The Critical Call to Reform Worship and Sung Prayer

By Andrea Hunter

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” – 2 Corinthians 3:18

Worship is our response to God’s initiating and ongoing revelation and conversation. As we commune with the Father, behold the Son, and participate through the Spirit, we are transformed. Worship is in a sense discipleship. It is living in to the way of Jesus by the Spirit of Jesus. Far more than just songs or information, Worship lives where the realm of imagination, enactment and True and ultimate reality converge. So although on the surface when we speak of worship reformation, often it is about words and music, content and style, symbols and ritual, yet at the core it is about the Lord’s Prayer becoming embodied in our earth, the dust of our flesh, heaven come down, evidencing our deepest hopes. 

HIM NOT US

Sounds pretty elevated and mysterious and glorious and awesome and wonderful. And it is. Yet when we call for the sometimes gritty and controversial process of worship reformation, it can get messy. The good news as evidenced in revival history is God is always way ahead of us (See New Song: The Sound of Spiritual Awakening by Chuck Fromm). The ways we may interact with sung prayer in that process is manifold, sometimes a tiny word or note at a time and sometimes in larger sweeps of creativity and change. The end results are significant and can be life and culture changing.

EXPAND

Worship Reformation can be just a matter of taking the ceiling off your thinking, of considering what’s lost and missing in your service of worship, looking at worship across time, Testaments, and traditions. Are you worshiping with all possible songs, themes and meanings for worship in Scripture? Are you worshiping with all parts of your humanity (Spirit, soul, heart, mind, body)? Are you worshiping from the rich treasury of the Church across time? Are you worshiping as Jesus worshiped? (See Constance Cherry’s recent book Worship Like Jesus: A Guide For Every Follower.)

As we explore worship and it’s many meanings, representations in Hebrew and Greek, its countless engagements, conversations, encounters with God across Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, each becomes a template for worship (see Oliphant Olds classic book Themes & Variations for a Christian Doxology). Scripture lives in us through prayer and meditation and we become living epistles, or in the words of N.T Wright in in his The Case For The Psalms, singing poems: 

Paul speaks of Christians as ‘God’s poem,’ God’s ‘artwork.’ We are his workmanship say some of the translations of Ephesians 2:10. The Greek words used there is poeima, the very word from which the English Word poem is derived. God gives us these poems, the Psalms as a gift in order that through our praying and singing of them, he may give us as a gift to his world. We are called to be living, breathing, singing poems. 

To be invited by God to participate in the formation of a billion-person (or hopefully far more) choir of singing poems—pretty spectacular…and humbling. What an expansive, deep, wide, and rich world of worship we have opportunity to inhabit. (Check out Calvin’s series The Church at Worship: Case Studies from Christian History for more on worship in the Church age.)

Cultivate Your Imagination

Celebration, prayers for me and mine, proclamation, praise, songs of intimacy and encouragement are high on “I want to” sing lists. Yet, what about sung prayers of intercession, imprecation, reviewing God’s actions in history, prophecy, communion, creedal declaration, parables and stories, repentance, forgiveness, justice, thanksgiving, offering, racial reconciliation, mercy, songs of lament, grief and sorrow, and connecting stories and symbolism across the whole of Scripture? 

Lester Ruth has written extensively on the top songs we worship with and some of the themes he identifies as missing include intercession. He says, “If a song requests something from God, the request is overwhelmingly likely to be self-directed, seeking something for those worshipers or invoking divine presence; In these top songs, there is almost no intercession for others…” Lester also mentions “…there is very little confession of sin, failure, or fault and absolutely no laments of complaints or distress with God.” And the clincher is that there is a tendency to leave God the Father and Holy Spirit out, with Jesus as the main focus of sung prayer.1

As we seek to know more about the lost sung prayer available to us, its sounds, symbols, postures, fragrances, and patterns, we’ll be better able to extend the conversation to the lost of this world. 

COLLABORATE

Formation is a matter of focus and direction led by the Spirit: purposeful and revelatory. We’ve touched on the lost, forms that were sung in other eras, but now we turn to what is missing. MISSING sung prayer is that which is specifically and urgently needed RIGHT NOW in our communities and culture. These could be themes or perspectives that are represented in Scripture and Church life across history, even songs and past worship patterns that God is presently applying His highlighter to or a “new” song of biblical imagination that God wants to collaborate on with us. Inherent in this idea of lost and missing prayer is the belief that God is, as Robert Webber reminded us, “still speaking.” The question is have we created space and silence in our worship to facilitate hearing what He might be saying?

Worship Reformation of this kind can be seen presently as an emphasis in a number of songwriting worship retreats that have sprung up recently that emphasize missing themes in worship. In a fresh move of the Spirit, the burgeoning wave of retreats is about mission, not monetization. For the most part they are founded around a vision of supplying some part of the lost and missing songs to the global hymnal with lived-out as well as sung-out implications. The gatherings bring together theologians, artists, scholars, and writers across the generational, social, racial, cultural, experiential spectrum.

The Wesleyan Worship Project

The Wesleyan Worship Project sprang from an initial retreat in 2017, and has continued yearly. At its heart is a desire to rediscover and refresh the best of past Wesleyan hymns and write new congregational worship that is a call to justice, compassion, mercy, holiness, and perfect love. Headed up by Josh Lavender and Trinity Wesleyan, it combines practiced writers, worship leaders, and those new composers who may be at the beginning of their vocational journey and have a call to write the lost and missing songs of the Church. Currently the retreats are bi-annual. A number of new songs have emerged from the retreats that are uniquely suited to the times we are experiencing. “What Love Is Like,” “Full of Your Glory”

The Porter’s Gate Worship Project

The Porter’s Gate Worship Project, founded in 2017 by Isaac Wardell  (Bifrost Artists) explores themes of community and welcoming the stranger. They describe themselves as “a sacred ecumenical arts collective reimagining and recreating worship that welcomes, reflects and impacts both the community and the church.”  Their mission as a “porter” for the Christian Church—is to look “beyond church doors for guests to welcome.” Two retreats have yielded two albums: Work Songs, dealing with vocation as Christians and “celebrating the work God puts before us,” and

Neighbor Songs

Wardell affirms the need for fresh vision in reforming worship, saying:

There are many new worship songs written every year, but the subject material seems to be generally limited to categories of personal spiritual salvation or celebrating God’s goodness (which are great topics for songs). But when it comes to other areas of the Christian life—such as sanctification, vocation, longsuffering, peacemaking, mercy, or patience—there is an absence of worship resources.

Christmas Songwriting Retreat

Christmas Songwriting Retreat is the joint collaboration of John Witvliet (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), David Taylor (Fuller Seminary’s Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts), Lester Ruth (Duke Divinity School). Thus far retreats have convened in Grand Rapids, Nashville, and Houston. The purpose of the retreats is to generate new Christmas songs (texts and tunes) for congregational use. The goal with the first and subsequent retreats was “to take advantage of untapped resources in church history as well as underdeveloped themes in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, etc. to produce congregational songs that give voice to the mystery of the Incarnation.” The songs emerging in the aftermath of the retreats are bringing refreshment, inspiration and comfort to congregations. 

BALANCE

So often we have songs that engage a particular part of us as Christians, which is fine, if in the process of worship, within a service, and services over time, the whole of Who God is, and the whole of who we are is included and invited into the prayer, the process. In more traditional liturgies, that appears to be built in. But what if we just get the sweet stuff, the me-centered stuff, the “God loves me, and he loves me and he loves me some more.” Or if we only focus on one person in the Trinity, or we end up in a cul de sac around Christ’s return or conversely, live only in the present. Then we will become distorted, misshapen spiritual beings. We can’t live on wedding cake, bridal songs of intimate love alone. God is dimensional, multifaceted; Marva Dawn elaborates on this in 2003’s How Shall We Worship? Biblical Guidelines for the Worship Wars

Many formerly powerful churches have fallen apart or have become seriously weakened either from snapping at the crooked places or from festering wounds that can’t be healed. For example, churches that use essentially narcissistic music, focused on self rather than God, find it increasingly difficult to engage members in service and outreach. Churches whose music accentuates only the Holy Spirit, thus betraying deficient trinitarianism, often have an insufficient doctrine of confession and forgiveness and consequently find it difficult to deal with conflicts. The freedom of the Spirit must be matched with the discipline of the Truth—especially in contrast with, and resistance to, the world’s untruths.

The irony is If you continually write and sing songs where the arrow is pointed in the “I/me” direction, you won’t actually feel more loved, more secure, or more stable. The answer is to write and sing songs that paint a picture of God’s character, tell of His mighty acts and action in history, recite His creative, redemptive, attributes, love for all creation, and victory over the Powers of sin and death through the Cross. Scribe poetic yet concrete examples of God’s limitless power, justice, grace mercy and righteousness. When we put God at the center of the narrative it forms us in a Godward direction and gives us the humble confidence to live a life in Christ…and we are not alone. This sense of belonging is strengthened when we identify as “we” as much or more than a solitary “I/me.”  

CORRECTION & CONFRONTATION

When worship becomes too distorted, Worship reformation calls for confrontation or correction such as Paul and his letters to the Corinthians or Luther and the theses on the door at Wittenberg, or Jesus addressing certain of the seven churches in Revelation. If we find any aspect of our worship is devoid of biblical patterns and Truth, the only things we can do is repent and go another way. Although anemic unbalanced worship is grave, worship that distorts and bends the Truth is life threatening, and then what we need is not just an adjustment, but a delete and reset. 

We have to go beyond just what we sing and preach to the symbols—intentional or inadvertent—that have become associated with our worship. The posture and presence of the worshipers we see through the lens of a camera affect our investment and understanding of the “worship experience”…what the lens focuses on, and how. If it connects to existing patterns we associate with, say a concert, or a television show, we may tend to watch more than participate, and when we participate it can be as an audience, appreciating (or not) and evaluating, rather than inhabiting. People are part of God’s great creation and shouldn’t be erased from worship, but if symbols that point toward God and reflect the beauty and theme of the lyrics are interspersed with images of worshipers and those leading, if silent spaces are inserted for times of listening, If the worshipers in the congregation have active contributions to add, then we divide sacred time from ordinary time, and separate symbols of consumption with those of Holy worship. 

FINALLY—ALL THINGS NEW

Why is discovering the lost and missing sung prayer of the church so essential? Why is prayerfully collaborating with the Spirit in rediscovery, and new creation so vital to the life of the Church? Why is correcting misconceptions about God and His story in Scripture and time so important? At the heart of worship reformation is an unwavering belief that our worship in all its history, designs and patterns is formative, literally changes the way we relate and respond to God, people, God’s wider creation, the systems of the world we inhabit and the circumstances we face…Worship not only focuses us in love and conversation with our Triune God… and our neighbor, it also prepares us for our call, our vocation and to meet the inevitable… and the unexpected with faith and hope. In many ways worship is life and life is worship.

Unlike God, we don’t create the worship we sing out of nothing ex nihilo, but we draw on elements from our surrounding culture and from the past. Since the beginning of Creation, a new song has been sung and at pivotal points and times of revival, there is a qualitative and creative transformation in how worship is produced and expressed. We are in need of such a heavenly invasion now. The good news is God is all in and always will be, but worship is a relationship, so it’s time to start asking the hard questions. 

Is our worship forming us into disciples who incarnate Christ in the world? Are our family, work and social relationships changed for the better through our worship? Do we live our lives in concert with the Holy Spirit, loving the least of these, being agents of God’s kingdom in small and hidden ways, full of grace, peace, joy, and freedom? Even more important than being ready to die for our faith; are we prepared to live and worship…wholeheartedly till Christ appears? Are we abiding in the King of Love and advancing His Kingdom? 

The Church has a vast treasury of sung worship and also a limitless capacity for creating new expressions of worship. Reforming worship, and writing, choosing and singing songs for our congregations that encourage, teach, and form Christ’s body… and reach out to those who do not yet know Him through song inspired by the Holy Spirit is a sacred call and an opportunity. Formation is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, yet we can be co-laborers with God in this process as sensitive to His leading, we shape our services of worship in Christ’s image… write new songs and also mine themes from Scripture and history that are absent or underrepresented in out services of worship to facilitate a deeper understanding and expression of Christ in our communities and in our world.   

In what ways do you keep God the center of the narrative in the songs you write and sing?

Does the ways you produce your service and the sung prayer you choose create an audience or participants?

What is your service of worship in need of to create a balanced and living expression of faith that is formational? What is lost and missing?

Does your service have sermons, songs, symbols that reflect the whole of Scripture or just the parts you favor?

What does your individual congregation or tradition have to contribute to what’s lost and missing in worship for others? 

What creates disciples and what might you change about the way you write, curate, and sing worship to foster formation?

How can your pastoral staff and teams work together to create a rich and balanced worship service that will form Christ in your community? 

What kinds of songs will encourage your congregation in their life outside the sanctuary and help them be living sung prayers in their communities and vocations?

How can you create contexts where your community’s members can share and participate in the process of collaborating with the Holy Spirit and communicating psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, one to another?

How can you escape isomorphism (sameness) and reflect the amazing creative diversity of our God, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit in the songs you write, choose, and sing?

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Glenn Packiam (Doctor of Theology and Ministry, Durham) is the associate senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the songwriter of more than fifty worship songs, including “Your Name” and “Mystery of Faith,” and the author of several books, including Blessed Broken Given: How Your Story Becomes Sacred in the Hands of Jesus and Discover the Mystery of Faith: How Worship Shapes Believing. He is also a visiting fellow at St. John’s College at Durham University and an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary.
Packiam preaches at conferences for pastors and worship leaders and has spoken at Wycliffe Hall at Oxford University, Biola University, Asbury Seminary, Calvin College, and Trinity School for Ministry. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with his wife, Holly, and their four children.

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Christian worship is about rightly-ordering power through the love, mercy, and justice of God in Jesus Christ so God’s people live as faithful worshipers, bearing light in dark places and spreading salt in dying places. We show God glory by reflecting His character in action, not just by saying or singing the Word.

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