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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Dec 7 2020

Worship Farm Teams

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Congregations tend to plan and implement in the moment since Sunday comes every single week. So, thinking about keeping younger players or finding future players, singers, or even a primary worship leader is rarely a consideration until a vacancy occurs.

“Player development” is what Major League Baseball calls the grooming of younger, less advanced players in their minor league system. The so-called farm teams provide mentoring, training, coaching, and practical experience for younger players with the expectation that as those players mature, they will advance to a higher level of play and responsibility.

The genius of the farm system is that players get better by playing regularly in smaller venues instead of just waiting for an opening to play in the major leagues. Teams are intentionally investing in younger players for the future. A major-league team with a weak farm system may have success for a time but will rarely carry that success into the future.

The value of worship player development is realized when a congregation attempts to fill a vacancy in their worship-leading team. What most find is that the pool of potential replacements out there is often very shallow. Those who are available are sometimes unknown and don’t always resonate with the culture of the searching congregation.

Implementing a farm-team model of grooming or developing younger, less advanced players from in here can offer a trusted and familiar resource pool for future players, singers, or primary leaders. Investing in those who already understand the culture, personality, worship language, and mission of your church has a far greater potential for future success.

Our success in worship ministry will be judged not just on how well we did it ourselves each Sunday, but on how well we helped train others to do it too. If churches want great worship leaders in the future, they must invest in not-yet-great worship leaders in the present.

Imagine then, one of those congregations so effectively implementing this player-development model that they are able to groom more worship leaders than they actually have places for them to serve. Then imagine the kingdom value of that congregation getting to farm-out those trained leaders to other congregations who were not as prepared to fill their own vacancies.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What system do we presently have in place to secure players, singers, and tech substitutes when team members are absent?
  • How are we encouraging younger artists to develop their skills for potential worship leadership in the future?
  • Within the limitations of our budget, leadership, and facilities, how can we implement a formal or informal training process for younger worship leaders?
  • What opportunities do we have or can we create for younger leaders to use their gifts publicly before they are ready to lead in the primary worship services?

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 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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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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May 4 2020

5 Unintended Consequences of Worshiping from Home

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Unintended consequences can be positive or negative outcomes in response to unforeseen or unplanned events or experiences. We certainly didn’t choose this season of worshiping from home. But most of us have unintentionally learned some valuable lessons that should influence how we do gathered worship on the other side of this crisis. Here are five unintended consequences of worship from home:

  • Sermons are shorter, yet more profound

Most pastors have realized that attention spans online are much shorter so they have intentionally left more of their sermon notes on the cutting room floor. What they have discovered is that a succinct, refined, and consolidated message offers their congregations less information to synthesize but more spiritual truths that can actually be internalized. Preparing and presenting messages with an economy of words is a practice that should continue since attention spans are probably not that much longer in person.

  • Worship is simpler and less contrived

Most worship leaders have realized when trying to program a remote worship service that less is always more. Before this season of dispersed worship, it seemed like many of us had fallen into the unhealthy habit of trying to surpass the creativity of the previous week. So, we over innovated, over stimulated, and over imitated. Hopefully we’ve learned how unnecessary and unhealthy that practice can be and we’ll spend more of our time in the future focusing on the creator rather than on our own creativity.

  • Intergenerational worship is foundational instead of optional

Many of us have looked for ways but have often found it difficult to encourage our congregations to move away from worship services separated by generations. And even though intergenerational togetherness was forced during this season, we figured out how to do it because everyone cared more about protecting their families than protecting their preferences. We certainly shouldn’t waste what we learned in this time as everyone was willing to sacrifice some for the good of all. So how can we leverage that deference for continuing intergenerational worship when we again have the opportunity to gather?

  • Off-limits music programs are now on the table

Some of those music ministry programs we thought we couldn’t possibly live without, we could. So instead of thinking about when we might start them back up, we should be asking if we should. This season has forced us to initiate music and worship ministry audits that we should have already been implementing regularly anyway. So maybe before firing up all those music ministry programs again, we should first ask if they are going to help us fulfill our mission. If they aren’t, then why would we do them?

  • Church size isn’t determining worship quality

The quality of worship should never be determined by the quantity of worship leaders and worshipers. But that hasn’t stopped those previous comparisons of bigger being better because larger churches have more resources, personnel, and talent. During this season, however, the perceptual playing field has been leveled as all churches were limited to the same number of worship leaders, the same resources for technology, and the same platforms for streaming. Hopefully this online leveling will continue to remind us when we gather again that a comparison according to size is always unhealthy. Every church should be developing distinctly and becoming uniquely the congregation God has called them to be where they are with what they have. The commitment to that calling instead of comparison is what sets the bar for worship quality.

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Apr 13 2020

Was Easter Sunday a Waste of Time?

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The Easter Acclamation, “He is risen,” “He is risen indeed” was not only true as we celebrated Easter yesterday, it is also true as we work online from home today. The celebration of Easter is not just a one-day event, it is a daily remembrance of who we are in the risen Christ. As Christ followers we are Easter people so instead of immediately pivoting to the next sermon series or Sunday service calendar emphasis, shouldn’t our celebration of the resurrection continue?

The observance of Easter in the early church was more than just a one-day annual event. Celebrating the Paschal mystery was not only to remember that Christ was crucified and rose again, but also to remember that He appeared following His resurrection, that He ascended, that the Holy Spirit descended and that our Savior promised to return again.

Because of their great joy, early Christians began the celebration and remembrance with Easter and continued for fifty days until Pentecost. Revisiting the mystery and expanding the understanding of the resurrection could assist in worship renewal through the theological realization that this celebration of redemption, sanctification, salvation and victory can’t be limited to a single day.

Some congregations and even entire denominations have not traditionally embraced the sacred time of the Great Fifty Days of Easter and other dates of the Christian calendar primarily out of a concern for rigidity, conformity, loss of autonomy or a fear of appearing too “Catholic.”

Some worship leaders and worshipers believe that spending too much time in those extended seasonal celebrations of the Church can promote sameness. 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]

Even as congregations avoid the Christian calendar, they are at the same time affirming annual observances of cultural and denominational days whose foundations are not always biblically grounded.[2] And isn’t it ironic that in the development of those denominational and cultural calendars we have in fact created our own liturgies in our efforts to be non-liturgical?

To avoid Christian calendar days that are celebrated during the same time of the year as the cultural, denominational and civic days is to ignore the very foundation of the Church. So isn’t it possible to converge holidays significant to our cultural and denominational calendar with the Christian holidays significant to the Kingdom?

Why couldn’t we celebrate Mother’s Day, Graduation Sunday and Memorial Day in the same season as Ascension Day and Pentecost? For this shift to occur, however, we must understand the significance of expanding our Easter remembrances. Laurence Hull Stookey wrote, “The explosive force of the resurrection of the Lord is too vast to be contained within a celebration of one day.”[3]

Extending our Easter recognition is based on a deeper understanding of the calendar as an ideal starting point for structuring seasonal worship. The theme of the fifty days of Easter as one single celebration provides a connection with Christians of the past Church and unifies Christians of the present Church in a continuous ecumenical relationship.

Observing Easter for fifty days could help congregations “recover the transforming news that Jesus’ past resurrection dramatically transforms present and future reality.”[4] Additionally, it will help them delight in the knowledge that Jesus’ death and resurrection is stamped on their spiritual biographies.[5]

Expanding your observance of Easter and celebrating other aspects of the Christian year might be a stretch for your congregation. But please make those decisions about this sacred time from a deeper biblical, theological and historical foundation instead of solely on the traditionalism of what your individual congregation or denomination has done in the past.

 


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

[2] Ibid., 56.

[3] Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church,  (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 53.

[4] John D. Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 290.

[5] Ibid.

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Dec 16 2019

Hymn Lines: 75 Devotional Thoughts by R.G. Huff

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If you are still looking for a unique Christmas gift for your family, small group or worship and music leaders let me recommend a new book written by my friend, R.G. Huff. As a prolific hymn writer and lyricist, R.G. has created a devotional book using hymn lines from some of the great hymns of various denominations.

Hymn Lines: 75 Devotional Thoughts Based on Lines and Phrases from Great Hymns and Songs of the Christian Faith is a compilation of thoughts, personal stories and musings from R.G.’s blog: hymnlines.blogspot.com. After five years of posting over 500 hymn line devotionals, R.G. has selected 75 of those unique postings for his book that is now available on amazon by clicking the following link: Hymn Lines: 75 Devotional Thoughts. You can also order Hymn Lines on R.G.’s website: worshiprx.com where he will even sign personal copies for you.

The featured hymn selections range from the very familiar to the more obscure. The foundation for each devotional is a line or phrase that when lifted from the larger poem seems to speak for itself. Each of these texts provides a devotional thought especially appropriate for those who love the theological depth of those great hymns of our Christian faith.

I have my copy and would encourage each of you to get yours too. And as we recall some old hymn lines and learn some new ones let’s remember the exhortation of Paul that the words of Christ would dwell in us richly as we teach and admonish each other through those psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19).

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Nov 20 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jan 28 2019

Secret Shopper

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Secret Shopper

 

Most of us couldn’t imagine leaving our children at a daycare that has stained carpet, musty odors, garage sale reject toys and old sound equipment stacked in the corner. But that is exactly what some churches offer to young parents and then wonder why they never return. The nursery and children’s areas should be the safest and cleanest rooms in the building. How can we expect parents to engage and understand meaningful worship at the same time they’re worried about the safety and health of their children?

My ministry responsibilities often require me to regularly drive some of the same roads. So I’m pretty familiar with the rest stops along those routes. I know the ones I’ll stop at again and the ones I’ll never return to because they’re always filthy, never have the necessary supplies and have archaic or often broken plumbing fixtures. We don’t like to talk about the cleanliness of our restrooms at church but that is the last place many worshipers visit before we ask them to join us in singing the first worship song.

We are often good at considering how to engage people during the services but don’t always think about worship distractions before and after those services. We assume the theological depth of our worship service will encourage visitors to return and even stay. And that might actually be true if they could ever see past our pre and post service blind spots.

So in addition to evaluating sermons and songs, churches should also evaluate their worship spaces and structures. We’ve all heard the adage about only getting one shot at a first impression. Since it’s easy to overlook what we’ve gotten used to, it is helpful to secure an outside evaluator for a greater degree of unbiased and unprejudiced objectivity. Retailers and restaurants often enlist outside patrons or shoppers to collect information about their establishment. They evaluate things like the appearance of displays, friendliness and efficiency of the staff, cleanliness of restrooms, prices and the quality of their products.

Churches could also learn a lot about themselves by enlisting a secret shopper. A friend from another congregation, an acquaintance from the community or even your favorite coffee shop barista could be enlisted as a secret shopper. For the minimal expense of presenting them with a restaurant gift card you could invite one or several guests to visit and complete an evaluation questionnaire like the one below.

Considering the above items and others might seem inconsequential compared to understanding spirit and truth worship. But guests often visit with little or no understanding of theological worship. They do, however, understand excellence, cleanliness, the safety of their children and their own comfort or its absence. So isn’t it worth the effort to remove some of those initial distractions that could be keeping them from going deeper?

Secret Shopper Questionnaire

  • Was it easy to get into the parking lot and convenient to park?

Observations:

  • Was it clear where you were supposed to go once you arrived?

Observations:

  • Was the property in good repair and grounds well kept?

Observations:

  • When were you first greeted, if ever?

Observations:

  • Did the attitude of the greeter make you feel welcome?

Observations:

  • Were you offered coffee and was it excellent, mediocre or bad?

Observations:

  • Were the foyer colors and decorations outdated?

Observations:

  • Did it seem like people were happy to be there and glad to be together?

Observations:

  • Were the handouts timely and of excellent quality?

Observations:

  • Was the restroom clean and odor free?

Observations:

  • Did you feel safe leaving your child in the children’s ministry area?

Observations:

  • Was the worship space interesting and pleasing to the eye?

Observations:

  • How did you figure out where to sit?

Observations:

  • Did you feel conspicuous when you entered the worship space?

Observations:

  • Was the worship center seating comfortable?

Observations:

  • Was there enough light?

Observations:

  • Was the temperature at a comfortable level?

Observations:

  • Did anyone dress or look like you?

Observations:

  • How was the volume of the speaking and music?

Observations:

  • Did the leaders use language you didn’t understand?

Observations:

  • How was the service flow and pace?

Observations:

  • Did the service seem too long?

Observations:

  • Was the worship service order easy to follow or confusing?

Observations:

  • Was it easy to participate musically?

Observations:

  • Was the music presented with excellence?

Observations:

  • Was the music culturally relevant for the people present?

Observations:

  • Were the video projection elements presented with excellence?

Observations:

  • Did you feel welcome to participate in all worship service elements?

Observations:

  • Was the sermon easy to follow and meaningful?

Observations:

  • Did any of the service elements make you feel uncomfortable?

Observations:

  • Did anything in the service distract you?

Observations:

  • How did you know what to do when the worship service was over?

Observations:

  • Did anyone speak to you after the service?

Observations:

  • Were the members friendly, unfriendly or disinterested?

Observations:

  • Did the leaders seem approachable?

Observations:

  • Any additional observations?

Observations:

  • Would you come back based on your observations?

Observations:

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