Archives For Worship

In my last post, I argued that repetition isn’t as bad as we make it out to be. In fact, repetition is important. We are shaped by repetition—and that’s true whether we are aware of the formative power of repetition or not. James K. A. Smith argues that we are immersed in “secular liturgies” every day and that these shape us deeply without our conscious knowledge. Smith’s solution is capitalizing on repetition in a healthy way within the church. This is part of counterformation: intentionally shaping ourselves through saturating our lives and practices and worship with the story of what God has done in Christ.

While we’re usually allergic to repetition in worship, Smith argues that we need to engage in healthy repetition. What this does not mean, however, is that all repetition is equally helpful. In fact, some types of repetition are harmful.

For example, I remember a time in my life when the song “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” was incredibly meaningful. I would get teary singing it. I had never felt closer to God or more passionate for his mission than when I was singing those words. So I sang the song. And I sang it. And sang it. Over. And over. And over again. Until the lyrics became meaningless. The song died for me. But I kept singing it in church and chapel and youth group. And it continued to mean nothing to me. But I continued to sing it.

The end result is that a song that had been a meaningful form of repetition for me, that was instrumental in shaping me for God’s kingdom, now became a harmful form of repetition and became instrumental in shaping me to be the kind of person who proclaims powerful truths without meaning them. In other words, “Lord, I Life Your Name on High” became a training ground for my hypocrisy.

This little example probably summarizes much of what people fear when they hear about repetition in worship. If we don’t keep things fresh and ever-changing, we’ll just be singing songs and repeating rituals that have lost their meaning.

But it doesn’t need to be like this.

One ritual that every church repeats regularly is the Lord’s Supper. Within 30 years of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper, Paul had to challenge the Corinthian Church to treat it as a meaningful practice—which indicates that it had become a dead ceremony to many in a short amount of time. Who among us has held the profound meaning of Communion in mind every single time we have participated? And yet none of our churches is ready to give up on repeating this practice. We recognize that repetition is essential in this area. And here’s why.

Communion 2Imagine how much it shapes us to regularly hold the bread and cup in our hands. We are reminded that Jesus shed his blood and broke his body in order to redeem us. We hold the symbolic evidence of that sacrifice in our hands regularly: weekly or monthly or whatever. We taste the bread on our tongues and our bodies participate in remembering Jesus’ sacrifice. We drink the cup and our taste buds get involved in the repeated memory. We take this meal together and remember that Jesus’ body has placed us within his body—these people who worship alongside us. And we do this again and again and again because this act is central to our life in Jesus. The repetition cements the action in our conscious and preconscious selves. It sinks more deeply and shapes us in ways we don’t understand.

Can people allow the repetition of Communion to shrink into a dead practice? Absolutely. Does this make the repetition of Communion bad? Absolutely not. It’s still important, and that’s why Paul calls the Corinthians back to a sincere and meaningful celebration of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. By continually eating this meal, we repeatedly “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26). He attacks the misshapen and misdirected practice of Communion, not the meaningful repetition of it.

I believe it is important for us to incorporate thoughtful, meaningful repetition into our church gatherings. This might mean singing certain songs repeatedly as anthems. We’ll want to help each other avoid the hypocrisy of singing truths we don’t mean, but the pull should be back into the significance of singing these songs jointly rather than abandoning the songs we’ve been singing for more than a month. It might mean repeating a benediction in the service, or praying regularly, or reciting the Lord’s prayer together, or engaging in corporate confession, or incorporating bits of ancient liturgy that have shaped the life of the Church for centuries.

Communion 1When we sense that the repetition has devolved into cold gesturing, it’s time to revisit the significance of the action. Maybe there’s a better way to enact the story of what God has done in Christ. Maybe we just need a reminder of what we’re doing when we do ___________.

I’m not trying to argue for a particular form of liturgy. But we are being shaped by the repeated, embodied practices in the world around us, whether it be going to the gym, going to the mall, scrolling through Facebook, clicking our remote controls, or whatever. Unless we see the value of repetition in our church gatherings, we will be neglecting a vital form of counterformation that will help us combat the consumerism and individualism and whatever else seeps into our bones through these secular liturgies. We don’t have to be liturgical in an old, confusing sense. But our worship should be liturgical in the sense that we find powerful ways of embodying the Story in actions, words, songs, and symbols that can shape our life together. And when we find these powerful practices, we should repeat them.

I want to share a brief and simple thought that helps me worship. Many centuries ago, Augustine wrote (as a prayer to God):

No part of your creation ever ceases to resound in praise of you. Man turns his lips to you in prayer and his spirit praises you. Animals too and lifeless things as well praise you through the lips of all who give them thought. For our souls lean for support upon the things which you have created, so that we may be lifted up to you from our weakness and use them to help us on our way to you who made them all so wonderfully. And in you we are remade and find true strength. (Confessions, Book V, Chapter 1)

I have written a lot about busyness lately (here, here, or less recently, here) because my current life situation is revealing the urgency of the topic. In the midst of a busy schedule, how do I find time for important things, like worship?

Augustine reminds us that creation is always praising. We may be too self or schedule focused to consciously praise God, but creation is worshiping God all around us at every moment. We do need to take the time to worship God, but I find it helpful when Augustine says that animals and lifeless things praise God through the lips of those who think about them.

In other words, look at the world around you, and voice creation’s praise. Put into words the God-exalting realities you see all around you.

You can worship God by singing in a church building, but you can also worship God by marveling at a bird in flight, or pondering the human respiratory system, or paying attention to a cloud formation. Praise is all around us, we only have to speak it. To acknowledge it. To confess it to the God whose praise it has been voicelessly screaming.

Augustine says that these things lift us up to God. He is the source and the true end or purpose of all things, after all. They point to him. Do you want God in your daily schedule? Simply look at anything. Give something some thought. Think about anything at all until you can trace it to God.

God is all around you. Everything is constantly praising him. We just need to be reminded to join in. To say on behalf of the silent creation that which it longs to say to God.

And when we do this and our thoughts are lifted to God, Augustine says that we will be remade and strengthened in him.

I’ll explain what I don’t mean by that in a minute; first let share my experience with worship leading.

I was a junior in high school when I asked a friend to teach me to play guitar, partially out of boredom. He graciously taught me a few Nirvana songs and a few basic chords (in that order). From there, I started trying to bang out a few worship songs in an effort to train my rookie fingers to go where they were supposed to. This means that my intense efforts at training my fingers to play the guitar coincided with my first personal experiences with playing “worship music.”

I have been a Christian as long as I can remember, but I don’t recall having been passionate about my faith prior to this point. I repeatedly sang basic songs like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” as I laboriously positioned my fingers for each of the four chords the song requires. I can’t tell you how many times I played that song in those months, but it was A LOT. As my muscle memory kicked in and I developed the ability to switch chords without prolonged pauses, the song itself began affecting me. I can still remember the night that I got down onto my knees as I continued to strum the guitar and sing that song directly to the Lord. It was the first meaningful worship experience I can remember.

Why? Why should forcing my fingers to move into unnatural positions bring me into a deeper expression of praise? I am only recently realizing that it has a lot to do with the embodiment that playing an instrument requires. Though we think of singing praise songs to God as a spiritual experience (and it is), it would be impossible without the body. When we sing to God we are using our brains, mouths, vocal cords, and lungs in addition to our souls. The praise may be spiritual, but it works in conjunction with the physical, embodied functions of the bodies God created. All of this deepens the impact. Just as the physical practice of taking communion deepens the impact of remembering Jesus’ sacrificial death—chewing the bread, tasting the wine—so the physical involvement of singing deepens the truths we express when we praise God. It involves the heart as well as the mind.

So adding another dimension to that embodiment by involving the arms and fingers sinks these truths into our hearts. “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” became ingrained—not just in my mind, but also in my muscle memory. I believe that the authenticity of worship that came from this experience stems in large part from the involvement of my body. Prior to this, my worship consisted of words. Now more of my body was involved, and my desires were being shaped at a deeper level.

Presumably, all worship leaders have experienced something similar. They went through the initial process of training their bodies to engage with music at a deeper level. And week after week they participate in embodied practices that express worship to God. These processes help the truth to sink in, and the worship deepens.

I know that many worship leaders become calloused to the truths they sing about. Through over-familiarity a song can lose its potency, and a worship leader can become numb to the powerful truths embedded in the song. Nevertheless, the solution to this is not stepping away from embodied practices that can help the truth to sink it, but instead to continue to pursue creative ways of expressing truth so that it has the greatest possible impact.

When I titled this post “Why Worship Leaders Are More Spiritual,” the full thought I’m getting at is not that worship leaders are more spiritual than other people, as if singing into a microphone were a sign of spirituality. What I am actually suggesting is something more along these lines: worship leaders are more spiritual than they used to be. The idea is that worship leaders are engaging in a powerful means of expressing truth, and that truth is bound to sink in more deeply as it involves more of the person.

God created us as whole beings, and we are made to glorify him with every integrated aspect of our being. Worship is more than contemplating spiritual concepts. Worship is meant to seep into our bones, to transform our hearts, to come to expression through our fingers, our voices, our footsteps, through every gesture and pursuit. Learning the guitar deepened my faith. You may have no inclination to follow my lead in this, but all around you are embodied practices that can deepen your faith. Pick a handful and pursue them to the glory of God.

This entry is part 15 of 22 in the seriesBook of the Month

To this point, the books we’ve recommended as our book of the “month” have been popular level books—books that the average reader can get through without too much difficulty. This “month,” I’m recommending a book that will require more effort from the average reader, but I think it’s worth it.

The book is Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith and it’s the first in his “Cultural Liturgies” series. I think this is an important book, especially for those of us who are convinced of the importance of “worldview.” Here’s why.

Smith invites his readers to view our familiar world in an unfamiliar way. One poignant example he explores is the shopping mall. We believe the mall is a purely secular location that we visit on our terms to pick up items we need for our own reasons. But Smith paints the mall in a religious light (or rather, reveals the inherently religious nature of the mall, hence the term “cultural liturgies”).

Mall Cathedral

The moment we enter the mall, we gain a sense of transcendence from the vaulted architecture, the skylights, and the lack of windows, which divert our attention from the sea of cars outside and the mundanities of daily life. In this place, time is marked not by the ticking of the clock (which you’ll be hard pressed to find) but by cycle of festivals and celebrations for which the “cathedral” is regularly re-adorned. Oversized photographs on the walls and mannequins in shop windows function as icons, embodying for us a vision of the “good life,” reminding us of what our “worship” will produce and calling us inside to “taste and see.” When we decide to partake of this vision of the good life, we approach the altar, item(s) in hand, and the priestly salesclerk guides us in consummating our worship, sending us out with a benediction (“Thanks, have a great day”).

On one level, this is all nonsense—the mall is not a church. But Desiring the Kingdom argues that this interpretation of the mall is profoundly realistic. The world around us shapes us, not simply at the level of our intellect, but at the level of our desires. Commercials don’t convince us of the logic of buying their products, they appeal to our desires. They make us want it. And in doing so, Smith argues, the marketers are exhibiting a more biblical view of humanity than most churches hold.

Our society recognizes that we are not primarily thinkers. Rather, we are primarily lovers. We do what we do not because we follow our logic in every case, but because we are driven by desire. Think about it: Do you drink Starbucks coffee (or the more obscure and therefore more trendy type of coffee that you consider far superior to Starbucks) because you intellectually believe it is so much better than the alternative that you’re wiling to spend $2 for a small coffee and $5+ for other drinks? No. You drink Starbucks because your desires have been trained, not just for the flavor, but for the atmosphere and experience. It’s not necessarily illogical, but it’s deeper than logic. It’s about a vision of the good life that resides more in our gut than in our brain.

PrintAnd here’s where Smith’s argument gets very important. The world is busy shaping our desires. Meanwhile, the church fights back by filling our minds. We fight love with facts. This is where the worldview approach often falls short. Descartes famous saying, “I think therefore I am,” summarizes our default view of humanity. We are thinking beings. So put the right knowledge into a person’s head and he or she will behave accordingly. And there is some truth here. But we all know it’s not the whole picture. We don’t upgrade to the new iPhone because we believe the new features are worth the price. Our desires have been trained to despise our (months) old iPhone and long for the newest.

Smith’s solution is worship. Our desires are trained through worship, not just ideas. We need to shape our worldview, but we also need to shape our longings. We need formation, not just informationWe need to desire the kingdom. In this regard, Smith advocates liturgy, but in a broad sense. He’s not saying we all have to become “high church” in the sense that we all do responsive reading and observe lent. But he does argue that those things can play an important role in shaping our desires. Biblically speaking, we are whole beings. We’re not disembodied minds, we are embodied creatures. So involving our senses in worship, engraining deep habits and rituals into our routines can help to train our desires. It’s not just about thinking, it’s about worship. It’s about love. The marketers understand this, the church should as well.

That’s Smith’s overall contention, and I’ll warn you that he’s persuasive. As I said, it’s not the easiest book to read, but it’s also not the hardest. Smith intentionally took a middle path: the most scholarly discussions are moved to the footnotes, but the overall discussion is still meant to contribute to higher-level debates. Anyone who has had a year or more of college education should be able to hang with Smith’s arguments, and his writing style continually emphasizes key points.

This book has been very influential for me, and it’s shaping the way I view my role as a Christian, as a parent, as a church member, and as an educator. I would say this is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. Give it a shot.

 

As I parked my car for our early morning pre-service band rehearsal and pulled my guitar out of the trunk, I realized that I had already been worshiping. No, Chris Tomlin had not been on my car stereo, nor was I listening to sermon podcasts. I hadn’t meant to worship (that sounds lame), but I had my eyes and ears open, and it just happened. Here’s how.

As I began driving to our church building, the sun was just preparing to rise. Everything was partially lit with the blue light that precedes sunrise. I drove West, and my rearview mirror displayed a gradually lightening sky with varying shades of deep blue as the sun reflected off of the Eastern clouds. Looking ahead, the moon was sitting low and shining brightly in the even deeper blue sky, shining through some wispy blue clouds. It was the kind of predawn that almost makes early mornings sound like a good idea.

All this I saw with my eyes, but my ears were busy too. I was listening to “Miasma Sky” by Baths (see the video below), a song I am only just becoming acquainted with, and it was killing me. The instrumentation and arrangement are so beautiful, so reflective. It’s nothing like a worship song, but the few and simple lyrics are about being swallowed up (in a foreboding way) by the grandeur of nature. This, too, was incredibly moving.

As I drove, I felt myself drawn into worship.

Then my former semi-fundy self questioned the validity of this experience. There have been times in my not-so-distant-past when I would have considered it fluffy, mystic, or “emergent” (my past self not understanding any of those terms) to be led to worship by a sunset and a “secular” song. So in the final moments of my drive I asked myself, “Is there a biblical basis for what I’m experiencing right now?” And I answered myself, “Yes, I think so.” (Apparently I have a very active and formal inner dialogue.)

Both aspects of my experience (being led to worship by non-religious sights and sounds) are easily explained both biblically and theologically. Psalm 19 insists that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Romans 1 says that God, from the moment of creation, has been revealing himself through the things he has made.

So I saw beauty, and I saw God. He’s the God of beauty. He’s the God in beauty. Ann Voskamp says it insightfully: “See beauty and we know it in the marrow, even if we have no words for it: Someone is behind it, in it.” His lights and colors were streaming through the universe on my short drive, and I beheld his manifold grace.

Likewise, I heard beauty, and I heard God. His name wasn’t spoken, but the sounds that he designed and made possible were being pushed into the air from my speakers. Those sounds travelled in waves through the cab of my car, obediently following the laws of physics that God instituted. They struck my eardrums, which resonated accorded to God’s design. And my brain, following God’s impossibly complex instructions, interpreted those fleshy vibrations as beauty.

It goes even beyond that, actually. Those sounds found their way onto my iPod because God ingrained human beings with the ability and inclination to experiment and create. He carefully chose the musical gifts he would give to the musicians in the band Baths. He formed a musical universe that through the creativity of his human beings would eventually yield guitars and drums and a host of beauty creating instruments. And the eventual result was “Miasma Sky” flowing through my speakers in the early dawn, filling my ears as the color filled my eyes, and drawing my heart to the beauty of the Creator.

So I say to my former semi-fundy self: “Yes, I was right to worship.” As the old hymn says:

“This is my Father’s world
He shines in all that’s fair
In the rustling grass I hear him pass
He speaks to me everywhere.”

Here’s to impromptu worship sessions. May we find them often and everywhere.

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