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Suffering and Hope in Worship

This past August, our youth pastor and an adult leader took five high school boys on a mission’s trip to the Upper Peninsula. After a few days of hard work, they were excited to have a day off to enjoy the beach at Lake Superior. While they were swimming and fighting the waves, a couple of the boys were carried down and under by a very strong undertow, and one of them drowned. The death of Eli, who was only 15, is a terrible tragedy and the heaviness of this loss is still impacting our small church body every week.

When we receive news like this, it shakes us. The death of loved ones brings mourning. The sense of loss pervades everything else and for a while we can’t continue as if everything is “normal.” This was the case for our community. The loss of Eli brought all of us sadness. We mourn with his family and those boys who were on the trip with him.

For weeks our worship gatherings carried this tension of suffering and mourning alongside the hope and joy we find in our Lord Jesus Christ. God has been present in our sufferings, graciously instructing us and pouring out his grace. For our body this loss has been an opportunity to know Jesus more intimately and to see more clearly where our hope is placed. I can say without doubt that the Lord is gracious, compassionate and good.

Looking back now, a few months after Eli’s death, I think I’m ready to try to articulate the things God has been teaching us through this experience and how they impact the way we think and plan our worship gatherings. I’ll share them briefly here and then can unpack them more in future posts.

The first is that suffering is promised for those who would follow Jesus. Until the rule and reign of God is fully established in all creation, we should expect it and rejoice in it, even more so for us who are called to shepherd the church. How can we lead the people of God through it, unless they can see the Lord bring us through it? Our response and actions teach the church how to view and respond to suffering and what it means to hope in the gospel.

Secondly, we must abstain from happy-clappy superficial levity in our worship gatherings, and learn how to create room for the real pains of life. Our culture elevates the value of happiness, or the absence of pain and suffering, but it does the church no good to provide places of escapism from the realities of our day-to-day living. It is in the tension of the now and not yet that Christ, who was no stranger to suffering, meets us and mediates for us. The tension of joy and suffering needs to be present in our worship gatherings as we set our hope in the gospel and its fruition in the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Lastly, every person goes through the process of mourning differently, and this is ok, a healthy thing. It is not a sin to laugh as we mourn, and it is definitely all right to experience the weight of sadness and the heaviness of loss. Even now, many weeks after Eli’s death, my heart still grieves, especially for his family and for my friends who were with him on that trip, but the thought of his death is not with me all the time like it was when I first received that tragic news. For others, it may seem as if there is not a moment of the day that goes by that the death of Eli is not present in their hearts and minds, and they may bear the heaviness of such grief for quite a while.

My friends, we have people in our churches every week dealing with such sorrow. We cannot forget them once we ourselves are not also bearing the fullness of such pain. We must have an awareness of the pains of our people that we might suffer alongside them exercising faith. Our hope is secure in Jesus, and truthfully, our sufferings are but light and momentary, compared to eternity with him, where God himself will wipe away the tears from the face of each person, and death will be no more. Come, Lord, come.

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From Anesthetics to Aesthetics

Dan Wilt quote from WorshipTraining.com:

We're no longer the No Pain, No Gain generation. We are the postmoderns, the No Pain, No Pain generation. We're the tylenol generation. We want to anesthetize our pain. We want to be numb, because life is difficult. But the opposite of the word anesthesia--which numbs--is aesthesia (we call it aesthetics)--the focus and learning about beauty. Beauty sensitizes us, it awakens us, not only to great joy, but also to tremendous pain. That's why art, creativity, music, and expressions of worship open us up and enliven us, sensitize us, to world's and other worlds' realities moving all about us and in us.

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Passive vs. Participative

On Monday I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Constance Cherry, Associate Professor of Worship at Indiana Wesleyan University and Professor of Worship at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. I first read something of hers a couple months ago in Worship Leader Magazine's July/August issue. Dr. Cherry penned the cover article, "Shifting from Professional Programs to Participatory Worship," in this wonderfully constructed "Folk" issue of WL Mag.

So when Dr. Warren Anderson, friend, IWS grad, and Dean of Chapel at Judson University, invited me to this Inaugural Worship Arts Lecture featuring Dr. Constance Cherry, I was all over it. I quickly contacted our network of local area worship leaders here in South Bend to see who wanted to come with. We were also looking for our next book to read and discuss together this fall, and Dr. Cherry's new book, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services, attracted us. Five of us hopped into my minivan and headed to Elgin, IL for some sweet fellowship and teaching and to purchase Dr. Cherry's book.

The title of her lecture was, "Moving Congregations from Passivity to Participation in Worship." Here are some of my notes and thoughts, and then I'd love for a discussion to get going.

Defining Terms
To be passive means "to be acted upon," and to participate means "to act upon" or "to partner with." Are our congregations being acted upon, or are they doing the acting, partnering with one another? Soren Kierkegaard presented the Stage Play Model vs. the Preferred Worship Model. In a stage play the performers of the work are the actors on stage, the prompters direct the work behind the scenes, and the audience passively sits in the seats to watch the work. This is what much of church worship looks like today. Kierkegaard suggests that church worship should look like this: the audience is God, the prompters are the leaders and pastors on stage, and the performers of the work are the people in the congregation.

Worship Is Work
But this is a call to a complete paradigm shift. Virtually nobody who enters a church for worship these days expects to work, let alone sweat, get their hair messed up, and leave with wrinkled clothes and scuffed shoes. Instead we come to watch, to be entertained by good music and feel good messages. Church leaders have perpetuated the problem by catering to the comfort desires of the people by offering them coffee, cushioned seats, and creative spectacle. This is not the picture of worship presented to us in Scripture. Worship in the Bible is active and participative. "Participation is the expectation of the gospel," says Dr. Cherry.

The word for worship most often used in the New Testament is proskuneo, which means "to prostrate oneself." Could you imagine an entire congregation lying prostrate in the presence of the Lord? Talk about vulnerability! When the kings came from the East to see the newborn King they prostrated themselves before him. Think about that for a minute--rulers laying down their power, authority, control, their own kingdoms in an act of complete surrender...to an infant who was God with us.

In Romans 12:1-2 we find another important Greek word for worship, leitourgia, which means "service" or "work." Offering our bodies in view of God's mercy as living sacrifices holy and pleasing to God is our spiritual worship (leitourgia). "Liturgy is the work of worship performed by the people for the benefit of God and others." But again, who in their right mind nowadays would expect to work when they come to church (besides the staff), and not only that but enjoy the work they are doing? We are accustomed (shaped by the culture) to expect pretty much the opposite in worship--we come to get blessed, not to be a blessing.

Six Principles for Moving Toward Participation (with my extended thoughts)
  1. Recognize that this generation desires participation. Plan worship that engages all five senses and physical movement. Even though it's pulling teeth to get people to participate at times, deep down they really want to. It's like Paul who just can't get himself to do the things he wants to do. Remember, the leaders on stage are really prompters who help the whole body participate. What we'll find is that if we are leading well and the people begin engaging actively in worship, not only will they greatly enjoy the work of worship, but they will begin prompting others around them.
  2. Recognize that participation involves partnering with others. Plan worship that connects people together. Congregating in one place and singing in unity are pretty much the only things we do that connect us together. What other kinds of prompting can we do intentionally, perhaps symbolically, to connect people together? Join hands in prayer, partake of the elements of Communion together, all kneel. Sometimes very simple actions can be very effective.
  3. Recognize that people will naturally tend to be passive. Unfortunately, that's the reality, but don't be afraid to address it; don't let passivity rule your worship. Participation triumphs over passivity.
  4. Recognize that congregations have been oriented toward audience mentality. It is what it is, but what are we doing to deal with this problem. Much of what we do as leaders actually contributes to the congregation-audience problem. Confess this and begin transforming your culture one participatory invitation at a time.
  5. Worship is work. How much of what the leaders do could be done by others? Are we as leaders okay with settling for less than the best production? Leaders are robbing the congregation of their work by doing all the performing. We must get it out of our minds that the best way is always the right way. Sometimes the third or fourth best way is the right way, God's way. But a congregation-audience mentality demands only the best product, or I'm leaving. Leaders must prompt the people to do the work and train them to actually enjoy the effort and sweat that will happen.
  6. Encountering God in worship results in powerful responses. Much more powerful than any feeling that an audience can have watching a good performance. Perhaps our people have been conditioned to think that they are encountering God in worship when in fact they are not. Passivity does not lead to an encounter with God, participation does, work does. This could be the reason why so many of our people come to church out of obligation and find no real joy in it. This could be why leaders get so frustrated and discouraged by the lack of response from their people both in church and in all of life. But perhaps the leaders are responsible for their own frustrations by the way they are leading, always trying to perform to the pleasure of their people.

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Disney Worship


I wasn't sure what to think when I found out today about an upcoming worship conference to be held at Walt Disney World in 2011. It's called the Experience Conference, and it looks like it's going to be the biggest worship conference the world has ever seen, featuring over 60 celebrity worship leaders and speakers, a jam packed itinerary complete with a "Night of Joy" that could feature your worship band if you audition and win!

Does this clash of cultures--God's Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom--seem strange to anyone else? We talk often on this blog about the detrimental effects of cultural accommodation in Contemporary Church worship. Does a worship event held at Disney World speak to the syncretism of Contemporary Worship and American culture? Or should we find it encouraging to see a worship conference taking place in the epicenter of the American dream? And more generally, what are the benefits of attending big, expensive, worship conferences such as these?

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Being Present 2

I am an anxious person. My inward anxieties manifest themselves outwardly in all kinds of ways: I bounce my knees when I sit, shake my foot when I lay, bite my fingernails, avoid eye contact, to name a few. Rarely am I ever at peace with the moment. I'm always thinking ahead, thinking of what I will be doing next, what I could be doing if I weren't here, if I weren't so bored. I am finding that I am not a very content person. Things could always be better.

But what is happening to me through these anxieties, which literally make up most of my day, is that I am missing out on what God is wanting to do in me at any given moment, no matter how mundane. Let's face, most of life is mundane. If we embraced only the exciting moments, we would be bored ninety-nine percent of the time. But we might be surprised how exciting, how joyful and fulfilling, our lives can be at all times when we acknowledge God's presence with us (and, lo, I am with you always) and in turn make ourselves fully present to him.

I am currently in the process of training myself to take those physical manifestations of anxiety as signals to stop and refocus on what God is doing in the present moment. Because inevitably whenever I am bouncing my knee or biting my nails or doing mundane things half-heartedly I am trying to escape from my present situation to some fantasy world where life is so much more exciting.

And there is a big difference between fantasizing and dreaming. Dreams are rooted in reality. God dreams and wants us to dream. But dreams are not devoid of our present realities like fantasies are. Dreams are incarnational, down-to-earth, directly linked to what is really going on in our lives and what will truly become of us. This to say, dreaming is good. If we are dreaming the way God dreams, our dreams will actually help us in our quest to be present, to embrace every moment of our lives, because we know that every moment is a stepping stone on the path toward the fulfillment of our dreams. So we must learn the difference between fantasizing and dreaming. Anxiety leads to fantasy. Dreams come from the peace of being fully present in God's omnipresence.

Well, I didn't expect to go there, but it is what it is. Next post I will talk about being fully present in corporate worship.

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