Gravity and Gladness
The Pursuit of God in Corporate Worship
The following is a lightly edited transcript
We’re going to talk about implications for worship based on what we just settled on. So from these two points — (1) the intensification of worship as an inward experience, and (2) the essence, or heart, of that experience being satisfied with all that God is for us — we are asking: What does that imply? What are the practical out-workings? And I think I’ve got four of them.
Pursuing Joy in God is Not Optional
Number one, the pursuit of joy in God is not optional. It is our highest duty. There are millions of Christians who have absorbed a popular ethic that comes more from Emmanuel Kant than from the Bible, that it is morally deficient to seek our own happiness — to pursue joy, to crave satisfaction, to devote ourselves to seeking it. This is absolutely deadly for authentic worship.
So I think there needs to be some teaching on what I call Christian Hedonism, because if this sentiment lurks in your people — “I get the impression that the pastor or the worship leader here is telling me I should pursue my joy. I should go after it like a dog goes after a bone, or like a greedy miser goes after silver” — then they’re going to be bound up. Explain that is indeed what you’re saying, and it’s not wrong. It’s true. And as long as it doesn’t feel right feel right to them, they’re going to be bound up in worship
It will feel contradictory to them to sing, “As a deer pants for the flowing stream, so my soul pants for you, oh God” (Psalm 42:1), because they will feel like they’re not supposed to pant towards a happy experience, because that’s not denying themself. It’s kind of a lurking, unspoken feeling. At least it was for me, and I’ve sensed it is for many. That’s deadly for authentic worship.
To the degree that this ethic flourishes, worship dies. Because the essence of worship is satisfaction in God. To be indifferent to, or even fearful of, the pursuit of what is essential in worship, is to resist worship. Many pastors foster this very thing by saying things like, “The problem is that our people don’t come on Sunday morning to give. They only come to get. If they came to give, we’d have more life in these services.”
That is not an accurate diagnosis. People ought to come to get. They ought to come starved for God. They ought to come saying, “As a deer pants for the following stream, so my soul pants for you, Oh God.” God is mightily honored when people know that they will die of hunger and thirst, unless they have God. And it is the job of pastors and worship leaders to spread a banquet for them — a banquet of lyrics and a banquet of preaching, spread for them.
Recovering the rightness and indispensability of pursuing our satisfaction in God, will go a long way to restoring authenticity and power of worship.
Worship is Radically God-Centered when God is our Greatest Treasure
Another implication of saying that the essence of worship is satisfaction in God is that worship becomes radically God-centered. Nothing makes God more supreme, more central, than when a people are utterly persuaded that nothing — not money, or prestige, or leisure, or family, or job, or health, or sports, or toys, or friends, or life itself — is going to bring satisfaction to their aching hearts besides God. This conviction breeds a people who go hard after God on Sunday morning.
Now I understand what pastors mean, and I don’t want to be too hard on them when they say, “People are not coming to give.” Maybe they’re just choosing their words badly, and what they really mean is that they’re coming for artistic experiences. They’re coming to meet their friends. There are things you shouldn’t come to get.
But if you just generically talk in terms of, “The problem in the church is you don’t come to give, you come to get,” you’re really skewing the heart. Ninety percent of our people do not get up on Sunday morning overflowing with readiness, to pour out their praises to God. They need help. They need to be told, “You are here all over the map on your spiritual hunger.”
Some are dead. Some are at 10 percent, 50 percent, or 60 percent, and some are just ready to pour out their heart in praise to God. We want to honor that, and pray as we begin, and ask God to come awaken our hearts so that we can enjoy him, know him, love him, trust him, magnify his greatness in how we treasure him. Pray like that and then people will realize, “Oh, he’s praying about the way I’m feeling. I’m really tired, and I just want to soak here. I don’t feel like doing anything, and he’s praying about that.”
God-centered people are not confused why they’re there on Sunday morning. They do not see songs, prayers, and sermons as mere traditions or mere duties. They see them as a means of getting to God, or God getting to them for more of his fullness. Music carries us God-ward, and music with true lyrics has a way of getting God inward. So music has this God given power. David was called to play so that the demons would go away from Saul (1 Samuel 16:14–23).
It’s both glorious and dangerous. It’s so glorious that it is dangerous, because you can substitute it for God, it for truth. And we need worship leaders who are theologians, who think deeply about their lyrics and think deeply about what’s happening here, so that they don’t manipulate people with the music. And yet, it’s such a fine line between manipulation and help. You do want to help them. Who could deny that Amazing Grace, at least for me, is a tune that is so matched and has such an effect that it does something good to us.
And in the new tune that we sing to it, what’s that one? That we sing Amazing Grace to? That also has a powerful effect. And then there are tunes that get in the way. And I could talk so long about how lyrics and tunes have to work together, and we will talk some more, I hope, about sloppy art.
Sometimes the words for songs just don’t fit at all, and only the guy at the piano can figure out how to sing them in the correct cadence and metre, but nobody else can. That is not helpful. We need singable songs. It’s okay if you’re going to be a performer, to sing songs that don’t work for anybody, but if you’re going to lead a hundred people, they have to be able to get it. It doesn’t work. When we sing songs that people still can’t figure out after singing it two or three times, it’s just too hard.
Back to the topic at hand, if the focus shifts onto our giving to God, as opposed to God giving to us in worship, one result I have found again and again is that, subtly, it is not God that remains at the center, but the quality of our giving. Are we singing worthily to the Lord? Are instrumentalists playing with quality fitting a gift to the Lord? Is the preaching a suitable offering to the Lord? Little by little, the focus shifts off of the uttere indispensability of the Lord himself, onto the quality of our performances. And we even start to define excellence and power in worship in terms of technical distinction and of our artistic acts.
Nothing keeps God at the center of worship like the biblical conviction that the essence of worship is deep, heartfelt satisfaction in God, and the conviction that the pursuit of that satisfaction is why we are together. We have a phrase here that’s proved very useful over the years. It’s called undistracting excellence. Now, the word excellence implies don’t hit the wrong note on the piano, and don’t sing the third verse when we’re supposed to be singing the fourth, and don’t miss a slide when you’re clicking through with us, stay with us. Things like that. That’s excellence. The word undistracting puts a governor on that.
We don’t believe in excellence for excellence’s sake. Undistracting means, “Let’s get everything out of the way that would keep people from getting to the truth and to God.” If you constantly make mistakes, if there are constant misprints, and our people can’t spell, nobody gets excessively upset, it can just be distracting.
Last night, I think the word “Thou” was spelled “Though”. There was one misspelled word. I’m on that for three sentences, I’m distracted, and I’m not singing anymore. I’m thinking about the way that was spelled. And I could give lots of other examples of how little, teeny, and in themselves, absolutely inconsequential things, simply get in the way. So I want to be a stickler. I want to say, “Don’t make any mistakes in worship.”
But we’re fallible and we’re finite. I remember one time, in the early eighties, we had another worship leader, and he was harping on excellence all the time. And I felt the need then to balance, by saying, on a Sunday night service, “I really value the pursuit of excellence in music, and excellence in the way things flow, but even more than that I value excellence in forgiveness.”
So if you have a person who’s on the worship team and they forget a line, maybe like I got goofed up in quoting Psalm 103, we should be a church that quickly forgives. We don’t harbor that. If it happens regularly a leader could say, “Maybe we need to practice a little more, so that in the worship service, we don’t get in the way of anybody.” But we want a congregation that just loves her to death, or loves him to death. They should be able to say, “Oh they missed their note, so do I.”
So excellence is a moral category as well as an aesthetic category. And a church that only has an aesthetic view of excellence, without a moral view of excellence, is going to start drifting away from the gospel and away from God, and just become an artistic moment where everybody likes to go because the music is just so perfect, and everything’s just so perfect.
Worship is an End in Itself
The third implication of saying that the essence of worship is satisfaction in God, is that it protects the primacy of worship by forcing us to come to terms with the fact that worship is an end in itself. Don’t hear me saying worship services are an end in themselves, as if when you leave, you don’t need to witness to anybody, or love your neighbor, or do justice. Don’t hear that. This is not saying worship services are an end in themselves. I’m saying the spiritual act of the heart called worship: Being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus — that is an end in itself.
If the essence of worship is satisfaction in God, then worship can’t be a means to anything else. You simply can’t say to God, “I want to be satisfied in you so that I can have something else.” That would mean that you are not really satisfied in God, but in something else. And that would dishonor God, not worship him.
In fact, for thousands of people and pastors, the event of worship on Sunday morning, is conceived of as a means to accomplish something other than worship. For example, “We worship to raise money. We worship to attract crowds. We worship to heal human hurts. We worship to recruit workers. We worship to improve church morale. We worship to give talented musicians an opportunity to fulfill their calling. We worship to teach our children the way of righteousness. We worship to help marriages stay together. We worship to evangelize the lost among us. We worship to motivate people for service projects. We worship to give our churches a family feeling.”
In all of this, we bear witness that we do not know what true worship is. Genuine affections for God are an end in themselves. I cannot say to my wife, “I feel a strong delight in you so that you will make me a nice meal.” That is not the way delight works. It terminates on her, not food. It does not have a nice meal in view. I cannot say to my son, “I love playing ball with you so that you will cut the grass.” If your heart really delights in playing ball with him, that delight cannot be performed as a means to getting him to do something. That’s not what delight is. It’s not a means. It’s an end.
Now, I am not denying that worship will have a hundred good effects in the life of the church. It will, just like true affection in marriage makes everything better. My point is that the degree that we do worship for these reasons, to that degree, it ceases to be authentic worship. Keeping satisfaction in God at the center guards us from that tragedy.
That’s huge. If you settle that, and most of your people really connect with God, their hearts really exalt in God, then you know they’re going to come back. They’re going to tithe. Their marriages are going to be better. But oh, how subtle the slippage can be to say, “I want their money. I want their marriages to be right, and I want a big church, so let’s do that again.”
That’s just not worship. The heart of worship says, “We want God, and right now if we all died, if this building blew up with a bomb, that moment would have been worth it. It was an end in itself. God was being, at that moment, massively honored by the affections and expressions of these people who were authentically connected with him, loving him, resting in him, and trusting him.” Nobody was thinking, “Wow. This is so good. Now we’re going to grow.”
All of Life is an Expression of Worship
The last implication of saying that the essence of worship is being satisfied with God is that this accounts for why Paul makes all of life an expression of worship. I think instead of reading those pages, I’ll just try to sum it up with my own words. The root beneath an authentic song of praise toward God’s grace — for example, “I love and admire and depend upon your grace, and my heart is just cherishing it, treasuring it, feeling the worth of it, and spilling over in this song” — that is the same root as going to Lino Lakes Prison and ministering for an hour in a Bible study with some prisoners, sharing your faith.
So here is Romans 12:1–2:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
In this case it would be Sunday afternoon, going to Lino Lakes Prison. And I’m arguing that it becomes worship, exactly the same way the song becomes worship; namely, by coming from a heart that is so deeply glad in the grace of God that it spills over in love to prisoners and in praise to the Father. There aren’t two different things going on here.
So the point is, the Bible becomes coherent in it’s treating life as worship and singing as worship, because the root is the same — being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus. To the degree that going to the prison isn’t coming from there, it becomes legalism. To the degree that singing isn’t coming from there, it becomes formalism. For those both to be worship, they must come from this heart of satisfaction in God.
Seven Theses on Sunday Gatherings and Preaching
I have seven theses on this. Last night one guy asked me, “Have you ever argued anywhere, in a book or somewhere, that preaching should be part of worship?” And I said it’s not published anywhere, except my book on preaching would imply it, but I talk about it in our preaching class here, and this is a summary of two or three of those lectures — these seven theses. So I’m going to go through this quickly because the argument could be expanded to fill up several hours of how you get from the Bible to 21st century worship services, but you can get the flavor of it anyway. This is risky, but I want to go quickly and get to something else.
Regular corporate seasons or services of worship — the corporate act of honoring God by the pursuit of satisfaction in him through confession, supplication, thanks and praise — are normative. I’m saying they ought to exist for local churches. I’m not saying when; I’m not saying how long they should be; I’m not saying on what day they should be, what building they should be in, or all the structures. I’m saying something like getting together for confession, supplication, thanks, and praise.
1. There’s a pattern of corporate worship in the Old Testament.
I assume that this developed into the synagogue pattern, and then the early church probably took it over in the way it could. I have arguments for that I’m going to let you look at on your own.
2. In these corporate services, confession, supplication, thanks and praise will honor God in proportion to the intensity and authenticity of the affections, responding to the truth of God and his ways.
There is such a thing as hypocrisy, and a mere form of godliness. They are deadly, and no honor to God. So I’m saying there needs to be authenticity and intensity in our affections.
3. In the real world of ordinary Christians, the pursuit of satisfaction in God through confession, supplication, thanks, and praise, does not usually arise in the heart of God’s people without being stirred up in some way when they come together.
That is, the average Christian does not come to a worship service filled with joy in God, ready to overflow. There are reasons for this, like sin and fallenness, so that even pastors aren’t prepared to worship without great effort.
4. Therefore, essential to a corporate season of confession, supplication, thanks, and praise, is a fresh declaration of truth about God, and a fresh demonstration of affection for God.
This is true not only because ordinary Christians need to be exposed to truth and awakened afresh to its value in order to respond authentically and intentionally, but also because the declaration of God’s truth and the demonstration of its value, with appropriate affections, is worship. That is, it displays the value of God in that it shows he is worth knowing, proclaiming, and feeling strongly about. Thus, it would be misleading to think of the declaration of God’s truth, and the demonstration of affection for God as preparation for worship. It does awaken worship, but it is worship, and should always be seen that way.
Just a parenthesis here. I have to be so careful with things like this. I say to our worship leaders, “You know, there is a gift of contagion in a worship leader that needs to be there.” To the degree that is missing, you probably should ask that person after a while to try another ministry. And what I mean by contagion is this: We have a team of worship leaders up here normally, maybe three to five people, with one of the worship pastors leading them.
They are up there for a reason. How those people sing, pray, and appear matters. How they’re dressed matters. The look on their face matters. And some of them don’t help; they hurt. Over time, worship leaders need to get that, and try to use the gifts of people who have the gift of contagion. Contagion in worship simply means, my worship is helping you worship. The idea is that someone is infecting you with the disease of their joy — a lousy image, but that’s the way the word contagion works.
One of you mentioned to me, and it wouldn’t be unique, that you have a worship leader who is about 80 years old and she leads from the organ. This is hard. What are you going to do? We’re excellent in love. We’re not just efficient, right? We’re not a corporation that just fires people with no sense of lifelong commitment. You just pray like crazy that God will work for the good of everybody and not hurt her too badly. Ask him to work it out so that she feels honored for all of her years of service there, and also so that you can move beyond where she is because it’s not helping your people.
5. This fresh declaration of truth about God and fresh demonstration of affection for God, honor God most and help people honor him best when they happen not only in the song, confession, supplication, gratitude, and praise, but also in the preaching.
In other words, we should not conceive of the service as separated into instruction (teaching or lecture) and inspiration (music or testimony). The preaching should be expository exaltation, and thus an act of worship.
I’m skipping over a lot of texts to justify that and just going to one. We just dealt with this in our preaching class the other day. This is the most important passage in the Bible about the role of preaching in worship, I think.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word….(2 Timothy 3:16–4:2)
Now the context here is not evangelism on the street corner. This word kēryssō (preach) is very often used of the herald of the gospel, wherever in the world you get a chance to do it. The context here is very different. You have the word of God, and then you have Paul, saying to the pastor, Timothy:
…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth…(2 Timothy 4:2–4).
The context here is steady-state teaching and preaching to God’s people. And the one imperative he chooses is this word preach. This isn’t the word for teach. It’s the word for heralding. Imagine a herald in a city 5,000 years ago when there were no books, radios, email addresses, or television. The herald would walk into a city like Athens with a message from a king, and say, “Hear ye! Hear ye! The King hereby declares that there will be amnesty given to all those who have rebelled against the King if they will lay down their arms and swear fealty, thus it be declared by the royal stamp of approval.” That’s preaching. That’s heralding.
And then suppose a little child comes up to the herald and says, “Swear fealty? I don’t know what that word means. What’s fealty?” Then the herald explains, which is why all preaching has teaching in it. Everything needs to be unpacked. However, the feel of preaching is kēryssō. If a church ever loses the sense of this is news, it’s not mainly a body of doctrine to be argued about. This is spectacular news. He came. He’s moving. People are being set free. The concentration camps are being unlocked. He’s getting his arms, in a healing way, around the dying. It’s news. Preaching should feel like that.
And I think this text implies it’s normative, it’s there, and it’s part of Timothy’s steady-state life with his people. So that’s the end of that section on worship services being normative and preaching being normative. That was really quick. And I’ll let you work that out on your own.
The final two theses were excluded due to time.
Eleven Convictions about What Unites Us in Corporate Worship
I said last night that I was going to read this to you. This is what I produced in the mid ’90s, maybe. So there are some dated things in here. But here’s the situation. We had a church in great crisis because there was immorality on the staff, and that broke into deep-seated arguments and differences about how to do leadership and how to worship. And it just got worse and worse. When that was happening, I had been here for 12–15 years, and I had never been through anything like that.
This Bible is what I have. I’m also surrounded by wise counselors, but this is what we have. There’s no book on this particular issue and how to do this. So we went to the Bible, not knowing where we would wind up in terms of worship. We were asking, “What will we keep?”
Being really candid, if you look at the front of this church, architecturally, do you wonder what the space is up there? What do you think that is, if you weren’t here? That’s a space for the biggest pipe organ in the Twin Cities. It was designed that way. The pipes were supposed to be all across the front. We bought them from Germany. We had them made. And you’ll notice it isn’t there.
We lost 230 people over this, and I have people from that group to this day that I’m still working on relationships with. I run into those people. So I didn’t know if we would go with the pipe organ, or if we would kill it. But that’s what we did. We killed it. We lost $100,000. We made a decision to lose it. Those pipes are probably in a warehouse somewhere still 20 years later. I know we tried for years to sell them, to recoup our money. Frankly, I’ve forgotten what happened to them.
This was really hard. I didn’t know what we should do or where we should go. I just had a few strong convictions, and I wrote this for our people to try to hold us together. So there’s a lot of history behind these 11 convictions about what unites us in corporate worship. How easy it would have been to preach on the five things that we disagreed on and just hammer my opinion? I’m going to just get these people on one page, and it’s my way or the highway.
But I said, “Frankly, I don’t even know what we should do with regard to having an organ or not having an organ, having drums or no drums, having guitars or no guitars, having contemporary worship or hymns, etc. I don’t know what we should do. I like them both. And I don’t know what proportion. Should we have two services, traditional and contemporary?”
We never did that, by the way. In 30 years, we’ve never gone that route. We just always felt that we should keep the people together and try to make it work. We didn’t want to have the older folks in one service with their hymns, and the younger folks in another service with their guitars. We just never went that way.
I respect churches who do that, but we didn’t feel called to. We just said, “Here’s what we’re agreeing on,” and God brought us through. So here are the 11 convictions:
1. God centeredness.
We put a high priority on the vertical focus of our Sunday morning service. The ultimate aim is to so experience God that he is glorified. We would say, “Come on the lookout for God, leave on the lookout for people.” As they came into the worship service, we were trying to get them toward God, rather than have so much focus on what is horizontal. We wanted to remove horizontal intrusions between vertical acts. There’s so much that could be said here that would, I think, help services flow in a sustained Godwardness and vertical attentiveness.
For example, just a little teeny piece of advice if you are wondering, “What do you mean by that?” Let’s say you are singing, “You are Lord, you are Lord, you are risen from the dead. Every knee shall bow,” and in the worship folder, that is followed by a prayer of praise, or a prayer supplication, or a pastoral prayer. If that’s coming right after singing, “You are Lord,” you don’t say, “Shall we pray?”
You’re already praying! These are little things, but why would you say that? “Shall we pray'' means you weren’t praying, but everybody is praying as they sing that song. You’re just the one carrying it. So it’s just being aware of what we are doing.
So instead of that, after you sing, “You are Lord, you are risen from the dead. Every knee shall bow,” you come into the pulpit and say, “Yes, Lord. You are. And your Lordship is the most important thing in our life.” That’s just seamless. You’re holding people right there in the presence of God, and not intruding yourself, saying, “Now we will pray.” When I hear something like that I’m sitting there saying, “We are praying.” It’s a lack of thoughtfulness, or maybe a lack of engagement. So remove horizontal intrusions.
You don’t need to talk much between events of worship. You don’t need to narrate lovemaking. I won’t go there, but choose songs that make much of God and not man. Even keep the welcome as Godward as possible.
2. Going hard after God.
We are committed to pursuing and expressing the deepest satisfaction in all that God is for us in Jesus. So expressing from the pulpit, longing for God, and encouraging prayer before the service and in the service, seeking God to come and meet us, teaching a Godward longing in all acts of worship.
3. Expecting the powerful presence of God.
We don’t just direct ourselves toward him. We earnestly seek his drawing near.
Draw near to God and he will draw near to you (James 4:8).
We believe that in worship God draws near to us in power, and makes himself known and felt for our good and for the salvation of unbelievers in the midst. God is not far but near. We are anticipating, and being ready for, him moving among us. What is the demeanor of those who stand before the face of God?
4. Bible-based and Bible saturated.
The content of our singing, praying, welcoming, preaching, and poetry will always conform to the truth of Scripture. The content of God’s word will be woven through all we do in worship. It will be the ground of all our appeal to authority. Preaching, expository exaltation, will be central.
5. Head and heart.
We are committed to worship that aims at kindling and carrying deep, strong, real emotions towards God, but does not manipulate people’s emotions by failing to appeal to their thinking about spiritual things based on shareable evidences outside ourselves. Keeping these together, head and heart, is the difference between emotion and emotionalism, between intellectual and intellectualism.
6. Earnestness and intensity.
We are avoiding a trite, flippant, superficial frivolous atmosphere, but instead setting an example of reverence and passion and wonder. We’re very serious about being happy in God. Jokes are rarely fitting. Levity makes true worship harder. There is a difference between natural life humor, like I illustrated last night, and contrived communication humor. Heaven and hell are stupendous realities and deserve a certain demeanor. People are hungry for something different from the glib, chipper, silly fare of TV.
It just absolutely boggles my mind that pastors, and sometimes worship leaders, feel like they need to duplicate the lightheartedness in a worship service that people get on the banter of talk radio or late night TV. I just don’t get it. I watch it happen whenever I go on vacation. I watch it happen in places, and I ask, “Why?”
Why duplicate the emotion that they have everywhere else — lighthearted, flippant, superficial, and frivolous. Why would you do that? It’s just out of sync with the magnitude of what we’re about here. They need something else. They get that everywhere.
And I think the fear is that if we don’t tap into that, they’re going to be bored or unhappy, or think we’re unfriendly, or something good is not going to happen. I think people are hungry, not to be bored or excessively solemn, but for something they do not know. Where have they ever tasted someone who has met the living God, the one who created the universe and upholds it by the word of his power, and speaks about that God in a way that is somewhat in tune with his majesty? Where have they ever met that? Nowhere. Either they meet it here or they don’t meet it anywhere. So we are committed to earnestness and intensity.
7. Authentic communication.
This is the utter renunciation of all sham, deceit, hypocrisy, pretense, and affectation. See, the danger of what I just said is that the younger guys at this church, a lot of them are here in this room, will think, “Oh, okay. I’ve got to imitate John and the way he does things.” And then it’s just phony, and everybody feels it’s phony. You have to be you, right? But you want to pray into a certain kind of you. You look to grow into a new you, a fuller you, but you it’s still you.
You can’t imitate me or anybody else. It starts to feel really weird and unreal when people take these principles and you say, “Okay, I’ve got to perform that. I have to perform intensity.” Performed intensity is a contradiction in terms. It’s not an atmosphere of artistic or oratorical performance, but the atmosphere of a radically personal encounter with God and truth. I so ache that this church would be real.
I think I’m the main key here. I’m the one who stands in front most often, most of the time, talking. And they better feel John is not much impressed with himself, he knows he’s an average husband at best, he knows he’s made mistakes as a dad, he knows he’s a pastor who has to apologize lots for the toes he steps on, and he’s not trying to be something he’s not, he’s just real. You can’t perform real. Either you are or you aren’t.
So leaders from the front set the tone for the church. Are we going to be a real people, who let it all hang out and care and love and forgive. Or are we going to constantly be putting on a show?
8. The manifestation of God and the common good.
We expect, hope, and pray that our focus on manifesting God is good for people (1 Corinthians 12:7). And that, therefore, a spirit of love for each other is not incompatible with, but necessary to, authentic worship. So there I’m trying to stress that all my emphasis on going vertical, sustaining vertical, and keeping things from intruding in on the vertical is really good for people. It can awaken love for people, like I illustrated at the communion table as Kenny was speaking.
He was speaking with such power, earnestness, and seriousness about what we were going to do in the Lord’s Table, and I found my heart warming to my wife, overcoming my frustrations with anything she might have said or done that day. We don’t want to produce a cold people. If we’re producing cold people because of our vertical, then we’re just not doing it right. Something’s really fishy; something's going wrong.
9. Undistracting excellence.
There’s the phrase I was talking to you about. We will try to sing and play and pray and preach in such a way that people’s attention will not be diverted from the substance by shoddy ministry or by excessive finesse. Now notice, those are opposite ends. Natural, undistracting excellence will let the truth and the beauty of God shine through. So the sound system, music playing, welcome, lighting, heat, ushering, parking, and facilities are to the end of being undistracting in the aim of thinking about God. Avoid the flare of words and chords that draw attention mainly to the performance and style and not the substance.
We don’t have performances here in worship. When I grew up, I grew up in a church where you always had performances — a trio, or a solo, or somebody at the piano — and at the end, you just wondered, “What was that?” Now, I just got to sing Carol’s praises for a minute. Carol has been on the piano for over 15 years downtown, and I have never, in 15 years, heard Carol make a mistake. Chuck has made lots of mistakes. I’ve told him that. I love Chuck. He’s just utterly real. And Carol’s just rescuing him regularly. He’s off into some verse because he’s loving it, and she’s bringing him back.
She’s unbelievably gifted, and she can do everything. She can do boogie, bluegrass, and perfect classical; exactly the kinds of things Bob was doing. And she’s off the charts sensitive to the moment, so I doubt that our people hardly know she exists. She’s like a fixture behind the piano, an extension of that piano, making it serve the moment, whenever it should. And that’s a beautiful, undistracting excellence. We are honored. And frankly, it’s the same at each campus. I don’t hear mistakes in music at this church very often. And I chalk that up to God’s kindness and grace. I think the church would be very forgiving if we did, but it’s wonderful when that’s out of the way.
I just want to go back to this: shoddy ministry gets in the way and distracts people, but so does excessive finesse. A wise, sensitive, in-the-Spirit worship leader will know the difference between something really effective in his voice and something that is excessively finessing the moment. You’ll know the difference. I don’t want to frighten our worship leaders like I’m always displeased with something they do. I’m almost never displeased.
10. Determination to welcome people different from ourselves for the sake of Christ.
We aim to be more indigenous to the diversity of our metropolitan cultural setting, both urban and suburban. This is an important word. Racial togetherness says much about the power of God and his universal attractiveness. I wrote a whole book on the importance of this, and I just wanted to say it to our people. This is a value. This will have some implications. I’m not sure what they are. I haven’t decided ahead of time, what it means for music or whatever, but it’s a value.
11. The mingling of historic and contemporary music in heartfelt congregational singing.
And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).
The Bible says, “Sing a new song to the Lord” (Psalm 96:1), but clearly the Psalms themselves are old songs. Remember the great works of old, and don’t be chronologically snobbish, as though only new is good or only old is good. Mine the riches of the ages. Speak the language of the present, and adapt some forms to the present. So you can see none of those 11 things settled anything in this church, as far as, “How many hymns do you sing? What instruments do you use? How long will the services be? Will there be two kinds of services?” They didn’t.
They just emphasized 11 crucial things, and it had a preservative, unifying, and healing effect on us.
Music and Worship Ethos
I’m not going to go all the way through this next document, but I am going to dip into it regarding capturing our worship and music. So here’s the situation. I thought this would be practically helpful.
It's the mid ’90s, and we’ve been in a mode of tears, self-analysis, repentance, self-searching, and redefinition for two or three years. It’s time to call a worship leader, and we’re bringing about a thousand people to worship.
This is a letter that I wrote to a candidate. I’m not going to read the whole thing, but a couple parts of it. The effort was to capture, for a candidate, who we were in order to see if he fit. At the time, I was reading Harold Best’s Music Through the Eyes of Faith — a very weighty and good book. It's very helpful.
So I mentioned that I was reading that in this letter, and then I quoted him on this issue of how do you reconcile the high, classical church, and this is the rock-oriented, down-to-earth, everybody’s-in-jeans-and-T-shirts kind of church. On that continuum, every church is located somewhere; and not just located, but if they are wise, they have a bandwidth of variety.
So it’s not just a point moving on that line, but rather it’s a scope moving along that line. Where do you pause it, and say, “That’s who we are”? We probably wouldn’t go farther than Chris Tomlin on the one side, and on the other side we probably wouldn’t go farther than John Rutter. And we can move around in there.
We probably want to have an orchestra, but the orchestra will totally serve the hymns. We want to try to be delicate in the way we handle percussion. It won’t always be loud and driving, but appropriate. But who defines that? That’s the way we were thinking. How do you do this? How do you get an identity and then say to the people, “That’s who we are,” and then people either leave or come?
Now, there are not many wars at Bethlehem anymore. Not everybody is happy with the way every campus does it, but we’re pretty settled. To get where we are now was very difficult in those years.
So here’s the quote that I found helpful from Harold Best.
There is nothing un-Christian or anti-Christian about any kind of music. By the same token, there is no such thing as Christian music.
That’s a controversial statement.
Indiscriminate musical choice for the sake of attracting everybody means that there is no real centeredness, no practitional authenticity. At first blush, this sounds like a refutation of everything said and defended so far about pluralism.
So he has made a big case for pluralism; that is, if there’s no such thing as a distinctively Christian sound, cadence, rhythm, etc., then it’s all usable. So he calls that pluralism. And what I just quoted sounds like we're contradicting that.
It is not. It is, however, a refutation of faceless pluralism, given these facts: (1) the best pluralists will always have limited, not infinite choice; (2) pluralism never substitutes for the pursuit of excellence; (3) pluralism is the act of discovering and relating to the centeredness of others from the vantage point of your own centeredness. What churches cannot afford to do is to clone each other in order to keep up with each other, vying for souls. Rather, church X, out of the Spirit-driven conscience, chooses a certain musical profile, a certain combination of centeredness and diversity.
Do you see where I’m getting with this now? So if the scale is Bach to rock, centeredness means pick a point along the scale. You cannot be all this. You don’t have the ability to be all this, and the people totally know all this. So pick a point. That’s our centeredness, and at the point we have diversity as well, but it won’t be total. It's just going to be what you can manage.
…Church Y goes another way with the same integrity.
That was helpful. I don’t know if it is for you. Because if you try to be idealistic and say, “What is the ideal combination? What’s the ideal music? What’s the proper music for Sunday morning?” There’s just no answer to that, if Harold Best is right, and I think he is. You have to be you, but which you? Which faction of the congregation is you? The leaders are going to be really big in this. You just have to discern, with a Spirit-driven conscience, and choose a certain musical profile.
It never was old versus young in this church, ever. Our younger people have put up some of the stiffest opposition to certain changes we’ve made, and some of the older people have been happy. For us, it has never been merely generational. People have real strong opinions for other reasons than what age they grew up in. So you listen and you move.
So what I have been trying to do is give you a flavor of the candidate for worship pastor at this church; of our profile and centeredness, and some of the diversity involved. It is almost impossible to do this without weeks together, but such is life. God will take what I have said, as imperfect as it is, and use it to guide us. It might help to let you read the ad we published as part of our search for a lead worshiper. I still love this ad. I think it’s one of my best creations ever. We put this in Christianity today. I just think it gets who we are so well.
Associate Pastor for Worship and Music, Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota: The mission of our 1,000 folks is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.
You see that on the wall up there, those last three words through Jesus Christ? That was added about two or three years after this ad. So this is a defective statement. Now it’s more full, but that’s where we were. The ad continues:
We are Calvinistic in theology, Baptistic in polity, and charismatic in affections.
My thought there was to scare everybody away, except that really rare person that we want. Calvinist? Yuck. Baptist? Ugh. Charismatic? Yikes. So I just don’t want a lot of applicants.
…and driven by the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him…
That’s Christian Hedonism.
We are committed to old and new, fine and folk, depth and simplicity, head and heart, design and spontaneity, awe and intimacy — with unremitting God-centeredness, intensity and authenticity. We aim to be Bible-saturated, Spirit-filled, soul-winning, and culture-confronting. Age and ethnic diversity matter. Worship leadership means worshiping contagiously in front of others. Elder qualifications from 1 Timothy 3:1-7 are expected. Write to Tim Tomlinson, Chair of the Search Committee.
The upshot of that was Chuck Steddom, and God was good to us. He was teaching music at Prairie Bible College. He was the Academic Dean, I think, at the time. So clearly he was a more academic, reflective type. He’s gotten a PhD since then. He was into ethnomusicology. He would go to Burma to teach worship, and cared about cross-cultural ethnic things. He was heavily into the city. This is the kind of guy you want, right? You should try to do this for your church. Just write an ad for the kind of church you are and the kind of people you want.
A Question regarding Jazz in Worship
The question is: What about jazz? This person attempted to put a component of jazz into worship, and many peoples’ reaction was negative. Part of the rationale was, I guess, the associations people had with regard to a prior life of drinking, or whatever, didn’t help them.
Now that’s going to be true with rock music, or certain cadences. For some people, it’s true with a drum of any kind. We got that same response with drums. I want to be delicately sensitive to that. I don’t want to push the envelope to a kind of beat or genre that, for hundreds of people, has associations that make getting to God really hard. So you walk slowly and tenderly through that and you may decide against it.
I’ll just be really honest with you. This is the way leadership works I think. Jason and the G-Men are here. Now they are called “The Harms Quartet'', or something like that. So they are a jazz quartet, and they’re really good. They go all over the world to play. Jason is part of us here, and they’ve participated in the Maundy Thursday service.
Now I don’t get jazz. Sorry, I just don’t get it. I mean, emotionally, it is less than zero for me. I’m so sorry. It’s not eviI at all. I love Jason. I really love him. He’s really good, but as far as the sounds, I was like, “Jazz is not helping me get to God at all.” Now the effect of that is I say that to Jason and the guys, and they say, “Well, we probably shouldn’t use it much because John doesn’t like it.” They do defer to me.
So we usually don’t have jazz on Sunday mornings. If we did, Chuck would look at me and smile, and I would smile back. Then we’d have a conversation afterwards, and he’d probably do it again.
So in other words, the point of that is who you are as a people and as a leadership team are going to help this center. My view of jazz is not a moral thing. I mean, to me it almost feels that way since it’s just so unhelpful to me, but I want to keep saying, “It’s not moral,” because I think Harold Best is right. No musical sound is sub-Christian in and of itself, but emotionally certain things work. They may work just because of the way I’m wired, or because of my background. The people brought up in this question have associated jazz with whatever smokey, late-night drinking bouts they had when they were 19 years old, or whatever.
Maybe just to balance it, I would say there are gospel songs from the ’40s that would be worse for me than jazz. So it’s not mere association with the world. There are world associations, and then I’ve got associations with songs that I grew up with, which were superficially, hypocritically sung by churches that didn’t love God. Those associations make me want to just say, “I don’t that song in this service! I don’t like that song. It’s superficial, it’s lighthearted!” So we’re just so different, and that’s why this is so hard.
A Question regarding Repeated Refrains in Music
The question is: What about repeated refrains in music? That’s an excellent question. You should ask Bob that question this afternoon. Traditional hymns have refrains that you sing four or five times with a verse in between. Also, Psalm 136 has the repeated refrain, “The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.” I called that gloriously monotonous when I wrote to someone about it. So biblically, repetition is not evil.
However, we all have our limits. Everybody has a limit. You may be fine repeating something 35 times, but 36 would be too many. You may be an eight-times person. Worship leaders, try to do it right.
I’ve never stood in front watching people as we sing a song that goes on and on. But if I were a leader, I think I would just try to discern, “Are they with us still, or are they dropping out? Are hundreds of people dropping out?” Maybe their hands are down, they’re getting weary, they’re looking at their shoes, but there’s about a hundred people who are really excited about this repetition.
Sometimes you get the feeling that you wish we could sing something just one more time; that they would just give us that verse one more time. Repeat it acapella, because right now that just sank in, and we need to have the instruments drop out for a third repetition of that verse. In a moment like that it wouldn’t feel like a repetition because the instruments are gone. We did that with Bob a little while ago.
So yes, there needs to be a team that gives feedback to the worship leaders, a gracious team, and just helps. If he seems to be a little out of touch with where everybody else is, you say something like, “I think the third or fourth time of that went beyond where we were,” and maybe that will help him.
Fine and Folk
In the last part of this session, I think I would like to do this “Fine and Folk” piece with you. This is another way of helping a church find the center of how to do worship. Chuck helped me with this. He’s heard me do this before, and he cautioned me the second time he heard this talk that ethnomusicology is more complicated than this.
In other words, when you stir the ethnic piece into this, it gets more complicated. So understand this for what it is. There are bigger issues. There are more complicated issues. If the slice that I’m dealing with of folk and fine can be a little bit helpful that you get your feet on the ground with regard to those two, then I think you’ll be in a better position to say, “Okay, now how does that lay on top of black music? How does it lay on top of Myanmar or Shanghai?” Because I’m clearly operating out of an American cultural identity when I write this. Here are a few points related to this “Fine and Folk” piece:
1. The New Testament is very open-ended on cultural forms.
I think we’ve made that point. You don’t need to say that again.
2. Culture falls on a continuum of folk and fine.
One way to describe the differences in how people approach worship is to speak in terms of fine culture and folk culture. By culture, I mean a pattern of life, including, thought, emotion, speech, and activity. By fine culture, I have in mind the pattern of life that puts a high priority on intellectual and artistic expressions that require extraordinary ability to produce, and often demand disciplined efforts to understand and appreciate. So that’s fine culture.
By folk culture, I have in mind the pattern of life that puts a high priority on expressions of the heart and mind that please and help average people, without demanding unusual efforts. This could be very popular.
For example, it’s the difference between classical music and bluegrass, or easy listening, rock, show tunes, oldies, and country western — all of which are the music of the people. Though, I realize there is a continuum, rather than a neat box, for all kinds and qualities of music. Another example would be the contrast between a Shakespearian drama and The Empire Strikes Back, or picture any movie. Movies are pop culture. Shakespeare is not. It’s very verbally adept, whereas popular movies are usually just appealing to popular taste.
Or another example is how one might think of the difference between reading Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem The Windhover: To Christ our Lord, which says:
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding — Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding; High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing…
What on earth does that mean? That’s one of the greatest poems. You always read that in literature classes, but you have to have a Thesaurus, a dictionary, and a commentary to get it. I don’t know what five of those words mean, but I was a lit major so I know it exists, and I like Hopkins. This poem doesn’t move me, but others that he writes do.
Or then you have what my dad read. In his poem Home, Edgar Guest says:
It takes a heap ‘o livin’ to make a house a home.
That’s a poem, but it’s not The Windhover: To Christ our Lord. The latter is folk, and the former is fine. Hopkins’s poem is demanding, intellectual, and rarefied. It requires a certain amount of education to know what these words are and how poetry works. Home is what your average, run-of-the-mills, ordinary person understands when reading Edgar A. Guest. They’re going to get it just as it is, feel it, and love it, unless they’re trying to be elitist and only want what’s educated.
3. We should not pass judgment on fine culture or folk culture per se.
I want to stress that fine and folk, in and of themselves, are not moral categories like bad and good. They’re not. There are caricatures of the accesses of both that are easy to condemn. That’s not our purpose. It’s more profitable to consider the strengths and weaknesses built into both of them, so as to avoid the weaknesses and affirm the strengths in both. Fine culture and folk culture have intrinsic vulnerabilities to sin, and unique potentialities for God-glorifying goodness. They are redeemable, both of them.
4. There are intrinsic vulnerabilities of fine culture.
If you’re a church that’s leaning towards fine culture, and you believe where people ought to move is from the hoi polloi, popular radio stuff, over towards higher appreciations for the more refined, then here are some of the vulnerabilities. Intrinsic vulnerabilities of high culture include elitism and snobbishness. In demanding high levels of intellect and skill, it easily inflates the ego of those who succeed in it, and tempts them to look with contempt on folk culture with its simpler achievements.
It easily isolates technical expertise from the larger issues of life, in an attempt to give intrinsic value instead of defining its value in relation to other, more important spiritual and personal realities. It is inevitably less accessible to average people, and therefore, tends towards performance rather than participation. This performance orientation carries again the tendency toward an atmosphere of aloofness and distance. It’s sad that those caricatures are true. So those are my warnings with regard to fine.
5. There are intrinsic vulnerabilities of folk culture.
Intrinsic vulnerabilities of folk culture include laziness and carelessness. There is an intrinsic drift toward increasing indifference to simple disciplines that define excellence at the most rudimentary level. For example, using bad grammar in worship songs like, “You reigneth.” That’s a real phrase in a song. Or having “you” and “thou” in the same line. As in the words:
Thou, O Lord, are to shield about me. You’re my glory.”
Where’d that come from? Why did they do that, changing “thou” to “you”? Why shift from the 16th to the 20th century in the middle of the verse? The answer is laziness. It’s what they felt like saying in the bedroom as they were making this song up.
Now, if I’m wrong about that, you come up and tell me that you know who wrote that and you know exactly why they did it and there’s some deep reason. I don’t think there’s a deep reason. This is not like the word ain’t in “You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog.” This is like singing, “Thou ain’t nothing but a hound dog.” Ain’t belongs with hound dog, thou doesn’t. And there are worship songs that are like singing, “Thou ain’t nothing but a hound dog.”
Folk culture, with its intrinsic anti-intellectualism, tends to short circuit the mind and move the emotions with shortcuts. Thus, folk culture is not generally a preservative force for great Biblical doctrine.
On the balance between discipline and spontaneity, folk culture tends to err on spontaneity. I think our less helpful contemporary worship songs — and this might be true of some old ones as well — come from people who are strumming with their guitar in their bedroom, or on their porch, making notes and trying to come up with a song, and then something comes to their mind that works and they go with it. Another hour of effort would have gotten a better word, or a better wording, that fit the cadence, or had a more precise rhyme, etc. When you hear it you think, “I don’t think it took too long to write that. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of effort that went into that song in choosing a more effective word there.”
So, why would we put two words in a line, when one is perfect and fits the cadence? Why would you put two there, cramming them in, when, in fact, leaving out the “and” or the “but” would just flow perfectly with the cadence? I don’t have any answers to that, except laziness, maybe a lack of poetic ear. So at this point I am saying one of the vulnerabilities of pop culture, or folk culture, is unnecessary laziness. It’s not going to be less attractive to the populace, if it works better. So work harder at your poetry.
6. There are positive potentials of fine culture.
The positive potentials for fine culture include the preservation of what we might call “the life of the mind.” Fine culture is more likely than folk culture to inject, into the stream of society, the commitment to think hard and think clearly. It’s more likely than folk culture to keep the intellect from atrophying. It is especially crucial that Christians not surrender the life of the mind to the secular world. First, because it belongs to God and he has commanded us to love him with our minds, and second, because we will lose succeeding generations if we do not have intellectually credible expressions of faith to pass on to them.
Further, the fine culture has the potential of preserving the very concepts of truth, excellence, and beauty as objective ideals rooted in God as our absolute. Folk culture tends always to exalt what works. It is intrinsically pragmatic and colloquial, and does not measure its achievements in terms of objective, absolute ideals, but generally in terms of wide appeal and practical effect. Fine culture tends to march to the beat of a drummer other than mass appeal or practical effect. At its best, it strives to create images of excellence, beauty, and truth that echo more faithfully the ultimate excellence of God.
Fine culture thus has the potential (if not contemporary success) of helping preserve the real complexities of truth and thus guarding against the intrinsic tendency of folk culture toward oversimplification and eventual distortion. Fine culture has the potential of touching some emotions that folk culture will not touch. Folk culture tends toward what can be commonly shared, and therefore minimizes what is rare. However, some emotions that belong to God are rare and profound, and maybe awakened and carried best through expressions of fine culture.
For example, there are probably some senses of grandeur that find preservation and expression best in some grand and magnificent artistic statements that are not part of folk culture. And probably the most widely known one is Handel’s Messiah.
Now, there are a lot of good things about fine in that section. It’s my attempt to be positive because, frankly, I, Chuck, Dan, and Jason, tend to lean towards folk, and there’s theological reasons for that. I don’t know if they use that language, but we do.
7. There are positive potentials of folk culture.
The positive potentials of folk culture include meeting people where they are in order to communicate. Jesus left heaven and became a carpenter. He called fishermen, and the people heard him gladly and the elitist killed him. Folk culture affirms the importance of building bridges of shareable experience. It is a “go tell” mentality, rather than a “come see” mentality. It goes the extra mile to make its vision accessible to the average person.
Home by Edgar A. Gest is more likely to find its way into worship at Bethlehem than The Windhover: To Christ our Lord by Gerard Hopkins. The Hopkins form would simply impress people that didn’t know what it meant. Whereas the other, if it were adapted appropriately in a sermon, or whatever, would be understood broadly. We want to get our arms around people.
Folk culture keeps the truth clear that elite groups of intellectuals and artists that look with contempt upon common man, and his needs and tastes, are not admirable persons, no matter how accomplished their talents are. Folk culture has the potential of reminding us that God must have loved the common people because he made so many of them. I think Abraham Lincoln said that.
Folk culture is by nature incarnational. It clothes its claims with skin of ordinary people, and affirms implicitly the value of getting through to the mind and heart of the masses. Folk culture, at its best, has the potential of touching emotions that fine culture will not generally touch. Now notice, I’m balancing the scales here. I said, there are some emotions that Handel’s Messiah, or Rutter’s Gloria, will touch that no folk orientation will ever awaken in the same depth or way. But the same is also true in the other direction. Folk culture, at its best, has the potential of touching emotions that fine culture will generally not touch.
Thus, folk culture honors the preciousness of average wonders like falling in love, taking walks, taking a walk, eating a good meal, talking to a friend, swimming in the ocean, having a baby, and planting a garden. All these are likely to be the subject of folk culture, creations, and communications. It helps us not neglect ordinary beauty. Elitists can miss things in their quest towards refined excellence.
8. All we do is on a continuum between folk and fine.
In the church, all that we do fall somewhere on the continuum between fine culture and folk culture, admitting these ethnic, cultural complexities that Chuck reminds me of. Our music, our architecture, our furnishings, our dress, our written materials, our preaching and teaching, and our conversations between services are all on that continuum. And I think it would be good for you to think about that and make choices. We live in a heavily folk oriented time of church.
I am just about the only person, there may be half a dozen others, who wear a suit to preach and come to worship. I look out on a sea of people who are dressed unlike me. It’s not intended as a condemnation. It’s intended as a robe. Some denominations wear robes – the pastor puts on a robe. There’s a reason for that. It keeps from there being any distraction to the variety of his dress. He’s always the solemn, serious, black robed, proclaimer of the word of God, and nobody thinks anymore after you’re there a few Sundays, he always wears that robe.
John Piper has worn the same suit for eight years. I’ve had three suits in thirty years, and I’ve worn them every Sunday. For ten years I wore the suit I got married in. I wore a vest and a silver cross around my neck for ten years, and then I got rid of the cross and the vest, eventually. People didn’t understand what that was about. Now the only thing I change is my shirt and tie, and I wonder if people think about that, saying, “Oh, he’s got a different tie on tonight.”
I’m saying something about this pulpit, this moment, and the meaning of this — I’m saying something about it. Now, if you choose to wear a t-shirt and jeans with tears in them to preach in, you’re saying something. It’s not necessarily wrong. What you’re saying is, “Jesus came to the real world.” That’s the way people here in Portland, Seattle, and Gaithersburg dress. And I will not try to be above them. Piper does. He tries to be above them.” You might feel that way. You might say, “I’m just going to totally go with the flow of folk culture, because Jesus did.”
I don’t get on a crusade to get everybody to dress differently, though I do feel like there are pitfalls to that. There are kinds of things that you’d like to happen in worship, kinds of affections you want, that beach garb doesn’t help make happen. It doesn’t help.
It kind of communicates a certain relaxed, casual attitude. If God showed up, we wouldn’t be relaxed and casual. In other words, relaxed and casual is a true thing about God. He’s our Father. He loves us as we are. You don’t have to put on any airs with God, and I think the whole movement is saying that. It’s saying, “We don’t need all that old stuff; all that put on your best at Easter, or put on your hat and dress up on Sunday. We don’t need that stuff. Be real.”
I think that’s what it’s all about, and it says something that may not be true. Like, “You’re not real if you feel like Sunday morning is more like a wedding than the beach.” Hardly anybody in the 20 somethings and 30 somethings kicks against the idea of dressing up a little bit for a wedding. Almost everybody dresses up a little bit for a wedding. Why? That’s just how we do it.
That’s not a hill I’m going to die on. I’ve tried and failed at various levels of control in that regard. I think the bigger picture will help and the tide will turn, and then suddenly Mark Driscoll will be wearing a tie every Sunday. He might even put on Dockers and take off his boots.
9. We should take the strengths and weaknesses of both into account in our planning.
I think about our worship forms and about the general tone and atmosphere of our church. We should take the possible weaknesses and potential strengths of fine culture and folk culture into account. We will hopefully be able to affirm all that is good in both cultures, and find a way both to be ourselves, and be what we need to be to honor the excellence and truth and beauty of God and reach out to all kinds of people.
So there’s the tension. I want to magnify these aspects of God that seem to be more greatly magnified with this statement in music, rather than that one. And yet, I don’t want to sing in a way, or play in a way that makes everybody feel alienated, because it’s from another world.
10. This will be an ongoing process, not a once for all discovery.
So let’s just see if there’s a question or two here at the end, and then I’m going to close in prayer.
A Question about Fine and Folk Culture when Starting a Church
The question is: How would you think about striking the right balance between fine and folk culture when starting a church? I just have so much admiration for anybody who attempts to start a church from scratch and then grow it with these kinds of things in mind. I’ve never done it. And therefore, I’m probably not the best person to give you counsel.
Who you are and what you start doing will probably make it easier for some people to come to your assembly than others. That’s the group you’ve got to work with. They’re on that spectrum somewhere and maybe you see they’re way off on the end of folk and have zero appreciation for the life of the mind. And you have to stay with them. You can’t leave them. You’d like them to be able to read a good book by the Puritans, or just read a book if they’re totally non-readers. And so, you love them, you preach to them, you nurture them, and you get a long view.
You think of their children and what kind of youth ministry you’re going to have, and how you will build a mindset into that next generation. Then you will try to include, I would presume, kinds of things in what you say and what you recommend that would help them along. It’s a process of maturation. You don’t want to communicate to them, “When you grow up, you’ll really like Shakespeare and John Rutter and Handel’s Messiah. Now, you’re just little babies.” You don’t want to communicate that at all. You just want to feed them what they can handle.
Hebrews says, by this time you ought to like meat and I still have to give you milk (Hebrews 5:12). That’s the doctrinal picture of the whole thing. We want to bring our people along into the depths of doctrine. And there’s just something about Christianity and the fact that it’s based on a book with Jesus underneath it that inclines us to become more adept at the life of the mind.
If you go to a preliterate culture (this would be the extreme) like somewhere in Papua New Guinea, and there’s a tribe you want to reach but they’ve never written down their language at all, and you come and say, “The true God has spoken to us in the Bible,” your goal for them over the next 25 to 50 years would be that the language be written down, the Bible be translated into it, and scholars be raised up who can read Greek and Hebrew. And in a hundred or two hundred years, they could provide the very best translation and life guidance imaginable. I think that’s the way missions should be.
That may sound elitist. Someone could say, “You’re going to destroy their oral tradition, their oral culture.” God chose to reveal himself in a book. Now our situation is just a little more refined. People will come into your church that are just not readers. They’re totally visually oriented, and still God revealed himself in a book. So you’re going to try to help them by your exposition to love the Bible. When they start loving the Bible, they’re going to want to read it better. To read it better, they’re going to read a book about it and you’re off to transformation.