Ways to Worship

The surprising thing about the New Testament is that it gives very few particulars regarding how the early church worshiped. There are important clues, yes. There are key elements, for sure. But the NT is surprisingly light on liturgy. There simply is no simple formula (though churches I’ve been a part of my entire life have followed a very similar one — something like: 2 or 3 songs, communion, offering, sermon, invitation, announcements, closing prayer).

I think this “lack of a liturgy” is intentional, and is an invitation to be creative and culturally relevant in whatever context a church finds itself. So, expressive dance works well in some places, and would be shocking in others. Video is a great communication tool in some parts of the world, but completely inaccessible and unnecessary in others. There are a number of ways to worship, and those who help lead are wise to consider culturally appropriate and creative ways to invite folks into God’s presence.

But the New Testament’s flexibility when it comes to the ways we worship does not mean there isn’t a way to worship. In other words: we can (and should) come up with different styles of worship — but this should not detract from some essential elements that worship should include.

So, when it comes to worship, whether it’s in Louisville or Laos, South Africa or Southampton, Guinea or Guyana, I think it should include these key components.

First is Scripture. When we gather as God’s people, scripture is a vital component. Whether it is sung, spoken, prayed, dramatized, or proclaimed — or, better yet, all of those — it is scripture that most clearly presents the voice and the will of God. Now, I doubt most folks with disagree with this. But what we believe, and what we practice, often don’t seem to be in sync. For example: how often are 80%, 90%, or even more of the words that are spoken and sung and ad-libbed from the stage our words, instead of God’s?

I have been preaching recently at a very small congregation. I’ve enjoyed sharing with them, but, honestly, they don’t really need me. Sure, it’s nice for them to have a preacher each Sunday; and I’m glad they’ve asked me to come. It’s good for them to have someone open the Word. But the simple truth is: they don’t have to have an outside “professional” come in each Sunday. One (or 2 or 3) of them can get up and read some scripture on Sunday, and speak a word or two of encouragement — and they will hear from God (which, apparently, is what happened in the church in Corinth; see 1 Corinthians 14).

A second essential element of worship is response. If God speaks through scripture (and whatever words of encouragement we might add), then His speaking demands a response. And so, in most churches I’ve been in, we invite folks to make a first-time decision to follow Jesus and be baptized.

That’s a good thing. But it’s not the only thing. For the Word of God always demands a response, of every one. Sometimes that response is a first-time decision, but 90% of the people in our churches — a number that is higher in some, lower in others — have already made that decision. So, we shouldn’t just invite the 10% to make a decision; we should invite everyone to respond. Sometimes, that might look like weeping and repentance; other times it might involve arms raised and joyful shouts.

Worship should be a place where confession is included; where repentance is spoken — where prayer isn’t just the words 2 or 3 men pray from the platform. Instead, prayer is the essence of our response. Prayer must be what we invite everyone to speak and to share, to sing and to silently voice.

While I’m on the subject of response: one way the churches I’ve been part of include response is the Lord’s Supper. Communion is an important time to touch and taste the Word of God — and to respond. But in basically every church I’ve been in, communion is almost always a silent, solitary affair. While this is ok, it doesn’t seem to have been the practice of the early church. Again, in the church at Corinth, we see communion as very much a community affair — one where sharing in communion involves looking out for your fellow believers (see 1 Corinthians 11).

Imagine the opportunity we would provide people if we carved out more space for response — through communion, and otherwise. As one example, think about what it would look like to have a worship service where people were invited to go and say “thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” or “Can I pray for you?” — and we then gave worshipers 10 minutes to do just that, during the service, with anyone in the room.

Awkward? For some, sure. Impossible? In some circumstances, yes. But I believe that a core element of worship has to be response — a response that is rarely solitary.

This leads to another element vital to healthy worship: community. Worship as a church must be done as a church. Of course a person can worship God alone on a hike in the woods. But it’s not complete. For worship of God always involves relationship with others. We never worship in isolation, even if we are alone — for worship always changes us; a change that impacts, and involves, others.

It is simply not true, biblical worship if we sneak in the back, talk to no one, and slip out before the final prayer. Sure, some folks need to do that as they figure out the church thing. But for those of us who “get” the church thing — even if just a little bit — then church is simply not about any one of us, but instead is about all of us; coming together to hear from God, and be changed by God to be more like Jesus, empowered and driven by the Spirit of God.

So, dance, or not. Raise your hands, or not. Clap, or don’t. Use instruments, or just a keyboard, or none at all. Meet in a building, or under a bamboo tree. Wear blue jeans or Brooks Brothers. But don’t miss what is essential to worship itself: the Word of God, which calls for a response to God, from all who gather as the people of God.

What’s saving you?

What’s saving you right now?

I remember reading that quote a few years back, and it’s stuck with me since.

To me, the quote isn’t saying we need something new to save us. It doesn’t mean that there is salvation anywhere but in Jesus, the one who embodied salvation. Instead, it’s a reference to the fact that each day, each of us needs something to call us to the life we’ve been given – to remind us of the power and purpose of the life that we’ve been given by Jesus.

In fact, that’s what salvation is. It’s not some distant idea, some out-of-this-world cosmic hope. Instead, salvation is receiving life now – and living it. So, when I think about what’s saving me now – I think about what is helping me hold onto, and live, the salvation I’ve been given.

So, what’s saving me now? A lot of things, but one that stands out is music.

I’ve never been particularly musical, though I did play tuba in my high school band. And I sang in a freshman choir in college. And I did once sing a duet as a part of a high school church musical program.

But I am also the guy who was a part of a college camp team, working on getting ready for the summer, when the camp director came in. He heard us sing, and then said: We’re going to make you guys a drama group.

So, while I’ve often sang and played, it doesn’t mean I always should have.

Even so, I love music. I love the power and passion that it provides – filling me with a sense of transcendence as it speaks to something deep within me. So, when my daughter gave me a subscription to spotify – a music streaming service – I have enjoyed discovering, and re-discovering, music that speaks to my soul.

So, I thought I’d share some of the music that has been saving me. Maybe it will speak to you, too.

First, Over the Rhine. Lead singer Karin Bergquist’s deep and evocative singing grabs you and won’t let go. And it reminds me that I’m not the only one in need of grace. A church in Knoxville took one of OTR’s best songs, from what I think is their best album, and brought it to life:

And there are these lyrics, from their song “Jesus in New Orleans”:

But when I least expect it
Here and there I see my Savior’s face
He’s still my favorite loser
Falling for the entire human race

Yesterday, I was on the treadmill, and the following song came on, by a group simply called “The Choir.” I was doing my best to lip sync to is, so as not to disturb my fellow exercisers – and so as not to embarrass myself. I think I did okay on the first one, but probably not on the 2nd. Anyway, even though this song doesn’t describe what I was literally experiencing yesterday, it gave me permission to wrestle with other goodbyes.

And then there is this other song from The Choir, which speaks the black and white truth.

And then there are these lyrics, from the deliciously-named T Bone Burnett:

Are we supposed to take all this greed and fear and hatred
seriously? it’s like watching dust settle it never changes
it’s too consistent

mercy is not consistent it’s like the wind
it goes where it will. Mercy is comic, and its the only
thing worth taking seriously
(The Wild Truth)

Or this song.

But I’ve got to end with my all-time favorite musician, Terry Scott Taylor. Just about everything he writes strikes a chord with me. I have no idea why he doesn’t have a wider audience. Well, actually I do. It’s because most people like their music fluffy, and their lyrics even fluffier. Taylor strips that out, getting to the essence of music, life, and faith. And he does that through at least 3 bands (The Lost Dogs, Daniel Amos, The Swirling Eddies), along with some solo work and other musical ventures. I am confident Taylor is going to get his share of airtime – and his due – on the other side of eternity.

For a few years, some fellow Taylor-ite would bring The Lost Dogs to the Louisville area, and have them do a backyard concert. Somehow, I found about it, and I would join this guy and his small church group for a summer concert by Terry Taylor, Mike Roe, Derri Daugherty, and Steve Hindalong. It wasn’t exactly the Yum Center, but I sure ate it up.

Anyway, I don’t think I could count the times that Terry and his crew have come alongside of my life and given voice to my hunger and thirst. I’m just thankful he’s still making music: like this, and this, and this. Oh, and I can’t overlook this great album, written while The Lost Dogs drove Route 66.

Ok, I worked enough on this blog. Time to move on. But alas, I didn’t even get into The Call (and this lifeline of a song), or The 77s, or Steve Taylor and his many iterations. And lest you think I only go for obscure artists, I love Dave Brubeck and his jazz artistry (especially in his most-famous song, a partnership with Paul Desmond), or Nickel Creek and their smooth bluegrass sound. I’ve even liked U2 for years.

In the end, I’m grateful for music that keeps me sane. And whole. So, I’m gonna keep on singing. If you don’t like it, you might want to cover your ears…

What Do You Do When Life Gets Bad?

Mandy loved music. She was a standout vocalist at her high school, and began attending Colorado State University to study music education. She loved music, she was good at it, and she was pursuing a career doing what she loved. Who could ask for more?

But then things took a turn. She began noticing that she couldn’t hear the teachers in her classes. Then she realized she was losing her ability to hear most of the piano notes. At her year-end freshmen recital, she had to watch the lips of others to keep in time with the song. After that recital, it was over. In the span of one school year, Mandy had gone deaf. She was subsequently dropped from the program, and she left school, figuring she would never sing again.

Mandy was angry. But her dad told her, You still have a gift; you still need to use it.

Her dad’s words sunk in, and Mandy found a way to get back into music. Using a phone app, she learned she can visually start at middle C, and then from there find her starting note — and learn a song  She returned to vocal music — but sings barefoot, so that she can feel the vibrations through the floor to stay in tempo.

Music isn’t as easy for Mandy as it once was. But I guarantee you — it’s more meaningful.

Your story isn’t the same as Mandy’s, and probably isn’t nearly as dramatic — but the reality is that all of us suffer. All of us struggle. We all have to face dashed dreams, and hurt we can’t help.

The question is not “if,” but how. Not “if” you will struggle, but when you struggle — how will you respond?

The question is also not “why,” either. We often can’t answer the “why” question. Instead, the question is: what will you do with the stuff life hands you that you don’t want? Do you learn from it? Do you face it head on? Do you wrestle with it?

A 19th century writer once asked a perennial question: “You desire to know the art of living, my friend?” His response? The art of living, he said, “is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering” (Henri-Frederic Amiel).

Learning to live, in part, is learning to face the challenges we cannot control, we do not want, and are hard to overcome. Suffering isn’t something we seek, but it finds us. And the question that it leaves us with: will we just suffer through it, or will we learn from it?

One thing is sure: life won’t be as easy on the other side of suffering. But, if we let it — if we learn from it; if we grow through it; if we let God’s grace sustain us every step of the way — life will be more meaningful.