Monday, May 08, 2017

The Reformation Project: what about the Music?

In the previous three posts, I addressed the subject of worship while scarcely mentioning the issue of music. This may mystify many readers, as Christians often reduce discussion of worship to the matter of musical style. When people talk about "worship wars," they actually are talking about battles over music. In my own analysis of visits to the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, most of my discussion of what took place in the meetings other than the sermon centered around music, with relatively little attention given to other elements other than to notice their absence; however, this was not because I accept the assumption that music equals worship. It is difficult to spend much time describing things that aren't present, and many elements of historic Christian worship were minimized or absent.

Nonetheless, music is an important element of worship, and, additionally, many of these large churches would consider their music to be a major selling point to attendees. They may be correct. Tremendous amounts of time, money, and effort go into producing music with the highest production values that these churches can generate. If quality is sometimes lacking, energy, effort, and passion are not. Nonetheless, from the standpoint of proper Christian worship, these productions leave much to be desired.

Why is that? Is modern church music really adverse to correct Christian worship, or is this aging blogger merely showing his over wrought fixation on old ways of doing things?

Watching congregations divide, often along generational lines, over questions of church music has been sad to see, and one can be excused for feeling a sense of relief when recent writers have declared those skirmishes, with their sometimes devastating impacts on local churches, largely over. That said, it is possibly even more sad that such divisions have often taken place without important and substantial questions about the place of music in worship ever being asked. Churches have divided over style with very little controversy over substance. If many of the criticisms of "traditional worship" (meaning that which dominated the middle portion of the 20th century) had merit, and I believe that they did, then it is unfortunate that so much effort went into changing musical forms without really doing anything to understand the place of music in biblical worship. For all of the energy (which is sometimes confused with the work of the Holy Spirit) that goes into making modern church music, one might argue that the church is worse off than it was 50 years ago, not because styles and instrumentation are worse (that would be open to debate), but because congregations rarely addressed the substantive questions.

Thus, one might have wished that controversies over music had begun by addressing the most fundamental question of all: what is the purpose of music in worship? If that seems too basic, one might argue that churches still should have asked it, if for no reason other than to identify common ground prior to drawing swords. However, such a foundational question may prove not to be so basic after all, as rationales for the purpose of complex and dynamic music programs in churches are all over the map. Without agreement on purpose, it is no wonder that churches lapsed into conflagrations over personal taste and recent tradition, for without a common mission for worship music that is integrated with a robust appreciation for other elements of worship, one might not ever get to the questions of biblical basis, content, congregational involvement, and so forth. In fact, the vast majority of churches never did. While recent years have seen some music leaders adopt mission statements (everything seems to require a mission statement these days), this has largely come in the aftermath of churches establishing their musical direction, meaning that the influence was retrospective, not formative.

As a result, much of the music featured in the large, pacesetting churches I visited centered around performance by musicians using fairly sophisticated production lighting and sound before an audience that behaved no differently than middle aged audiences act at a pop concert -- some in the crowd watch and listen, some make some effort at singing along, some clap their hands and bounce and sway as their spirit moves them, and others stand with their hands in their pockets and perhaps even talk with those around them. Content is for the most part minimal and repetitive, with sentimentality trumping any clear biblical content. There were exceptions, but for the most part the congregation was not expected to sing. Though the words were printed on the screen, singing was difficult and at times nearly impossible due to the volume of the band (it is hard to sing when you can't hear your own voice), the use of unfamiliar music that often included unpredictable bridges known only to the band, and the use of music difficult to sing for undirected amateurs who had not practiced it.

Thus, if part of the point of church music is for congregants to praise with their mouths, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. most of the music in these churches failed in that regard.

The biblical model of worship music is the Psalms. While some groups of Christians go so far as to say that only canonical music should be used in worship, this writer would not take that stance. Nonetheless, a look at biblical music (meaning that found in the Bible) reveals sharp contrasts and deficiencies in the modern church. For one thing, the biblical songs are substantive and God centered, qualities often lacking in modern church music, which often is thin and vague on content and centered on human experience. In addition, the emotions of modern church music are very different from its biblical counterparts -- biblical lyric is much MORE emotional. Almost all contemporary church music captures one, and only one, category of emotion -- celebration, joy, victory. As Carl Trueman has said, there is hardly any music in modern churches that can be sung by miserable Christians. In contrast, the Psalms, to borrow Calvin's phrase, carry the anatomy of the parts of the soul. Though God centered in approach, the Psalms manage to convey the entire range of human emotional experience.

Over the last half century, young Christians in particular were dissatisfied with music that seemed outdated and irrelevant to their experiences. To a large extent, their complaints were valid. However, ignoring the biblical data, they set out to make music reflective of generational experiences and tastes. For that reason, church music, like the rest of modern worship, remains in drastic need of reform.

In the next post, I will turn to the subject of preaching.

This is part of a series entitled "The Reformation Project." The table of contents for the series is here.

Monday, May 01, 2017

The Reformation Project: Who Is the Lord of Worship?

Of course, we know what the answer is supposed to be to the question as to who is the Lord of worship, but it is fair to ask whether correct answers mask a disconcerting reality.

A recent blog post aggregated at The Aquila Report argued that many modern Christians, especially millenials, doubt the importance of church attendance. This is hardly a novel realization, and all kinds of spiritual and sociological reasons for dismissive attitudes toward church, even by professing Christians, may be given; however, one might suggest that the most obvious reason is a relatively simple one: people who have spent time around churches often begin to doubt the importance of church because their church leaders have told them that it is unimportant.

And ministers feared the people weren't listening. In fact, they have taken in the lesson all to well.

Nearly everyone who has spent much time around evangelical churches has heard it said that what happens inside the church is not important: it is what Christians do when they leave that counts. Many have listened to such words before walking through church exits under signs that tell them that they are "now entering the mission field." While that may express a truth, it also underscores the idea that what happens outside the church's walls is what matters; what happens in the building doesn't really count. In fact, ministers and other Christians frequently dismiss the value of the walls and doors, insisting that the church is the people, not a place. Michael Horton has said that Christians have so often been told that the church is not a place that they have been left homeless. Further devaluing the significance of the gathered church, modern worship avoids any sense of transcendence and emphasizes an appeal to individual taste, not seeming to realize that if it is about me and my tastes, I can find that just about anywhere. One doesn't really need a church for that.

Thus, in many churches the people who are there come together and hear someone pray that God will join them. This contrasts with a more biblical approach that would claim that Christians don't gather to call upon God to join us; rather, the church has gathered because it has been summoned by its risen Lord. The risen Lord has gathered the church to a place where he distributes his gifts (see Ephesians 4 for one description of this). Through the preached word, God creates faith in the hearts of his people. Through baptism and the Lord's Supper he signifies and seals his promises he has made to us, thus reassuring our faith. With our confession of sin he assures us of his promises of pardon in Christ. In Christian fellowship he unites and encourages his people in vital, organic unity.

The preceding paragraph turns on its head the approach that many take to these elements of worship. In the thinking of many, preaching, praying, the sacraments, and singing are things that we do for God (professing our faith, for example). However, if I have explained worship biblically, it would show that the church gathers for worship because that is where God offers his gifts to us, not the other way around. If that takes the right view of things, then it reorients church members to appreciate the value of what is happening, but it also needs to reorient pastors and church leaders with regard to the nature of their task.

Some years ago, while traveling on a weekend I visited a church that I was not familiar with. At the conclusion of the service, the minister explained that church leaders were starting a process for evaluating the ministries of the church. As a step in that process they wanted to ask those present to take a survey about the church's "core values."

When I received a copy of the survey, I was stunned at the way they were going about discovering their "core values." All of the questions revolved around the notion of discerning what non-Christians that they knew would look for in a church. Now, no one of course would want to deny that there is a point to finding out what unbelievers think about the church, but is that really the place that we would look to find our "core values?"

Unfortunately, that is not really an uncommon reality, as churches increasingly are market driven, letting the desires and tastes of those apart from Christ set the agenda for the church.

Who is the Lord of our worship? The out loud answer is Christ. God knows our hearts.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Reformation Project: the Necessity of Correct Worshiping

In my previous post, I pointed out that in many of the churches I visited that many of the biblical elements of worship have disappeared or suffered from neglect. Is that important?

In Ezekiel 8, the prophet in a vision is brought into the inner court of the temple. There he records, "...at the entrance of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east. Then he said to me, 'Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations that they commit here....'"

The vision of people gathered at the temple in Jerusalem and worshiping a pagan deity is a vivid and disturbing one, and some would argue this couldn't happen among God's people in our day. However, this presents in clear terms the danger of worship that is disconnected from its biblical moorings. Can worship being conducted in a Christian church descend into mere idolatry? Anyone who thinks not should take heed lest he fall.

Worship will always be flavored with local cultural tastes, but it must be regulated by the Word of God. Unregulated worship carried on based on personal tastes and community desires poses a danger to the worship of the true God.

This post is a part of a year long project. The Table of Contents is here.

Monday, February 06, 2017

The Reformation Project: What is Worship?

Over the course of 20 posts going back to early November, I have written descriptions and analyses of my visits to the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. For ease of locating this material, I have also provided a Table of Contents.

Having completed that portion of this project, I now want to spend some time thinking about what this work may indicate about the current state of the church. Certainly, the churches visited were not identical, and there were some outliers in terms of the overall trends. Nonetheless, the churches showed some remarkable areas of similarity that can be examined with a view of what they mean in terms of how modern Christians understand the purpose of the church and the nature of the Christian life.

In this post, I want to begin posting some thoughts regarding worship.

Beginning with the "Jesus movement" of the 1960's, and with greater fervor over the last couple of decades, American Christians -- particularly those who lean toward evangelical faith -- have engaged in what has been termed "worship wars." That phrase is arguably misleading, and even problematic, in that the "war" has actually been over only one aspect of worship -- music -- and has rarely engaged other elements of worship. In fact, for many younger Christians the word "worship," at least in a corporate context, is more or less synonymous with the word "music."

Thus, in many modern American churches, many elements of worship have been de-emphasized or have disappeared entirely with very little notice. While tremendous amounts of attention are given to musical production, matters such as the reading of Scripture (except, perhaps, the text of the sermon) and prayer have the appearance of being afterthoughts or have disappeared altogether. The sacrament of the Lord's Supper has become less frequent. While baptism continues to be practiced as a means of entering the church, its significance for the church community as community has been significantly degraded. A generation (or more) of evangelical Protestants have no experience of a worship service involving a confession of sin and a pronouncement of assurance of pardon by the minister (some might even think that a Roman Catholic concept). Do the majority of Protestant churchgoers any longer know the meaning or purpose of a call to worship or a benediction? For many, there is no point in asking about the recitation of a creed, as they recoil at the mere mention of the word.

A review of the accounts of the churches I visited will point to the fact that in the rapidly growing sectors of American Christianity, these types of elements have either disappeared or appear to be minimally important. It is a bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one, to suggest that these churches, and those that emulate them, view what happens on Sunday morning as involving 30 minutes of music and 30 minutes of a talk from the pastor. Of course, there are announcements.

While these trends are accelerating, it would be a mistake to regard them as new, as they find their roots in American revivalism, especially in the Second Great Awakening of the early and mid 1800's and its aftermath. As revivalists, and the churches longing for the results they offered, emphasized the use of extraordinary measures designed to produce those results, they downplayed -- or even ridiculed -- elements of ordinary worship that didn't seem geared toward building momentum toward the moment of decision. Thus, the understanding and nature of the worship gathering began to be fundamentally altered 200 years ago.

In the modern church, that has also meant a widespread change of terminology and outlook. What once was called the "worship service," is now referred to in most of the churches I visited as a "worship experience." This is not a merely semantic change. While most Christians would still likely say that they come to church to meet with God, the "worship experience" terminology suggests that the focus of worship is no longer a dialogical encounter with a God who exists outside of themselves and is more oriented toward the inward experience of engaging in worship activity. That being the case, churches must reorient themselves to make sure that they provide this experience to their congregants (customers?).

This means that much of the content of worship has been eliminated while the emotional uplift of the music has been accentuated, but this creates a long term problem for the church. Lacking a sufficient basis for getting excited, one wonders how long the energy of worship can be maintained. Sports fans often complain about fans that do "the wave" instead of watching the game, but churches that create largely content-free experiences would seem like a stadium where people gather to do the wave even though there is no actual game being played.

The elements I briefly described above have been practiced for centuries in churches because they were deemed to be required by Scripture. The question of scriptural fidelity has rarely been considered as changes in worship have been made to address the wishes of attendees. In addition to not asking whether practises are called for in Scripture, advocates of revised worship practises have rarely questioned whether anything is being lost by the truncation of worship into little more than music. I will mention just a few:

1. Inclusion of these worship elements provides a structure for re-orienting those in attendance toward a God centered and cross centered faith and away from a self-centered faith and performance oriented ministry.
2. In many Protestant church traditions, the various elements of the worship service provide a trinitarian structure that is important for Christian teaching. The struggles that many Christians have with understanding the triune God of Christian teaching would be helped by a return to proper worship that included prayer and the use of creedal and confessional material expressing trinitarian faith.
3. Incorporation of elements of worship such as confession of sin and assurance of pardon makes them key to the ongoing understanding of the church and the ordinary meaning of worship, which is where they should be. If these elements are not part of worship, then it becomes the job of the pastor to make sure that they are covered in the sermon. That is too much to do in a sermon on a weekly basis, and, as will note later in the posts on preaching, it does not happen.
4. All of this being the case, one should easily see that in providing for these elements of worship, the Spirit of God is active in worship teaching us, convicting us, forgiving us, and encouraging us. The elements may not drive an emotional response in the way that marketers would have us run the service, but they are central to Christian understanding.
5. The elements of worship require active involvement of congregants. Where they have disappeared, they have often been replaced by performance from the stage (I used to think that the term "stage" was an insult, but now I find church leaders using it routinely). Engaged participation is more healthy as a worship practice.

When I visited these 10 churches, my intent was to worship with them even as I studied them, but I all to frequently left with the sad thought that the God presented in worship was hardly worth bothering with. In a future post, I will deal with music and preaching, but I am writing about other aspects of worship first because the reformation of worship understanding is a foundational issue in our day.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to St. John Baptist Church

In my previous post, I described my visit to St. John Baptist Church. In this one, I will provide some analysis of that visit. Because the prior post is foundational to this one, I would recommend that the reader look back at that one prior to proceeding here.

I did not know much about the church prior to the visit, though one past action by the church has gained some attention in the local religious community. Several years ago, Pastor Denny Davis opened his pulpit to Joel Gregory, the former co-pastor at First Baptist Dallas, thus beginning the rehabilitation of his ministry. 

St. John Church, with a reported average attendance of 8,800, is the 10th largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to data compiled by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. While some aspects of the church service were high tech (the use of video to make announcements), overall the service was more traditional in nature than any of the churches visited for this study. Black churchgoers from past generations would have recognized the liturgy, music, and sermonic style of the service.The advertisement of upcoming revival services represented a look back at an era that is now largely past.

Thus, the musical selections used for both congregational and special music were repetitive and emotional, though, as noted in my earlier description, the songs did contain Gospel content. While the presence of such is a positive, one should note that the music also contained some of the weak theology common in modern evangelical churches. Thus, the statement that the singer knows that God is real "because I can feel him in my soul" falls far short of biblical defenses of the faith, which rely on more objective considerations, such as the empty tomb. Nonetheless, the congregational music was more singable -- and more widely sung -- than what was experienced in other churches that were involved in this study.

The sermon had as its theme the cost of discipleship, and the pastor made a serious effort at expounding the text and applying it to his congregation. At one point, he even referenced a resource that he had relied on to help him in his understanding of the text. While he did a good job of handling the scripture, the sermon might have been improved by pulling in thoughts of Christ's dying and rising for us, as well as of the Spirit's work in calling the believer to serve Christ. While those thoughts were not in the text itself, bringing them in as a means of showing the motivation and power that God gives to the believer to fulfill what is required in the text would have been helpful.

This is the last post summarizing my visits to the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. In future posts I will begin to draw some conclusions based on these findings.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting St. John Baptist Church

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas, March 2, 2014 -- Located in a working class neighborhood in Grand Prairie, the church has only small parking lots, and many of those arriving for the service are forced to park on small neighborhood streets.  The church holds multiple services in order to accommodate its crowds, and it was of interest to realize when arriving for the 9:00 a.m. service that the earlier service, which began at 7:00 a.m., was relatively full.

Entering the front of the building, one finds himself in a small, crowded lobby. As the 7:00 a.m. service was still ongoing, those arriving were asked to line up along the right side so that those in the earlier service would be able to file out. Other attendees waiting were friendly. A woman standing near me struck up a conversation, asking if it were my first time attending and telling me how much she liked coming to church here. Several ministers wore clerical collars. When, after entering the sanctuary, I asked one for help finding a restroom, he started to give directions, realized it was getting difficult to follow, and took the time to walk me in the required direction.

The sanctuary was by far the smallest of the churches attended for this study, and at first I wondered if the attendance figures reported by the Hartford Institute were inflated. However, the church has two campuses, multiple services, and children meeting elsewhere for separate services, making the claimed attendance possible. The pulpit area was also relatively small, with a band and choir squeezed in behind a traditional pulpit area that included a white marble podium. For some reason there were NFL football pennants attached around the pulpit.

The facility is aging, but well-kept. Banners, which appeared to be home (or church) made, hanging along the side walls contained titles for Christ such as Lamb of God, King of Kings, and Lion of Judah.

The choir entered around ten minutes after the stated starting time wearing white and navy choir robes. The service began with two energetic songs, led by a song leader and praise team and an instrumental band of guitarists, drummer, and keyboardist. The songs were repetitive, but contained gospel content. One entitled “I Just Want to Bless your Name” included a verse discussing being ransomed by the blood of Jesus. The song leader led in prayer.

After those songs, several announcements were delivered via video. The St. John Bible Institute has the purpose of providing more detailed Bible study for laymen. Other announcements concerned an upcoming mission trip, a class for those planning on getting married, an upcoming emphasis on fasting, discipleship groups, and a holy week revival featuring a speaker from out of town. A short video highlighting the church’s singles ministry talked about focusing less on who to marry than on why.

Another video featured the work of a scientist named George Caruthers, who is a black Baptist and a renowned scientist. A prayer of Thanksgiving was offered.

After one of the ministers made some additional announcements not on video, visitors were asked to stand. Only a few did so. This was followed by a fellowship time in which members milled about shaking hands while music played.

At this point, the choir performed an animated anthem, with much rhythmic clapping and swaying involved. Some in the congregation stood and clapped along with the choir during the performance. After that, Pastor Denny Davis came to the pulpit and asked for those having March birthdays to stand. After leading the congregation in singing Happy Birthday, he made some additional announcements about upcoming meetings. A soloist, along with the choir, then sang a song entitled “God Is Real,” which claimed that “God is real because I can feel Him in my soul.”

By the time Pastor Davis stood to preach, the service was nearly an hour long. Wearing a Geneva gown, he announced after a prayer that the title of his sermon was “Whatever it Takes,” taking for his text Luke 9:57-62, which reads as follows (ESV):

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus[a] said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Rev. Davis pointed out that in the text Jesus was exposing shallow commitments by some would be followers. After humorously referencing some secular love songs that make verbal commitments to one’s love that go well beyond what most men will actually follow through on, he pointedly stated that many Christians will sing, “I surrender all,” when they mean: “I surrender some.”

From this text, the pastor first talked about “the cost of followship.” He contrasted Jesus’ promise of the possibility of homelessness with the claims of modern prosperity preaching. He contended that Christians should not expect prosperity, but hardship, but added that rather than complain about our plight, Christians should remember the things that Jesus endured for us.

Second, the pastor spoke about “the urgency of followship.” Acknowledging that verses 59-60 appeared to be harsh, the pastor told the congregation that he had relied on a book entitled The Hard Sayings of Jesus (F.F. Bruce) to help explain the passage. Ultimately, he urged upon the congregation that we must move beyond past pain and be ready to move forward to the future in order to follow Jesus.

Finally, he spoke about the “commitment of followship,” which is to the King. One cannot follow Jesus and follow self at the same time. The pastor contended that no one can follow him and follow self at the same time. He argued that Jesus is saying here, “I have developed the rules. If you want to follow me, you have to live by the rules.”

From this point through the end of the sermon, the pastor began to use a melodic delivery that was punctuated by chords played by the organist. He closed by relating children’s games such as Simon Says to the necessity of following the words of Jesus and praying for the congregation.


An invitation for people to come forward was then made as the choir sang. The service concluded with an offering and communion taking place simultaneously while the choir and a soloist sang “The Blood Will Never Lose its Power.” Prayers were made both prior to and following the offering/communion ceremony.