The Church in Visible Unity

Last night, I was chatting to a friend of mine who is part of the worship ministry of a young thriving church.  He told me how he took a phone call from the worship coordinator of a small church who had a heart for worship ministry, but struggled with manpower and resources.

We were actually talking in the context of how excellence inspires growth in our teams.  The problem for this small church was:  how do we grow a team when you have very few people, let alone those who are skilled.

There’s obviously no easy answer for a small church, and I don’t think we could have solved the problem talking theoretics around the dinner table, no matter how good the wine was!

But it got me thinking:  what if larger churches shared their resources with smaller churches as a show of unity?

What I’ve found (and I could be wrong on this) is that most churches “hoard” their resources.  I don’t mean that in a mean or critical way.  But that’s just the way it happens.  Team leaders have to look after their members first.  Further, their members have signed up to serve God through their local church, and local churches have already set programs in line with the commitments of their personnel (or at the very least what they think is in accordance with their congregation’s volunteer capacity).  So for people to look beyond their own local congregation is difficult.

But I said to my friend that if I had a team say of three bands, I might free up one band to be a resource to smaller churches in need of help.

Have you ever been on a mission trip?  I’ve been on three now (not a massive record) but I’ve found that each time, it’s helped me to know the people on my team a lot better and also exposed my weaknesses a lot more.  Inevitably, you become vulnerable and authentic.  Being on a mission trip grows your character.

I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that those on the mission team are brought into focus around a particular purpose.  Contrast this to serving regularly week in, week out during Sunday services.  People begin to coast and start taking things for granted, including the need for personal growth.

What if every now and then, you send one of your bands out on a project to help another church build its worship team and gain some traction in its worship services?

It would help the smaller church to be sure, but ultimately, it also brings growth to your team in terms of character, attitude and skill.  As they say, the best way to learn sometimes is to teach.

Today at Faith Community Church, Pastor Benny smashed another sermon out of the ballpark.  It made me laugh and (nearly) cry all at once.  But one thing he shared at the beginning brought me back to my conversation with my friend last night.  For God to bring transformation; for Christ to reconcile all things to himself (in terms of spiritual, ethnic, gender, marital, family and marketplace reconcilation), the church must stand together in visible unity.  This is more than Christians saying they are united in spirit.   It’s more than just sharing the same beliefs and ethos.  I think it means Christians joyfully and practically working together to bring transformation in our communities.

I just think about worship and liturgy.  How many churches and denominations have split over things like infant baptism, communion, worship styles?  In the context of worship, what if instead of being divided, we started to unite and heal?  What if we overlooked differences in style (and dare I say even theology) and start working practically together towards the common cause of Christ’s glory?  And not just once a year towards one big event, but regularly?

If we had that mindset, my friend might have been able to say something like this to the small church worship coordinator:  “well, I don’t know how you will solve your problem in the long term, but what if I helped kick start the solution and send a team to help you, and in turn, inspire your church members to serve?”

That would be a show of visible unity.  Even if it’s doing it in only a small way.  Imagine if that happened all over the city of Perth – churches sharing resources with each other across different ministry areas, until one day, we all come to the realisation that there really is only one church in the city consisting of many congregations.

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!

Converge 2012 Day of Worship on Saturday 26 May 2012 – Save the Date

I’m excited about the Converge 2012 Day of Worship.  From 6 am to 10 pm, teams from different churches will gather to exalt the name of Jesus in the centre of Perth at the historic Wesley Church. 

We’ve got on board teams from a wide-spectrum of the church, including an American Gospel team, the Salvation Army, Flame Catholic Youth and the Nations Worship Team.  We’ve only got a couple of slots left to fill!

It will be a day of joining our hearts across denominational and methodological lines in concerted praise in answer to Jesus’ prayer:  that we might be one so the world will know.

Put down the date 26 May 2012 in your diary.  Invite your churches, cell groups, friends and family to witness and participate in the unity of the body of Christ in the city through worship.  The day’s program will be released shortly so watch this space!

Worship/Idolatory

St Augustine:

Idolatry is worshipping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that ought to be worshipped.

As worship ministers, this is something which we are especially prone to – worshipping the music and the musicianship rather than using the music to worship God. It’s a fine line which is easily crossed if we are not too careful.

Jack Hayford once said this, which has stuck with me ever since: “Lucifer was the closest to the throne of God.”

Worship leaders are often seen to be the closest to God (which by the way is a myth worthy of being busted!) but this does not mean that they are immune from revelling in the worship; as if the worship was for us rather than for God.

The second part of St Augustine’s quote is about using God for our own purposes: our self-worship. How many times do we treat God like He is a divine vending machine, ready to dispense blessings at our whim and fancy?

It’s a fine balance and any time it tips one way or the other, we are at risk of idolatory.

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!

Nations Worship

Converge 2012 is going to culminate in an evening of “Nations Worship”. I was just thinking about what that night might look like. Could it look like this?

Except of course, it would be representative of the church of Perth with worship leaders and singers from the Indigenous church, Korean church, African church, Indonesian church and Asian church. It would be a prophetic declaration of praise that prefigures the day when every tongue, tribe and nation will gather around the throne of God in worship!

Worship and the Marketplace Part 2

When I wrote yesterday’s post, I was led to Ezekiel’s vision of the river flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47. As I read that passage, I had more thoughts about the connection between worship in the temple and transformation in the marketplace.

To fully appreciate the connection, we have to get an understanding of what I mean when I say “worship”. To me, trying to define worship is like defining the undefinable. In a later post, I will attempt to do so using Harold Best’s thesis in his book Unceasing Worship. Suffice to say for present purposes, worship encompasses our entire life. When we talk about worship in a church setting, it is simply an intensifying of what we are already doing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In this sense, the expression of praise that takes place on a Sunday could be said to be a subset of “worship”.

So we need to think about worship as a continuum. Praise/seeking God/waiting on Him etc sits on the more mystical side of the continuum; work/going to the office/house chores etc sits on the practical side.

So, in this context, let us go back to Ezekiel 47.

The Outworking of Worship

In the first few verses, Ezekiel describes how the river gets deeper the further it goes from the temple.

This is the outworking of worship. A holistic vision of praise starts and ends in the temple, because God is the beginning and end of everything (as one Biblical writer says, “in Him and through Him and for Him are all things”). But God is in the business of reconciling to Himself all things, which is an action directed towards the “outside”, i.e. towards the world, its people, its systems etc. So worship begins in the temple, but then is propelled out to the world with the mission of bringing “in” those who are “out”.

Colossians 1:19-20 says this:

For 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.

Second Corinthians 5:18 says:

But all things are from God, Who through Jesus Christ reconciled us to Himself [received us into favor, brought us into harmony with Himself] and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation [that by word and deed we might aim to bring others into harmony with Him].

This is the same pattern we see in the book of Acts. As the disciples waited and sought the Lord in worship in the Upper Room, the Holy Spirit fell on them on the day of Pentecost, propelling the church out into the marketplace to answer the prophecy of Joel 2, that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, will be saved”.

The Impact of Worship

Going back to Ezekiel 47:6ff:

Then he led me back to the bank of the river. When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river. He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.

When we take the presence of God into the marketplace, it brings with it a divine flow of life into the areas of which are spiritually dead. That goes for people who are dead in their sins, and systems/values/mindsets which are corrupt and perverse.

Even the Dead Sea becomes a place where swarms of living creatures will live and thrive! The salt water will become fresh. Like Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3, we become the aroma of Christ, the fragrance of life to those who are perishing.

The Reach of Worship

Ezekiel’s vision ends with this, in verse 12:

Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.

Indeed, this year is the year of Unceasing Fruitfulness. For those who worship God, our leaves will not wither, nor will be fail to bear fruit.

But notice this: the presence of God is our source “because the water from the sanctuary flows” to us. And further still: the purpose of our fruit is not just for our own sake and prosperity. Rather our fruit is to feed others! This is where worship and justice meet: to lift the poor and feed the hungry.

And our leaves will be for the healing of the nations. Where once the nations have turned away from God, true worshippers will carry an anointing to see the fulfillment of the day when the kingdoms of this world, will become the kingdom of our Lord and King.

Worship begins in the sanctuary and worship flows out into the marketplace to bring transformation. As my friend Adrian Lim once put it (and recently reminded me), true worshippers worship through the 24/7 window, the 9/5 window and the 10/40 window. Worship begins as a 24/7 lifestyle, but then must be manifested in the 9/5 window of the marketplace. And the end game: to see the nations, represented by the 10/40 window (being the most unreached of the nations) transformed and revived.

Worship and the Marketplace

I just got back from lunch and coffee with some of the people from my new cell group, all of whom are successful and influential in their workplace and it got me thinking.

Today at church was the first time I had heard Pastor Peet Palm preach. I understand that he works with Ed Silvoso as part of Harvest Evangelism so I was excited to find out that he is also on the pastoral team of Faith Community Church.

Today’s message was on Marketplace Ministry and it was a timely reminder of the importance of Christian, Spirit-empowered ministry in the workplace.

I have to confess that I have always been very much “church-centred” in terms of my ministry involvement. Worship ministry (like pulpit ministry) is one of those areas of service where you see direct impact within the church itself. When you talk about “church”, you think about the people gathered on Sunday to express praise to God and to encounter His presence.

But as Pastor Peet reminded us today, the concept of “church” goes far beyond what happens on a Sunday.

I was quite convicted by what Peet mentioned: how some Christians think that they just have to survive Monday to Friday and go to church on a Sunday to “empower” them to face the river of filth in the marketplace, in the hope that as we wade in that river, we don’t swallow too much of its water.

Even though I have read a lot of Ed Silvoso’s material and understood conceptually the importance of marketplace ministry, I had always entertained this personal schism: that because God has called me to worship ministry, it means that marketplace ministry for me is of secondary importance.

Peet made this stunning point: if the marketplace is the heart of a city, then to see a city transformed, its heart must also be transformed.

There certainly is a role for worship ministers to rally the church in unity. I really believe for example that just as worship has been the fracture point for the church since the Reformation, the bringing together of the church through worship is also a key to unprecedented revival.

But that is just one side of the coin. There needs to be reconciliation between the primarily church-focussed ministries and the workplace ministries to see real transformation in the city. After all, if there is a river of filth in the marketplace, there is also a countervailing river: a river of life that starts from the throne of God (worship in the church setting) that gets deeper the further it goes from the temple (see Ezekiel 47). This river brings fruitfulness: trees planted next to the river bring forth a new fruit every month and their leaves are for the healing of the nations.

In this sense then, the temple and the market are inextricably linked: transformation and life starts in the temple through worship, and ends in the marketplace through worship.

So, I feel that God is realigning my paradigms in this area. Yes, God has called me to worship ministry, but He has also put me in the workplace for a purpose, not only to be a positive influence, but also to believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit, I can be responsible for transformation in the marketplace.

Can it be done? I end with this statement which Peet made: “Nothing can stop the church from filling the city with the Word of God, except the church itself.” It is God’s will. May it be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Church (S)hopping

“Church hopping” is a phenomenon, particularly prevalent in the early Charismatic movement, when Christians would move from church to church, conference to conference, to chase down the best teachers and the most, well, charismatic speakers. As a result, many Christians became dislocated; whilst they heard great teaching, there was no space for them to apply that teaching and experience spiritual formation in the context of community.

Consequently, one of the most insidious aspects of the Charismatic movement was allowed to spring up, now documented by most church historians as the “Shepherding Controversy”.

The central message was that everyone should be connected to a leader above themselves and in turn disciple others. Vinson Synan describes it this way in his book The Century of the Holy Spirit:

This “shepherding” system was considered to be an answer for the thousands of charismatics who were drifting from conference to conference and at times receiving questionable teaching and leadership. To these rootless and wandering masses, the [teachers of the movement] offered “covenant relationships” between a “shepherd” or “covering” who would direct the spiritual lives of his “disciples”.

What began as a good intention was a first step on a slippery slope. Soon, shepherds were dictating to their disciples things like what clothes to wear; what they did with their spare time; even who they should marry! And the shepherds continued to propagate that culture through a theology of fear which went something like this: to be blessed by God, you needed to be under the spiritual covering of a shepherd. Move out of that covering and you move out of the sphere of God’s protection.

By the late 70s, the movement had begun to wane as prominent Charismatic leaders began to teach against it. But a thread of the Shepherding Controversy continues to live on, particularly in churches today where lines of authority are emphasised. Instead of spiritual covering from shepherds who were outside the local church structure, the spiritual covering was now provided by the local church pastor. The dire consequences of not remaining “under the covering” remains.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m all for accountability. I am spiritually accountable to my wife (she might disagree!), some leaders of the church in the city and my close Christian friends who speak into my life. But I’m not accountable to them to the extent that they will dictate the small details of my life (maybe my wife is an exception!). Why? Because God and I are on speaking terms. If a person in authority says to me “I believe God is saying this and this about your life”, I also expect God to tell me Himself!

Anyway, I’ve gotten myself sidetracked now, because what I really want to explore in this post is “church shopping” which is a much more enjoyable activity. It is what happens when you leave a church and you get the privilege of finding a new one to belong to.

Ling and I visited over 15 churches in the last 7 months as we prayerfully considered where God would have us settle. It was a great experience because when you have belonged to one church for 21 years, you never really get to see what other churches are doing. So as we visited some of these churches, we went out with a shopping list of essential items – things we wanted in the church that we would call home. In my next post, I will highlight some of the great things about some of the churches we visited, but here, I want to share my shopping list with you:

1. Vibrant worship

As a worship minister, this was non-negotiable. We wanted to be in a place where we could sense the presence of God in worship. Now, how each person gets that sense will be subjective, but we sensed this more in some churches than others. You might feel differently about this, so that’s why I say it’s subjective. Importantly, we wanted this sense of God’s presence married to musical excellence as well because more often than not, the two aspects go hand in hand. God’s presence operates independently of musical excellence; musical excellence without God’s presence is sounding brass and clashing cymbals. But when the two come together, it’s heaven on earth.

2. Inspiring sermons (that don’t go for too long!).

Okay, so this is a composite of two related items. First, the sermon must be Word-based and challenging. The Word of God must be what inspires transformation. I’m over those sermons where you can take out the opening Bible passage and the rest just sounds like a motivational speech.

The second aspect is sermon length. The older I get, the less I retain. I just need the main point of the message to penetrate my heart and linger in my thoughts: three points (each containing three subpoints) are just too much to process. And after 45 minutes, I really need a Kool Mint to stay awake (Joseph Prince is the only exception here. He can preach for 1.5 hours and it’d still be okay).

Actually, and ironically, I have a third subpoint to this main point: the sermon should be anchored in God’s grace. I don’t need grace theology rammed down my throat every week, but messages based on what God has done are definitely more biblical (and inspirational) than those which emphasis my need to do things to gain God’s approval.

3. Warm Fellowship

When you are a visitor to a church, it can be really intimidating. The shoe moves to the other foot and you realise what it must have been like for those visitors who step foot into your church for the first time. You start worrying whether you stick out like a sore thumb (especially if you are Asian and the church ain’t), and you wonder whether you should draw attention to yourself when the chairperson asks for newcomers to stick up your hand if you are there for the first time. (I’ve decided now that whether I put my hand up depends on how good the newcomer’s gift is: in Influencers Church, you get a Paradise CD which retails at $21.95, so I happily stuck my hand up there).

A strong community on a Sunday can actually draw you deeper into the life of the church. But importantly, we wanted strong discipling communities that would foster accountability, encouragement and spiritual growth.

4. Outward Focus

We wanted to be part of a church that had a strong outreach program; and even better, a strategic (rather than an ad hoc) outreach program. The intent of the church was always to mediate between God and the unreached: apart from that, there really is no other impetus for Christians to exist in the world.

But apart from the function of witness, we also wanted to be part of a church that was connected to the body of Christ in the city, generous in resources to other churches and willing to sacrifice to answer Jesus’ high priestly prayer: that we might be one so that the world may know that Jesus was sent of God.

5. Supernatural in Orientation

Strangely, the supernatural and me are an awkward marriage: I know that the Christian life must be supernatural, but I think I’m very much a carnal, rationalistic creature. So a supernatural bent is important to challenge me in my faith, to believe God for greater things, to dabble in the impossible.

My wife is really into healing ministry, so as part of this “must have” item, we wanted to be part of a church with a strong healing ministry. For her, it’s an avenue to serve. For me, it’s to remind me that God is still doing incredible things in our world.

6. A Strong Vision

This is the last item on our shopping list and an important overarching one at that. I actually believe that the church most resembles the original model in the book of Acts when it is organic and flat-structured. But for now, I have to accept that most people do church based on an organisational model. And under that model, what makes the church successful in carrying out its mission in this world is strong (inspiring but not controlling) leadership and a strong vision.

Vision is like the first shirt button. Get that one right and all other activities will be referable to it and fall into the right place. Get the vision wrong, or have one that’s too vague, and everyone ends up doing whatever they want with no follow-through.

I like a vision that thinks big and acts big: one where together, a church will strive for the impossible, even if it means that at best, we achieve the nigh-on-impossible!

So that’s my church shopping list. And I’m glad to say that we’ve found a church that checks all the boxes!