Music in Its Rightful Place: The Importance of Capacity and Context

In our last worship leader’s mentoring session, we talked about the role of music in worship. In the modern worship landscape, music and worship are almost synonymous. Of course, the more informed amongst us are keenly aware of the separation, but often struggle to articulate the difference or to hold the tension.

I posited seemingly disparate themes to the group:

1.  Music and the Heart of Worship

For many of us who were around in the 1990s, the role of music in worship was beginning to reach dizzying heights. The praise and worship movement which began with grassroots, organic musical expression began to mature until we got to the point where we began to exalt musicianship and excellence above heart. Musical servants gave way to worship artistes.

Against this background, Soul Survivor Church’s Mike Pilavachi wrestled with the idea that the church had become connoisseurs of worship, rather than participants in it. So, he sacked the band. Until  the church learnt how to bring its own offering of worship, there would be no musicians on the platform.

Out of this context, Matt Redman’s song “Heart of Worship” was born. It spoke out of, and to, a church in a particular season where worship did indeed become a spectator sport. Pilavachi challenged us to all be performers of worship – for the audience of One.

2.  The Power of Music

Music is inherently powerful, either within the context of worship or otherwise.

We all know this instinctively. When we watch a horror movie, the best way to dampen the suspense and sense of encroaching fear is to simply block your ears. Once that happens, the tension and stress of a scary scene is almost immediately lost.

Plato once said:

Give me the making of the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws, I will control its people.

Historians say that the music of the Beatles, broadcast from the West, penetrated the Iron Curtain and helped spark the collapse of communism. Mikhail Gorbachev said “it taught the young people of the Soviet Union that … there is freedom elsewhere.” The music of the Beatles catalysed a political and cultural revolution. This is the power of music.

Pioneers of church worship recognise this power, too. Lamar Boschman said:

Music is one of mankind’s most fundamental avenues of communication, and one of the most successful because it transcends the conscious mind and reaches the subconscious.

Music affects us; it moves us; and it stirs our emotions.

In the context of worship, the question is: where does the power of music end, and the power of God’s Spirit begin?

3.  Music and God’s Presence

We often hear worship leaders say something like this: “we enter into God’s presence with singing”; or “God inhabits our praises”; or “as we play and sing, the Holy Spirit is going to move in our midst”.

The suggestion is that somehow, musical praise might somehow bring down God’s presence.

We might ask the question this way: did the sound of the trumpet bring down the walls of Jericho?

Harold Best says:

Whenever we assume that art mediates God’s presence or causes him to be tangible, we have begun to trek idol territory. Our present-day use of music as the major up-front device for worship is a case in point. We need to ask ourselves if we, as worship leaders, are giving the impression that we draw near to God through music or that God draws near because of it. Is music our golden calf?

Can we worship without music, and if so, why don’t we? Why do we put ourselves in the way of temptation?

4.  The Scriptural Impetus of Music in Scriptures

Despite the inherent dangers of music and the risk of idolatry, it would seem clear that the Bible mandates the use of music to accompany worship and sacrifice, even if the Bible doesn’t clearly define the relationship.

We see example after example, such as Miriam’s celebration song after the Exodus; David’s establishing of musicians and singers to minister around the Ark; the use of musicians when Hezekiah restored temple worship; Paul and Silas’ singing hymns in the prison. Even the largest book which sits in the middle of the Bible is a collection of sung verses.

Holding It All in Tension

So, how we do hold it all in tension? We know that music is Scripturally-mandated. We know it has something to do with God’s presence. And yet, we know it is dangerous and can often steal our hearts. It causes us to mistaken emotional hype and sensation with God’s tangible presence.

Music must be given its rightful place. Worship is first and foremost about the heart. Music is a tool. But it is an effective tool.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Music gives structure. It unifies the gathered church to sing one melody to one rhythm; it moulds us together out of our disparate thoughts and focuses us back to God.
  • Music engages us. It beckons us and calls us away from our own burdened souls; it moves us emotionally and gives voice to our innermost cries.
  • Music affects us. It moves our faith beyond the realm of the intellect to something which is felt.

Ultimately, music is not the end of worship, God is. Music and the musicians are merely servants.

Good Music versus Bad Music

If music is an important tool (and I think it is), then the question is: what of good music and bad music?

In my church, we are blessed with a pretty decent group of some 50 or so musicians and singers and we are always pushing ourselves to only get better at our craft. You might say, well, if music isn’t the end game, should we care how excellent we are?

And what of the small church down the road with hardly any musicians, all of whom have plenty of heart but less so musical competence?

What of quality?

This is where, as my wife pointed out to me (because she always has lots of revelation) that context and capacity matter.

If music is used to serve the people, as no doubt it must, then we must ask: what people are we serving? If we are serving a church full of musicians in Nashville, then mediocre garage band quality might just not cut it. Even now, amongst our church musicians, some of them get easily distracted with the slightest hint of off-pitched singing or imprecise rhythm. (Thankfully, God has gifted me with musical dullness so I can’t hear all the imperfections!).

On the other hand, a small home group will be much more forgiving on the musical technicalities, and be easily led by a display of heartfelt (but off-tune) praise.

Capacity then looks at what you, as a church, can afford, and what level of skill, as an individual, you can offer. As worshippers, we ought to only give God the best offering we can. If you have more to give, then give more. If you can afford a more lavish set up, then by all means bring it before the Lord as your sacrifice of praise. Don’t skimp on quality or even expense. But be prudent about it. If your congregation can’t discern the difference, then you might be a better steward to deploy your resources to other ministries which serve the congregation better.

I like how Mike Cosper, in his book Rhythms of Grace thinks about the role of music in worship. He uses the catchphrase, “Worship: One, Two, Three”. He says:

  • worship has one author and object, that is God;
  • worship has two contexts, that is, worship scattered as we go about worshipping in our everyday lives; and worship gathered, whenever the church comes together to instruct and edify each other;
  • worship has three audiences: God, the church and the watching world.

When we think about worship with three audiences, instead of One, context and capacity becomes all the more important. We understand that our musical offering is first and foremost service unto God, but we must also hold it in balance as it serves and teaches our fellow brothers and sisters, and then as it draws the seekers amongst us. Seeker-friendly and Spirit-friendly are not mutually exclusive, but part of the one continuum.

Worship for the audience of One was right for its time, but I believe now, faithful musical offering requires us to balance capacity and context to serve three audiences.

Making Room for the Presence of God

Presence Sunday South City

As worship ministers, it’s so easy, isn’t it, to play wonderful music, sing beautiful songs, move a big crowd, all the while thinking that God was in it all? I’m not saying He isn’t, by the way. But I wonder how much of it can sometimes be viewed as a substitute for God’s presence, even without our knowing?

Harold Best says it like this, in Unceasing Worship (p 166):

Whenever we assume that art mediates God’s presence or causes him to be tangible, we have begun to trek into idol territory. Our present-day use of music as the major up-front device for worship is a case in point. We need to ask ourselves if we, as worship leaders, are giving the impression that we draw near to God through music or that God draws near because of it. Is music our golden calf? Have we come to a place in our practices where God must say to us, ‘You cannot worship me in that way,’ meaning that music has moved from a place of offering to one of lordship, from servanthood to sovereignty? Or might he be saying ‘You shall not worship me in their way,’ meaning that we have adopted a pagan worldview that imputes a causal force to music that it does not properly have? We need to discover the critical theological difference between being merely moved by music and being spiritually changed by it. Yes, music might bring pleasure and change our pulse rates or blood pressure, but so does taking a simple walk in the park.

At the end of the day, music, programs, artistic expressions – all are means to an end. And the end must be nothing less than the presence of God. As worship ministers, we need to walk this fine line carefully.

This was really brought home to me tonight when I attended Presence Sunday at South City Church. My friend Darren Woon (who is one of the music directors at South City) had told me what they were doing at their church earlier in the week. My first thought was that I was going to be “churched-out” today. But I decided to go anyway. Partly because I wanted to see Darren and another friend of mine Clem do their thing on stage, but also because I thought it would be good just to worship from the audience.

Even though I only serve on stage two weeks in a month, as Assistant Worship Director at my church, it’s pretty hard to “switch off” from serving mode. You’re always wanting to gauge how the ministry as a whole is going, so instead of just letting go and worshipping, you end up critically evaluating all the worship sets. Then, instead of wholeheartedly singing, part of your mind is trying to remember some things that you want to feedback to the team at the end of the service.

So it was nice just to be in the crowd for a change with no agenda, with no one from your congregation expecting you to act in a particular way. Just you, God and some family members from a different neighbourhood, most of whom you haven’t met before!

After a pretty liberating time of worship, Ps Ken Lee came up to preach a short message about “Making Room for God’s Presence” from 2 Kings 4 – the story of the Shunnamite Woman.

In verse 10, the Shunnamite Woman decides that she would arrange a small room, put in a bed, table and chair so that the man of God, Elisha, can stay at her house whenever he visits the village. And here was Ps Ken’s point: even though the woman knew she had regular access to God’s presence (as represented by His prophet), she wanted to create space so the presence of God could stay. All it took was for some small adjustments in furnishings.

As a result, despite her barrenness, God worked a miracle and she conceived a son.

And years later, the son, who is then grown up, dies. The woman takes the dead miracle in her arms, and in verse 21, lays the body of her son on the “bed of the man of God” in her home. Elisha came into that very room and brought the son back to life. And Ps Ken’s point was that we must not only make room for God’s presence, but keep room for God’s presence.

It would have been easy for her, after receiving God’s miracle to rearrange the room. After all, her long-held prayer had been answered. She could easily put Elisha’s room to a different use. But she decided to keep room for God’s presence. And the result was that Elisha revived a dead miracle.

The message this evening really spoke to me.

I wondered what adjustments I needed to make to my life; to unclutter. Don’t get me wrong: the ministry opportunities this year have been amazing. In this Year of Open Doors, God has opened lots of doors of ministry and I’ve been able to confidently walk through them. But this has become singularly clear: Programs have replaced Presence. It’s been easy to try to implement change and to invigorate the culture of our ministry, to come up with brilliant new strategic ideas, but how much of it was birthed in God’s presence?

Pastor Benny likes to show us a video of Bill Hybels talk about a guy whose life was transformed because he chose to meet God every day in his rocking chair. This guy went from being a nominal believer to eventually going into full time ministry. Every decision he made was a result of sitting in the rocking chair and meeting with God.

I used to meet with God in my study room. But now it’s full of clutter. There are papers and objects everywhere. We treat it more like a store room. In my quest to keep the visible part of my apartment (the living room which guests get to see) neat and tidy, I shove things into the study room and close the door.

The analogy of furniture and clutter was too hard to resist. God was speaking to me about the need to de-clutter, to come back to His presence again. Programs can only go so far. It’s time for me to clean up the study and get me a comfy chair, where I can sip coffee, read my Bible, pray and host God’s presence.

I think as we draw near to the end of this Year of Open Doors, the thought that God impressed upon me was this: it’s one thing to walk through the doors God opens for us, but 2014 will be a Year of His Presence. It will be about making room for Him and opening the door for Him to walk in whenever He wants.

Worship: The Centre of Existence

It’s been a while since I last posted. Life has just gotten really busy. But I recently had to do some assignments for Metro Worship Academy. I haven’t written assignments in years! My friend Kelwin says that they should call them “adventures”, rather than “assignments”. We will see…

In an interview with the Canberra Times[1], former lead singer of KISS, Gene Simmons, professing to once being religious, reveals his objection to the worship of the Christian God. “Why,” he asks, “would this God who is very non-human want to hear his name repeated? … Now that’s a really frail characteristic.”

Simmons view discloses a perverted understanding of worship by projecting a human trait on a Being who is beyond and before created things. God’s passion for His own glory is in fact at the very core what it means to worship.

Harold Best calls it the “centre of existence”:

Worship is at once about who we are, about who or what our god is and about how we choose to live…. [A]t this very moment, and for as long as this world endures, everybody inhabiting it is bowing down and serving something or someone.[2]

The question then is: who or what do we choose to worship? Simmons failed to understand that, by virtue of His being God, God necessarily must exalt His name and glory above anything else and that “His first and central love is Himself”.[3] This singular fact is the foundation and fountainhead of created order: for the individual, society, the nations and the cosmos.  Giglio observes:

When God makes His glory the centre of all things and the center of our affections, he gives us Himself – the very best gift He could give us, and the ultimate expression of His love.[4]

In other words, it is only when we understand the centrality of God in our universe that we can fully realise our personal destiny and the destiny of our cities and nations, undergirded by the love and generosity of God in His divine mission to reconcile all things to Himself.[5]

God’s desire and passion for His own glory, manifested in His goal of reconciling all things to Himself led to Jesus’ death on the cross, which is also for Christians, the starting point of our worship.  Paul says this:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.[6]

To offer our bodies suggests that worship must be an all-consuming, continuous act (in other words, “worship as a lifestyle”) but the use of the word “offer” (in the present continuous tense) requires a direct act, a sacrifice. In one sense, whole-life worship can be very much an unconscious reflection of the way we have chosen to live, manifested in our daily choices and actions. But there is also a place for direct, intense adoration and praise.  James Macdonald observes:

We are frequently told that making a meal for your family or cleaning your car or helping your neighbour are all acts of worship. When these acts are the outgrowth of our love for God and done to demonstrate that love, I would agree that they are “worshipful”…. Worship is the actual act of ascribing worthy directly to God. Worshipful actions may do this indirectly, but when the Bible commands and commends worship as our highest expression, it is not talking about anything other than direct, intention, Vertical outpouring of adoration.[7]

So in light of this, the question we ask is: how do we worship? We must understand that worship begins with the heart, from our affections. God is not focussed on “outward appearance … but the Lord looks at the heart”[8]. Jesus puts it another way: God is seeking worship that is “in spirit and truth”[9], that is, worship that is initiated within our spirit by the Holy Spirit, and worship that expresses (and is consistent with) an inner reality.[10]  That does not mean that outward expressions are not important, for indeed the actions of worship themselves (singing, kneeling, bowing, raised hands, clapping, shouting) hold great spiritual significance[11]. The point is that outward expressions originate in inward attitude.

The result? Worship transforms us. We become like what we worship.  The Psalmist says that “those who make [idols] will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”[12]  Hibbert observes that “worship not only changes our inner lives, it also affects the expression of our faith and service to God in the world around us”.[13] God uses us to change our community and cities, but in the midst of worship, God also supernaturally and metaphysically brings about transformation on the earth.

In Revelations 5, John has a vision of the Lamb who was slain, encircled by the 24 elders, standing as the answer to the question: who is worthy to open the scroll? As the elders worshipped with the harp and the bowl of incense (signifying prayer), the Lamb began to open the seals of the scroll. The scroll represents a will and testament, by which God bequeaths His divine destiny to the earth and all creation.  Through the means of worship therefore, God ultimately reconciles all things to Himself to the praise of His jealously-guarded glory.

 

[1] Peter Karp, Untitled Article, Canberra Times, 12 September 1999.

[2] Harold Best Unceasing Worship (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2003) p 17.

[3] Louie Giglio I Am Not But I Know I Am (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005) p 162.

[4] Id, p 165.

[5] Paul states in Colossians 1:19, 20 (NIV) that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Note: all Scripture references are to the New International Version unless otherwise stated).

[6] Romans 12:1.

[7] James MacDonald Vertical Church (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2012) p 168-169.

[8] 1 Samuel 16:7.

[9] John 4:23,24.

[10] Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance #225: “alethia”. The word translated as “truth”, according to Strong, means “signifying the realty lying at the basis of an appearance” and also “sincerity and integrity of character”.

[11] An analysis of the various expressions of worship and their significance are beyond the scope of this post.

[12] Psalm 135:18.

[13] Vivien Hibbert Prophetic Worship (Michigan: Baker Books, 1998) p 147. 

Two Kinds of Worship?

One of the things I like about Christian theology and practice is that it is always evolving. Sure, certain absolutes remain constant, but lots of the periphery change and I believe the reason why the Christian faith has endured (and in fact flourished) over the centuries is because of its cultural adaptiveness.

So, when I write in this blog, I’m not trying to provide static answers and manifestos. I appreciate that my own thoughts will change and be challenged, as much as I seek to challenge and grow the mindsets of others.

If you’ve read my earlier posts on defining worship, you will see that I take a very broad view of what worship is. The definition I like the most is Harold Best’s, which says that worship is “continuous outpouring”, meaning that our whole life is our worship to God.

I thought that was pretty progressive, until I came across James MacDonald’s writings in the November 2012 issue of Worship Leader Magazine. In his article, “Unashamed Adoration”, MacDonald says this:

We are frequently told that making a meal for your family or cleaning your car or helping your neighbour are all acts of worship. When these acts are the outgrowth of our love for God and are done to demonstrate that love, I would agree that they are “worshipful”, but technically they are not worship. I’m not seeking to parse meaning with undue rigour, but we need to be precise in our definitions if we want to accurately embrace the very purpose for our existence. Worship is the actual act of ascribing worth directly to God. Worshipful actions may do this indirectly, but when the Bible commands and commends worship as our highest expression, it is not talking about anything other than direct, intentional, Vertical outpouring of adoration. While that does not have to be put to music, it does have to be direct in order to rise above the “worshipful” and actually attribute worth to God…. Worship is mind, emotions, and will engaged in whole-person ascription of worth.

Nothing brings glory down in church as quickly and as powerfully as when God’s people unashamedly adore God’s great Son, Jesus Christ.

I like the distinction McDonald makes between “worshipful acts” and “worship”, with “worship” being something requiring intensity, intentionality and vertical-focus.

Just the other night, I was trying to describe what we were going to do for Global Day of Worship and how some time during our “worship”, we should have a time of giving. I had to make inverted comma signs with my fingers when I said the word “worship” to delineate between musical praise and taking the monetary offering. And then the thought occurred to me that I might need to use “air ponies” (as Gloria in Modern Family puts it) every time I want to describe intentional praise as distinct from lifestyle-worship just in case anyone misunderstands me. At that point in time, I thought whether an excessively broad definition of worship might make the term meaningless and unusable.

So perhaps, much can be said for MacDonald’s position in taking us back to a more rigid (and what I had thought was a less progressive) definition of worship. What do you think?

More Definitions of Worship

Today at Arrows College, we delved deeper into the theology of worship and creativity.  I was really inspired by the first session in which we surveyed worship through the Old Testament. Because of time constraints, we couldn’t look into individual passages in much detail, but I was thinking it’d be a great idea when I get some time to properly survey the Bible from Genesis to Revelation through the lens of worship. That will be a fairly big project to undertake in the future!

Anyway, in this post, I want to consider in more detail what “worship” means.

So far, we’ve had the following definitions.

Harold Best:

Worship is the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do, and all that I can ever become to God.

Timothy Keller:

Worship is ascribing ultimate value to something in a way that engages the whole being.

Here are some more definitions:

Evelyn Underhill:

Worship is the total adoring response of man to the one Eternal God, self-revealed in time.

Archbishop William Temple:

Worship is the submission of all our nature to God.  It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of His will to His purpose—and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.

Warren Wiersbe:

Worship is the believer’s response of all that they are—mind, emotions, will and body—to what God is and says and does.  This response has its mystical side in subjective experience and its practical side in objective obedience to God’s revealed will.  Worship is a loving response that’s balanced by the fear of the Lord, and it is a deepening response as the believer comes to know God better.

Judson Cornwall:

Worship is an attitude of heart, a reaching towards God, a pouring out of our total self in thanksgiving, praise, adoration and love to the God who created us and to whom we owe everything we have and are. Worship is the interaction of man’s spirit with God in a loving response

David Peterson:

Worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible.

Louie Giglio

Worship is our response, both personal and corporate, to God for who He is, and what He has done; expressed in and by the things we say and the way we live.

Having looked at all those definitions, it will be clear to you that it’s pretty difficult to comprehensively nail down the concept of worship.

During our worship survey, our group was asked to look at Micah 6:6-8 and answer the questions: (1) What worship is; and (2) What worship is not.  Lisa, Nicky, Serene, Hilary and I came up with some profound thoughts which I will try to synergise below. So these thoughts are not mine. Rather they are the combined work of a bunch of inquisitive thinkers.  Here’s the passage:

With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

First, what worship is not.  Worship is not about offering of things or possessions. It’s not about systems and formulae and rituals. Nor is it about quantity, quality or even extravagance. The prophet asks: what can I offer? Rams? Oil? My firstborn? I think we all agree that our firstborn is one of the most precious things we can offer. It not only signifies our affection, but also our help, support and our legacy. Notice that the offer of the firstborn is for “my transgression”. When it is “me-centred”, it cannot be worship.  So you can give your most precious thing, and it will still not be worship. Worship is not about our trying to buy God’s favour.

The key is your attitude.

The prophet poses the question: “What does the Lord require?” This points to obedience to God’s requirements. Worship is therefore essentially a lifestyle of obedience which manifests in outward actions: “to do”, “to love” and “to walk”. And it is not only about our being in proper relationship with God, it is also about our right relationship with the people around us.

It is only in that context then that offerings, lavishness and extravagance, when done towards God, have their proper place, be it the widow’s mite, Mary’s alabaster box or Abraham’s placing of Isaac on the altar.

And I think it’s apt that it’s never about our firstborn, but God’s firstborn. Jesus is the inspiration and progenitor of our worship. We love, because He first loved us. When we were unable and unawakened to worship and in a state of sin, Christ died for us. So, shall we offer our firstborn? No – the suggestion is that because God has offered His firstborn, He has now paved the way for us to worship! Hallelujah!

Five Years of Total Awesomeness

Five years today, I married the love of my life and my best friend.

It’s been an incredible journey so far.

It all started on 5 May 2007 (well, at least our marriage did; our relationship started well before that) at the Fremantle Town Hall. We wanted a wedding where worshipping God was the focus. So we deliberately chose not to have any messages or exhortation – it would be just worship.

This is what we put in our wedding program:

A Note about Worship

The starting point for living is worship. Harold Best observes that “worship is at once about who we are, about who or what our god is and about how we choose to live.” At any given time, everyone everywhere is worshipping someone or something. Ling and I have chosen to dedicate our lives to worshipping Jesus Christ. So, today’s service is so much more than being about us; it is first and foremost about glorifying God who brought our lives together.

One of the most significant ways in which Christians have been called to express our worship is through praising God in song. Early on in our Christian walks, Ling and I have felt the calling in our lives to minister in music. So today’s ceremony is very much an extension of that but moreover, an extension of who we are. It is therefore our privilege to be able to lead you in an extended time of singing.

We appreciate that many of our guests today are not Christians. We make no apologies for how we have chosen to conduct this service because we wanted it to be about God. However, we do invite you to participate. The songs we sing may be unfamiliar to you, and it might feel strange for you to sing, but I want to encourage you to ‘let loose’ and give it a go. If anything else, allow the words and meaning of the songs to minister to you.

For those of you who are Christians, we encourage you to bring your best offering of praise to God. We would like nothing better than to join with you in giving glory to the God of all blessings.

Finally, we would like to thank the wonderful team of musicians and singers who have volunteered their time and energies in making this possible. They are anointed servants of God and we are privileged to be able to call them co-labourers and friends.

We assembled an awesome team of great friends and anointed worshippers and Ling and I had the privilege of leading our wedding guests into worship. It really was a dream team: on vocals we had me, Ling, Joanna, Yvonne, Juls (who also played violin) and Stephanie Truscott. Elayne and Mabes took the keys. Darren and Edmund on guitars. Boon on bass. And Clem on drums. Derek did the AV.

I still enjoy reliving the day. But every time I ask my friends over to watch our wedding DVD, Ling tells me off. So here are some shots from the day.

Here is the set list:

// Opening Prayer – Shaw Cheong

// Oh Happy Day – led by Stephanie Truscott

// Everyday with You, Lord (Sweeter)

// Friend of God

// Scripture Reading: Psalm 16 – Louis Ong

// Joy of My Desire – with Yvonne Mohan on lead vocals and Julien Lim on violin

// How Great Thou Art

// When I Think About the Lord

Of course, that day was just the starting point of an incredible journey over five years.

I have had various mentors and inspirations in my life, but none compares to Ling. She sees me at my best, my worst and my most mundane. She encourages me to pursue everything that God has in store for me and sacrifices so that we can both live out God’s calling to the full. She pulls me back when I get too far ahead of myself; she gives me the look when I’m being stupid and compromising my witness; she asks if I’ve done my devotion. She inspires me to press forward by her own faith in God. And she makes me smile often, and quite regularly does silly things to make me laugh – and laugh hard! She is the funniest person I know. Apart from the Holy Spirit, she is the most inspirational worship leader of all – because of her, I am living out all that ministry that is worship, not just on-stage, but also off-stage.

So happy fifth anniversary Biggles! Love ya lots. We will break open our fifth anniversary wine later! May there be many more bottles of anniversary wine to come!

Defining Worship Part 2

Today, I want to finish up what I started a month ago when I introduced Harold Best’s definition of worship in my post Defining Worship. In that post, I extracted Best’s definition, being that worship is “the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do, and all that I can ever become to God”.

Here I want to unpack that a bit further.

First, the concept of continuousness. Best says in Unceasing Worship (p 18):

Worship does not stop and start, despite our notions to the contrary. Once we place emphasis on specific times, places and methods, we misunderstand worship’s biblical meaning. Worship may ebb and flow, may take on various appearances and may be unconscious or conscious, intense and ecstatic or quiet and commonplace, but it is continuous.

I want to pause here and consider the idea of “unconscious worship”. Most worship leaders will implore you during worship times on Sunday to “give your full attention to God”. This is a question of intensity and focus. But what happens when you go to work on Monday and have to think really hard about how to solve a client’s problem, or to draw up a design or to write up a complex formula? In my experience (and I’m being honest here), I don’t often think about God. When I am drafting a legal contract, I am don’t sing “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee…” whilst I am typing “Subject to the payment of rent, the Landlord leases the Premises to the Tenant” etc. I think my head will explode! And my secretary will think I’m nuts!

But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped worshipping because as I have said elsewhere on this blog, your work is also worship.

So worship changes intensity, it ebbs and flows, but it never stops. It’s continuous. I like the idea of “unconscious” worship!

Next, is the concept of outpouring.

Outpouring implies a direction. You pour into or towards something. Overflowing is different to outpouring. Overflowing happens in every direction. When you fill up a bucket to its brim, it overflows everywhere. But pouring out has a sense of intention.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day who said that if you look at how adherents of other religions worship, you can take away all the external trappings (like clothing style or music) and it wouldn’t look too different to what Christians do on a Sunday. This is true. The difference (and the key one) is one of direction, because as I have said before, everyone is worshipping something or put another way, nobody does not worship. The basis of that difference is being to able to answer the question why the Christian God is deserving of our outpouring more than any other God. That’s too big a question for me to deal with in this post, but hopefully one day I will be able to give a strong cogent answer to my friend (I suspect I may actually not give her a concrete answer, but we will probably ask a series of questions and come up with the answer together!).

Of “outpouring”, Best says this (p 19):

It implies lavishness and generosity: when I pour something, I give it up; I let it go. Dripping is not outpouring; there is space between the drops. But in pouring, the flow is organically and consistently itself. In spite of a mixed simile, pouring is seamless.

The lavishness and generosity of outpouring is illustrated in the Gospel story of Mary and the alabaster box (which I have looked at elsewhere on this blog). But here, I like Best’s comment about “giving up” and “letting go” the most. Worship is about surrender. When you worship, you are really surrendering your whole life to God, or as Paul puts it in Romans 12:1, offering your whole life as a living sacrifice.

The thing with pouring, or with sacrifice (for that matter) is that once the act is done, it is irretrievably done. You can’t take it back. You have either poured it out, or you have been consumed by fire. There’s no going back to the way things were. How we continue in that process is by the grace of God, knowing that God never lets us out of His hands once we commit our lives to Him.

Lastly, worship cannot be self-contained, as Best says, “even when it barely dribbles out”. In the story of Mary, the Gospel writers say that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of Mary’s worship. In this sense, worship and witness are really one comprehensive reality.

Okay, now enough of the big, complicated ideas.

Let me reduce this into somewhat more simple terms: Worship is like being married to someone. If you haven’t tried it, you should give it a go! The fact of marriage means that you give priority to your wife. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes not. Your daily routine reflects that priority. You always come home to her; you have time for her (even though you have a lot of other things on your plate) and you share your whole life with her.

Sometimes, you give fuller effect to that priority. For example, you would like to watch the cricket (actually this is a bad example because I abhor watching the cricket!) but you decide to spend some quality time sipping tea with her and chatting about your day. You might call this “quiet time” (I know, I couldn’t help chucking in a religious term). Still more intensely, there will be times when you pay especial honour to her, and everything you do is about her: you write her a card saying how beautiful she is, what a great person she is, you buy her dinner, you give her flowers.

But yet, there will be times when you don’t pay her enough attention. You do things that make her upset. You’re inconsiderate. You put your own desires above hers. (Okay, I am talking about myself, but using the “you” pronoun gives me a sense of solidarity with the rest of you). That doesn’t mean that I stop being married.

And that, my friends, is very much like our worship.  It makes me wonder whether this is why the New Testament church is often described as the bride of Christ.

At the end of the day, worship is relational. When we enter into relationship with God, we have changed the direction of our worship from ourselves, from other gods and things which seek mastery over us, and we are now directing our worship towards God. It doesn’t always feel like we are worshipping, or that God is at the centre of it all, or that God is even close to us, but that’s okay. At the end of the day, we’re coming home again.

Why the Distinction Between “Praise” and “Worship” Matters

In an earlier post entitled Defining Worship, I introduced Harold’s Best definition of worship as continuous outpouring.

If worship encompasses all of our life, then “worship” is a much bigger concept than “praise”.  In fact, we can think of “praise” as a subset of “worship”.  Robert Webber once said that “worship is a verb”, but I’d like to think of it as worship being a state of being and “praise” being the verb by which “worship” is expressed.

If we refine this thought further, we can say that “praise” is the ignition point, or pilot light, of “worship”.

Think about it this way:  what we do in corporate praise on a Sunday is only the start of how we live a life of worship from Monday to Saturday.  Our aligning of focus towards God through praise should be the inspiration and catalyst for a life of worship demonstrated in how we live for God in the workplace, in our homes and in our communities.

This has a couple of pretty significant implications which I want to explore further in this post:

1.  Who is the Real Worship Leader?

I’m not one to make a fuss about nomenclature, but I remember in the early 90s how those in worship ministry made a conscious shift from referring to the guy on stage as “song leader” to “worship leader” to the more funky Matt Redman-driven “lead worshipper”.

About 10 years ago, I said that maybe a better designation would be “worship facilitator”.  I said this because I thought that the role of the guy on stage would be simply to facilitate the offering of worship for which each member of the congregation was ultimately personally responsible to bring.

These days, I don’t mind what you call the guy as long as you know what role he is fulfilling.  For ease, and because of general acceptance, I tend to use “worship leader” more.  In fact, when I think about it, I am now more inclined to call that guy the “praise leader” for the reasons set out at the start of this post.

But if we understand that “praise” is a subset of “worship”, we need to ask ourselves:  “who then really is the worship leader”?  If worship is the stuff that encompasses all of our lives, then the worship leader definitely is not the guy on stage who leads the singing for the first 30 minutes of a church service.  He is, as I say, just the “praise leader”.

Neither is he the preacher, because whilst the preacher gives instructions on how we worship with our whole lives, the preacher doesn’t see to those instructions being fulfilled during the week.

So if we take this a bit further, the “praise leader” and the “preacher” on a Sunday are only the initiators.  The real worship leaders are those found in the worshipping community – your spiritual mentors; your peers; your family; models of character and attitude – those who see to it (perhaps sometimes inadvertently) that in your daily life, Christlikeness is being formed in you.  In other words, all of us in the church are the real worship leaders!

2.  Fast Songs and Slow Songs

Those of us in worship ministry for a while will remember a time when we equated the fast songs with “praise” and the slow songs with “worship”.  This created an unfortunate dichotomy where fast songs were seen as a means of emotional hype (and belonging to the “outer court” experience) whereas slow songs (in which “worship” occurs) were deep and spiritual and therefore more desirable.

Also partly because the current style of fast songs were harder to execute, I have seen some worship leaders take to the extreme of ever only singing slow songs.

For those of you as shallow as I am, it meant that people got bored during the Sunday services.

If we understand that what we are doing on a Sunday is “praise” and the catalyst for our daily worship, then the distinction between fast songs being “praise” and slow songs being “worship” is no longer valid.  This is a great leveller between fast and slow songs.

So, I would suggest that intimately seeking God in a slow song has just as much significance as exuberant celebration through the fast song.  A cursory glance through the Psalms will confirm this:  we are commanded as much to thirst and hunger for God as we are to clap our hands and celebrate his victories.

Because of this, I now try to give as much “air time” to both fast and slow songs.

One day, when the time is right, I will lead a worship set that consists only of fast songs – for no other reason than perhaps to address the imbalance and to get us thinking.  For that, I’m going to need a drummer with heaps of stamina!

Defining Worship

I expect that this will not be the only post I write on this subject because “worship” is one of those words which we all understand in some way or another, but find extremely difficult to pin down.  Depending on the context, its meaning expands and contracts.  Also, a lot our understanding will also be derived from our subjective experience.  It’s very much like the word “love”.

But I’ve been writing about worship and the church for the last four months and I still haven’t explored this important topic, so it’s about time.

I want to begin by establishing context:  when I talk about “worship”, what I really mean is “Christian worship”.

At its simplest, “worship” and “god” are interconnected; you can’t talk about worship devoid of a “god” being the endpoint of worship.  Without “god”, there is no worship.

But “god” takes some pretty surreptitious forms which we often don’t recognise.  For the unredeemed, fame, fortune and popularity may well be “gods”, things around which people centre their lives.

In the Christian context then, it’s obvious that when we talk about the endpoint of our worship, it is Jehovah God – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, revealed through the books of the Bible from eternity to the present, existing outside of time and dimension, yet stepping into history through Jesus.

So here is the best definition I’ve come across so far for “worship” (I expect that more definitions may be proliferated in the future that might replace this one as my favourite).  It is “best” in form and substance because it is provided by theologian Harold Best.

In Best’s book Unceasing Worship, he defines worship as “the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do, and all that I can ever become” to God.  (I am simplifying his definition somewhat, because it gets a lot more theologically technical, but what I have extracted here are what, I believe, are the core elements.)

This is a much better definition than the popular, oft-quoted definition of “worship is a lifestyle”.  Best’s definition recognises that worship is more than a lifestyle: it is also a state of being (“all that I am”) and also a life goal (“all that I can ever become”).

There’s a lot more to unpack in Best’s definition, but I will keep is as that for now.

In the meantime, have you come across a good definition of worship?  Or have you come up with your own?  Share with us by commenting below!