The Odes of Solomon: The First Christian Hymnal

Conversation with Professor James Charlesworth 

The Odes of Solomon are hymns of praise and devotion that we have inherited from an early poet and fellow believer.

The author—the odist—was a Jew who believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.

The collection is identified as The Odes of Solomon, not because they were written by King Solomon in the tenth century B.C., but because they were rightly considered to be in the tradition of Solomon, who was known in the Bible as “the Beloved.” The odist uses this term in reference to himself and all who believe,like him that Jesus is the promised Messiah; it is a scholarly distinction that helpsdefine The Odes.The odist lived within 100 years of the advent of Christ. For years The Odes were known by New Testament scholars to have existed, referred to and quoted in several ancient documents but lost in antiquity until they were rediscovered 1909 in a Syriac manuscript. They survive in lyric form only, without music. Though scholars have translated the lyrics into many languages, including English, they remain virtually unknown to most theologians, church leaders and, in particular, to the laity.

The Odes Project is dedicated to honoring the heart and spirit of these first Christian hymns and to make the experience of the Odes familiar throughout the Church through new music.

You mentioned to me in an email that the Odes of Solomon have helped shape your career since 1966. In what way have they played a particularly significant role in your broader work with ancient document fragments, etc.?

Since 1985, I have been editor and director of the Princeton Theological Seminary Dead Sea Scrolls Project. When I began exploring the sacred texts allegedly on the fringes of “the canon,” I never imagined I would hold such an elevated position. Certainly, that way was opened as I focused my Ph.D. dissertation and E.T. [Ecole Biblique] on the Odes of Solomon. My first book was published at the Clarendon Press, Oxford, and is the critical text and translation of these ancient hymns.

When were the Odes composed?

The date of the Odes has been a focus of debate since 1909 when J. Rendel Harris identified the Odes in a Syriac manuscript on his shelf. Most scholars now conclude that the Odes received their present form about 125 CE (Charlesworth, Lattke). Since a collection of “hymns” or poems would probably not have been written in one year, we should imagine some decades for the composition of these 42 Odes.

In your writings about the Odes, you differentiate between them and “apocryphal” writings. Could you explain the difference?

The Odes are “apocryphal” in that they were “hidden” from modern scholars and others until they were recovered in 1909. They were not hidden in antiquity, but were probably originally used in Christian worship [N.B. the “Hallelujah” at the end of an Ode].

Were the Odes ever considered for inclusion in the New Testament canon? Why or why not?

We have no record of a synod who voted on the works to be included in the canon. Probably, the Odes were not important for the western church, and their celebration of private piety directly to the Creator may have caused them to be unattractive for those who were defining the institutional church.

In what language were the Odes originally written?

Some scholars think that the Odes were originally composed in Greek (Quasten). Other scholars conclude that they were composed in Syriac (Emerton) or a form of Aramaic-Syriac (Charlesworth). The Greek copy is full of Semitisms, is inferior linguistically to the Syriac, and the latter preserves many features usually typical of an original language (e.g., paronomasia, alliteration, assonance, metrical scheme, parallelism, rhythm). Variants in the extant manuscripts are sometimes explained by a Syriac original text (e.g. brk and krk in 22:6).

You and others think it is possible that the author of the Odes belonged to a sect similar to the Essene/Qumran groups. Would the music of communities or sects such as the Essenes have differed significantly from the music of the Jewish Temple before its destruction, or the music of the post-Temple synagogues?

Only in the Temple before 70 CE would you find the following music: hundreds of Levites chanting, harps, trumpets, drums, flutes, tambourines, and dancing young virgins. In Essene, and other groups, you would find sectarian liturgies and chanting, perhaps without a flute or harp, since in many texts (including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Odes) an author confesses that his heart or tongue is “his” instrument, harp, or flute.

What can modern Christians learn about spirituality and worship from the Odes of Solomon? And what contributions do you think the Odes of Solomon can offer to the development of contemporary songs and hymns?

Many Christians have come to me as a Methodist minister stating that all their lives they were told to say “mea culpa.” In my opinion, Jesus did not call into being a group of people that defined themselves as sinners who had to spend their lives seeking forgiveness from an angry God. In fact, Jesus gave his life to break such “yokes” of slavery. He showed the way to be free for God and to praise God for the joy of living. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus wished that his “joy” would be completed in his followers. If Christianity is a call to freedom and a joyous relation with a loving Creator, then the Odes would be the perfect “Hymnbook.”

The Odes and similar writings have been more or less the domain of scholars, historians and artifacts experts. What are your thoughts about The Odes Project and its role in popularizing the Odes and making the available to contemporary worshipers?

In my first decade of teaching at Duke University (1969-1979), I was thrilled to perceive the popularity of the Odes and the celebration of my earliest publications. Some musicians rendered the Odes into music for churches and Billy Graham’s magazine featured them as ideal for young Christians. Now The Odes Project is dedicated to reviving this recognition and appreciation. Finally, the edict of the Protestant Reformers (ad fontes) leads us back to the time we were all “Catholics” (global) and when the Odist captured the excitement of God’s joyous reunion with his creatures.

If the Church is conceived to be a collection of sinners who fretfully fear the condemnation of God, the Odes are not an appropriate hymnbook. If the Church is defined as a group of holy people in a closed institution, the Odes do not fit. If the Church is perceived to be a growing number of the faithful who not only yearn for acceptance from a loving Deity who is loved fully but who also feel empowered to live joyfully by God’s grace, the Odes are singularly appropriate.


Are you feeling: Stressed? Overworked? Under appreciated? Disconnected? Overwhelmed? Uncared for? Unloved?

These are some of the signs of burnout.

Burnout can occur when we regularly exceed our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual capacities in our ministries. Combating burnout can take the shape of an extended vacation or even a new job. But to faithfully live on a daily basis in the ministries that God has given us, we need to focus on smaller, well planned, intentional, steps that both protect our current well being and, at the same time, stretch our capacities for new growth.

This series with Dr. Craig Gilbert will provide you with the tools you need to build an overall plan for passion, energy, and peace, in your current ministry environment.

Why Bother? When Just Showing Up Is A Challenge

By Mike Donehy 

Easter was a disaster this year. The celebration of Jesus’ resurrection fell on April Fool’s Day, and it couldn’t have felt more appropriate. It was my first Sunday home in two months, as I had been on tour every weekend for the past eight weeks. I was super pumped to finally get the whole family dressed up in our pastel pastoral finest; dreaming of how impressed my friends would be at our impeccable color coordination and our children’s immaculate behavior. My wife and I had our fourth daughter just five months ago and thought to get all six of us out the door fed, somewhat clothed, and conscious was already a heroic feat, I knew Jesus was going to bless our efforts and reward us with a blithe and breezy Easter worship service.

I was wrong.

Instead of angels singing, I woke up to my four-year-old’s blood-curdling screams next to my bed. The two older girls were fighting over leggings and aggressively “tug-of-warring” them into two pieces. I tried hitting the snooze button on the top of my middle child’s head, only to realize she was quite warm, and probably coming down with something. It didn’t work anyway, so I groggily heaved myself out of bed and onto the floor. I laid there for a few melancholy moments, and let the cacophony of their screams wash over me. Great start. It could only get better from here, right? Wrong. The rest of the morning hit me like a smoke grenade. I fumbled through the fog, but I’m not even certain what happened. I’m pretty sure it involved a 102-degree fever, poop in someone’s underwear, and dog vomit.  Yes. There was definitely dog vomit. My wife and I took turns going to church, washing clothes, and scrubbing the floors until we collapsed from exhaustion somewhere around 8 pm. Happy Easter.

 “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:24,25 (ESV)

Yeah right. If you’re anything like me, the task of getting your whole family to church can often times feel; not only non-beneficial but perhaps downright diabolical. I remember growing up terrified of Sunday morning. It was unequivocally the tensest morning of the entire week. “Get your clothes on and get out the door!” My poor mother would yell frazzling at the five of us. Now a parent myself, I understand her dishevelment. The effort involved in getting out of bed, rushing children out the door, only to stand shoulder to shoulder with semi-strangers sleepily singing half-rehearsed versions of someone else’s songs can hardly feel like it’s a good use of anyone’s time. After all, in today’s day and age, why not just stream the pastor’s sermon online, pray with my wife before a bowl of cereal at Bedside Baptist, and save everyone the time and energy?

Wasn’t Sunday supposed to be a day of rest?

Honestly, I think these are all valid points. I think, like in our family, if you got a kid with a fever, you should stay home. If you’re exhausted, you absolutely should get a little more sleep. Full-time ministers ought to keep in mind, if we’re offended when our congregants miss a Sunday morning, we may not be pastors, we may be pharisees. God isn’t giving out brownie points for perfect attendance, is He? But, I want to stress, we got plenty of legitimate excuses to stay in our pajamas, but that’s not why I’m writing this. I actually want to offer three thoughts I’ve arrived upon convincing me the rigamarole of Sunday mornings might just be worth it.

God is a relationship. 

If God is indeed a perfect trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, and if He existed before He made anything, then I believe it’s safe to say a relationship is who He is. Before He created, saved, or redeemed, He was. He is the relationship.  It’s also worth noting we are all made in His image. Everybody. This must be why Jesus went around saying things like, “the world will know you’re my disciples by how you love one another.” Jesus knows that failure to care for each other sends a distorted image of who He is to the world. We know it’s true. It’s why our relationships with our families, friends, and lovers, mean much more to us than our titles do. At least, if we have the courage to admit it, they do.

But being a community and appearing like one are both completely different things. I know a lot of people who talk about being in community. It’s been a buzzword for years. I think the growing urban core in most American cities is even a testament to that billowing value.

However, being in proximity to a lot of people is not nearly the same thing as being in actual community with them. The problem with an actual relationship, is you have to embrace being put out. You have to embrace people you disagree with. If your entire friend group agrees with everything you say, then you’re not really in a community, you’re in a relationship with yourself.

I’ve found, friendship isn’t based so much on sharing the same space or opinions, as much as it’s based upon the moments we willingly inconvenience ourselves for each other. I want to repeat that. Actual friendship flows from the moments we joyfully serve someone we don’t have to.

Think about it. Who would you call to pick you up from the airport even though you could just as easily call an Uber? That person is your friend.  That said, I can’t help but wonder, if even the sheer fact I’ve gone through the hurdles of feeding, clothing, and corralling my children might actually be a helpful signifier to the person next to me in the pew, that I will go to great lengths to love them when they feel unlovable. 

To stir each other up. 

If you go back and re-read that verse in Hebrews you’ll find the admonition to keep meeting together is sandwiched by two other commands. “Stir up one another,” and “encourage one another.” Think about that. I’ve read a lot of blogs recently from some pretty well-known evangelicals who are proud of how little they need church anymore. They get what they need from books and a few close friends.  Cool. What I’d like to ask them is, “Yeah, but what about the people at church who need you?” The writer of Hebrews is acknowledging you may not be showing up on Sunday because you need to receive. You may very well be there because you need to give. Imagine if we all showed up with that mindset. Sunday mornings might look a little different.

They are different too. Whether we acknowledge it or not, part of the shepherd’s job is to contextualize the timeless Gospel to an ever-changing audience. The sooner those in charge of weekly gathering embrace that the better. Sunday mornings have vastly changed over the last two millennia.  Think of the last thirty years. The invention of the internet is just one of many technological advances that hasn’t changed the importance of meeting together, but has forever changed why we should.

In Jesus’ day, the synagogue wasn’t just a place of worship, it was more of a city center. It’s where you learned about God. It was also where you got all your information. If Shelly down the street was selling chickens, that was the place to find out.

Home life was vastly different as well. Families lived in “insulas.” These were family residences comprised of “mansions.” Interesting aside here, this is the same Aramaic word Jesus used when He described His Father’s house. The word doesn’t mean a million dollar home, it meant, “an addition.” Every newly married son in a family would build on to His Father’s house, one generation at a time until the never-ending ranch-style home took up an entire block.

Fast forward to our modern post-internet existence. We don’t go to church to find out about anything. We honestly can research more about God and our neighborhood by jumping on Facebook on the car ride to church, than we could learn in an hour sitting in the sanctuary. Ironically though, our home lives are more privatized and disconnected than ever. With this in mind, I get it. Why come to church when the pastor hasn’t seemingly embraced this shift in culture? I’d like to throw an encouragement out here for any congregational leaders reading. Before the internet, our weekly services focused on giving our people a lot of information about God, while sending them home to discuss in their communities. Perhaps it’s time to switch our focus. It might be a good thing to consider giving your people more time to create community inside your church walls, and sending them home with information to lean into on their own. 

The Incarnation. 

This, I feel, is the most convincing reason I have to throw myself out of bed each Sunday morning. Put simply, Jesus threw Himself out of heaven for me. If Jesus wrapped Himself in all our flesh, then all of this matters. The cotton in our shirts matter. The food stains on our babies’ clothes matter. Sitting awkwardly next to a stranger matters. In Christ, we live and move and have our being. Soul meets body and body meets soul. Being in one another’s presence is a subtle yet sobering reminder that Jesus came and is in our midst.

This is why we gather. We come, because He came. It’s why I don’t tell my children to close their eyes when they sing. I tell them, “Look around! Look at all these people who love Jesus.” It’s why I look around as our church begins to line the aisles to take communion. I whisper again to my kids, “Look at all these people who need Jesus, just like us.” It’s why Jesus gave us wine and bread to remember Him by. Taste matters. It’s why you keep hearing about the laying on of hands throughout scripture. Touch matters. We are more connected than any of us realize, so next time someone asks me “Why bother coming to church?” I’ll answer straightforwardly, “Because Christ bothered coming to me.”


By Rev’d Dr. Darrell A. Harris

When I searched “how to” on the Amazon Books website, 80,000 titles popped up! That doesn’t even include the For Dummies, Idiot’s Guide to and Rough Guide series. We apparently can’t get enough of “how to.”

That’s not a bad thing, but I think that many times we live in that primarily pragmatic place of “How?” when could we benefit enormously from asking more “What?” and “Why?” questions.

To illustrate this point in relation to the question at hand, Why We Gather, look through oodles of books and videos available on Christian worship and you will find a plethora of entries on content and how to, but typically much less on why.

I serve as Chaplain at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Because of the highly ecumenical nature of that community and because the typical student is often serving there in a worship leadership capacity, I believe it helps equip me to serve there best if I can stay conversant with how different branches of the very diverse Christian Family Tree think about and practice worship.

Sometime last summer it occurred to me that it had been many years since I had visited the Episcopal Cathedral of Nashville, TN.

That particular Sunday morning, the Dean and Rector of the Cathedral parish, The Very Rev’d Timothy E. Kimbrough, was beginning a trilogy series of homilies called Lex orandi, lex credendi. The loose translation from Latin would be something close to “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.” The longer version of that concept and construct is Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.” “As we pray, so we believe and so we live.”

Dean Kimbrough explained that what he planned to do over the next three sermons was to break down why the Episcopal Church does what it does in a typical Sunday liturgy. He was quick to point out that he wasn’t going to explain why a Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Orthodox or any other church does what it does on a Sunday, but would only confine his comments to the why in Anglican worship – to identify the purpose of the Anglican gathering.

He voiced plenty of respect for the other branches of our broader Family Tree. That always impresses me. Of course, ideally, we all begin from the Scriptures, but we all see those Scriptures through particular lenses. He pointed out that Methodists practice is seen through the lens of and flows from the teachings of John Wesley and the Methodist Book of Worship, Reformed folk start with The Westminster Confession lens and so on. Anglicans (including U.S. Episcopalians) are informed and shaped by The Book Of Common Prayer. Then he proceeded to break down the component parts of the Sunday Eucharistic Liturgy, which follows the basic four-fold model of Gathering, Word, Table, Sending.

Dean Kimbrough emphasized that there are many key elements that contribute to the Anglican liturgical model. Some obvious ones would include worship, proclamation, and fellowship, but he declared that the why (the driving reason and primary purpose) of their Sunday gathering was “to pray for the life of the world.”

He in no way short-changed those other essential actions in our gathering, but rather emphasized each one’s importance for every Sunday gathering. However, he asserted that in Anglican worship each must take its place in the larger context of prayer for the life of the world.

In my personal Christian worship journey, I suppose I have been through several decade-plus seasons of believing differing whys for the Sunday assembly.

From the time I was four (when our family first began attending church) until sometime in my mid-twenties, I worshiped as a Southern Baptist. Although it is impossible to ignore the highly valued trio of Food, Fun, and Fellowship there, in retrospect I believe we understood our why to be Proclamation. We gathered to preach the Word, to hear it proclaimed and to share it with others. So the driving why was proclamation to others and to ourselves.

During my teen years, I had friends who were Pentecostal. I was intrigued by their faith and practice and visited their services off and on. Also during that period, the charismatic renewal movement swept through our area. By the time I was in my mid-twenties my wife and I joined an Assembly of God church that would eventually transition into a Vineyard. That began a thirteen-year sojourn where, although we emphasized Proclamation and Fellowship, we understood our why and primary purpose for the gathering was Worship itself. So my understanding and practice shifted from it being about Proclamation to others and ourselves to really being about God.

Then began a season of fifteen years in a very Evangelical Episcopal church. During that period  I had not yet heard Dean Kimbrough’s perspective on the why being prayer for the life of the world. So, while the why included Proclamation and Fellowship the primary purpose continued as Worship. It was God-centered.

The good Dean’s content, right or wrong, rocked my world just a bit. If he was correct, then the primary focus of the Sunday gatherings we had been attending, though including the essential components of Worship, Proclamation, and Fellowship, were neither primarily about God nor about us. The primary focus would then be that of being swept up through being baptized into the death of Christ and the fullness of the Holy Spirit into the very Missio Dei – the Mission of God in the world. It became a participation (a koinonia) in the John 3:16 God-So-Loved-The-World Mission.

Perhaps Dean Kimbrough’s perspective is definitive only for Anglican Christ-followers. But perhaps it might apply in some measure to us all.

Even if the “Why” for the gathering of various Evangelical believers is Proclamation, wouldn’t those gatherings be enriched by corporate prayer beyond the usual brief pastoral prayer? Even if Worship or Fellowship or some other valuable practice and emphasis is the primary “Why” that other groups gather together, might those gatherings not be enriched and fortified by the conscious joining in with the prayer-life of our Maker-Redeemer?

Dr. Constance Cherry (The Worship Architect) wrote an article for Church Music Workshop (Abington) in 2005 entitled, “My House Shall Be Called a House of Announcements.” In her article, she published the results of a study of how many churches of nineteen different denominations allocated their time together on Sunday mornings. She included traditional churches, contemporary churches, blended worship churches, liturgical churches. She did her study with stopwatch in hand. By now you have guessed her findings by the giveaway title. The preponderance of them spent more time on their announcements that they did on prayer or the public reading of scripture. The most egregious deficits were among the contemporary churches.

Somehow it seems we may be failing to grasp the big picture the writer to the Epistle to the Hebrews tried to paint about the worship gathering . . .

“You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and  gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”  Hebrews 12:18-24 NRSV

That is a cosmically dynamic picture of what is happening “When” we gather. In verse 25 that immediately follows that description, its author warns us not to disregard or disobey the voice of the one who is speaking. I don’t think it is a stretch to imagine that voice beckoning us all, regardless of differing worship emphases, to join him in his prayer for the life of the world.

I believe with all my being that even given the encouraging growth we have experienced and are seeing now in our Gathered Life, there is a much-needed insight to be gained in seriously and more deeply considering the “Why” of it all.


By Manuel Luz

One of the things I look forward to every year is our family holiday meals: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce—all I have to do is think about it and close my eyes, and I smell my mother-in-law’s gravy.

What makes the family holiday meal so special? More than just food. There are a number of elements that we literally bring to the table. We gather as a family—immediate and extended, young and old, rich and poor, normal and not-so-normal—and in our diversity we share invisible bonds of fellowship. We’re related by blood, so no one is left out.

We acknowledge the artistry of the event—the beautiful table setting, the delicious aromas wafting from the kitchen, the festive decorations, and the Christmas music playing in the background. In this atmosphere, there’s an anticipation that something very special and meaningful is happening.

As we sit around, we share family stories, good and bad, funny and poignant: that hilarious incident that happened to Uncle Joe, the time Aunt Jane burned the turkey, the year Brother Ron was serving overseas and couldn’t make it, the births and graduations and other milestones of the clan. Some of these stories are told and retold every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter, but no one minds, because we love hearing them. They are the story of us.

When the turkey is presented, we ooh and ahh at the amazing culinary miracle that Mom pulls off every year. Cooking is one of Mom’s love languages. And the bigger the turkey, the more the love.

As we share in the meal, partake of the good company, take turns doing the dishes or clearing the table, maybe even watch the holiday football game, there’s an overarching knowing that this day is one of many that have come before and one of many that will come after. We’re fully immersed in the traditions that give our family meaning and significance.

One thing we don’t do is complain about the meal. We realize that we’re not at a restaurant; we’re not there to be waited on; we’re not there to critique the food. In fact, it’s the opposite. Everyone chips in, serving one another with glad hearts. We’re grateful to be a part of this joyous gathering with people we love and who love us. So we form a circle, look one another in the eyes, hold hands, give thanks, and remember our good and great God.

It’s my opinion that the holiday meal is a great metaphor for what we should endeavor to accomplish in our worship services each Sunday morning. Through our gathering, our stories, our shared traditions, our artistry, and our love for one another, we embody what it is to be the church in worship. These necessary elements actually have a deeper theology of worship that determines their importance, and an understanding of this theology will enrich our worship experience. While no metaphor is perfect, I think the holiday meal helps us paint a picture of what worship can be.

Worship is intended to be something we bring ourselves to and participate in, not something done to us or for us. We bring ourselves into the presence of God. We bring our stories of redemption and enfold them into the larger story of God. We bring ourselves into imperfect and wonderful relationships with the people of God. We enter into the eternal dialogue. And the church demands more than just attendance. The church is, in the best way possible, an opportunity to lose ourselves in the greater identity of the bride communing with the groom.

Liturgies are all around us, and they shape us in good and bad ways. Just as there is a type of liturgy to the family traditions that make up our holiday meals, so there is a liturgy to the worship service, and this forms our souls. When the church gathers, there is more going on than we know.


By C. Christopher Smith

To Worship is to be transformed.

When we come into the presence of God, we cannot help but be transformed. Moses, for instance, was transformed by his encounter with God in the burning into the courageous leader of the Ancient Israelite people. At Pentecost, the economics and daily life of the Jerusalem community of Christ-followers was transformed by the presence of the Holy Spirit amongst them. Too often the aim of our gathered worship is to entertain or to comfort our members (or our visitors). Of course, there are some merits in the comforts of hospitality, but we need to be attentive to our primary aim of entering the transforming presence of God together.

How do the images of God that we present in our worship (and I’m using the term images broadly here to include our words and our music, along with literal images) orient our congregations toward God’s transforming presence with us?  I’ve recently been inspired by the theological work of Natalie Carnes (Image and Presence), who suggests that the church needs both iconophilia — a love of images that transform us by pressing us deeper into the knowledge and life of God — and iconoclasm, the breaking of our false or destructive images of God. The church has a long history of veering toward one or the other of these extremes. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches are known for their icons that point worshippers to certain facets of God’s presence. In contrast, some early Calvinist streams of Protestantism were known for their vehement iconoclasm. Carnes, however, argues that our worship is most faithful when it embraces both icons and iconoclasm.

The New Testament epistles are filled with stories of these struggles. The story of Peter’s visit to the house of Cornelius (Acts 10), is an extraordinary example of this tension of needing images and image-breaking. God calls Peter to not only go to the house of the Gentile Cornelius but also to eat whatever food is put before him there. In the call of God, Peter’s image of God — an image that took the form of God’s relationship with the Israelite people — was broken by God who desired to be with and to know Gentiles as well as Jews. Over time, the early Christian communities struggled to make a new image out of the one shattered in the Acts 10 story. An image of God dwelling with and being known by communities of both Jews and Gentiles.

In reflecting on this story of Peter in the house of Cornelius, theologian Willie Jennings notes in Acts: A Theological Commentary (119) the vulnerability of both holding images and expecting that some images will be broken. What does a way of worship look like that holds us in this vulnerable place, reminding us of the words and images that continue to shape us into the life of God, and yet open to the image-breaking presence of God that might at any moment shatter one of these images?

Let’s begin by exploring how our music and prayers can be icons that reveal God’s presence with us.

Our worship should be saturated with words and images that remind us of who God is. Jesus, God-become-flesh who took the form and the image of a human, should be at the heart of our worship. The Incarnation, although it gives us a particular image of Jesus who lived within time and space, also points us toward the paradox of God’s presence. The image of Christ that we have come to know in our reading of the Gospel stories of the life and teachings of Jesus, should be central to our worship.

In taking the bread and the cup together, we are holding up an image of Christ, an image of him broken and poured out for the life of God’s people. It is not surprising, given how scandalous this image is, that some churches today are eliminating communion or pushing it to the margins of their worship service. (One church that I know, for instance, hands out packets of bread and juice for its members to consume on their way out of the service or at home with their family.)

Whatever particular style of music a congregation uses, it should be well-done — a fitting offering for the king-of-kings — and remind us of the life and teachings of Jesus, whether in the forms of hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or “Up from the Grave He Arose,” or in the form of recent worship songs like the Rend Collective’s “Nailed to the Cross,” or anything in between. Our image of Christ need not be confined to the historical image offered in the Gospels. We might also celebrate Christ, the creator of all, or the ascended Christ, the king-of-kings who sits in all power at the right-hand of the Father.

In addition to holding up images like those of Christ, our worship should also contain some degree of iconoclasm, breaking down the false or destructive images we have of God. If we need inspiration in this regard, we need to look no further than Jesus, who was quite fond of breaking the images of God held by the Pharisees and other religious leaders of his day: eating with sinners, healing on the Sabbath, for instance. Jesus’s familiar teaching construct “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” is also a form of iconoclasm. As Christians in North America in the twenty-first century, our faith has been tarnished by many false images of God, ones shaped by the powers of individualism, consumerism, and nationalism, for instance. How can we plan forms of worship that break our images of God that have been shaped by these powers? Too many of the songs we sing traffic on the individualistic “Jesus and Me” image of God. What if we took a Sunday and sang only songs that used plural pronouns (we/our) instead of singular ones (I/my)? Or what if we took a familiar song, and swapped out the individual pronouns for plural ones? (e.g., “O for a thousand tongues to sing / our great Redeemer’s praise.”) Perhaps if we are too enamored with the image of Christ as conqueror and king, we might break that image a little by experimenting with Jesus’s servant-like practice of foot washing (some churches do this regularly, but not many). And dare I say it, if our image of God is becoming too familiar with the comforts of affluence, we might occasionally turn our focus upon the Gospel image of Jesus as homeless and with few possessions.

Although as worship leaders, we have been called to hold up and break images in the gathered worship of our congregations, we do this work best when we function as an attentive member of our church body. An eye or a liver does not function autonomously from the whole of the body but rather works for the health and well-being of the body. The images that we need to be reminded of, or need to break, are discerned by the body as a whole, through a variety of practices like preaching, teaching, and paying attention to our neighbors, our struggles, and our joys. Curating imagery in worship that attentively reflects God’s leading our congregation as a whole, can serve to temper our personal tendencies either to err too much toward comforting our church or toward a judgmental obsession with shattering images.

A fundamental part of this work of paying attention is being in regular conversation with pastors, lay leaders, youth, and other members of the church, listening to their perceptions of how God is leading and moving our community. What we hear in these conversations will help us discern the images that we need to focus on or that need to be broken. We may also, at times, have to defend the images we choose to elevate or to break, but that risk is part of the vulnerability of our calling.

The curating of images in worship is precarious work, it requires vulnerability of us as we follow in the narrow way of Jesus, and attentive eyes and ears that seek to discern God’s leading. Our faithfulness in this work will prepare the way for God’s transformation of our church. May we have the courage to follow in the way of Jesus, image-upholder, and image-breaker.


By Sherri Alden

It was a Sunday morning, two weeks after I had inexplicably miscarried for the third time, losing each baby almost halfway through the pregnancy.  Devastated, emotionally shut down, confused and uncharacteristically quiet, I slipped unnoticed into the dim back corner of the church building.  I’m not sure what I was specifically hoping for in walking into the church gathering that morning.  I just knew I felt dead inside and that this had always been a safe place where God speaks, and the truth of His character and the kindness of His people could be found.  Though in my deep grief I couldn’t identify it at that moment, I desperately wanted the God I still believed in by faith, to somehow breathe life, hope, and purpose back into my broken soul.

As the church assembled and His people served out of their calling and gifting that morning, God met me in the most profound and unexpected way.  Although there were tender smiles and hugs, comforting and challenging biblical truth from the teaching pastor, and thoughtful lyrics and prayers through our time of worship that caused tears to flood my face, the key to heaven touching earth for me that day was in the form of a painting.  One of the skilled fine artists in our body had been inspired to paint a simple but massive thirty-foot canvas installed as a backdrop for the stage.  The human form in the painting sat on her knees, face obscured, hands together in front of her body, palms up in quiet surrender.  I could not escape the image that captivated my sight as the Spirit spoke directly to the deepest part of my wounded heart.  I realized I had a choice before me—would I stay stuck in my pain and disappointment, resisting His path for my life, or would I surrender another devastating loss, with no seeming explanation or purpose into His care, and trust His purpose, His way, in His time?

So why do we gather as the Church?  Bottom line?  God tells us to.  The Holy Spirit, through the writer of Hebrews, makes a pretty clear directive in Chapter 10—don’t blow off gathering together.  Why?  Because gathering together as the Church helps us to remember.

Remember…who God is, His overwhelming love and sacrifice for us in Jesus, offering undeserved mercy and grace, which brings us as diverse people to a level footing of awe, humility, and gratitude.

Remember…that we were created to worship—not just as individuals, but also as His gathered people, the Body of Christ, connecting us together in unity and joining in with the unending worship that is already going on in heaven.

Remember…that hearing the Word of God proclaimed encourages, strengthens, comforts, corrects, guides, challenges and motivates us together as a local church to live for His glory.

Remember…that our story is one speck in God’s epic and glorious story of redemption, which gives deeper meaning to our lives and causes our concerns to be put into perspective.

Remember…that we need time to step out of our everyday-life demands and distractions to come together as the people of God to refocus, reflect, and find a place of reverence.

Remember…that we do not stand alone—in our mess or in our success.

Remember…that we were designed to physically and emotionally see others, be known, share real life and find belonging in the real community, not just engage with a highlight reel on social media.

Remember…that sometimes we need someone to hurt with us and have to borrow the faith and lean on the prayers of others when we are struggling.

Remember…that gathering together as a church provides an opportunity to give back—with a higher purpose.  The body is challenged to use their unique gifts to love and serve those who are different from us.

Remember…that we are called to make disciples.  It is in the biblical community that we mentor and practice grace and truth, reinforce biblical culture and values, and experience forgiveness, healing, and growth.

Every time a body of believers, large or small, gathers together, God assures us He is present (Matt. 18:20). This is not a dry theological statement.

As in my personal story of God at work in the shadows of a church service, seen or unseen, at every gathering, the Holy Spirit is supernaturally at work, bringing His presence into our pain, confusion, disappointment and the reality of our broken lives with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead!  HE is WITH us, working IN us, and working THROUGH us.  And as worship leaders, pastors, songwriters, curators, visual and technical artists, media developers, dancers, actors, writers and volunteer teams who facilitate most church gatherings, we have the privilege, opportunity and responsibility to connect, to discern, to plant seeds, to teach, to challenge, to serve, to provide an authentic language and environment of praise and worship for the gathered church to respond to Him. What you do matters. Today. Eternally.

When we, as leaders, get discouraged or burnt out and fail to see our roles from this astounding and humbling perspective, we can easily get caught in the grind of weekends coming every seven days, and inspiration, intentionality, and creativity to communicate our message compellingly go out the window.  Crazy as it is, the Holy Spirit chooses to partner with you in your calling to serve the gathered church.  The outcome is totally His, but the opportunity for Him to maximize your unique gifting to impact people for eternity is in your court.

So that begs the question, are you as a leader/influencer of church gatherings unleashing and investing your gifts and the development of your team’s gifts to the fullest?  Do you challenge yourself and those you lead to communicate the unchanging truth of God’s Word and character in a way that connects with your people in fresh, creative, thought-provoking, memorable and Spirit-infused ways?

If we study the human heart and mind, it is clear that God built us to respond to story, to surprise, to beauty and discovery.

Our desire in the church is not to develop the newest gimmick, nor pander to a consumer mindset.  Yet, we, who communicate to hundreds and even thousands of people every week, would be unwise if we ignore how our God-designed brains function.

God’s creation is rife with variation, creativity, surprise, and beauty.  Scripture is filled with life-stories and parables, most with unexpected players, twists and outcomes.  The Creator has imagined and put into action the most amazingly unbelievable, redemptive, vital, eternally significant story humanity could ever hope to hear.  We, in turn, have the opportunity in our work as leaders to serve the gathered church through investing in the development of our own God-given creativity and energy and encourage the God-given imagination and efforts of gifted artists and communicators within our Body in the continual retelling of that story.

In partnership with the Holy Spirit, creativity can give an opportunity to effectively captivate the listener with God’s unchanging truth in an unexpected, powerful and transformative way. This intentionality maximizes the precious moments when the church does gather, accomplishing far beyond what we understand today, or may ever know this side of eternity.

Why do we gather?  Because it honors and blesses God when a grateful, redeemed people come together to recognize His worth and focus their devotion in the right place.  Because we need each other to help remember His truth when life’s influences seem to be screaming just the opposite at us.  Because sometimes we need God’s touch with skin on.  Because you never know when the Spirit will use the creative offering of a painting to penetrate a broken, still heart and breathe into it new life, hope, and purpose.

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By David Bunker 

Death and life are in the power of the toungue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. Proverbs 18:21 NKJ 

The Shared Experience of Listening Together

I grew up a preacher’s kid in the holiness movement. Church was our life and by the age of ten, I had attended more services than most adults would in their lifetime. In fact, our home had an actual tunnel going from our house directly to the church basement. Needless to say, our family and especially my father were attached to the church both figuratively and literally. We were church saturated people.

As a youngster, adapting to the sheer volume of services and their format was challenging. While I was the typical fidgety child growing up, it was clearly evident I had a precocious and highly inquisitive nature. Early on I began to listen, really listen, to what was being said and enacted from week to week.

From the vibrant full-throated Gospel singing to the Sunday night testimony time often followed by altar calls and late night fervent prayer meetings, I soon discovered that our gatherings were simultaneously full of exuberant praise, and as John Wesley said, our hearts “strangely warmed.”

The Power of Testimony 

Memories are often cryptic messages from the past that something full of meaning may be circling our present state. When I fondly look back at my early years in the body of Christ I distinctly am drawn to the power of personal testimonies. Over the years, I have attended countless meetings where it was appropriate and encouraged to stand before the congregation and “bear witness” to the hand of God in one’s life.

However, it was not until my men’s retreat experience did I grasp the powerfully formative nature of someone sharing their story in public. What was profoundly revealing about the retreats was the highly public nature of the storytelling or testimony and the impact it had on those listening. I was always amazed at how enraptured men became while attending to the story of another.

Because the weekend is focused on discovering and articulating one’s narrative with as much clarity and truthfulness as they can offer, there is a commensurate commitment from the other men to truly listen, to completely offer themselves over to the presence of another and regard their voice and story as a gift to the community. For many of the men, this honoring posture from other men is emotionally overwhelming. During the retreat, they discover, often for the first time, that the body of Christ and the Father care deeply about them. Indeed, they discover they are actually the “beloved” of the Father and He longs to hear their heart’s desires as well wipe away the tears that accompanying their life and its brokenness.

Testimonies Revisited 

After experiencing countless weekends where men stood before others and offered up their testimony with power and vulnerability, I wondered why so little of that same honest and open disclosure was taking place in the larger congregation. As I continually longed for some degree of this experience to spill and manifest itself in the larger congregation I was drawn by memory to my early years with my a small holiness church and the ever unpredictable and meaningful “testimony time.”

As I intentionally pondered the past and that experience, many amazing memories flooded back. At nearly all of our Sunday night gatherings, testimony time would offer the body an opportunity to speak out and speak to their personal stories of faith. It was a time to publicly offer up a reckoning of sorts. Inevitably, like clockwork, Sister Beulah would stand and offer her declaration of God’s sovereignty in her life. An elderly single woman, Sister Beulah would weekly visit prisons and report back to the congregation the hand and heart of God as it related to these incarcerated men and women. Her testimony was always full of the broken and beautiful, the sad and sanctified. I was always captured by her storytelling and her utter zeal about incarcerated men and women who truly could not be more “unlike” Sister Beulah. But each week she told us of God’s care and presence in the lives of these prisoners. I was amazed and captured by the incongruity of it all.

Prodigal Professions of Faith

On other Sunday nights, a man or women who only came to church occasionally would stand and pour out their sense of reconciliation with the Father. They would openly put on the status of the returning prodigal and tell the body of their journey back to the Father. Tears would flow as they openly revealed the painful details of their rebellion and the miraculous restoration. As a small boy, I was listening and learning. I was hearing another sermon but not from my pastor father. This one came from someone, who years later, I would identify with more than I would have imagined.

Unbeknownst to me, I was collecting countless stories that would re-emerge years later as the voice of the saints bearing witness. I was being formed to believe and receive this same reconciliation and restoration. The Father knew that someday my prodigal heart would manifest itself but I would have stories in my soul’s archive that I could bring to remembrance. I was being formed for the future by these narratives called testimonies.

The Power of Story to Form Christlike Character

It was partially through this early childhood experiential lens that I began to observe and identify with the power of one’s personal narrative when shared publicly. It was in these early childhood years that the story and testimony of these saints became my story. I was being formed in the listening, transformed in the proclamation, made a part of something much bigger than my own personal story. It was the story of a people.

Where do we anchor our sense of meaning?  What if our worship was attached to our ability to listen, really listen?  What is the vocabulary of listening as worship? Is this honoring a primary posture for the radical presence of our Savior to reveal Himself, for the Spirit to lavishly pour Himself out to our hungry hearts? I had discovered through my men’s retreat weekends that this kind of listening was distinctly different from the kind of listening we do one-on-one. When a man who was not diligently attending to his own heart observed a group of men clearly submitted to the act of deep listening, his voice grows in its innate resonance.  Intention and articulation now merge and what is said has a power to which the entire group bears witness.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Proverbs 18:21 NKJ

What if we listened to one another more diligently in our gatherings? What if testimony time was considered as sacred and formative as the sharing of the word or the taking of the body and the blood of Christ? Might this kind of “holy listening” involve a significantly different posture than is often encouraged in the church? Protocol on the men’s weekends helped in the development of a deeper corporate listening posture. We discovered early on that being attentive involved a silencing of the inquisitive and questioning mind. Knowing this was a sacred time of honoring this man’s story allowed us as co-sojourners to listen to another deeply possibly for the first time.  By taking ourselves and our reactions completely out of the equation, a kind of freedom opened up. It turns out we are better listeners when we set aside our response or reaction.

On the weekend retreats, we were asked to withhold our judgments and questions when a man was entering this often unvisited location of the soul where his true voice resided. We knew that the entering in was usually accompanied by a degree of fear and even shame. Sharing one’s story unabashedly with deep emotion and tears can for many men be outside their comfort zone. It is territory they often ignored or pushed up into their head. They were unable to share their testimony out of their deepest presence because they had left their true story years ago.

When we yearn to listen, we lose the posture of knowing and fixing. We now listen, not to speak into another’s life but as an act of worship. We are joining in the very presence of the Holy Spirit that emerges when fellow believers lean into the heart of God and do so emptied of presumption and self-consciousness.

Listening is a spiritual muscle that is often neglected and weak in our fellowships. And when we listen communally as a living breathing entity beyond our personal selves we become present and radically progenerative to the body. We birth together with the voice of the Spirit as it is articulated in the family of God.

Re-Introducing Testimony Time

Speaking aloud to others regarding our sojourn with Christ is more than perfunctory and routine. It is sacred and life-changing. It is a public display of faith that is profoundly formative and necessary.  And as I ponder and bring to remembrance the testimonies of the saints in my holiness church in Ohio, it is evident that these stories and their proclamation were truly empowered to change not only the ones telling the stories but the ones listening as well.

What we say often becomes who we are. We articulate our deepest identity through the stories we tell others and ourselves. There is something profound that happens when we offer our testimony in public. Our culture has possibly given way too much of the soul’s activity to the privacy of therapy (as good and efficacious as that can be). Have we lost the role the church gathering as a place of healing and restoration of its people? I discovered in my men’s retreat experience that mere proximity to the spoken word of testimony ushered in the providence of God. Often the embodied presence of the Spirit is visibly observed in the one offering up their testimony. You see it in their face and read it in their bodies. But these testimonies are for more than the individuals speaking aloud.

The public nature of these vocalizations has the ability to impact greatly the faith and character of the entire congregation.

Faithful Words Prompt Faithful Reality

I just recently witnessed in Nashville the power of story and song at our National Worship Leader Conference (NWLC). It is so evident that much of our telling and sharing is done through song. The last night of the conference, a group of songwriters gathered in the round and shared a song and then passed the mic to another. It was moving and transformative. What struck me, however, was the testimonial nature of the artist’s presentation. Rather than a performance with a concrete setlist, this musical experience was accompanied with a much more profound testimonial nature to its representation. Songs were set up with a level of honesty and vulnerability that I had not seen in a long time especially in CCM circles. It seems we may have taken the human out of the presentation. By that I mean we have neglected to actually share our truest testimony.  The attendees were certainly caught up in rapt attention. I wonder if that powerful listening posture was made evident to the artist and that is what indeed allowed and precipitated the deeper vulnerability.

I am so thankful for Sister Beulah in my early years and equally, as grateful for the group of songwriters gathered that last night at NWLC–Audrey Assad, Sandra McCracken, Andrew Peterson, Alisa Turner, Phil Joel, and Stu G. They offered up their testimony in song and I was deeply moved and changed in the telling and the listening.



I had brain surgery February 28, 2018. The surgery was early in the morning and I felt a great sense of peace knowing God was in control of my future. I believed God was going to do a miracle, but I didn’t know what it was going to look like. I also felt confident God would take care of my wife and children if he was going to allow my life on earth to end sooner than we expected.

Ultimately, we have no control over our future, but we can choose to whom we will trust our future. That’s worship; faith expressed. As I was waking up from surgery, I remember seeing the surgeon, my wife and family. When my son, Jordan, came in with Pastor Rick Warren, Jordan told me the surgeon thought the surgery went very well and asked if I was going to be ok now.  I knew what Jordan meant but I didn’t want to mislead him. Instead of saying, “yes, I think I will be okay now”, which I had no guarantee would be the case, I said “every step is a step, and this was a good step.”

Throughout the day, and into the evening, I was pretty much out of it, but I remember having a great sense of peace. My thoughts were flooded with expressions of worship. I was remembering Scripture verses promising God’s faithfulness. In my mind, I was singing songs filled with the promises of God. Songs, I wrote many years before, were coming to my mind and filling heart with joy and hope. That night, in the middle of the night, I remembered the words I spoke to Jordan earlier: “every step is a step.” I thought to myself, “every step is a step” applies to expressing faith to God: Worship. I love hearing a church congregation connect to God through singing however, biblical worship is more than singing or going to church. Worship is expressing faith with our entire lives. Authentic worship requires taking steps expressing faith.

In the bible, Paul said it like this: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.” Romans 12:1-2 (Msg) At one point in the night, I called for the nurse and asked if he would write something down for me. He came to my bedside and wrote down these words: Surrender, Trust, Encouragement, and Perseverance. The next day, I added another S: Sacrifice. These S.T.E.P.S., five great themes of worship, are often talked about but they take spiritual muscles, fueled by the power of God, to make: self-discipline, obedience, genuine love and faith. Taking these S.T.E.P.S. begins with expressing faith, trusting God as much as we know how to. God does the rest. 
Taking these S.T.E.P.S. will fan our faith into flame. Note to worship leaders: our job is to help start the fire: not to be the fire. Every step is a step. Surrender begins the journey. Trust leads to obedience. Encouragement is both received and distributed. Perseverance is fueled by commitment, not circumstance. Sacrifice is love in action and a fruit of authentic worship.

I’m looking forward to being with you all at the upcoming National Worship Leader Conference. I leave you with this, A.W. Tozer said there are good things only suffering can bring. I’m experiencing first-hand how that is true. Thank you for your prayers and thank you for your generous support and love.


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