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Monday, December 19, 2011

Worship is not a "Program"

[Not long ago, Rev. Jerry Bass a former pastor and a local hospital chaplain, and I were sharing about worship, a subject in which we both are passionate. I am grateful to him for the genesis of these thoughts.]

One of our problems in so many of the published multi-week studies is that we want to take a process and turn it into a program. Programs are fine in their place, but sometimes great truths and principles learned through trial and difficulty are summarized or simplified into a program so that more people could participate or that what was learned could be “massed produced.” The idea has great intentions: if a dear brother or sister learned these principles that changed their lives, what might be done so that everyone might learn the same things? The problem lies in the things that are “lost in the transition” from principle to program.

How are things lost? Let me give one example. Let’s take a simple Bible study lesson. For far too long we seem to have confused “content understood” with “content applied.” Just think of the average Sunday morning Bible study class: the typical teacher fights to get through all the material, that is, “the content,” and then finally admonishes the class to do what the Scripture says. Many of our church members have logged in so many hours of “Bible study,” that if they had been given for credit they would have had multiple doctorates by now. Yet, many times, they will spend their entire lives as “students” in some class and never go on to become the teacher or mentor to another person. What is missing? There are multiple answers to the issue because it is not just a simple problem, but many times the teacher never really explains how to apply the particular truth being studied and what it really looks like when it is lived out on a day to day basis. To make things more difficult the Bible study may have been “content heavy” to begin with and weak on the application.

You might be asking yourself by now, what does this have to do with worship? If we are not careful we will take the truths about worship and attempt to force them into some kind of program. There are no “5 easy steps to perfect worship.” God refuses to be placed in a box. The truth is God initiates worship, not us. There are some biblical truths that we must obey, but these are not “steps.” Worship is our obedient response to the revealed nature and character of God. Worship requires preparation. What we seek in worship is not an “experience,” but relationship with God. When we seek an experience in worship, more than we seek the Christ of worship, we are worshiping how we feel, not the Lord who gave His life for us; it is a subtle form of idiolatry.
In that obedient response God draws us to Himself.

Biblical worship can never be reconstructed into a program. The principles in Scripture are there, but we must be careful to avoid the temptation to reduce everything to “5 Easy Steps.” Obedient responses are seldom “easy,” and it is too easy to get caught up in a checklist of “dos and don’ts,” rather than the awesomeness of holy God. As I complete my own book on worship, I am writing this to myself, lest I miss the point and try to push a program, rather than share the principles of the process.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Reflections on the Year

I started the semester with “Ten Things I Wanted My Students to Learn This Semester.” While I had goals for the students with whom God had entrusted to me, God had things He wanted me to learn, and in many ways it has been life changing. This year has been a difficult one, which included the passing of my father in January and other major struggles throughout the year. There have been many passages from God’s Word that have been instrumental in this year’s survival, but I would like to focus on just a few.

A song that ministered greatly to our spirits this year has been Dr. Benjie Harlan’s paraphrase of Psalm 139 entitled “Know My Heart,” which was recorded by the ministers of music of Louisiana. Out of the notes of this anthem came the assurance of God’s presence and His watchful eye. There were many times this past year when all I could do was listen and cry. Maybe the first lesson God was trying to teach me this year is God not only is aware of what I am going through, He is there, His Spirit lives in me.

Philippians has always ministered to us in so many ways. There really isn’t space to reprint everything God has taught us from Paul’s letter. Let's at least look at 4:4-9:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Just a few points:
-Rejoicing is an act of the will, not emotions.
-There is a choice to respond in gentleness.
-There must be a constant awareness of the presence of God
-We must exchange our fears for gratitude and prayer
Then God’s peace guards our hearts.
-We must learn to direct our thoughts, choose to focus on
what is the real truth of the situation,
and focus on what is good.
-We can take encouragement from godly mentors.
Then God’s peace will be with us.

Another passage that has been helpful has been Psalm 73. Again, I won’t try to go through the entire psalm, but just focus on a few points. The psalmist is questioning why it seemed that good people suffer and evil people don’t. We don’t have to read far in any newspaper or other news source to be able to identify with the psalmist. Why doesn’t God just wipe these evil people out? [This is not the place to try to deal with the problem of suffering and evil. There are some wonderful resources, such as Ravi Zacharias and his apologetics ministry that I would encourage you to follow.] The basic issue is there are times when the things that are happening around you do not seem fair or seem consistent with the character of God. In those times we need to ask to see things from God’s perspective. The psalmist, confused over such problems, finally enters the temple to mediate on the nature and character of God and realizes that [1] God is still in control and [2] He will bring things to a final justice. His final conclusion is found in Psalm 73:28: “But as for me, God’s presence is all I need. I have made the sovereign Lord my shelter, as I declare all the things you have done.” [NET]

We begin and end with trust in God’s nature and character, His presence, His love, and the promise of His provision. So if I were to summarize what God has been trying to teach me this year it would be found in this statement: “Responding as He desires is more important to God than what I may be going through, for His desire is to make me holy, not happy.” Our true happiness can only be found in Him. God doesn’t leave us on our own, He is with us, He loves us. Remember the promise of Isaiah 43:2-3: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior”

When all else seems to fail, we need to go back to the truth that we know: God is love, God is in control, what may happen will be for His glory and my ultimate good.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Blinded Worship

One of the projects I assign students a project to plan worship services in both contemporary and blended formats. Not long ago a student submitted one of these projects with a typo in the title: “Blinded Worship.” Of course the student intended to say, “Blended Worship,” but the error began to stick in my mind. How many times have we participated in a “blinded” worship service, that is, one in which no one knows where it is going, not even the one leading. No planning. No preparation, –just flying blind, throwing a bunch of songs together and seeing what happens. Things might end ok, but it was certainly not a result of the methodology of the leader of worship, rather the mercy and grace of God.

Blinded worship can come from more than just a lack of proper planning, it can be a result of the leaders being blind to what is going on around them. I was talking recently to a couple who were sharing about a particular disastrous worship service they had witnessed. The saddest part of the story was that one of the leaders was oblivious to the situation. Personally, one of the most difficult things for me to do on a Sunday is worship with all the other things that have to be done and coordinated just so everyone else can worship. This is not a complaint, just a reality. I have to really focus on worshiping. At the same time, I must be aware when things are deteriorating, I must know what to do to fix the situation before it causes problems for everyone. Blinded worship leaders never see it coming, don’t forsee the dangers and don’t plan ahead.

Blinded worship can come from more than just a lack of proper planning, or being blind to what is going on around them, it can also be a result of the leader being blind to his or her weaknesses. All of us must have quality personal time with God on a daily basis, but as leaders in worship we must constantly be trying to improve our technical skills as musicians, as well as our communication skills with others and in front of the congregation. A “blinded” worship leader is one who is blind to the need to keep growing in musical skills, and blind to learning how best to communicate effectively and concisely, so that the congregation doesn’t feel like they have stood through two or three mini-sermons before the pastor stands to speak. “Setting up” or introducing a song can quickly turn into something that sounds like a frustrated preacher wanting to get his opportunity to speak, rather than a preparation for the message of the song. I share with worship leaders “to look in the program and see if your name is down to preach the sermon, if it’s not there, then don’t.” A blinded leader is also one who refuses to admit personal issues. Many times this stems from a leader who is insecure on the inside, but outwardly portrays an attitude that they know how to handle everything. Unfortunately, this attitude prevents the person from being open to getting help they so desperately need.

One of the best solutions for these kinds of “blindness” is a spirit of honesty, humility and transparency as well as a trusted friend with whom you can confide, pray, and receive the feedback that is needed. I praise God for many pastors and friends God has sent my way through the years as well as a loving wife and children who helped so me some of my “blindness.” I pray that God will provide for this need for those that might be struggling with this now.