not only our expression of praise to God, but how God has chosen to communicate with us: through his word and the sacraments. This dialoguical perspective has a huge impact on how we plan and organize our worship services. At “The Practice”, instead of the worship service centered around a 45-minute sermon/teaching and relegating music to “warmup time,” the entire service is a smooth flow of spoken and sung prayers, gestures (physical participation is loosely encouraged with simple encouragements: “let the posture of your body reflect the posture of your heart”), and guided meditations. The congregation even takes 2-minute, 3-minute, and *gasp* 5-minute pauses in complete silence, listening to God and reflecting on scripture.
One step at a time
One thing that was made clear again and again throughout the three days was that all the discussions and examples are meant to be models; representations of a real thing, but not to be mistaken for the real thing itself. The lesson was not, “look at the awesome things we’re doing at our churches…here’s how you can make it happen at yours,” but real honest discussions about the struggles of ministry; with all the conflicts, disagreements, misunderstandings you would expect.
One comment by Aaron stood out to me. He mentioned that early on in his “mission to liturgize” the culture at Willow Creek, and having recently “discovered” liturgical worship, he introduced a sung kyrie at the beginning of the worship service. This was met with a resounding NO from the congregation, as for too many people, it reminded them too much of “that Catholic thing I ran away from.” I couldn’t help but smile remembering that I did the exact same thing at TCC a few years ago myself. Sometimes you need to take a step back before taking the next step forward.
For those of us serving in Evangelical contexts, there is no one-size-fits-all liturgy. Every person has a unique faith journey and we all carry baggage and mis-conceptions about worship. As leaders we need to be wise in discerning the shape of worship each season. We need constant reflection and evaluation. We need to be sensitive and listen to the pastoral staff, the lay leaders, and the congregation. And of course to do all this, we need the Spirit’s guidance and power.
Speaking of baggage and mis-conceptions, if you are like me it is not a skepticism of liturgy that I need to fear, but exactly the opposite: a strong aversion to overly emotional worship. I remember many camps and conferences that used music, dim lights, and social pressure to manipulate awkward jr. highers into making commitments for Jesus. I have always looked on those experiences with a mixture skepticism and embarrassment. Today, with a decade (almost two!) distance from jr. high, I feel myself resisting any emotional response to music in worship, out of fear that it is not “real,” but put on or influenced by the music.
But here’s the thing: music is emotional. Cranmer’s prayers are emotional. They are evocative, stirring the heart and moving the emotions. When the church prays the prayer of humble access before communion: “we are not worthy even to come to this your table…but you are the same Lord who’s nature is always to have mercy,” I often get choked up. Relentless grace should create an emotional response!
The redemptive part for me was to hear several eloquent, thoughtful, and even well educated speakers share how they want to redeem emotions and help the church embrace worship not just in the mind but in the body and the heart, I was encouraged to give it a second look. We, perhaps rightly so for a time, emphasized intellect out of fear of a thought-less worship, but perhaps we need to reclaim the heart. I’ll admit, it doesn’t come easy for me!
Like I said, conferences are great! This one reminded me of that fact. With only 50 or so attendees, a simple schedule, and a very warm atmosphere of respect and love, the conversations were healthy, life giving, and energizing – which is a high bar to hit for worship discussions!
So if you’re interested in geeking out with fellow worship nerds, be sure to register next year for this conference! I’ll be there!
Approaching my 4th year in ministry at TCC it’s nice to look back and realize that I’ve established a good diet of songs for the singing church. We sing well here at TCC, and I think the biggest reason is simply familiarity. We have ~50 songs we sing on a regular basis, and every week they are sung they take deeper roots in our hearts as these 50 songs become “our songs”.
That being said, I’m always on the lookout for excellent sturdily constructed songs for congregational singing, or just excellent songs that tell the Gospel story in fresh and exciting ways. Here are a handful I’m excited about:
1. I know it’s a few years old at this point, but Chris Tomlin’s “This is our God” will be a great addition to our regular repertoire this year. The simple melody of the verses, and the repetitive chorus bolsters the voice of the yearning congregation to sing of our expectant hope. Perfect for Advent!
A refuge for the poor, a shelter from the storm. This is our God. And He will wipe away your tears and return your wasted years. This is our God
This is the one we have waited for This is the one we have waited for This is the one we have waited for Jesus, Lord and Savior, This is our God.
Since apparently we’re starting with an Advent theme, Come to Us O Lord by Young Oceans is another great heart-beat song that is simple but powerful.
O living Word; please come dwell in us, Lord wipe away, these tears O Ancient Son; so long foretold, we’re desperate souls, draw near
And we will stand, securely in the strength of the Lord Every heart will surely come and adore The Great I AM.
Something about the fifth in the melody above the IV chord at the top of the chorus really lifts you up. Some might mock it’s rather monotone melody, but I think it really pulses with energy on top of the simple chord progression. It fits the text too.
3. No list would be complete without a little Hillsong (p.s. they have a concert at BU tomorrow!). Their version of Psalm 65, “You Crown the Year” from the Glorious Ruins album is packed with verses from the psalm. I’m blown away by how they can take the ancient language of the psalms and make it sound like it was written just yesterday. It’s clear that the songwriters are saturated in the word, and it seeps out into their songwriting seemingly effortlessly. Don’t believe me? Check out the psalm as you listen to the song:
There’s an epic building bridge to boot, if that’s what your into…
On to the non-congregational songs – songs that I like but would never make a congregation try to sing along with them. Unfortunately there are many of these!
4. Songwriter from Indianapolis Nathan Partain is writing some great lyrics and good music to boot. I particularly liked “For His Own Sake” – it has a definite Simon and Garfunkel feel to it so insta-connection to my childhood. Thanks mom! [For His Own Sake – Nathan Partian]
5. Audrey Assad is one of my favorite Christian songwriters out there today. Most of her songs are perfect for congregational songs (we’ve done “I Shall Not Want” and “Restless” here at TCC), but her recent Christmas song “Winter Snow” with Chris Tomlin has a wonderful jazzy Norah Jones feel to it. [Winter Snow – Youtube]
A few months ago I had the pleasure of creating the album artwork for Ben Keyes’ (rhymes with “skies”) first solo album. Ben is one of the members of Ordinary Time, a folk acoustic trio from Vancouver, Canada, and is a member of TCC Wayland, where I work. The cover (in my completely unbiased opinion) reflects the bluegrass/gospel roots of Ben’s music. Check it out!
For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind (John 9:39)
Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? This is one of those fundamental questions we all have, and indeed why some skeptics have yet to place faith in Jesus. A simple, powerful doubt about God and the nature of the universe: “If God is good, why does suffering exist?”
This fall I started a discipleship cohort at Church of the Cross, Boston. The group is designed to help us to engage with key issues in our world through the study of both Biblical and non-Biblical texts. The 14 of us will meet monthly to discuss and debate issues such as Politics, authority of scripture, absolutism (is there only one true religion?), Sexuality and Gender, and more. Fun!
This month we are reading Amos, a book that this worship leader has very mixed feelings about.