The Problem With Today’s Worship

Try not to judge me, but nearly everywhere I look, the corporate worshiping of God is being practiced in ways that increasingly trouble me.  For starters, the concept of “worship” continues to be understood  primarily as “singing.”  This reflects a very limited understanding of how Christian worship has been practiced historically, biblically, and  theologically down through the centuries. A more accurate and holistic view of worship should include scripture, prayer, eucharist, ministry to widows and the poor, and the use of our spiritual gifts (charismata) for the sake of others, among other things.  

Chris leading worship_Fox_Theater_cropWhen I first began leading worship in the 1970’s (yep, that's me in the photo!), the “contemporary worship” movement was gaining momentum.  The movement -- and the changes it brought -- was a corrective to how heady, ritualistic, and rather impersonal worship seemed to be in most churches.  As Lester Ruth (a former mentor) and Lim Swee Hong have stressed in their book, The History of Contemporary Praise and Worship,

"The breadth of change was matched by the breadth of churches seeking to change. ...[not] just by theologically conservative evangelicals seeking to make new converts.  Moderate and even liberal mainline Christians, driven by a general anxiety about people's disinterest in and boredom with church, jumped into the pursuit of measures that would make worship more exciting, interesting, and relevant to the pressing matters of the day" (p.200).

The heartfelt intimacy brought on by the singing of fresh, contemporary worship choruses was undoubtedly a long overdue “pendulum swing,” apart from the positive effect it had on attendance and church growth.  An unfortunate long-term result, however, was that “worship” became almost solely associated with the singing of “praise and worship choruses.”  Despite decades of uplifting, feel-good choruses -- as well as some deeply worshipful ones -- many of today's "worship songs" are written as petitions to God or as celebrations of what He has done for us rather than songs that directly exalt, extol, and adore Him for who He is.  Don’t misunderstand – petitioning God is important and good, and so is recounting what He has done for us (e.g. Ps. 103:2-5).  But far too many of our songs end up sounding like many of our prayers --  a “To Do List” for God.

Thanks to a plethora of worship services being offered online by churches each week, I’ve been able to listen in to a wide variety of them.  As a result, I repeatedly hear worship tunes that are focused on “us” rather than on God.  Sure, they may be catchy tunes and many stir up deep emotions within congregants, but this does not automatically make them exemplary worship songs. When the people of the Lord gather on the day of the Lord in the house of the Lord to sing in worship to the Lord, I believe there needs to be much more direct focus on the Lord --  more adoration and not so much petition.  When we do sing, our songs need to consistently be more Christocentric, more Trinitarian, and more focused on declaring God’s supreme greatness, holiness, and worth.  This is the worship He deserves regardless of how we feel or what we need.  

Once again, we need a pendulum-swing adjustment.  In their book, Trouble at the Table: Gathering the Tribes for Worship, Carol Doran and Thomas H. Troeger put their finger on the problem, writing,

"...we observed the disillusionment of people who were originally attracted by the idea of completely innovative worship.  What starts with a burst of enthusiasm begins to wear thin because people cannot come up with an endless supply of new ideas and because ritual by nature is repetitive.  Innovators who get rid of one tradition usually settle into their own, which often fails to stand the test of time.  The new songs that were so appealing upon their introduction grow tiresome for lack of musical substance... The absence of prayers, words, and music inherited from ancient tradition gives the service a flimsy feeling, as if faith and worship were simply one more passing fashion among the myriad fads that come and go." (p.117)

Our understanding and practice of Christian worship needs to no longer be focused exclusively on music. While we must be careful not to abandon the personal and intimate expressions of worship that singing helps provide, we must return to intentionally connecting our worship to the full compliment of biblical worship expressions that have been passed down to us through the centuries.  Yes, our corporate times of worship should be characterized by the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19), but also by teaching, fellowship, Eucharist, prayer, and meeting each other’s needs (e.g.Acts 2:42-47), and this in addition to living lives of holiness -- both socially and personally (e.g. Jas 1:27).

As you can tell, I am passionate about the Church’s current need for worship renewal. After spending over three decades in worship ministry, I specifically focused my post-graduate and doctoral studies on this central expression of our Christian faith. In addition, I continue to read and research broadly in the discipline of worship studies and enjoy teaching the same as time allows. My hope is that the Church will reattach herself to her ancient worship roots:  "Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together [for worship], one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you" (1 Corinthians 14:26, NLT).

Book Review: "Black & White: Disrupting Racism One Friendship At A Time"

Teesha Hadra -- part of the pastoral team at Church of the Resurrection in Highland Park, CA -- recently cowrote an excellent book entitled, "Black & White: Disrupting Racism One Friendship At At Time" (Abingdon Press, 2019).  I was fortunate enough to meet Teesha earlier this month while visiting her church on a Sunday morning.  The members of her congregation were kind, authentic, and refreshingly reflective of their community's diverse ethnicities.  The message of Teesha's book clearly seems to be consistent with the faith community she serves.

Black & White_smI love this book!  It was engaging, thoughtful, and even at times -- humorous.  Teesha and coauthor, John Hambrick, have done a terrific job in describing the current state (and sin) of racism -- as well as its origins -- and done so in ways that are both compelling and convicting while still inspiring their readers to take action personally. They have also effectively explained how and why "systemic racism" is so important for Christ-followers to recognize and work at eliminating wherever it is found. Each chapter ends with excellent questions for reflection, designed to be used in a group setting or personally.

Here are two quotes out of dozens worth highlighting:

"Working against racism is part of what it means to call Jesus Lord and Savior.  Racism is opposed to God's desire to be reconciled to one another in one body that is reconciled to God." (p. 142)

"Friendship is a foundation for the concrete work of reforming systems and institutions infected with racism." (p. 189)

The message of "Black & White" is simple to understand, and simple to implement.  It may at times be painfully honest for some, but is repeatedly filled with hope and anchored in our faith.  If every believer were to read this book, embrace its content, and then live out its plea -- racism, both personal and systemic, would begin to crumble. Lord, let it be so.


Worship Wednesday: Consumer-Driven Worship

Worship Wednesdays will focus on a variety of thoughts, quotes, and insights -- all related to Christian worship.  Why? Because I've given nearly my entire life to Christian worship in one way or another and since I cannot shake this passion, why not share it!

Last Supper Inclusive In recent weeks I've been revisiting how contemporary culture, especially in the U.S., is driven by a mindset of consumerism. This results in the commodification of many things: our shopping lists, our bucket lists, our resumes, our relationships, and even our faith. I would like to suggest that more often than not, when things in our lives are viewed as commodities -- as products -- things almost always turn out badly. As consumers, we're trained to get what we want, how and when we want it.  We've been conditioned to believe that this is what we deserve, and when we don't get what we want, we are justified in either complaining or looking elsewhere until we find it.  Such an attitude is helpful when searching for a reliable grocer, but not so when it comes to our need to worship.  Yes, we need to worship and have been created to worship God in community with one another, but when we bring a consumer mentality with us into a worship gathering, we've already missed the boat -- so to speak.  Worship should never be about us, never be treated as a product meant to please us, inspire us, or meet our needs.  Worship is meant to be all about God -- acknowledging Him, thanking Him, surrendering to Him, serving Him, and glorifying Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. When we treat worship like a commodity -- like a product -- we dishonor and do violence to it.  Worship should never be evaluated like a head of lettuce: "it's too small, too big, not green enough, not dense enough, not fresh enough; maybe it's not even the type of lettuce we love -- we love romaine, but hate iceberg (I think you get my meaning)!" And yet consumer-driven worshipers do the same thing: "I love this song; I hate this song; not another hymn?!  Not another new chorus?! Why can't we have more _______, and less _______?!" And on and on it goes! 

So over the next few days, I encourage all of us to search our minds and hearts and come to terms with any ways that we've allowed our overly consumer-driven world to influence or affect what we think and how we act when we gather to worship God. 

Keep the "Mass" in Christmas!

Christmas worshipIt seems that year after year we inevitably hear the oft-quoted complaint: "Keep Christ in Christmas" -- and rightfully so, especially since the secularization of Christmas seems to have no intention of slowing down.  But keeping "Christ" in Christmas isn't the only thing we increasingly find missing from the true meaning of Christmas -- we also need to keep the "mass" in Christmas!  That's right, I'm talking about the "mass" -- the intentional, structured time of corporate worship.

We have forgotten (or never knew to begin with) that our English word, Christmas, is a shortening of Christ-mass -- and this, in turn, is derived from the Old English, Cristesmaesse, or literally "Christ's mass" (a term in use since 1038).  Here's the long and short of it: Christians have long celebrated the miracle of Christ's Incarnation and birth with a mass -- an intentional, structured time of corporate worship!  But I can't help but think that in today's world, we either skip such corporate worship times on Christmas, or we convince ourselves that singing a few carols just makes more sense at such a busy time of year.

This year, therefore, let's not be too quick at patting ourselves on the back for keeping Christ in Christmas.  We should also make a conscious effort to keep the mass in Christmas.  Let's make the corporate worshiping of Jesus an integral part of our Christmas practices. 

May you and yours enjoy a blessed Christ-mass!

A Call to Be Different This Election

Many Americans are anything but enthusiastic about the upcoming Presidential elections this Fall.  The choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is not only igniting disrespectful and demeaning rhetoric from candidates and supporters alike, but there has been a growing dissatisfaction, disgust, and anger that is breaking out everywhere it seems. Battle lines were drawn some time ago and they have continued to deepen.  This has become the norm -- even among professing Christians -- and this troubles me deeply.   Christ-followers ought to live differently from the world around them, especially when prevailing attitudes and behaviors are inconsistent with the teachings and practices of Jesus.

John Wesley 2

The challenges we Christians are facing related to the coming election are not new.  Politics have always possessed an incendiary nature.  In the 18th century, John Wesley recognized how one's involvement in fiery election-related rhetoric could compromise one's witness to Christ and the call to live differently than the world around us.  This led Wesley to give believers specific advice on how to vote:



“October 6, 1774
I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them
1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy
2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and
3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

― John Wesley, The Journal of John Wesley


Regarding #1 --To reject voting for "fee or reward" is not simply about avoiding bribes, but to vote without regard for personal benefit.  In a culture addicted to self-interests and personal entitlements, followers of Jesus should follow a different set of guiding principles -- those which put the welfare of others ahead of their own.  Also in view here is the importance of "judging" properly and responsibly, with God as our helper. This requires wisdom and effort and is quite different than voting according to popularity or simply following one's gut.

Regarding #2 -- The refusal to speak evil regarding the person one is voting against is entirely consistent with the teachings of the New Testament.  Here is just one of many examples:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43–45 NRSV)

Regarding #3 -- Here is where we must avoid all temptations and tendencies to become inflamed toward others because of either their or our political convictions. Social media is, of course, currently filled with fiery, accusatory, and demeaning rhetoric related to the current presidential campaign.  This may well be "normal" in the culture at large, but it should not be so among those professing to following Jesus Christ. In my daily reading, this verse recently grabbed my attention:  "Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels."  (2Timothy 2:23 NRSV)


I call on all of us who claim to follow Jesus, therefore, to BE DIFFERENT in regards not only to this Fall's presidential election, but to all elections. This is not a call to check our heads and hearts at the door, but to engage them in ways that both trust and honor Christ, and that manifest his love toward others, regardless of their political passions. 




P.S. Thanks to Sam Mallon for pointing me to the following link and the fascinating advice from John Wesley:




For Many Young Adults, True Change May Be In the Past

Young adults at the altarIt seems that posts like this one are becoming more commonplace of late.  Why? Because a generation of young adults who left the church years ago, are returning -- as as they do -- they're looking for something different than they had left. The sentiments that Andrea Palpant Dilley has written about may not be true for all young adults, but certainly are true for many -- especially those who plenty sharp enough to recognize how today's popular evangelical churches have bowed too long to the idol of being "relevant" -- so long, that they've lost their sense of weight, substance, and significance.  

For a number of reasons, young adults who are returning to the church after years of absence, end up in churches far more traditional, historical, and even liturgical than they attended before.  They want a faith with roots, with longevity, with a history that hasn't sold itself out to the whims and fads of our ever-changing culture.   As this trend continues, what is it saying to the church as a whole? What is it saying to you and I?

Genuine Transformation

    The fruit of genuine transformation should characterize the lives of all Christ-followers, yet if truth be known, precious few who claim to be Christians actually evidence such transformation in their lives. This is exactly what George Barna highlighted today in the unveiling of his new book, Maximum Faith, at the Western regional Wesleyan Holiness Consortium, held at Azusa Pacific University.

Maximumfaith     Barna pulled no punches in describing how today's church has divorced transformation from the process of salvation and placed it into the hands of the individual.  Rather than providing people with a "map" for the intentional transformation of their lives, many churches give folks a "menu" -- leaving it up to the individual to pick-and-choose among options, selecting what sounds good to them, and hoping it all turns out well.  In contrast to such an approach, Barna insists that churches must partner with people in the transformation of their lives, guiding them and helping them to avoid the faulty associations so prevalent among professing Christians today. Barna's recent research suggests that...

We Confuse:                              With:

salvation                                transformation

presence                               connection

acquaintance                         relationship

participation                           integration

intellectual knowledge           faith

holiness                                 perfection

busyness                               significance

emotional happiness             joy

regularity                               passion

physical comfort                    divine reward

    Such confusions and misconceptions can be remedied, at least in part, by better understanding the dynamics of authentic spiritual transformation. So then, how does God transform people’s lives? Barna draws on recent research to describe a ten-stop "journey" that he believes produces robust life transformation – and goes on to explain the reasons behind why most people struggle to get past the halfway mark (noting that only 1% of Americans reach stop 9 and/or 10).  Here are Barna's 10 "Stops":

  1. Ignorance
  2. Indifference
  3. Concern about sin
  4. Born again - inactive
  5. Born again - active (doing "Christian" things)
  6. Discontent
  7. Brokenness (usually through personal crisis)
  8. Surrender, Submission
  9. Profound love of God
  10. Profound love for people

    Much is currently being written regarding evangelicalism's misrepresentation of conversion/salvation as a "decision" or "event" that occurs at a point-in-time, rather than as a process or journey. Despite this, change  is slow in coming.  I applaud Barna for being a contributing voice to a church in need of reform, and look forward to reading and reviewing Maximum Faith in the coming days.



Thoughts on Conversion and Christian Formation, part 2









In the early centuries of the Church, worship was dynamically linked to the spiritual formation of worshipers. The various acts of worship constantly reminded believers of their formation journey as worshipers, in that these worship components were first delivered and explained to them as part of the catechetical instruction they received prior to and following their baptism – itself, a central act of worship.   As worshipers heard the teachings, memorized the Creed, offered up prayers, and received the Eucharist, their own catechesis and baptism were always in view. Believers were formed for worship.

Today’s reality is quite different.  Conversion and Christian formation have little to do with the when, why, and how we worship.  As evangelicals, we are quick to affirm that the Christian faith is meant to be a faith-of-the-heart. [OT: God is not after our “sacrifices”, but after our hearts] Yet, a process of spiritual formation that prepares the believer for knowledge of, full participation in, and commitment to worship is strangely absent.   We might “require” praise-team members to be members or at least regular attendees for 6 months or some such thing before being allowed on stage to help lead worship, but we generally leave their spiritual formation process up to them!  We have fairly successfully disconnected the ministry and acts of worship from the spiritual formation of the worshiper.

What implications does this disconnect present?  How might it be affecting our corporate worship expressions?  In what ways does our culture’s emphasis on radical individualism, as well as egalitarianism, keep us from rediscovering and utilizing the catechetical practices of the early church?  Further, what implications would the faithful catechizing of believers have on the health, strength, and effectiveness of congregational worship and mission?

We evangelicals commonly “save” people (facilitate their "decision" to receive Christ), yet fail to fully “convert” them. As a result, we become discouraged when attempting to “disciple” these saved-but-not-yet-converted “Christians,” and shake our heads in disbelief at how many of them eventually discard their faith for a more secularized and even less demanding "form" of quasi-Christian spirituality. 

Wouldn’t this reality drastically change if we led new comers to the faith through a process of conversion, and of Christian formation?  What if worship, then, flowed out of who we had become?  What if we worshipped like truly baptized people (with all that this means), rather than un-converted folks who still bring their capitalism, materialism, hedonism, narcicism and the like, into the worship gathering?

(more to come)


image © iStockPhoto, Steve Greer

Thoughts on Conversion and Christian Formation, part 1









     What is it exactly that makes one truly "Christian?"  The witness of the ancient scriptures -- and especially the gospels and Acts -- seems to describe a process and reality quite different than what we evangelicals have promulgated and defended for the past 2-3 centuries.

    When the people described in Acts 2, convicted by the Holy Spirit, asked, "what must we do to be saved?" Peter told them to "repent and be baptized." If we're honest about the meaning of metanoia (repent) and the process by which new believers were prepared for baptism (cf. the Didache), we will be hard pressed to define Christian conversion as punticular in nature, and primarily a private and personal matter.

    Many evangelicals consider conversion to be an individual transaction with God -- a purely personal, inward, and individual decision. The church stands outside of these transactions, and is not even needed for such. As Gordon Smith has so clearly described it:

    If the genesis of the spiritual life is largely an individual transaction, then it follows that the rest of the spiritual life is transacted on one's own, in one's own space, on one's own terms.  If one can be "saved" without reference to the community, then one can presumably live the rest of one's Christian life without reference to community.  And wile one might still attend church and be active in a Christian community, the individualism of one's conversion fosters a sense that the church is nothing more than a sum of its parts, a collection of members, of individuals.  Such a Christian lacks a covenant relationship with the community of faith, lacks a sense of vital dependence or, better, mutual dependence upon the community, lacks a sense of oneself maturing in teh faith "as each part" does its work (Eph. 4:16).  And the church is seen as a dispenser of religious experiences and opportunities that I can take or leave; hence, I can leave and affliliate with another congregation if I conclude that the other church will better "meet my needs." (Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation, 9-10).

    This, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. A conversion that is distortingly individualistic will foster a spirituality that is distortingly individualistic, and in turn only tragically reinforces the commodification of the Christian faith. Standing against such a view of Christianity is the witness of the scriptures and the early church.  Ancient biblical Christianity clearly developed and emmanated around the importance of "we" rather than "me." A Christianity lived outside of the community of the local church wasn't even a possibility. Such a faith would have been a heretical faith.

    What is needed today is a restored understanding of conversion.  Conversion describes a process of change, rather than an event -- something we'll look at a bit closer next time.


image © iStockPhoto, Steve Greer

Receive those Words of Blessing, Don't Upstage Them!

Offering_Juan Estey_istock_sm Why do many Christians seem clueless when it comes to graciously accepting the spoken words of blessing from others?   I have encountered this over and over and over -- especially among evangelicals:  someone comes up to us and says "God bless you" or "May the Lord bless you" or "May God pour out His blessings on you this week" or any number of similarly configured blessings.  But instead of responding with "thanks" or "wow, thank you so much" or "I sure appreciate that" or "Amen. I receive that", we upstage their blessing with a clever "He does" or "He always does" or "He already has" or some such thing.  Whether or not such responses are intentional attempts at upstaging or posturing due to illusions of spiritual superiority, they're ignorant at best and arrogantly rude at worst.  

Maybe people's unwillingness to gratefully accept someone else's words of blessing probably stems from bad teaching, bad theology, or bad modeling --  somehow thinking that only God has the "right" to bless us.  If that's the case, then what about Jesus' imperative in Luke 6:28? Or Paul's echoing of this same injunction in Romans 12:14?  “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  And how about the truth regarding the blessing God's people, carried over from the Old Testament:

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:22-27 NRSV)

Now THAT'S some great theology!  When we invoke God's blessing upon others, we -- in a real sense -- put His name upon them.  God somehow honors this and then blesses them!  This is a powerful truth, and the words of blessing from Numbers 6:24-26 have not only endured through the ages but have been preserved in the worship liturgy of the Church. Since all believers in Christ are now priests unto the Lord (e.g. Revelation 5:10), it is we who now carry on this ancient faith-tradition of speaking blessing over others.   And when we are the recipients of such spoken words of blessing, let's consciously work at receiving them humbly, gratefully, and with grace -- guarding our words, our hearts, and our unity in the body of Christ.

May the Lord richly bless you!



photo © Juan Estey,