Gravity and Gladness


The Pursuit of God in Corporate Worship

David Mathis: John, you seem to perhaps talk from experience at some point about not being on the same page with a worship leader. Whether that has been the case or not, would there be advice you would have for preachers or church leaders who aren’t on the same page with their worship leader as they try to navigate that season they’re in?

John Piper: For the younger and maybe that would be anybody under 50, patience is going to be absolutely crucial. The pulpit is a very powerful place. It’s the power that’s not organizational, it’s not manipulative, and it’s not political. It’s the word of God fed into the people’s lives week after week. It’s the most powerful place to bring about theological and spiritual change. So if you’re the preaching pastor, you have a golden place and you want to not be strident about issues and you want to not be about hobby horses, you want to be biblical through and through and God-centered and over time the people that don’t like that tend to drift away and the people that are hungry for that tend to come and a critical mass develops.

So that’s one crucial way. That may take a long time. If it’s a church totally not used to exposition and totally not used to God-centeredness, you have to go slowly. When I came here, it was an unbelievably traditional church. There was an organ, there was a 10 hour a week choir leader, and there was me. It was my responsibility to design the services. He just led a choir number and I did the bulletin, I did everything. So I chose immediately weighty hymns like, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” This church had never sung that. They were into, like the brother was saying a minute ago, the last 100 years of gospel songs that were fairly light. So I began to weave those in and since I led the service, I didn’t say silly things between the songs. I just prayed and tried to keep things moving. So having that place enables you to model some things even when you can’t control everything else.

The second thing is over time you want to gather leaders around you — elders, deacons, whatever you call them — who care about these things. But that happens over time. I remember in the early days we had 24 deacons and very few of them had a theological clue what I was about when I came. They didn’t have a clue. They didn’t know what question to ask me when I came. They were just simple godly pietistic Baptists. They weren’t theologically driven.

Over time, you teach and you teach and you teach and you model seriousness in prayer and ones that are really superficial or even carnal just move away from that. That’s not what they want to be around, and others start to gravitate in. And then you say, a few years into your tenure, “We need to think of what the criteria should be for calling people onto this council.” And you develop the biblical criteria and suddenly you’re calling more serious, deep, responsible, biblically-oriented leaders, and this takes 5, 10, or 15 years to build a sense of being a Bible people. We’re a God people. We’re vertically-driven people. We’re not opinion oriented, we’re God oriented. And once that critical mass on the council and in the church takes place, then making decisions about worship, music, and other things is easier, but it’s a long road. Then you have to love people and you have to love the word and be willing to see good things happening when everything’s not happening that you wish were happening.

Mathis: Bob, swap the scenario. What counsel would you give a worship leader who would love this vision of gravity and gladness and is partnered with a preacher if it’s not on the same page?

Bob Kauflin: Pray first, if you’re not already doing that. Make sure that you’re pursuing humility for the glory of Christ rather than presenting your perspective. You can present the right thing in a proud way, in the wrong way. You’re really there to serve the vision and the leadership of the pastor. So you want to approach things with a humble heart. I’ve seen it be helpful when someone brings in a third party, a third voice, a book, a tape, a DVD, or something like that where you can say, “Could we listen to this together?” I mean that would be a more direct way of doing it. I think talking through things and seeking to understand your pastor is so important. What I’ve seen happen a lot of times is we think we already understand what the pastor is saying, and they think they understand what you’re saying, but you’re really using terms in a different way and you don’t understand what each other is saying.

The pastor might be saying, “We need songs that are faster.” They might say something like that and you want to do slow songs to bring the gravity in. He might be saying something true that you need to listen to. He might be saying that when you lead, you do songs way too slowly, so you want to at least be open to the possibility that you might not be understanding him. If you talk through those things and you find out it really is a difference of theology, a difference of the value of the gospel as we meet, I think it requires a lot of patience and a lot of love. But I think there can come a time, a year into it, two years into it, or maybe six months into it — I’m not sure — where you really have to ask, “Am I in the right church?” I mean that’s way down the road and that’s not counsel.

But that situation does exist and I think at times if you’ve expressed everything you can in a humble way and your pastor’s definitely committed to a course that you really can’t support, you’ll both be happier if you’re somewhere else where you really can support the leadership and vision of the pastor. I wouldn’t go there first. I wouldn’t go there the first month, the second month, or the third month. I wouldn’t go there for a long time and I’d get counsel about how you’re handling the situation as well.

Mathis: A question for the two of you. In your years, you’ve been through what some have called “worship wars” where there was a younger generation desiring to do things with different intuitions than the older generation. Are there lessons learned from that season that would be of help to the younger generation today as they go through desiring changes or different intuitions about corporate worship?

Kauflin: Well, I’ll speak first for the younger generation, representing the younger generation. John, you can handle the old. I think humility is a key word. It’s a key quality, a key character value that we must have that God gives us. Jesus is our supreme example, and not only our example, but the one who enables us to be humble. I want to speak to both. As a part of the older generation, I need to value the gifts, the creativity, the zeal, and the inspiration of the younger generation and realize that not everything I’ve done for the last 26 years in ministry has been right or God ordained. Or even some of the things I’m still doing and I need to be open to hearing well, I want to know if this is effective. I may be doing the right things but it’s not having an impact. I want to hear that from the younger generation. Be humble to listen and also be courageous to lead and to make time available to listen. I think that’s a part of making that work.

As part of the younger generation, you just reverse it and say, as a younger leader, I can really learn from those who have gone before me. What I’d say to you if you’re younger is learn to serve in the way that an older generation has served before you begin to critique it. Don’t just come in saying, “I’ve got a better idea,” when you’ve never actually tried the old idea. A lot of times as we get older, we come around to seeing why those who were older were doing what they did. It’s like the kid who says, “Yeah. When I was younger, my daddy used to be so dumb, and now as I’m getting older, he’s getting smarter.” Well, no, you’re getting humbler. You’re getting wiser and you’re seeing that some of the things he said before are really true. Those would just be some thoughts.

Piper: We really did change. Looking at all the guys who are still here, they walked. Dan, Chuck, and Jason walked through the whole thing. Chuck really was, I think, a major architect for the change because for 10 to 13 years we were as classic as you can get — pipe organ and a choir and great hymns. I loved it. I did not chafe under that. It was done well and I liked it and then it all blew apart in the early 1990s for reasons you don’t need to hear about right now. And the rebuilding of that explosion was done after the church took about a year and a half with 23 people on a committee and said, “Who are we,” after this blowup. We asked, “Who are we? What should we be?” We wrote a 12 page booklet about values and things just worked, and once that was in place, then we looked for a new worship leader and we drew up the job description and we said he needs to be able to do it all. He has to be good at classical, and yet his center probably needs to move. The way we used to say it is that you’ve got a continuum from Bach to rock, and somebody is on that line and then on this line you are not a point. You are a piece of the line and you have some bandwidth.

So on this line, you may be an inch wide here or an inch wide here, and we said we will lean towards folk. Folk and fine was our language in those days. We’ll lean toward folk, but we’ll have a wide width here, so we’ll move around there. That takes a really unusual leader. Chuck is that unusual leader. Now what happened in fact was that we became, I would say increasingly, folk-oriented, though we have an orchestra here and that orchestra participates in fairly contemporary kinds of music with orchestral sound that is excellent. But we have drums almost every Sunday, electric guitar almost every Sunday, and whatever that number is on the organ back there. So there is a Bethlehem feel across the campuses, but even the campuses aren’t exactly the same.

Those were very incremental changes and Chuck and I would go back and forth. I remember Chuck 10 plus years ago. I’d say, “Chuck, I don’t think I want drums on communion Sunday.” That was where I was. We were bringing them in. He’d bring them in once a month or something and if they showed up on communion, I said, “I just want it to feel different than that.” And now they’re there all the time and I’m happy. We change because of the quality. That’s another thing. What you do you need to do well.

Maybe one last thing. There’s contemporary and then there’s contemporary. I mean there’s David Crowder and there’s Chris Tomlin. Those aren’t the same. They don’t feel the same. What Bob did here would be pre-tame. That means that you can do contemporary in a fairly traditional setting. I remember when we used to sing, “Wajesty, worship his majesty.” Goodness is that old fashioned now. It was cutting edge 15 years ago, absolutely cutting edge.

Kauflin: Not 15.

Piper: Okay 20. Be incremental yes, and lots of patience and you’re going to lose people. You’re just going to lose people if you move and love them while they leave.

Kauflin: Let me say one more thing. I think as we teach our congregations that corporate singing is about the truths that we’re meditating on. That’s what’s most crucial, especially the truth of the gospel that Jesus has come, he has died in our place, he has risen from the dead, we can be free from our sins, free from condemnation, and be reconciled to God as his beloved children. That’s why we gather, to celebrate that, and we want music of all sorts that helps us celebrate that. It takes a while. I don’t think churches teach on it nearly enough what it means when we come together to sing, but if that becomes the focus, then everybody begins to get the picture that it’s not about this instrument or this style. It’s about whether we are able to magnify God’s glory in Christ through these different kinds of songs and that brings a unity that is precious because it’s centered around the gospel.

Piper: Let me underline that. Tomorrow morning I’ll read, Lord willing, a paper that I presented at the height of our wars. I mean we had wars that were so severe I couldn’t preach. I had to bring in somebody to preach while I sat on the platform because so many people were angry at me. It was really, really hard. I wrote, “What unites us in worship,” and we still use it today. There are 10 things that those two sides believed. When they heard them, it was enough. The church didn’t blow to smithereens. We lost over 200 people in that crisis, but it could have been over. I mean it could have been over and things were held together by the Holy Spirit and by grace. But for those 10 things, I said, “We are here and we’re together on these. It doesn’t answer all of our questions, but it does mean we’re not totally at odds.”

Mathis: Well, given your last response, Bob, this may be too much of a softball, but it’d be helpful anyway. Should we build our worship services for believers or non-believers?

Kauflin: Should we build our services for believers? In other words, cater them to build them around? The church is the body of Christ. It’s the people whom Jesus has redeemed for his glory. So the idea of building the gathering of the church around people who don’t know Christ seems exactly the opposite of what you should do to me. Now, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t making things intelligible. As Paul says in one Corinthians 14, intelligibility is very important, but this is the time we gather to celebrate the saving works of God in Christ. We shouldn’t think, “Well, I need to make this accessible or cater to the unbeliever,” when they can’t even understand it apart from God doing a work to open their eyes to lift the veil. So I’d say the answer is believers. The church is for those who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ. So that’d be the beginning of an answer.

Piper: Yeah, just yes. We structure to preach to believers, sing things that believers ought to sing, and pray prayers that believers ought to pray. When I say we, I’m assuming that doesn’t rule out the fact that unbelievers are there and you will say things to them periodically, but you don’t do worship for them. They don’t know how to worship. They can’t worship. They don’t have the Holy Spirit. I mean, if that’s what seeker-oriented means to you, you’ll gut the very thing your people are starving for. They have to be fed as sheep. They have to go vertical to know God and love God that way. It’s the very thing that unbelievers can’t do because they don’t have the Holy Spirit. They don’t have spiritual eyes.

If you want to please them, you’re going to have to do things that are unspiritual. They don’t have spiritual taste buds which will turn the morning worship service into an evangelistic service. And that’s not what it was designed for. That’s not what worship is designed to be. I mean, if you want to make a case you should worship on Thursday night and do evangelism on Sunday morning, you can make that case. I think it won’t work long-term because of traditions. People are going to come to your evangelistic service as worship. They get thinner and thinner and the Thursday thing doesn’t feed your people. So I think our main gathering should be for the people of God and that the way unbelievers get saved besides those periodic addresses to them is seeing and overhearing the glories of Christ for these people and the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to want it.

Kauflin: I really commend the heart behind that question. I may start by smiling because I think the answer is obvious, but the heart behind the question is that we need to be reaching out to unbelievers. Yes and amen. I think the application has to be what God tells us in his word and not what we think works best.

Mathis: Given the emphasis on worship as the experience of being satisfied in God, how can someone worship God joyfully in the corporate service if he or she is struggling with depression?

Piper: I will address that issue tomorrow morning, but I’ll put it in a nutshell here. It’s an absolutely essential question, and not just depression, but just ordinary flatness of emotion, or brokenheartedness for sin, or grief at having just lost your wife, or any number of heartaches that come into the Christian life. Now here’s John Piper telling us the essence of worship is being satisfied in God. What about all the brokenness and sadness and loss that’s out there? I don’t say that oblivious of that. Being satisfied in God is not a description of any particular outward emotional state. You can be satisfied in God and weeping your eyes out at the death of your mother. You can be satisfied in God while praying and aching for your lost child.

The form that satisfaction in God expresses itself will vary according to all kinds of locations in life and experiences in life. I’ll try to make that plain, but what I would say to the depressed person is there will be, if they’re born again, a seed of contentment in Christ, and the form it might take right now is that they feel nothing. They are totally numb emotionally, but they have a memory that there was once a sweetness of affection, a sweetness of trust, and they by faith it’s still down there because theologically the Bible says he’ll be faithful to them and that they now in this room while everybody’s singing and don’t have any feelings to sing at all are saying to him, “Please restore to me the joy of my salvation.”

That sentence coming out of your mouth with the raw faith that is down there is worship because it’s rooted in a satisfaction in God that temporarily is clouded over. It’s blanked over by whatever pain has brought this depression on. Go to Psalm 40. I can’t tell you how long it lasts. It says:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
     he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
     out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
     making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
     a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
     and put their trust in the Lord (Psalm 40:1–3).

How long were you in the miry bog? It doesn’t say. One of the first things I did when I came here in the summer was preach on the Psalms and I preached that one and I called it “In the Pits with a King”. This is King David out of the pits. He says, “You drew me up out of the miry bog.” How long were you down there, David? A week, a day, a month, a year? I’m glad he didn’t tell us because I pray with depressed people every week right there. They come up and they say, “I don’t know if I’m saved after that sermon.” And we pray and we wrestle together. I’ll have more to say about that. But don’t hear the word “satisfaction in God” as equating some outward emotional state, like a “rah rah” moment. “Sorrowful yet always rejoicing” is our favorite phrase around here. When I say “gravity and gladness” in worship it comes from that phrase, “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

Mathis: Assuming that everyone on stage during corporate worship is a worship leader. I direct this to Bob. What do you think about paying musical and vocal accompanists and hiring non-Christian musicians to play during the service?

Kauflin: The question answers the question. The second part of the question is similar to what the previous question was asking. It seems that if the church is the gathering of those whom Jesus has redeemed with the unbelievers they’re watching. It doesn’t seem to make sense to put someone on your music leading team who can’t worship God because they don’t know Jesus Christ. That just seems to be obvious to me. I realize people say there are evangelistic purposes and I just say, “Well, there are other ways of evangelizing those people that don’t involve diminishing the significance of the church of Jesus Christ,” because that’s what I think that does. But regarding the first question about paying, I couldn’t say that’s wrong. I haven’t thought this entirely through. Someone asked me that the other day. I think it’s preferable to have people who are there using their gifts to serve the church because they love to do it because it brings glory to Christ.

I think paying musicians, again, tends to diminish the significance of the local church. If there are people in your congregation and you just want to bless them and say, “You’re spending a lot of time doing this and we want to bless you,” I think that’s fine. Maybe you’d pay a children’s ministry worker and say, “Thank you for the ways you’ve used your gift to serve here.” But the idea of bringing people in from outside tends to emphasize, I think in an unhelpful way, the skill performance side of the music rather than the heart authenticity side of the music. I know there’s a healthy tension there, but it also ends up encouraging musicians to go around and play wherever and not necessarily be planted in a church — not necessarily to be meaningfully involved in a local church. That happens a lot. It doesn’t have to be that way, but I think it is fraught with that tendency.

It’s not something I think I’d be really excited about, but what I think doesn’t really matter. What God thinks matters. And it seems to me that the emphasis is on the body, people in the body, members of the body using their gifts to serve the body, for the good of the body, for the glory of Jesus, rather than having to hire people in to do that.

Piper: I would just go totally there and be even stronger to say don’t use unbelievers in worship leadership. It can’t be done. It cannot be done. It’s not worship. If you want to have participants in worship leadership who aren’t worshiping, that’s strange. It’s not healthy. You won’t be able to pray. You won’t be able to talk to your people right about what’s going on up here. It’ll be a bur in the saddle, just a screeching instrument, as if we’re all worshiping up here except her, the violinist. I remember 29 years ago serving communion to the orchestra with person after person turning me down, and I went to the worship leader, and I said, “What’s up?” He said, “Well, we brought them in from outside. They’re probably not believers.” I said, “Don’t ever do that again.” He said, “Okay.” I mean, this is just a non-negotiable. God holds his nose at that worship. It says so in the Bible.

Mathis: If it is true that when the heart affections disengage, worship ceases, what advice would you give to a novice worship leader? The person mentions here the mind goes to a chord progression or what it takes to lead worship, and at that moment they’re disengaging to a degree to the heart part of worship. What advice would you have for novice worship leaders?

Kauflin: Someone asked me this question during the break. There are two things I’d say to him. One is that we can misunderstand what worship is. We can think it’s a certain emotional state, closing our eyes, and I’m finally worshiping. You can offer up your diligent attention to music as an act of worship. If I have a trumpet player playing on Sunday morning, I don’t want him raising his hands while he’s playing trumpet. I just want him playing the trumpet and doing what he’s supposed to be doing. So you can use your musical skill and wherever you are in your skill level as an act of worship and say, “Father, I want to lead the people. I need to concentrate on this, but I want to do it in a way that’s not distracting.” So that’s the first thing. Be released. Get free from the idea that you have to have a certain look or feeling.

The second thing though is practice, practice, practice, practice. Psalm 34:5 says, “Those who look to him are radiant. Their faces will never be ashamed.” So if your face isn’t radiant when you’re up here, you’re looking at something other than the Lord. We want you to look to the Lord. That doesn’t mean you’re beaming. It just means that there’s peace and there’s a joy. There’s a naturalness in your expression that comes from knowing you’re here to magnify the glory of God in Jesus Christ. That’s why you’re up there. The more we’re able to focus on the truth of what we’re singing, the more that will take place. We’re not just up here to get moved by the music. As Harold Best says, “Being emotionally moved by music is not the same thing as being morally changed by the Spirit.” There are two different things. So it’s not just about being moved emotionally. It’s about seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ as we sing.

I want my skill level to be at such a place — and this can take years, but it’s worth it — that as I’m singing and as I’m playing, I can think about what I’m singing and I’m filled with the joy of beholding God’s glory in Christ or whatever the particular thing we’re singing about. That happens over time and I’d encourage you to work towards it.

Mathis: John, in the effort of going vertical in corporate worship, in what ways can we make a greeting go vertical?

Piper: First, by giving a lot of thought ahead of time to how you’re going to do it. Second, saturate it with the Bible. Third, don’t tell any jokes. Fourth, have a demeanor that fits the moment. If your worship leader just had a gathering song that ends on a soft note, don’t say, “Welcome everybody.” It just totally misses it. If you end up, don’t come in whispering. Be in the spirit of what’s happening. Fifth, capture sorrowful yet always rejoicing. Somebody in the fourth pew just lost their job. Somebody just found out they had cancer. Some kid just called and said, “I don’t believe anymore.” They’re out there. Lots of them. Others just got married. They’re just thrilled to be in church together for the first time. Others just had a baby and they feel like there are roses on the piano. They’re just happy as can be. These people are beaming. They don’t want you to say happy things. It’s a sad day.

Ask God to show you how to do that. How does that sound? There’s a sound that makes the broken feel, “He knows I’m here,” and a sound that helps the thrill knows that’s good. There’s a season, there’s a way to talk. Ask God to give it to you. But I think it’s the longing for it. That’s the key. And I think so many pastors feel like the meaning of that moment is that we have to feel friendly. The only category for “friendly” they have is “y’all come” with a country music friendly feel. And it isn’t it.

If you’re standing here, we stand down here for the welcome. When I’m doing it, I feel like I can touch you. I’m just right there. I can touch you and I’m glad you’re here. We are here to meet king Jesus. And there’s a smile for that. And there’s some babies to announce, and you thank God for the babies. He made the babies. They’re going to grow up and live forever. They didn’t exist 10 months ago and they now exist forever. This is awesome. You don’t tell a joke about the babies. They are beings that are going to live forever in heaven or in hell. And that’s true of everything. Everything has a weight to it if you just look at it. So I don’t think you’re going to sound sick if you draw attention to the wonderful weighty things, and I’m not ruling out humor.

We were talking in our preaching class the other day about the difference between robust humor and ever present levity. Levity and humor aren’t the same. Levity is when you feel like you have to tell a joke every minute and you do something funny with your hands and comment about it and just constantly deflect things away from the substance onto some superficial thing, like the way I’m waving my hand right now. You’d comment on that on the same morning or whatever.

Whereas humor is, you’re preaching seriously about the difference between a dolphin and a jellyfish. You want to be a dolphin and go against the tide of the culture. Don’t be a jellyfish floating along. Nobody wants to be a jellyfish, do you? And a three-year-old girl sitting right there, says, “I do,” and everybody roared in this room. It just totally broke down and I did too. That is exactly healthy. She said that because God put it in her heart to say, “I want to be a jellyfish.” That is God. Life is like that. And a person who can’t laugh at that in the middle of a serious sermon is a sick preacher, and you don’t want to be a sick preacher. Be a healthy preacher. So you laugh and you say, “No, you don’t. You don’t want to be a jellyfish. I understand. They’re cute.”

Mathis: Here’s a final question. One last question and perhaps a chance for you to clarify something. This person writes, “Pastor John, were you serious about preferring basketball hoops in the sanctuary?”

Piper: I was. It wouldn’t look like this. It would be a box that would cost half of what we paid probably, and it would have been multipurpose. The reason I wanted a flat floor is because you could have a banquet in the room. This room with a floor like that is useful for only one thing: sitting in pews and attending to what’s going on at the front. So I suggested the other day that the south campus might want to start by building a gym and worship there until they can afford to do something else. And by that time, I’m probably to be gone. I won’t have to make that decision. R.C. Sproul would be the other side of the coin.

He built a magnificent, cathedral-like structure there in Orlando. The last chapter of his book on Holiness is all about holy and sacred space. I was moved when I read it. I totally respect that approach. I really do. I preached in that building with no qualms of conscience whatsoever. I worship here with no qualms of conscience. But I’m a pilgrim on this planet and I’m into reaching the nations with our money. And to me, simplicity is pretty high rank and a multiple use room seems fitting. I call it a multiple use room.

I think you could probably turn a big square box into a pretty worshipful space on Sunday morning, if you had really creative artists who could develop the hangings and whatnot. That would cost a few thousand dollars, but not $3 million. So yeah, I was serious, but I don’t fight these battles anymore. They’re over there. I did not go to a single building committee meeting for the North campus, not one. I said, “Dan, do your thing. And David at the South Campus, do your thing.” I’m not going to intrude anymore. I said more than I should have said already.