Sep 15 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Sep 7 2021

Maybe Worship Needs Less Passion and More Purpose

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Passion is caused by intense excitement from the outside, purpose is caused by convictions from the inside. Purpose is intentional, passion is situational. Passion occurs when we feel good, purpose occurs even when we don’t. Passion focuses on what we do, purpose focuses on why we do it. Passion is fleeting, purpose is continuous. So, maybe our worship needs a little less passion and a lot more purpose.

Worship based on passion waits for feelings to be stirred externally. So, if those feelings are not stirred because congregants don’t know or particularly like the songs, they can even leave the worship service believing worship couldn’t and didn’t occur.

When passion is foundational to our worship, we are tempted to re-create divine moments, events, or even complete seasons based almost completely on the feelings originally stirred so we can elicit or feel that passion again.

Worship based on purpose, however, responds to a relationship that already exists internally. So, we respond not because of what our songs do to us, but instead, because of what Christ has already done in us.

So, worshiping with purpose means it occurs from the inside out, not the outside in. Thomas a Kempis said it this way, “A good devout person first arranges inwardly the things to be done outwardly.”

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Sep 1 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Aug 25 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Aug 23 2021

Congregational Lament

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The language of lament is found in more than half of the psalms but is largely absent in much of the Protestant culture. Lament is that healthy, open expression of pain, complaint, sorrow, anger, frustration, and grief directed to a God who understands. If congregations are to experience renewal of the biblical understanding of lament and its appropriateness in their worship culture, they must consider how to implement this communal response as a regular part of their liturgy. The following list is not an exhaustive one but is a place to begin the conversation.

  • Leaders must model lament.

Modeling will require leaders not just to preach, teach, and sing about the psalms of lament, but also to live them with their congregation. In response, congregants must allow their leaders the freedom to express their own vulnerabilities without fear of reprisal. When leaders introduce lament to a worshiping community through the articulation of common experience, the sorrow worshipers and leaders share validates those expressions.

  • Read all of the Psalms.

It is ironic that our worship culture so rabidly defends the Word as foundational to our faith and practice, yet limits its use only to palatable text that does not offend. John Witvliet reminds us that “when faced with an utter loss of words and an oversupply of volatile emotions, we best rely not on our own stuttering speech, but on the reliable and profoundly relevant laments of the Hebrew Scriptures.”[1]

  • Pray the Psalms.

A meaningful approach is to pray a lament psalm corporately in response to a specific lamentable situation. Psalm praying gives voice to the timid and unity to the lamenting body. Praying psalms of lament can take us deeper much quicker than we are often able or comfortable going on our own. Eugene Peterson in Answering God reminds us that, “left to ourselves, we will pray to some god who speaks what we like hearing, or to the part of God we manage to understand. But what is critical is that we speak to the God who speaks to us . . . the Psalms train us in that conversation.”[2]

  • Incorporate lament beyond contrition.

If we have participated at all in lament in our public and private worship practices, it has been as a response to sorrow and despair over our sinful nature. We are often more comfortable with contrition, since we can admit that our struggle is something we caused and there is no one to blame but ourselves. This alleviates our discomfort and fear of the appearance of faithlessness by questioning God in our lament language. Contrition in response to our sinful nature is indeed a necessity. But we must also admit that lament in response to circumstances beyond our control is also necessary.

  • Sing songs of lament.

Until recently, the writers and composers of hymns and modern worship songs were not publishing many songs to help a congregation express the language of lament. Even those texts that leaned toward lament were often set to catchy tunes in major keys. Since the ongoing tragedies of life cannot be ignored, however, more composers and lyricists are offering song selections to help congregations express words of pain, grief, sorrow, and even anger.

  • If not here, then where?

If our churches are not a safe place to express despair, pain, grief, and anger, then where is a safe place? Since this language is so prevalent in the lives of our congregants, we must offer them a venue to express those emotions or they will look for another place more excepting of that kind of language. Walter Brueggemann suggests that “in a society that is increasingly shut down in terms of public speech, the church in all of its pastoral practices may be the community where the silenced are authorized to voice.”[3]

 

[1] John D. Witvliet, “A Time to Weep: Liturgical Lament in Times of Crisis,” Reformed Worship 44 (June 1997): 22.

[2] Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (San Francisco: Harper, 1989), 3.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “Voice as Counter to Violence,” Calvin Theological Journal 36 (April 2001): 25.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Aug 9 2021

Want Healthier Worship on Sunday? Gotta Serve Somebody on Monday!

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Sunday worship is both the culmination and commencement of the worship week. Commencement means a beginning or a start and culmination means an end or an arrival at a final stage. When considering these definitions with regard to Sunday worship, what seems mutually exclusive is actually collectively exhaustive. Is the Sunday worship service the commencement of the worship week? Yes! Is the Sunday worship service the culmination of the worship week? Yes!

As a commencement, the Sunday service sings our congregations out. The worship when we gather may be great, but until it impacts those we come into contact with when we disperse, it’s incomplete. As a culmination, the Sunday service sings our congregations in. Gathered worship is then a continuation and celebration of the worship that has already been occurring during the week through sacrificial acts of service. So, Sunday is the day we both gather them for worship and disperse them to worship.

A couple of decades ago I was conducting the last Saturday morning rehearsal before our choir and orchestra presented their Christmas music the next day in our services. We needed six hours of rehearsal but only had three, so the stress was high and levity low. Right in the middle of rehearsing one of the songs, a man entered the worship center behind me, distracting the players and singers. I stopped the song to address the interruption and regain control of rehearsal.

It was obvious from his appearance that this man’s needs were benevolent ones. He was there to request help with food for his family, fuel for their car, and firewood to heat their home. Since he had recently lost his job, he was also hoping our church could help with Christmas gifts for his children. I responded to his request by saying, “We’re in the middle of preparing for a special Christmas worship service tomorrow at church, so we won’t have time to help you right now. But if you’ll come by our offices on Monday, we’ll see if we can get you some assistance.” He never returned.

Mark Labberton wrote, “Worship can name a Sunday gathering of God’s people, but it also includes how we treat those around us, how we spend our money, and how we care for the lost and the oppressed. Worship can encompass every dimension of our lives.”[1] I often wonder how much more impactful our Christmas worship services on that Sunday evening might have been if I had taken a few moments to serve as an act of worship on that Saturday morning.

We sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs as an expression of our desire to know Jesus, but the Jesus we want to know is the sanitized Jesus who looks a lot like us. Despite God’s word to the contrary, we think that we can say we love God yet hate our neighbor, neglect the widow, forget the orphan, fail to visit the prisoner, ignore the oppressed. When we do this, our worship becomes a lie to God.[2]

Serving others reminds us that the sermons we have prepared and songs we have selected may not be the most important act of worship this week. Serving others is one of those actions we take to ensure that worship continues when we leave our services. We spend so much time leading church services as an act of worship that we often neglect to lead the church in service as an act of worship too. Worship as service will never be completely realized until we can say every Sunday, “Worship has left the building.” God is looking for a worship lifestyle that rights wrongs, cares for the poor, rejects injustice, and embraces generosity. Worship that comes from a community that doesn’t model those characteristics turns the beautiful melodies we’ve just sung into something discordant.[3]

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What could occur as we lead gathered worship on Sunday if we have served together as a team during the week?
  • How can we better balance our time between our worship services and worship as service?
  • In what ways can we ensure the songs we sing on Sunday are also evident in the lives we lead the rest of the week?
  • What service ministry might we adopt together as a team?

[1] Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2007), 13.

[2] Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship, 71.

[3] David Ruis, The Justice God Is Seeking: Responding to the Heart of God through Compassionate Worship (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2006), 29.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Jul 14 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jul 12 2021

Is Hallmark Planning Your Worship Services?

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Some congregations and even entire denominations have not embraced the Christian calendar as foundational to their worship planning and implementation out of concern that it is too rigid, routine, or orthodox. In their desire to be non-liturgical, however, some have in fact created their own liturgy framed by Hallmark or denominational and civic calendars.

The desire for worship creativity has caused some congregations to look elsewhere, believing annual celebrations promote monotony and conformity. But Timothy Carson wrote, “Exactly the opposite may be true. Because it has stood the test of time, it may be sufficiently deep to allow me to swim more deeply in it. Because it is repeated, I have another chance, today, to go where I could not go yesterday.”[1]

In the Middle Ages the church calendar was filled with such a multitude of saints’ days that the value of festivals such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost was lost. In response, some of the Reformers eliminated the entire church year. Other Protestants responded similarly, and in the sixteenth century the Puritans rejected even Christmas as a festival day.[2]

As Protestant congregations started again to commemorate special days, they focused on cultural and denominational calendars instead of on the Christian calendar. As the antitheses to what was considered Catholic, these civic days were given as much or more credibility as the days of the Christian calendar. But some congregations who avoided the Christian calendar were affirming annual observances whose foundations were not biblically grounded.[3]

I love, appreciate, and revere my family. I am grateful I get to be their husband and dad. I think about them often and can’t imagine life without them. Our story is something I enjoy celebrating and telling others about every chance I get. As a result of that gratitude, what if I used the worship service this Sunday just to exalt my family? Instead of worshipping God that day, what if I planned the entire service to celebrate and sing the praises of my family?

If idolatry is extreme devotion to anyone or anything that isn’t God, then replacing the cross with our mothers, fathers, graduates, or the flag as the primary symbol of our worship on any given Sunday could cause us to stray into idol territory. God’s story and our response to that story transcend cultural and denominational calendars.

Harold Best wrote, “There is one fundamental fact about worship: at this very moment, and for as long as this world endures, everybody inhabiting it is bowing down and serving something or someone—an artifact, a person, an institution, an idea, a spirit, or God through Christ.”[4] Best continued with, “All worship outside the worship of God through Christ Jesus is idolatrous.”[5]

God has placed each one of our congregations in a unique cultural and national context. Worshipping while giving consideration to those contexts is one of the exciting challenges for a modern church. As long as Christian worship is our starting point it will provide us with the opportunity to take up that challenge without compromising our biblical and theological foundations.[6]  Why couldn’t we celebrate Mother’s Day, Graduation Sunday, and Memorial Day in the same seasons as Ascension Day and Pentecost? Without ignoring one or the other, it is possible to converge holidays significant to our civic and denominational calendars with those Christian holidays significant to the kingdom.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What days or seasons in the Christian calendar haven’t we been observing that we could add to our worship calendar?
  • How can we incorporate cultural, denominational, and Christian calendar observances within our worship service?
  • How can we move away from observing holidays that are causing us to take our focus from the worship of God, while still being sensitive to the emotional connection those days have for our congregation?

 

[1] Timothy L. Carson, Transforming Worship (St. Louis: Chalice, 2003), 57.

[2] Barry Liesch, People in the Presence of God: Models and Directions for Worship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 223.

[3] Carson, Transforming Worship, 56.

[4] Harold M. Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 17.

[5] Best, Unceasing Worship, 163.

[6] Robert E. Webber, ed., The Complete Library of Christian Worship, vol. 5, The Services of the Christian Year (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993), 82–83.

 

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Jun 23 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 21 2021

Worship Leader: You’re an Usher, Not the Bride

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Most Protestant churches have rejected the old covenant practice of recognizing priests as a special class of religious hierarchy. Even though some congregations have retained the title, their priestly function is often a pastoral role as ministers rather than as interceders. The belief that someone else must mediate our relationship with God for us or dispense God’s grace to us was set aside through the foundational doctrine of the priesthood of every believer.

If worship leadership is always done by a select few, then we may be continuing to feed that priestly misconception. Those who lead worship should instead take on that responsibility like an usher in a wedding. The duty of a wedding usher is to help others find their place in the wedding ceremony. They accomplish this task without coercion or force by offering their arm as an encouragement for participants to accompany them.

Ushers always move at an appropriate pace as they guide and exhort friends and family to their proper locations. It is often necessary for ushers to arrive early and stay late since they have just as much responsibility before and after the ceremony as during it. And the best ushers are those who are friendly, genuine, and welcoming without needing to be acknowledged, honored, or credited.

Even though ushers play a key role in the wedding ceremony, they must have enough humility to acknowledge they aren’t and won’t ever be the bride. Leading worship like an usher with an attitude of humility is one of the most difficult qualities for a worship leader to embrace and sustain. In the name of a higher calling we are often unwilling to take a secondary and supportive role.

Scripture offers Jesus as “a priest in the holy place, which is the true meeting tent that God, not any human being, set up” (Heb 8:2). In this place of ministry, Jesus became our liturgist and serves as our mediator. As the tabernacle and its elements are described, the author of Hebrews points out that the old covenant limited access to God. Only the high priest was allowed into the holy of holies one time a year with a blood offering (Heb 9:3, 6-7). The place where God’s presence was most realized was not available except through the high priest and only at certain times of the year.

In the new covenant, however, Jesus became the mediator and serves as the intercessor for the people of God. An earthly priest was no longer required; the sacrifice was complete; Jesus’s blood was offered; the veil was torn in half; and the way was now open for all to worship God without an earthly mediator. Most churches embrace that shift theologically and doctrinally but sometimes continue to function with leaders who are still serving as earthly high priests.

Worship leaders’ calling is to invest in, not intercede for, our congregations. That responsibility is Jesus’s alone, not ours. The death and resurrection of Jesus reminds us that all may enter into the presence of God with boldness not available in the restrictions of the old covenant. Our responsibility is to serve our congregations like an usher by exhorting them to an understanding that “we have confidence that we can enter the holy of holies by means of Jesus’ blood, through a new and living way that he opened up for us through the curtain, which is his body, and we have a great high priest over God’s house” (Heb 10:19-21).

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How might our worship-leadership habits be causing us to appear as the bride instead of an usher?
  • What would leading like an usher look like each Sunday in the worship culture of our congregation?
  • How can we hold one another accountable if we are to start moving toward leading worship on behalf of instead of with our congregation?
  • If we only have a limited pool of qualified worship leaders, then how do we keep from giving the impression that worship can only be led by a select few?

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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May 19 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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May 17 2021

The Narcissism of Worship My Way

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We are created in God’s image, not God in ours. When we worship we must acknowledge that we aren’t starting the conversation. Instead, God began the dialogue and is inviting us to join it.

Our worship proclaims, enacts, and sings God’s story.[1] If our worship is truly in spirit and truth, then it must reflect who God is, not necessarily just what we want. When we focus on what we need, deserve, and prefer, the attention of our worship is always on us. But when we focus on what God desires, the attention of our worship is on him.

Conversational narcissism is what sociologist Charles Derber calls the constant shifting of the conversation away from others and back to us. Derber wrote, “One conversationalist transforms another’s topic into one pertaining to himself through the persistent use of the shift-response.”[2] Shift-response is taking the topic of conversation initiated by another and shifting its focus to our own selfish interests. We’ve all been involved in those conversations that have been hijacked by someone who makes their own story seem more dramatic, humorous, or emotional than all others. A conversation that originally began with others ends up being focused on them.

Conversational narcissism is manifested in worship when we take the topic and shift its focus to a topic of our own choosing. Instead of worship focused on God and God’s story, it is focused on me and my story.[3] Shifting the topic of our worship can also shift the object of our worship. When those shifts occur, the conversation is no longer initiated by or focused on the worshipped but instead on the worshipper. In his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed,” C. S. Lewis illustrated the difference between just seeing something as an outsider and actually seeing or looking along something as an insider:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.[4]

When we stand outside of the beam and expect it to move where we are, the god we worship looks like us. We believe that the beam is there for our sake instead of our being there for its sake. Then the object of our worship (God and God’s story) is transferred to an object of our own choosing (us and our story). Harold Best wrote, “Idolatry is the difference between walking in the light and creating our own light to walk in.”[5] But when we step into the beam and look along that beam, we don’t just see God, we also see what God wants us to see. Then our worship is no longer shaped by what we want or feel like we’ve earned, but instead is shaped by who God is and what he has done.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How can we help our congregation step into God’s story instead of expecting God to step into ours?
  • Since we get to select what occurs in worship each week, how can we make sure we aren’t selecting worship elements just to accommodate our own needs?
  • Are there any recent examples where it seems like we asked God to move the beam where we are?
  • What worship elements could we introduce to help our congregants transform from selfish to selfless worshippers?

[1] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 39.

[2] Charles Derber, The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979), 26–27.

[3] Robert Webber, The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 231.

[4] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212.

[5] Harold M. Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 165–66.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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May 12 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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May 5 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Apr 28 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Apr 26 2021

20 Blessings for Continuous Worship

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Worship isn’t just our response to God’s revelation through the songs we sing on Sunday, it’s also our response through the rhythms and harmonies of life on Monday. Worshiping as we gather here and scatter there are both biblical and necessary if we are to faithfully love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. One can’t survive without the other. So, as good as our worship actions might have been as we gathered in here, they are incomplete until they also include how we continue to worship out there. Blessings like the ones below can send your congregation out with scriptural texts in their hearts and on their lips for continuing worship out there.

Romans 15:13
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Numbers 6:24-26
May the Lord bless you and protect you; may the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you; may the Lord look with favor on you and give you peace.

1 Corinthians 15:58
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. And may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will do it.

Romans 8:38-39
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Psalm 121:1-2
I lift my eyes toward the mountains. Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

Romans 15:5-6
Now may the God who gives endurance and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, according to Christ Jesus, so that you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one mind and one voice.

Ephesians 3:20-21
Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

2 Peter 1:2-3
May grace and peace be multiplied to you through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

Romans 16:25-27
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation about Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept silent for long ages but now revealed and made known through the prophetic Scriptures, according to the command of the eternal God to advance the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ—to him be the glory forever! Amen.

Hebrews 13:20-21
Now may the God of peace, who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus—the great Shepherd of the sheep—through the blood of the everlasting covenant, equip you with everything good to do his will, working in us what is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36
Oh, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments and untraceable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?
And who has ever given to God, that he should be repaid?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen.

Jude 24-25
Now to him who is able to protect you from stumbling and to make you stand in the presence of his glory, without blemish and with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority before all time, now and forever. Amen.

2 Corinthians 13:11; 13
Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice. Become mature, be encouraged, be of the same mind, be at peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Ephesians 3:16-19
I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Philippians 4:5-7
Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Colossians 3:12-17
Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

1 Thessalonians 3:12-13
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you. And may the Lord cause you to increase and overflow with love for one another and for everyone, just as we do for you. May he make your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen.

2 Thessalonians 2:16-17
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal encouragement and good hope by grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good work and word.

2 Peter 3:17-18
Therefore, dear friends, since you know this in advance, be on your guard, so that you are not led away by the error of lawless people and fall from your own stable position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.

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Apr 19 2021

10 Worship Leading Fails

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failureWorship-leading novices and aging veterans have all looked back at certain Sundays with a deep longing for another chance to do or handle things differently. It would be impossible to go back and make corrections to many of those leadership and relationship failures. We do, however, have the opportunity for another chance to get it right this Sunday. One way to learn from the past in order to influence the future is to anticipate and head-off some of the following mistakes before they are made.

 

  1. Trying to fix relationships with music

Leading music doesn’t necessarily equate to leading people. We’ll never be able to teach enough new songs to make up for leadership and relationship failures. What will our congregations remember most about our worship leadership…how we led them musically while on the platform or how we ministered to them off the platform? Musical talent and platform presence may help us secure a worship leading position but developing relationship skills will help us keep it.

  1. Flying Solo

Most of us have enough musical talent to succeed alone for a while. The time will come, however, when the inherent risks of trying to do it alone will cause us to fail, also alone. So if we try to receive all the credit when something works, we’ll also receive all the credit when something doesn’t. If we never involve our congregants as more than casual bystanders while we read, speak, sing, play, pray, testify, lead, mediate, commune, baptize, confess, thank, petition and exhort, then how can we expect them to transform from passive spectators to active participators?

  1. Singing too much

Music is an expression given to us so that we might offer it to God in worship. But it is not the only expression or even the primary expression. Considering Scripture, Prayer and the Lord’s Supper as foundational instead of supplemental worship elements could alleviate the pressure on music to serve as the primary driver of worship renewal and consequently diminish its solitary blame for worship conflict.

  1. Trying to be the bride

Ushers play a key role in the wedding ceremony but they must have enough humility to acknowledge they aren’t and won’t ever be the bride. Like ushers, worship leaders must be willing to take a secondary role in order to help others find their place in the service without coercion or force but instead by humbly encouraging participants to accompany them.

  1. Inviting God to show up

Worship isn’t our attempt to be with the Father, it is our response to having been with the Father. We often take credit for instigating God’s presence by what we sing or how we sing it. But He started the conversation, was present long before we arrived, and has been waiting patiently for us to acknowledge Him. So, worship doesn’t invite God’s presence, it acknowledges it.

  1. Leading by comparison

The potential for worship leading envy is high since we don’t have to look very far to find other leaders who are younger, play guitar better, sing with more passion or have a better platform presence. Contentment is leading the ministry God has given you. Comparison is envying the ministry you wish He had given you. It is tempting to look to the left or right to see how we measure up. Instead, we must run this race by keeping our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2).

  1. Talking too much

Worship service elements and song sets often require meaningful verbal transitions and yet, we rarely prepare for or even think about those transitions until it is time to make them. The result is often a long-winded holding pattern of circular discourse including clichés, detours, and verbosity. Successful worship verbal communicators know the flight plan and how to land the plane before leaving the runway.

  1. Confusing calling and convenience

If we are leading worship every Sunday just because we love to play and sing, because we need to supplement our income, because we enjoy being up-front, or because we are not trained to do anything else, then our worship leading compulsion might be out of convenience instead of calling. A calling is a personal invitation from God to carry out a unique task. And it is not always convenient. Convenience says, “This is what I was trained to do.”  Calling says, “This is what I was created to do.”

  1. Segregating grandparents and grandchildren

We often divide our congregations along age and affinity lines in an effort to appease multiple generations and minimize conflict. Except in rare cases, it appears that the worshiping community suffers and all generations lose. It is beneficial for all generations when grandparents and grandchildren get to worship together. But it’s only possible when battle lines are drawn over who can offer or give the most instead of who deserves or demands the most.

  1. Leading worship as an event

If our worship leadership conveys that worship starts when we start it and ends when we end it; if we expend all resources and energy preparing for and leading a single hour on Sunday and have nothing left to encourage worship the other hours of the week; if we aren’t exhorting our congregations and modeling for them how to worship not only when we gather but also when we disperse; then we are leading worship as an event. Worship is a daily process, not a weekly event. What occurs on Sunday should be an overflow of what has already occurred during the week.

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Mar 24 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Mar 22 2021

Pulpit Envy

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No matter how large or small, every church should be developing distinctly and becoming uniquely the congregation God has called them to be. Loving the Lord with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves are never contingent on congregational size or abilities. It is instead our offering of all we have at that time and all we are in that moment.[1]

The potential for ministry envy is high since we don’t have to look very far to find another church with larger ministries, more celebrity, an edgier band, or a pastor with better communication skills and platform presence than ours. Ministry envy is irrational and covetous discontent as the result of another’s perceived superior qualities, advantages, achievements, and successes. So, instead of being willing to champion the ministry successes of our colleagues in other churches, we assume and even publicly claim that those successes must only have been possible through stylistic superficialities, biblical shallowness, or theological compromise.

When we pastor from an attitude of envy our churches will never measure up because of what we are trying every Sunday to measure up to. To measure up means to be as good as, to have the same qualifications as, to reach a certain standard as, to be of high enough quality for, or to compare with something or someone else. Trying to measure up to the ministries of another congregation can be like running on a treadmill. As long as we keep our eyes focused ahead, we can log miles safely. But when we look to the left or right to see  how we measure up, our feet follow our eyes and cause us to veer off course or even wipeout. The writer of Hebrews said it this way: let’s run the race that is laid out in front of us and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter (Heb 12:1-2).

Comparing the ministries of our church to that of another congregation means we are trying to measure up to a standard God has called them to, not the one he has called us to. And God obviously sees the value of our calling even in those seasons when we don’t. Keeping our eyes on Jesus instead of others means we lead with contentment, not comparison. It’s a discipline that is not always fun and even seems painful at the time. Later, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness for those of us trained by it (Heb 12:11).

We could learn a lot from MacGyver, the main character in an action-adventure television series that ran for several seasons in the 1980s. The show followed secret agent Angus MacGyver as he solved complex situations with everyday materials. Using common items on hand, MacGyver was able to find clever and often unbelievable solutions for seemingly unsolvable problems.

Offering what we have is not settling for mediocrity, nor is it a license for laziness. We still need to pray that God would send more people, stronger leaders, a stellar worship band, and greater opportunities to influence our community and the world. But like MacGyver, we can’t wait until all of the people and pieces are in place to respond to our calling. Instead, we have to create something unbelievable with what God has made available.

 

[1] David Manner, “Small Church MacGyvers,” Worshipleader: Pursuing the Mission of God in Worship, July/August 2015, 14–16. Portions of this article first appeared in this magazine article.

The above post is adapted from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Mar 10 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Mar 8 2021

Stop Singing

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Our worship actions can drown out the distinct voice of God that is often only discernible in the silence. In the midst of our self-generated noise, we can miss healing, comforting, and encouraging words of hope such as “I am with you,” “Well done,” “You are forgiven,” and “I am weeping with you.” Scripture is certainly not silent on silence: “That’s enough! Now know that I am God!” (Ps 46:10). “Don’t be quick with your mouth or say anything hastily before God, because God is in heaven, but you are on earth. Therefore, let your words be few” (Eccl 5:2). There’s “a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking” (Eccl 3:7).

Gary Furr and Milburn Price wrote, “In the drama of the Christian life, worship may be thought of as the script through which the Author of us all calls forth and responds to the deepest and most important longings in us.”[1] Until we stop to listen, how will we hear that call?

A rest is a musical notation that indicates the absence of sound but not the end of music. John Ruskin, a Victorian-era English art critic, said this of the silence of music and rests:

There is no music in a rest, but there is the making of music in it. In our whole life-melody the music is broken off here and there by rests, and we foolishly think we have come to the end of the tune. God sends a time of forced leisure, sickness, disappointed plans, frustrated efforts and makes a sudden pause in the choral hymn of our lives, and we lament that our voices must be silent, and our part missing in the music which ever goes up to the ear of the Creator. Not without design does God write the music of our lives. But be it ours to learn the tune, and not be dismayed at the rests. They are not to be slurred over nor to be omitted, nor to destroy the melody, nor to change the keynote. If we look up, God Himself will beat the time for us. With the eye on Him, we shall strike the next note full and clear.[2]

Musical rests add depth and emotion to a musical score through the use of silence. They both create and relieve tension. They allow the players and singers to take a breath before the next difficult musical passage. Rests create a deliberate pause or temporary break in the action and keep the notes from being strung together in breathless chaos. Playing music without rests is like driving a car without brakes.

Worship is a conversation that requires not only speaking and singing but also hearing and listening. The noise of our sermons and songs as our only act of worship can create monological worship. Our offering of one-sided worship sound can monopolize the conversation, potentially causing us to miss the voice of God. The foundation of a meaningful worship is instead dialogical. It is an interactive exchange of two or more participants. Healthy conversations include a balance of discussion and response, listening as well as speaking. Since God began the conversation and graciously invited us to join in it, our worship could then be enhanced and renewed when we stop trying to monopolize the conversation with our responsive noise only.

We rely on the words of our sermons and songs to manage and control others. A frantic stream flows from us in an attempt to straighten others out. We want so desperately for them to agree with us, to see and sing things our way. We evaluate, judge, condemn, and devour congregants with our words. Silence—as one of the deepest spiritual disciplines—puts a stop to that.[3] To again hear and listen to God’s side of the conversation, maybe it’s time to concur with Samuel in our services of worship, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening” (1 Sam 3:9).

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How can we incorporate silence as a part of our services when it hasn’t been part of our worship culture?
  • What are we presently doing that is contributing to worship noise?
  • How is our worship encouraging our congregation to not only hear but also listen?
  • What can we do differently to give time for the various worship elements to breathe without interrupting our worship flow?

[1] Gary A. Furr and Milburn Price, The Dialogue of Worship: Creating Space for Revelation and Response (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1998), 90.

[2] E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds., The Works of John Ruskin (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1903), 247.

[3] Richard J. Foster, Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 68.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Mar 1 2021

Measure Twice, Cut Once

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Baseball utility players are prized for their versatility even though they don’t have enough talent to crack the starting lineup. They are usually excellent players but not quite good enough to help carry the team from a starting position. A utility player is more supplemental than foundational to the success of each game. He waits on the bench until the manager needs him to fill any of a variety of positions in the lineup.

Prayer has been relegated to the role of a worship service utility player. It is often plugged into worship service holes when the starters (songs and sermons) need a break. Instead of a foundational conversation with God as an act of worship, prayer is often a supplemental extra used to fill in, transition, or connect. Prayer has been demoted to the role of a worship-service starter, stuffer, and stopper, or jack-of-all-trades service element. It serves as the seventh inning stretch before the sermon; it breaks up the song sets when keys aren’t relative; it moves the worship band on the platform; and it allows the pastor to discreetly make his way up the aisle to shake hands after the service.

Maybe we are singing more and praying less because our prayers during the worship service are not that deep. Song texts have been parsed, prayed over, and practiced, while our prayers are often played by ear. Our spontaneous prayers may be sincere, but they’re often not very profound. Spontaneity needs to be balanced by careful preparation and forethought. Public praying needs to be supported by private praying. Those who publicly lead in prayer must be well experienced in prayer. It is difficult to lead others where you haven’t been yourself. Spontaneity has to arise from a profound experience of prayer.[1]

Maybe we are singing more and praying less because prayer is such an easy language to fake. We can, in fact, pretend to pray, use the words of prayer, practice forms of prayer, assume postures of prayer, acquire a reputation for prayer and never pray.[2] “Measure twice, cut once” is a woodworking idiom that encourages us to plan and prepare for something of value in a careful and thorough manner be- fore acting. In other words, think before you speak; don’t shoot from the hip; set a guard over my mouth; keep watch over the door that is our lips (Ps 141:3).

The result of ill-prepared praying is often a long-winded circular discourse. Those with prayer responsibilities could learn a valuable lesson from microblogging sites such as Twitter whose success is based on succinct but also persuasive information. Character limitations force users to formulate a mental outline of what is essential to say and how it needs to be said. They measure twice before cutting once.

Maybe we are singing more and praying less because we actually require our soloists, choirs, orchestras, worship teams, and bands to rehearse ahead of time, but most of the offerings from our prayers are casual, impromptu, spontaneous, and sometimes even shallow. Hughes Oliphant Old wrote, “For many generations American Protestants have prized spontaneity in public prayer. One has to admit, however, that the spontaneous prayer one often hears in public worship is an embarrassment to the tradition. It all too often lacks content. It may be sincere, but sometimes it is not very profound.”[3] If worship-service prayer preparations were as stringent as those for our musical offerings, then maybe we would consider singing less in order to pray more. Then maybe our worship service prayers would again be considered foundational instead of supplemental.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How can we transform our worship service prayers from starters, stuffers, and stoppers to a divine conversation with God?
  • What training could we initiate to better prepare those who lead our worship service prayers?
  • If we are asking the same few people to lead our prayers, then how can we expand that list to include multiple generations, genders, and cultures?
  • How do we ensure prayer is foundational instead of supplemental to our worship services?
  • What can we do to expand a healthier culture of prayer outside our services so it might impact the worship inside our services?

[1] Hughes Oliphant Old, Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995), 5.

[2] Harold M. Best, Dumbfounded Praying (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2011), xii.

[3] Old, Leading in Prayer, 5.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Feb 15 2021

A Letter to the Younger Worship Leading Me

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Dear Younger Worship Leading Me,

In a few decades you are going to look back at your years of worship ministry with a desire for a second chance to handle some things differently. You will think about certain services, special events, entire seasons of ministry, or strained relationships and long for another opportunity to make some adjustments.

The reality is that it will be impossible for you to go back and make corrections to most of those situations. But with a little humility, resilience, and resolve now, you have an opportunity to get some of them right the first time. So here are a few things you are going to learn.

Surround yourself with those people who will stretch your thinking and actions but also hold you accountable. Taking necessary risks might cause you to make some mistakes, but the discernment of others will help protect you from your own stupidity. It might be exhilarating when you succeed alone, but it won’t be when you fail alone. And you will sometimes fail.

People will always remember how you treat them when you’re off the platform more than how you lead them on the platform, so learn more people’s names than new songs. Consider interruptions as divine appointments instead of distractions. Drink more coffee with senior adults and ask their opinions before initiating change. Be more patient with needy people and chronic takers. And remember to thank those who make sacrifices to invest in you, your family, and your ministry.

Be on the front end of learning new musical and technological languages. But don’t assume it’s always appropriate to be an early adopter of them. Being conversant in a language doesn’t mean it should be used when it doesn’t fit the voice of your congregation. Learn more theology than musicology, and practice leadership development more than you practice your guitar.

Always ask how something might impact your family before asking how it might impact your worship leading. Leave more things at the office when you go home, and be home when you are home. Taking a Sabbath each week will not only help your spiritual and physical health but also help the relational health of your family.

Stay longer instead of bailing for a new place of ministry every couple of years. If your ministry frequently moves your children away from their friends and foundations, then how can you expect them to like church when they are no longer required to attend?

What you know about worship leading now won’t be enough to sustain you through your entire ministry. Read more, study more, and ask more questions. Be a lifelong learner who understands it is never too soon or too late to learn something new.

Finally, I know it is sometimes overwhelming to balance the stresses of ministry and family. When leading worship is discouraging, when it seems like no generation is ever completely happy, when you can’t sing too many or too few hymns or modern worship songs, and when you wake up on Monday morning and wonder if this is really worth it, you can rest assured that you’ll also be able to look back at those decades of ministry and acknowledge with certainty that it was.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What worship-leading situation or relationship failure that occurred in the past would we handle differently if we had the chance?
  • What safeguards could we put in place to make sure the same situation doesn’t occur again?
  • How successful are we at stretching one another’s thinking and holding one another accountable?
  • With our limited time together to get ready for Sunday, how can we continue to learn new worship principles and practices in addition to new songs?

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Feb 10 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jan 4 2021

Leading Worship in 2021: More Questions than Answers

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Those who lead and plan corporate worship each week are entering 2021 with mixed emotions of both hope and apprehension. Most of their churches are offering a hybrid approach of both gathered and virtual services that will continue well into the new year and beyond.

When those churches had to meet completely virtually for a season it required some radical adjustments to how they planned and led worship each week. As a result, most have realized that how they will lead worship in the future will never again be exactly how they led it in the past.

Having to learn new and shelve old worship concepts and delivery platforms surfaced numerous questions that will need to be answered as churches consider their corporate worship in the future. Many of those questions don’t yet have answers. So, if those churches are going to continue leading worship well in 2021 and beyond, they have to be ready to ask and answer hard questions while still considering the uniqueness of their individual church contexts and cultures.

Questions to Consider

  • If worship should be participative instead of passive, then how can we encourage and measure virtual worship participation?
  • Intergenerational worship occurred spontaneously when we worshiped from home. How do we leverage what happened at home to continue intergenerational worship at church?
  • Since prayer is foundational to worship, how do we keep people from checking out during service prayer times when worshiping virtually.
  • Worship actions that seem natural in person often feel contrived or conspicuous from home. How do we help those worshiping from home to feel more comfortable participating in those worship actions?
  • How can we incorporate worship arts beyond music that will communicate in both physical and virtual locations?
  • Virtual worship caused us to revert back to a few leading while the rest of us watched. So, how can we involve virtual worshipers as more than bystanders?
  • Is there a biblical and practical way to observe Communion both physically and virtually?
  • Should congregations wait until they are able to meet without distancing to baptize? How do we better engage online worshipers in that ordinance?
  • How can we emphasize the offering as a sacred action of worship if all gifts are given electronically?
  • Is it possible to employ all five senses in virtual worship?
  • How can we encourage our congregation to connect with each other during worship when they aren’t in the same room?
  • Worship distractions can be managed easier in the worship center than from home. So, how can we help virtual participants manage those distractions?
  • Worship space elements such as icons, art, colors, and lights can contribute symbolically to our physical worship. Is there also a way they can contribute symbolically virtually?
  • Is it possible for guests to feel welcomed as a part of this community when they have no physical connection to it?
  • Most churches realized that it was necessary for online worship to be simpler and less contrived, so how do we keep from falling back into our previous practices of over-innovating and over-stimulating in the future?
  • Some of those previous worship service elements we thought we couldn’t live without, we did. So, how do we determine what we should or shouldn’t reintegrate again in the future?
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Dec 16 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Nov 30 2020

Scriptureless Worship

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A worship service without Scripture reading may not be worship at all.

By limiting Scripture to a single reading prior to the pastoral exhortation, we may be unwittingly implying that we are placing a higher level of credibility in the exhortation than in the Word itself. It may then convey a lack of trust in the very Word professed to be foundational to our faith, doctrines, and practices. If Scripture can’t stand on its own, then we can’t possibly prop it up with our own words.

Robert Webber in Ancient-Future Worship wrote, “We are nourished in worship by Jesus Christ, who is the living Word disclosed to us in the Scriptures, the written Word of God. In spite of all the emphasis we evangelicals have placed on the importance of the Bible, there seems to be a crisis of the Word among us.”[1]

Congregations continue to struggle in their understanding of spirit and truth worship by maximizing music and depending on it alone to encourage worship renewal. At the same time those congregations often minimize the very root from which our songs must spring. John Frame offers two truths that highlight the value of God’s word in our worship: “First, where God’s Word is, God is. We should never take God’s Word for granted. To hear the Word of God is to meet with God himself. Second, where God is, the Word is. We should not seek to have an experience with God which bypasses or transcends his Word.”[2]

The dialogue of worship is formed when God’s word is revealed. This revelation causes worshippers to respond through the prompting of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:12-15; 1 Thess 1:5). The result is a vertical conversation with God and horizontal communion with others. This dialogue develops a community that congregations have been desperately trying to create and recreate through their songs alone.

Some of the crisis of the Word is a result of our standing over the Bible and reading God’s narrative from outside instead of standing within the narrative and reading Scripture from the inside.[3] Reading Scripture as insiders helps us realize the text is not just describing someone else’s story in history but also describing the story of my life, my hope, my joy, my sin, and my journey away from and to God.[4]

As an elementary school teacher, my wife often reads or tells stories to her students to enhance auditory learning, encourage creativity, promote informational development, and advance knowledge. With imagination beyond my comprehension she is able to create stories and insert the names of her classroom children into the narrative, considering the personality and nature of each child. This narrative approach to reading and telling moves the children beyond just hearing the words to actually living inside those words.

When Scripture is read, when it is illuminated in our preaching, when it is incorporated into our prayers of thanksgiving and lament, when it frames the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and when we sing its text in a unified voice, Scripture becomes a means by which we are gathered into the body of the living Lord.[5]

Scripture must be foundational to our songs, sermons, prayers, verbal transitions, and even ministry announcements. It must be frequently, variously, generationally, and culturally read and allowed to stand on its own. When that occurs, our congregations will leave in-here worship, with the text in their hearts and on their lips, for nonstop worship out there.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How often are we reading Scripture in our worship services beyond the text for pastoral exhortation?
  • How might we encourage our congregation to not only hear the words of Scripture but also live inside those words?
  • Who usually reads Scripture in our services? Are we enlisting multiple generations, genders, and cultures as readers?
  • What filters should we put in place to help us determine if Scripture is primary instead of secondary in our worship services?

[1] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 113.

[2] John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principles and Practice of Biblical Worship (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996), 90.

[3] Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, 113–14.

[4] Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, 130.

[5] John Burgess, “Why Scripture Matters: Reading the Bible in a Time of Church Conflict,” in A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony, ed. Leanne Van Dyk (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), 66.

The above post is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Nov 23 2020

Worship Leader: Throw Your Cap Over the Wall

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Our calling to lead others in worship during this strange season of ministry hasn’t changed even though how it had to be manifested has. Now that some of those worship leading strengths or sweet-spots we so depended on and were revered for may no longer be available in the near future, how are we going to continue to lead? Maybe it’s time for us to throw our cap over the wall.

In his 1961 autobiography, Irish author, Frank O’Connor gives an account of his childhood when he and his friends were out in the Irish countryside. They would come to an orchard wall that seemed too high and difficult to climb, especially if it was one they hadn’t attempted to climb before. So, to continue on their journey, they would take off their caps and throw them over the wall. Since their caps were valuable they had no choice but to follow them.

In an address in San Antonio on the day before he was assassinated, John F. Kennedy referred to this same story before declaring, “This nation has thrown its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it.”

Throwing our cap over the wall during this season meant that some of us had to learn new skills to help us fulfill our calling. It meant that what we once learned in college or seminary was no longer enough to sustain our ministries. Throwing our cap over the wall meant we couldn’t be ones who shrink back and are destroyed…but those who are sure of what we hope for and certain of what we can’t see (Heb. 10:39-11:1).

Throwing our cap over the wall as uncertainty continues in the future may require us to take risks, not biblically or theologically but certainly systematically. It will require us to be entrepreneurs and innovators instead imitators. And it will mean we have to become artisans instead of assembly line workers.

We don’t know how or when this difficult season of leading worship might end. We would all love for God to allow us again to lead from those sweet-spots of ministry. But if he doesn’t, we need to continue throwing our cap over the wall even when what’s on the other side is uncertain. Uncertainty doesn’t change our call to worship and lead others in worship. How it occurs may continue to change…that it occurs shouldn’t.

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Nov 18 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Nov 9 2020

Worship: An Easy Language to Fake

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The Star Wars movie franchise created and constructed several languages for the various alien races introduced in the movie series. Ewokese, the language first heard in Return of the Jedi was spoken by the small furry Ewok residents of the forested moon of Endor. It is a simple language to imitate since its vocabulary is limited. So, just by watching the movie several times it would also be an easy language to fake.

Our worship language can be just as shallow. We can attend its services, imitate its songs and actions, have the appearance of a worshiper, and never really worship. So, it too can be an easy language to imitate and, consequently, fake.

Richard Foster wrote, Worship is kindled within us only when the Spirit of God touches our human spirit. Forms and rituals do not produce worship, nor does the disuse of forms and rituals. We can use all the right methods, we can have the best possible liturgy, but we have not worshiped the Lord until His Spirit touches our spirit.[1]

There is a profound difference between learning and using a language by observing or imitating it and actually acquiring or living in the spirit of that language. Infants and toddlers imitate or mimic sounds and actions in order to learn a language. But as those children mature, they actually transform from imitating to acquiring that language. Language acquisition is when we are able to perceive, comprehend, and internalize that language.

The author of the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us how foolish or maybe fake it is when we come to worship just to imitate. It is recorded at the beginning of chapter five that we should, guard our steps as we go to the house of God and listen instead of offering the sacrifice of fools who don’t even know they are being foolish (Eccl 5:1).

Authentic worship language begins from the inside out, not the outside in. It doesn’t begin by imitating songs and actions, it begins in the depth of our soul and is then manifested through those songs and actions. Our soul reflects and responds to our relationship with the Father through the Son. It is not just something we do, it is who we are in response to who God is and what he has already done. It is with the heart first that we believe and are justified, and it is then with the mouth we profess (Rom 10:10). That is certainly a language that can’t be faked.

 

[1] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1978).

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Nov 4 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Oct 28 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Oct 26 2020

But Even if He Doesn’t

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Because of the pandemic we have been in an unusual and unpredictable season of trying to figure out how to continue leading music and worship well. We’ve had to make some difficult and not always popular decisions. And for the foreseeable future we’ve had to cancel or at least suspend some of those music and worship ministries that may have taken decades to build.

For months we have been praying for, hoping for, and believing that God will deliver us soon from these circumstances that have handcuffed so many of our ministries. We’ve implored God to return things to normal or at least some kind of normal in which our ministries can thrive again. But even if he doesn’t, what must we do?

In the third chapter of Daniel, it is recorded that King Nebuchadnezzar commanded the people of every nation and language to bow down and worship a golden statue. The penalty for not worshiping this created idol and continuing to worship God was certain death in a furnace of blazing fire.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to choose between bowing down to a false god and living or bowing down to the one true God and dying. They responded to the king, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to and we believe will deliver us from your majesty’s hand. But even if he doesn’t, we will continue worshiping the creator and not the idol you have created.

We don’t know when or how this difficult season will end. We would all love for God to again allow us to lead from our sweet-spots of worship and music ministry. He is able and we believe he will at some point. But even if he doesn’t, we are still called to worship and lead others to worship. How it occurs may continue to change…that it occurs shouldn’t.

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Oct 21 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Oct 5 2020

Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

When facing difficulties in life, some of us are able to adapt and others get stuck or give up completely. Resilience is that ability to make adjustments when things don’t go the way we hoped they would or planned. Those of us with resilience have the ability to amend our agendas, dreams, and desires by creating a new plan. Resilience doesn’t mean we don’t still feel the weight of our situation. It just means we look for available opportunities to make the best of it so we can continue to move forward. What a great challenge for us during this season of uncertainty and rapid change in worship preparation and implementation.

Resilience is also a great characteristic for worship leaders to learn and develop. It encourages recovery with grace instead of overreaction in anger when the service doesn’t go as intended. Resilience averts relational catastrophes when people don’t react as we hoped they would react or when plans don’t go as well as we prayed they would go. Even though worship leaders have the responsibility to prepare with excellence they must also learn how to present with pliability, since the outcome of the service is not really theirs to control.

Thomas Merton wrote, “When humility delivers a man from attachment to his own works and his own reputation, he discovers that perfect joy is possible only when we have completely forgotten ourselves. And it is only when we pay no more attention to our own deeds and our own reputation and our own excellence that we are at last completely free to serve God in perfection for his sake alone.”[1]

When the British colonized India they introduced the game of golf. After the first course was built in Calcutta, the monkeys in the surrounding trees would drop down, snag the golf balls from the fairways or roughs, and drop them in other locations. Golfers quickly learned that if they wanted to play on this course they couldn’t always control the outcome of the game. Resilience finally helped the officials and golfers come up with a solution. They added a new rule to their golf games at this course in Calcutta: play the ball where the monkey drops it.[2]

None of us individually has enough creativity, insight, or endurance to plan, prepare, rehearse, and lead intergenerational, multisensory, and intercultural worship services in multiple styles week after week, year after year without making some mistakes. The psalmist wrote, “Sing to him a new song! Play your best with joyful shouts” (Ps 33:3)! We are indeed charged with playing and singing with skill and excellence. But excellence never means that we should leave relationships in our wake while moving toward the end result. The process with people is just as important as the destination.

So, the next time the organist and pianist begin playing a song in different keys, the next time the guitarist forgets to move his capo, the next time the tech team doesn’t turn on your microphone or forward the text to the next slide, the next time the soprano section comes in too soon, the next time your bass player misses the first service because he forgot to set his alarm, just play the ball where the monkey drops it.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What is the difference between a culture of rigidness and one of resilience? Where does our team usually land?
  • How do we encourage resilience without sliding into the acceptance of mediocrity?
  • How is it possible to strive for excellence without leaving relationships in our wake?
  • In what ways can we involve the entire team in evaluating a healthy balance of expecting excellence but also offering grace?

 

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Haven: Abbey of Gethsemani, 1961), 58.

[2] Tara Branch, “It’s Not What’s Happening, It’s How You Respond,” Life. Huff- Post Plus, May 3, 2013, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/acceptance_b_3211053.

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Sep 23 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Sep 16 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Sep 14 2020

Worship Experience…An Oxymoron

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press.

Better Sundays Begin on Monday is scheduled to be released tomorrow, September 15. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

Marketing is an intentional process of identifying who the consumer is, determining the wants and needs of that consumer, and offering a product that satisfies those wants and needs in order to secure their loyalty.

Marketers have realized that consumers no longer just want to buy a product; they also want to buy an experience with that product. In fact, sometimes the experience is much better than the product. Think about some of those pizza arcades where you celebrated your children’s birthday. Fortunately the experience was memorable; the pizza certainly wasn’t. Instead of just purchasing a cup of coffee, many of us also now want the experience of purchasing a cup of coffee. We are even willing to pay extra for the sights, sounds, and smells of that experience. It’s an added bonus to that experience when the barista knows your name.

Social media has contributed to an experiential consumerism marketing culture in which our posting experience is enhanced by the number of likes, shares, retweets, or comments. Those of us who are social media aficionados have learned how to market our posts to encourage a more favorable experience. Some of us plan and lead worship the same way.

In an effort to entice more participation, churches offer worship service preferential experiences to get consumers in the door, sometimes even at the expense of quality or honesty. These marketing headlines attract visitors with words such as traditional, contemporary, blended, friendly, family, fellowship, multisensory, relevant, modern, casual, classic, or even coffee. But when guests realize worship is something you give, not something you get, how will we encourage them to stay? If we market just by catering to experiential tastes, what will we offer when their tastes change?

We can experience a fine meal. We can experience a baseball game, concert, or amusement park. An experience is an event or occurrence. We even call what we do on Sunday a worship experience. But an experience is something that is done to us or for us. Worship is something we do.

We don’t experience worship . . . we experience God. Our response to that experience is worship. We can experience the many facets of God inside or outside a worship service, but the experience or encounter is not worship, our response is. A worship service built on an experience alone is incomplete if it never allows us an opportunity to respond.

Depending on worship as an experience can cause us to be satisfied with the sensations elicited by that experience. Consequently, we might select and sing certain songs or even styles of songs because of the experience and then never move beyond that experience to worship. Again, as with social media posts, there is a danger that we might select our songs and sermons in response to positive, negative, or no feedback. And if those songs and sermons don’t create and re-create that same experience each week, we can leave a worship service believing worship couldn’t and didn’t occur.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How can we offer creative worship opportunities without our services deteriorating into experiential consumerism?
  • What is the difference between experiencing worship and experiencing God?
  • How can we demonstrate to our congregation the difference between God’s revelation and our response?
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Sep 9 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Sep 2 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Aug 31 2020

Bandwagon Effect

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press.

Better Sundays Begin on Monday is scheduled to be released in a couple of weeks on September 15. Print and E-Version copies are available now for Pre-Order at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

During the nineteenth century, an entertainer named Dan Rice traveled the country campaigning for President Zachary Taylor. Rice’s bandwagon was the centerpiece of his campaign events, and he encouraged those in the crowd to “jump on the bandwagon” and support Taylor. The campaign was so successful that Taylor was elected president, prompting future politicians to employ bandwagons in their campaigns in hopes of similar results.[1]

The idiom “jumping on the bandwagon” suggests following the crowd for the excitement of the event rather than any firm conviction in its direction or truthfulness. In other words, jumping on without considering all of the contexts, circumstances, or consequences. The bandwagon effect occurs when the application of beliefs, ideas, fads, or trends increases the more others have already adopted them. Churches even have the tendency to espouse certain behaviors, styles, or attitudes just because it seems like everyone else has. The implication being that since it is right for so many others, it must also be right for us.

Jumping on the bandwagon explains why there are fashion trends. During sports championships it is evident in the increase of fans. In health it shows up in the latest diet or fitness craze. In social media it is obvious in the number of app or platform downloads. In music it is measured by online rankings. And in worship it is usually apparent in the song set. The theological implication of a church that jumps on the latest worship bandwagon is that it sometimes ignores or overrides its own beliefs, cultures, or contexts just because others are doing it.

It is true that congregations often need to make and should be making regular worship adjustments, including the latest songs, styles, or technological tools. But instead of always being early adopters and jumping without considering circumstances and the potential consequences, those congregations should instead be discerning and determining their worship practices by praying together, reading Scripture together, coming to the Lord’s Table together, mourning together, rejoicing together, sharing ministry together, playing together, and then finally singing their song sets together.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How do we determine when and how often to try new things in our worship context?
  • What filters can we put in place to ensure we aren’t just jumping on the latest worship trend?
  • How can we determine if what is popular in other churches is appropriate for our church?
  • Is there a way for our team to consider all the circumstances or potential consequences before we actually jump into something new?

 

[1] Adapted from Michael Gearon, “Cognitive Biases—The Bandwagon Effect,” Medium, September 9, 2018, https://medium.com/@michaelgearon/cognitive-biases- social-proof-the-bandwagon-effect-42aa07781fcc.

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Aug 24 2020

Decentralized Worship

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Worship isn’t just our response to God’s revelation through the songs we sing on Sunday, it’s also our response through the rhythms and harmonies of life on Monday. So, if we learned anything through this season of scattered and regathered worship it was the necessity of focusing more on decentralizing our worship.

In business, decentralization is when the activities or actions of an organization are distributed and delegated away from a single administrative center to other locations. Decentralization grants some degree of autonomy and even authority but it also requires a high level of trust since those activities and actions are more difficult to control.

Centralized worship often relies on one or a select few to plan, prepare, and implement the worship systems of a congregation. So, decisions and processes are determined hierarchically and disseminated corporately. Most churches members and leaders found this type of worship planning and implementation much more difficult while worshiping online.

Centralization can hold a congregation captive to style, tradition, form, and structure. It has the tendency to direct, regulate, contain, moderate, and restrain. Centralized worship is indeed cleaner since it retains the power to hold things in check. But that also means it requires a gatekeeper(s).

Decentralizing worship can’t and shouldn’t take the place of a congregation gathering together to respond to God’s revelation in one voice. But if our only voice is that one hour on Sunday, then what are we doing the other 167 hours of the week?

Some church families have those moving stories of multiple generations singing and even dancing together while watching their recorded and/or streamed services throughout the week. Family worship conversations that rarely seemed to occur previously in response to centralized worship often surfaced in response to the spontaneity of decentralized worship.

When it was necessary to decentralize many congregants realized, perhaps for the first time, that the worship gate is always open. It helped them discover their worship didn’t have to be contained in a single location, context, culture, style, artistic expression, or vehicle of communication. Many of those congregants also realized during this season that decentralized worship can be messy so most had to learn how to live with the mess.

Hopefully, what we learned through this season won’t be lost when things get back to normal, whatever normal will be. And hopefully, even though decentralization was not a choice during this season, we have realized worship is not just something we do on Sunday but also who we are during the week.

Centralized and decentralized worship are both biblical and necessary if we are to faithfully love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. One can’t survive without the other. So as good as our worship might have gotten in here before the shutdown, we were forced to acknowledge during the shutdown that it was incomplete until it also included how we worshiped out there.

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Aug 17 2020

Worship Cause and Effect

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press.

Better Sundays Begin on Monday is scheduled to be released in less than a month on September 15. Print and E-Version copies are available now for Pre-Order at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

Worship doesn’t invite God’s presence; it acknowledges it. God has called us out of darkness into his amazing light that we may speak of his wonderful acts (1 Pet 2:9). The Father is looking for those who worship him in spirit and truth (John 4:23). God initiates, and we respond.

Cause and effect is a relationship in which a person, action, or thing makes another event, action, or thing occur. A cause must always precede an effect in order for that effect to occur. So the effect is then a consequence of the cause. A model for this cause-and-effect worship understanding is found in Isaiah 6:1-8. The holiness of God is revealed to the prophet Isaiah (cause), and his natural worship response is contrition (effect), “Mourn for me; I’m ruined!” (Isa 6:5). God revealed his mercy (cause), and Isaiah’s worship response is service (effect), “I’m here; send me” (Isa 6:8). So if our worship responses are the effect, then it is not possible for those worship actions to also be the cause.

What we sing or how we sing it can’t cause a response because it is the response. God’s revelation can’t be generated by the effect since the effect is a response to the cause. As good as our various worship actions are, they still can’t cause worship to occur, because those worship actions are the effect. Our worship actions may prompt, remind, exhort, prod, or encourage more effect, but they can’t cause cause. We can celebrate the cause, but we can’t create it. God causes, and we effect.

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Aug 5 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jul 22 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jul 21 2020

Better Sundays Begin on Monday: Book Excerpt

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press.

Better Sundays Begin on Monday is scheduled to be released on September 15. Print and E-Version copies are available for Pre-Order at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

Breaking down game film is a discipline sports teams often incorporate after each game. They review and discuss game videos in order to identify mistakes, make adjustments, consider radical changes, and highlight successes. The ultimate goal of this type of analysis is to facilitate individual and team improvements that will positively affect subsequent games.

The fundamental reason why a team needs adjustments is not always evident in the middle of the game. Breaking down or evaluating all of the important elements after a game gives coaches and players the opportunity to isolate and assess individual plays and players in a more relaxed setting, away from the time constraints and pressures of the game.

So why aren’t individual pastors, worship leaders, and even worship leading teams regularly incorporating similar evaluative practices? One of the primary reasons is that implementing an individual or collaborative process of analyzing worship services or planning for upcoming services requires a deep level of humility, trust, and shared accountability. It also requires selfless leaders who are willing to sacrifice their own ideas, preferences, and interests for the greater worshipping good of the congregation.

Initiating a similar approach to worship evaluation can be summative in that a congregation can learn from its previous worship failures and successes. But it can also be formative since it occurs during the development and conceptual worship service stages. Both outcomes will help you or your team first determine why you worship before ever considering how you worship.

Worship renewal must be determined first by standardizing worship principles before ever considering worship practices. The reality is that worship service evaluation is already occurring in the hallways, parking lots, and at lunch tables after our services. So why wouldn’t we want to preempt those conversations with an intentional evaluative process?

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Jul 15 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 24 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 17 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 10 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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