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Friday, February 24, 2012

Perils of an Unbalanced Ministry

I will never forget my first car, a 1967 Mustang, and even though it was not the muscle car version – it was a 6-cylinder automatic– I loved the car. Traveling back and forth from college to the church where God was allowing me to serve as worship leader was a joy, at least most of the time. The longer I had the car I began to notice something unusual, the car began to pull to one side and wouldn’t just stay straight on the highway. I later found out that the car had probably been in an accident and the frame was slightly bent. In learning how to maintain the car, I also began to notice that the tires were showing odd signs of wear. Of the many lessons learned from that first vehicle, one that stands out was how quickly good tires become bad when things are out of balance.

Keeping things in balance is also a basic principle in God’s creation. When a specific species of insect gets too numerous and begins to devastate its natural source of food, the other life forms dependent on the food source become affected. Eventually when the food source is decimated, the over populated species dies out and gradually things return to normal. If they fail to do so, permanent damage is done to the delicate ecosystem. The world God created works best when kept in balance.

The principle of balance is clear in Scripture as well. When Paul addresses the church at Corinth in the use of spiritual gifts, he emphasizes that the body of Christ is comprised of many members which are interdependent on each other. The various gifts were designed by God to work in harmony with each other so that body would function as He intended. We can be grateful that the body is not just one giant foot, hand, or nose. Though some may have gifts in one area, the biblical mandate is not to neglect or ignore the gifts of others. Within the unity of the body of there is balance.

How does worship fit in this discussion? Glad you asked. Let’s look at some applications.

1. The balance between biblical worship and outreach. The Bible is explicit in its teaching about worship. Worship is centered on God alone, anything else is idolatry. When the body of Christ gathers for worship the central purpose must be centered on our obedient response to the nature and character of God. Within that response are the elements of recognition of who God is, who we are, repentance, obedience, thanksgiving, and praise. Also in Corinthians, Paul encouraged believers make sure that what is going on is understood by those attending. If there were a message from God in another language, there had to be someone there to interpret. One of the points Paul makes, is sensitivity to those in attendance. It is crucial that in an attempt to be sensitive to those unchurched we do not derail the biblical purpose of worship. Worship is primarily to God, and for God, and only secondarily for us.

Statements like, “I didn’t get anything out of worship,” betray a possible misunderstanding of the primary purpose of worship. We do not worship for the purposes of self gratification. The prevalent influence of secular western culture and its insatiable appetite for entertainment has so infiltrated the church that not only do a large portion of the membership in our churches attend expecting to be entertained, but many worship leaders have assumed it to be the norm. I appreciate greatly what the late A. W. Tozer said, “The church that can’t worship must be entertained. And men who can’t lead a church to worship must provide the entertainment.” Undeniably, there are benefits for the believer in worship, we just cannot make those the primary focus.

The major factor that drew non-believers to worship in the early church was the love and care that was demonstrated among the members, not entertainment. Those leading as well as those participating must understand that what is done from the platform is not designed for entertainment. In entertainment, the focus is inward pleasure; in worship the focus is pleasing God. The two are polar opposites. When we depend on entertainment to draw people to worship we can expect the results to be measured in terms of how pleased the audience was with the “performance” of those “on stage.” When we depend on a biblical God-focus in worship, then we can expect the results to be measured in how obedient God’s people in response to His Word. We cannot meet with God and leave the same as we entered. Sensitivity to the non-churched does not mean that we jettison priorities, but that we help make biblical truth understandable. As Marva Dawn has stated, we “reach out, without dumbing down.” We don’t have to become drug addicts to be able to share with drug addicts the gospel, but we do need to be sensitive to their needs.

Being sensitive also must include the various generations that participate on any given Sunday. Having various worship services to accommodate the preferences of various groups is one method of addressing the problem, however, the strength of the body of Christ is best reflected in the unity within diversity. The model of worship given in heaven is every tribe, tongue and nation, young and old focused in worship around the throne. In reference to venue worship, I appreciate the way Dr. Joseph Hopkins, Dean from the School of Arts at Samford University puts it, “it’s not so much that we have a table for every place, but a place for everyone at the table.” Balance must be maintained if we are to be effective.

2. The balance between the immanence and transcendence of God. Throughout the history of Christianity there has been a continual swinging of the pendulum between emphasizing the nearness of God and the awesome holiness of God. The understanding of the need to accept Christ as our personal Savior and the biblical example of Jesus being the “friend of sinners,” can be pushed to the extreme, exemplified in the “Jesus is my boyfriend” type praise songs. On the other hand, growth in seeing the holy, awesome Creator of the Universe, all powerful, all knowing, everywhere present, Lord and King of all can push God so far away, we may forget the grace and mercy that allows us to be in His presence.

The truth is that God is both near, desiring an intimate relationship and that He is high and holy in “unapproachable light.” The mystery of the paradox of God may not be understood this side of heaven, but it is true, regardless. Problems arise when one or the other is pushed out of balance. In fact, some scholars trace most heresies of the church to a truth or part of a truth that has been pushed to an extreme. Many times we discover a truth that is life changing for us and soon we begin to see and define everything around us by this one truth. It is not surprising, then to see the truth become pushed to an extreme. Once God has brought us through a situation and we have gained new insight, we must be careful to remember that this is but one small truth among others. If we are not careful, we will make the one facet of the diamond, the only facet that all must see.

3. The need of both corporate and personal worship. This is not so much a balance, but just a reminder that one tends to grow out of the other. The personal worship of believers whose lives have been daily bathed in God’s presence during the week naturally overflows into corporate worship on Sunday. Their focus is already on who God is and what He has done, their desire is to be obedient in all He commands.

We must maintain balance in all of life so that we can be effective followers of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The “Myth” of Leading Worship

I realize that referring to leading worship as a myth may cause some concern, but hang in there and let me stop and explain. As we understand the depth of worship and the implications of the priesthood of the believer, I believe it will help us come to a better understanding as to what is mean by “leading worship” and how to help others in worshiping. First, let's clarify some terms.

There are a myriad of definitions for worship, but the one that has been most beneficial to me is one that is simple, yet deep as it is unpacked: “Worship is the obedient response to the nature and character of God.” I will not try to elaborate on this since I have covered the idea in another blog post, but will just summarize some main points. [ see “Isaiah 6: Descriptive or Prescriptive? ]

It is imperative that we realize that God initiates worship: the bush was burning before Moses ever arrived. The implications are many, but a key element that we cannot bypass is that worship is not something we “drum up on our own.” Another key to understanding worship is that God reveals Himself, His nature, His character. In worship, we are overcome by the awesomeness of who He is and what He has done. Our natural response to our understanding of God’s holiness is repentance. We cannot see the glory of Holy God and not see our unholiness. As we confess and repent, we receive the forgiveness that is offered and are then able to hear the voice of God. In the case of Isaiah, it was a call to proclaim. Is it possible that the reason so few worshipers today hear the voice of God is because they are not prepared to hear Him? Worship does not end with the hearing of God’s voice, but with the obedient response to God. Worship is not so much the emotion of the moment, but the obedient life that follows. We also know from other passages that worship involves thanksgiving and praise.

Understanding worship is vital to leading worship, but another aspect that is often passed over in the discussion of worship is that of the priesthood of the believer. [Since entire books are on this subject, I will not attempt to elaborate, but just summarize.] We do not need a “mediator” to pray for us on our behalf, we can approach the throne of grace directly, we can go to God directly, and He can speak to us directly. God speaks to us through His Word and as He illumines His Word in application to our lives. [We must mention that though God speaks to us directly, it is imperative that we realize that our understanding of what He says must always be consistent with His revealed Word. Our understandings are not “updated versions” of Scripture.]

This leads us to an interesting question: Since God initiates worship and believers can go to Him directly and that He can illumines His truth to us directly, what is the role of a “worship leader?” The role of the worship leader, better understood as “lead worshiper,” is not to drum up excitement, manipulate emotions, or provide performance opportunities. To help us understand this, we need to talk about corporate worship.

Corporate worship is a local body of Christ’s believers who have gathered to focus on the nature and character of God, to worship, serve, honor, glorify, and proclaim Christ. Though that is true, they enter as individuals with myriads of needs and concerns, heartbreaks and joys. The lead worshiper is simply one who aids individuals in focusing on Christ . Leading worship is best described as a “reflective ministry,” that is, one in which the attention is reflected away from itself, to Christ.

It is not a “personality centered” ministry. The only personality that should receive focus is that of Jesus Christ. For this person to do this, he or she must be prepared, for they cannot lead where they have not been. Prepared in what ways? Obviously, there must be a biblical understanding of what worship is, but there must be an understanding of corporate worship as well. Corporate worship is an overflow of private worship. If those that lead fail to have a vital private worship, there can not be an overflow into corporate worship.

In leading worship, we ask the Holy Spirit to allow us to be usable channels to direct honor and glory to God in the corporate setting. He alone can do this. He alone touches the hearts of His children to respond to Him. In that sense, we do not “lead,” but become “available vessels” that He can use. An available vessel must be “usable” and becoming usable requires the preparation that we mentioned earlier.

Those that desire to “lead worship” must realize that it is not a casual past time, but an outgrowth from a passion for God, for someone whom God has called out to Himself for that purpose and for someone who is willing to make the preparations necessary to learn how to lead. The Holy Spirit leads through the preparation, planning, and persons involved so that everything that is done is for the glory of God.


For a broader discussion on these issues, the following are some helpful links that I trust will be helpful:

What is congregational worship?

Preparation for worship

Reconciliation with others

For those that are involved in the musical part of worship, there are other aspects of preparation necessary: /worship%20leader%20preparation
as well as:

Leading worship must also involve teaching the congregation what worship is and is not.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Cotton Candy Worship

Cotton candy is a favorite at fairs, festivals, and other places where recreational activities are featured. The treat consists of mostly air, spun out sugar crystals, and food coloring. Although the size can be fairly large, its true solid content is small and is almost always sticky or messy to eat. One might ask, “Why even bother with something that is mostly air and is messy?” The most common answer relates to the sugar it contains. Cotton candy appeals to our “sweet tooth” and addiction to sugar.

Some worship services could be described in the same way: focused on our addiction to entertainment, lots of external fluff, but very little solid content, and anything to make the service more attractive. What might be the signs that we are falling into the patterns of Cotton Candy worship? I’m sure there are more, but I will list a few:

1. The highlight of the service is entertainment.
The temptation to entertain during worship has been in existence for years, but our culture has been so ingrained by an entertainment industry that in many cases the church has seemingly lost its voice of worship to an “American Idol” mentality of worship leaders. Worship and entertainment are on opposite ends of the spectrum. The measure of entertainment is how well it pleases the audience; the measure of worship is if it is pleasing to God. One is “me focused,” while the other is focused on God.

2. Big production, big splash, but little true content. There may be big promotions of sermon series that yield very little solid biblical content, but are filled with great catch phrases and sound bites that tickle ears. The Word of God can be comforting, but at the same time convicting. If the weekly message from the pulpit becomes just another session of inspirational motivation, alarms need to be sounded. Just as cotton candy has little nutritional value, so does the weekly feel-good sound bites.

3. The unwritten theme of the church is “have it your way.” When the music for worship is based solely on the likes and dislikes of those attending, when personal comfort becomes more important than the mission for which Christ has commissioned us, then we need realize we have surrendered to cotton candy worship.

4. When the burden for those who do not know Christ is lost. Subtle substitutes for personal involvement in service and outreach are evident in phrases like, “that what we’re paying ‘them’ for...” True, there are members who are not physically able to be very involved in reaching out and sharing the gospel, but the more common problem is not that people are not capable, but simply unwilling, or driven more by fear and apathy.

As we evaluate what we do, we need to be sure there is substance in the content and that along with the content we include what the truth of the content looks like in our lives when we apply it. We need to remember that worship is that obedience response we give to God to His revealed nature and character, not just the number of goose-pimples we might receive in with the music. We must remember that we have been commanded to make disciples, not just send out substitutes.