Remembering my hero – Marva J. Dawn (August 20, 1948 – April 18, 2021)

I propose we bring back sainthood in the protestant church. That’s because when someone like Marva Dawn passes from this life to the next, you wish there were bigger words than ‘theologian’ or ‘author’ to describe them – they don’t seem to capture the substance of her life. “Saint” might be better (and apparently CT agrees).

Marva J. Dawn was a theologian. She was an author as well. For me she was a pastor to worship leaders. She was an exemplary thinker about worship, writing many which deeply influenced my life’s trajectory. In Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time (1995) Dawn spoke directly to the burgeoning modern worship movement of the mid 90s; I found myself formed as a young adult and growing worship leader myself in this exact cultural moment. So to say Dawn had a small impact on my life is a vast understatement. As praise and worship music led by guitars and drum sets swept across the country, Dawn neither rejected entirely nor welcomed them whole-heartedly, but offered this kind and pastoral reflection on our theology of worship, our conception of music as outreach, and our understanding of the role of music in worship. She reminded me that worship in the Bible was never done to attract the unbeliever. Worship in the Bible is meant to glorify God. The by-product of this glorifying is that unbelievers would be attracted to God themselves, but this is never the reason why people worship. We get things all upside-down when we make decisions about our worship or liturgy for the sake of the unbeliever. In her follow up book, A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World, Dawn goes deeper into the “worship wars” and exposes the problems of viewing worship as utilitarian – a means to an end. As the title itself proclaims boldly – worship should have no other end than the end of glorifying God.

I hope that I carry a piece of Dawn’s legacy in my own ministry. I have always shrugged my shoulders at the term ‘worship wars’ – for worship is indeed a war, but not between opposing worship styles. Worship is a war between the powers of heaven and the powers of hell, and the battlefield is the human heart. When we coin the term ‘worship war’ as between two stylistic preferences we not only forget about the hundreds of other worship styles other than ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’, we put ourselves as enemies of each other, instead unite ourselves against our common enemy of sin, death, and the devil. And regardless of that, Dawn reminds us that worship is always traditional because it is based on the faith of those that have gone before, and worship is always contemporary because it’s happening here and now. She never picked sides. She proclaimed strongly that we ought to use ‘the music of the whole church for the sake of the whole world‘. I hope to honor Dawn’s legacy by promoting this in my own ministry for years to come. May you rest in peace, Marva J. Dawn. You are a saint to me.

A Theology of Worship

Recently I had the opportunity to play tour guide at Park Street Church – the third stop on Boston’s historic freedom trail.  I had a blast scouring the archives for interesting photographs, letters, and documents from the churches’ 202-year history.  Through this I learned a great deal about the religious culture of early 19th century New England, and the history of this particular Evangelical landmark.  One thing that struck me from the first week to the last as tour guide were the varying amounts of engagement from tourists.  Many of the ~1500 daily tourists that came through our doors were on a mission.  They wanted to “do.”  Perhaps you have seen these tourists before.  They wanted to check off stop #3 on their list, snap some photographs for the album, and duck out before we could even ask where they were from.  The minority approach was the more compelling.  These tourists would walk slower, stay longer, and ask intriguing questions.  In asking questions, we exchanged ideas and learned of each other’s sacred stories; thoughts on God as expressed through beauty, architecture, stained glass, and music.

Now who was the better tourist?  If we judge by how many sites visited, or how many pictures taken, then surely the former wins.  But if we judge by how knowledge was deepened, or how relationships were formed, then the latter made the lasting impression.

This is just how we can approach worship.  We can be spectators.  We can check off the actions, sing the songs, and go through the motions.  Or, we can dive in with all our hearts, souls, and minds and live at full-stretch[1] before God.  Tim Keller describes worship as the act of ascribing ultimate value to something in a way that engages your entire being: mind, will, and emotions[2].  When we sing together, we chew on the text and wrestle with the poetry.  When we hear scripture, we digest it and meditate on it corporately.  When we are lead in prayer, we pray actively with the leader (and might even add an amen!).  When we hear poetry, drama, music, experience other forms of art, we prepare by asking: how might this art deepen my understanding of the gospel?  And let us not forget, we share!  Communion is at its essence something shared, so let us be bold to tell one another the amazing things God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in our lives – living in and embracing the tension between the “already” and the “not-yet”.  Profoundly eschatological (our longing for “Your kingdom come”) and infinitely hopeful is the gospel of our Lord!


            A fundamental part of organizing congregational worship is to hold certain necessary tensions in balance.  Because of this bi-polar nature of worship, it is to be expected that disagreements will arise.  Consider the following dialectical tensions:


1)   Balance between the glorification of God and edification of His people

2)   Balance between the corporeal and the spiritual

3)   Balance between the emotional and the intellectual

4)   Balance between the church past and the church present

5)   Balance between being relevant and counter-cultural[3]

6)   Balance between a local community and global community


And this list could go on.  With so many layers of worship, we can expect opinions to differ.  Each of us will have a different opinion on where the church should stand on each perspective.

In John 17, Jesus says much more then “the world will know you are Christians by your love.”  He links the visible unity of his followers with the world’s perception of himself (John 17:21-23).  In other words, if the church visibly demonstrates real unity (love and togetherness that transcends serious differences) then the world will have an easier time believing that Jesus really was God, and that his blood really HAS made his followers one.  On the other hand, if Christians do not visibly demonstrate the unity that God has given them, non-Christians will find it difficult to believe that Jesus was from God. His identity will seem implausible to the world if there is no visible fruit among his followers.  People will look at our behavior and be encouraged either towards the right or the wrong doctrinal position.  What a scary responsibility!

Differences in musical preference present us with an opportunity to demonstrate unity in the church (along with differences like race, age, gender, class etc.).  Music presents us with an opportunity to love our brothers and sisters by attempting to appreciate AND participate in their particular ways of relating to God, which may differ from our own.  Isn’t it a good thing to rejoice in the fact that someone else is worshipping God in spirit and in truth – even if we would do it differently?  There is even a chance that we might begin to worship God in a new way ourselves!

Another opportunity presented by different musical tastes lies in being a counter-cultural witness to the world.  This might be the kind of thing Jesus is getting at in John 17.  We have an opportunity to present a refreshingly different picture of what community can be to the world.  Our culture tells us that people only really relate to others who are just like themselves. That is what most people expect to find when they walk into the church; old people only talking to old people, young people talking to young people etc….  Sadly, this is what most people will find in most churches (age segregation is just one example).  In contrast, the gospel tells us that what believers have in common (the death and resurrection of Christ) is so important that it transcends all the things that can divide us.  If the gospel made Jews and gentiles into one people, than surely musical preference is not a legitimate cause for disunity in the church.  If this is demonstrated, even in small ways (like people being open to the music of another), than Jesus himself will be ‘believable’ to newcomers.  If we actually lived this out, the world would be shocked by AND drawn to the church.

As the saying credited to St. Francis of Assisi goes, “preach the gospel always, use words if necessary.”  Our visible ‘one-ness’ is as important towards spreading the good news as all of the true words we speak.  By embracing these tensions and learning to worship with others unlike you we are proclaiming the upside-down nature of the Gospel.  As a worship planning committee, we seek to keep these tensions in balance, making sure we do not let any one side become an ultimate.

Think back to your last Sunday in worship.  Think about where you stand on these tensions.  What might be left out of your conception of God?  What are your burdens?  What are your joys? How can you use these to encourage the body with?  Think.  Pray.  Worship.


TCC Worship Planning Committee

Karen Johnson, Ben Keyes, Adam Kurihara, and Kristin Neprud

September 2011

[1] This term borrowed from liturgical scholar Don Saliers.  For his insights on his theology of worship see: Don Saliers, Worship Come to its Senses (Abingdon Press, 1996)

[2] From a sermon on the theology of worship based on Psalm 95 by Tim Keller, Feb. 8, 2010.

[3] Marva Dawn, Reaching out Without Dumbing Down (Eerdmans Publishing, 1995)


(This text appears in “Tidings,” the quarterly newsletter of TCC Wayland)

Preparing for ministry

Gotta love those puritan architects

After almost a year of job searching and interviews around Boston, I’m excited to begin ministry as minister of worship and music at Trinitarian Congregational Church in Wayland, MA.  Today is my final meeting with the elder board, and if all goes according to plan I should be starting within a few weeks!  In my interviews and meetings, I was initially impressed with the quality of musicians at the church, and the passion from the search committee and pastors in both maintaining the rich protestant heritage of hymns and incorporating new styles of worship.  Like any church, there will be some resistance to change at TCC, but from the feedback I’ve heard when I lead back in July, the congregation is very receptive to developing and maturing their worship in creative ways, both new and old.  I hope that I can hear the many voices of the congregation, and also remember the things I’ve been studying and thinking about for the past few years as I begin forming the services, shaping the liturgy, and teaching the choir and bands how to lead others in worship.  I’m really excited to get my feet wet in real-life church work!  Here are a few things I’m thinking about going into it.  Do let me know if you resonate with any of them in the comments:

1. The Anglican church produces worship materials on their website which will be very helpful in forming liturgies over the year.  In a small footnote at the bottom of one document titled “introductory material” it states: “The social and economic needs of the city do not fit obviously into an annual cycle in the way that the rhythms of the agricultural year do, and the pace of urban change is so rapid that we have not devised a corresponding set of urban liturgies.”  TCC is a relatively ‘low-church’ (compared to some churches in New England) in that it does not form its liturgy around the standard church year (besides advent/christmas/holy week/easter).  In this context, what is the place for a yearly liturgical cycle?  Are church seasons worth implementing to give insight into the rhythm of christian life, and if so, are the resonant with 21st century thought?

2. In September the church will be launching a saturday evening service (I’m shooting to call it evensong).  How can we avoid the downfall of discontinuity that affects many churches that offer multiple styles?  How can we maintain an identity as one church, though we offer three separate services?  What can we do as the worship planning team to unify the services and avoid a generational split?  How can we make a parishioners decision to attend one particular service a decision of our devotion to God and not a decision of our consumerist have-it-my-way identity?

3. How can we create a holistic vision for worship and arts, not simply focusing on sunday (or saturday) worship, but to encourage worship in small groups in peoples homes, at other church gatherings and events, and the sharing of our other artistic gifts (visual arts/drama/poetry)

4.  How can we produce music and other arts events that outreach to the community and share the Gospel in new and creative ways with Christians and non believers alike?  A few ideas include: weekly artist gatherings (non-confessional), a prison choir ministry, an advent or christmas concert series.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!