“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
One of my favorite Early Church Fathers is Ignatius of Antioch, a martyr for the faith.
On his journey to martyrdom in 110 AD, he wrote a letter to the Christians in seven cities. One of these letters was sent to the city of Ephesus. Here is his quote, which I hope you will love as much as I do. “Your accord and harmonious love is a hymn to Jesus Christ. Yes, one and all, you should form yourselves into a choir, so that in perfect harmony, and taking your pitch from God, you may sing in unison and in one voice to the Father through Jesus Christ.”
I take this quote, not to refer to a specific group of people identified as a “choir,” as we think of it today, but as the whole congregation harmoniously praying (with song) the story of God’s redeeming work for all creation (much like the book of Revelation—a cosmic song of praise). What if our public worship brought song, Scripture, prayers, Eucharist and all else into a prayer concert for God? Unfortunately, worship today is in crisis.
The Crisis of Public Prayer The first crisis of public prayer is its neglect. By neglect I do not mean to suggest that congregational worship has no prayer within it. Indeed, most, if not all, churches will do prayers. Most begin and end with prayer and even pray in between. What I speak of here is not the neglect of prayer, but the failure to do all of worship as the prayer of the Church for the hope of the world.
This failure to grasp all of worship as a cosmic prayer has several underlying causes. The first, and I believe, most fundamental reason why worship is not seen as prayer is the failure to grasp that corporate prayer arises from the story of God. The story of God is the story of the world and of human existence of all of history—a prayer for the reign of God. Worship prays this story. But this thought and the application of this thought for the content and structure of worship is neglected simply because it is unheard of by many.
A second reason why worship is not seen as the prayer of God’s people for the world is because worship has been turned into a program. Worship, influenced by the broadcast communication theories of the media revolution, has become an entertaining presentation. The commitment to worship “programming” has been intensified by the contemporary Christian music industry. Because people are drawn by entertainment, showmanship and celebrity, many local churches have turned to a presentational worship to attract the masses.
Consequently, the nature of worship has shifted from corporate prayer toward platform presentational performance. Corporate worship, instead of being a rehearsal of God’s saving actions in the world and for the world, is exchanged for making people feel comfortable, happy and affirmed. Worship, no longer the public prayer of God’s people, becomes a private and individual experience. Beneath the privatization of worship is the ever-present individualism of our culture. This focus on the self results in prayers that are concerned with my life, my needs, my desires. This kind of prayer does not do what worship as prayer does—glorify God for His story, not only with our lips, but also with our lives.
Application Worship as “public prayer” refers to worship, from its beginning to its end, as prayer in the world for the world. But these acts of prayer are not a mere “collection of prayers” but a praying of God’s story of the world and an offering of God’s story of the world to God as an act of thanksgiving. It is us saying, “God we are here to remember Your story and to pray that the whole world, the entire cosmos will be gathered in Your Son and brought to the fulfillment of Your purposes in Him.” It is a prayer that remembers God’s saving deeds and anticipates God’s rule over all creation.
I sense it was this kind of “Revelation worship” that Ignatius had in mind when he called on us to “Sing in unison and one voice.”
This past week I had the privilege of visiting some “awakening” cites in Kentucky and Tennessee. If you’re not familiar with the word awakening, it is frequently used in Methodist circles to remember moments where God’s Spirit meets with a group of people in such a profound way that it opens their eyes to God’s activity in the world, renews their sense of purpose, and marks their lives forever. One of these awakenings happened on the campus of Asbury College in 1970. It was reported that the gathering continued without interruption for 185 hours because the presence of God was so evident that people didn’t want to leave.
Renewals or revivals are not only marked by the Holy Spirit’s activity in a gathering, but by the ripple effect of confession, reconciliation, charity, and justice that happen in the surrounding areas long after the gathering ends.
Stories of awakening remind me of the rich history of God renewing his people. The Bible is full of stories like 2 Kings 22 where God’s people literally rediscover Scripture and it starts a revival, or Acts 2 where God’s Spirit invades a prayer meeting and gives birth to an unstoppable movement.
What is interesting about these awakening, renewal moments is that they are so frequently connected to a certain type of desperate prayer that many call travailing prayer. To travail means to labor or give deep and often painful effort. Paul describes this kind of effort in Galatians 4:19 when he says,
My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.
Paul understood the persistent labor of prayer. Prayer is certainly the place where God takes away the heavy things that weigh on us, but it is also a place where God gives us new, holy weights to carry—the burdens of carrying God’s heart for a world that needs awakening. This is the same kind of weight that the prophet Isaiah carried when he said,
You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth. Isaiah 62:6b-7
This is the same kind of weight that the prophet Jeremiah carried when he said,
Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me, that the Lord brought on me… Lamentations 1:12b
This is the same kind of weight that Jesus carried when Luke 22:44 says,
…being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
I’ve heard it said that the first blood of atonement were the drops of blood Jesus shed in prayer. May his Spirit wake us up to the great needs around us and give us zeal, persistence and the singular focus to contend for God’s Spirit to fill our homes, churches, cities, and world.
What would it look like to write songs of travailing prayer?
How could a community use worship to contend together for an awakening?
Nobody expected this. Year 2021 was supposed to be the year we put 2020 behind us. A fresh start. We glimpsed the end of masks and the election was, well if not settled, at least close to resolution.
Then the assault on the Capitol Building happened. Images of hostile takeover are now seared forever in our minds. America seemed to lose whatever innocence she had left, and the reality of unbridgeable rifts in our culture suffocated our souls.
The divisions have gone deep. I understand that. The social and moral stakes are high. Our very identity as a republic is up for grabs. The fractious debate is between the right to fight for our freedoms and our obligation to obey civil authorities. Simmering social injustices, the culture’s growing hostility toward a Judeo-Christian value system, and the cockfight that was our presidential race all underscore the very real struggle for our nation’s soul.
But that the body of Jesus would be as divided as it is? For those of us who cling to the gospel, our divisiveness as a Church has pierced our very sense of collective identity.
We who love Jesus, who worship Him and pray to The Father in His Name, have never seen this. And many of us have retreated to our various tribes who think and believe like we do. We are in danger of letting our divisions harden into insurmountable barricades.
How can we as a Church begin a process of healing? A couple of simple steps to start:
1. First, let’s make sure we’re worshiping God for the right reason.Worshiping together should unify us around a mutual desire to exalt Jesus. But I’ve been somewhat stunned to see worshipers this divided.
Perhaps this exposes a flaw in our understanding of worship. Seems to me that if we were worshiping Jesus, we would be drawn to Him. And being drawn to Him, we would find some unity in our common life in Christ that would elevate us above rancorous political debate.
So…maybe we haven’t been worshiping Jesus as much as we think. Maybe we need to reassess why we worship. And perhaps this might be a significant step toward healing.
I have often heard it said that we worship to encounter God’s Presence—that our worship attracts God’s Presence. It is true that as we worship, we become more aware of His Presence. But is this the primary reason we worship?
If worship is based on my encounter with God, then I eventually risk worshiping my encounter of His Presence, rather than Him. That’s like being in love with love. Like loving the experience of romance more than the person you’re committed to.
So what is the ultimate reason we worship? Because God is worthy (Rev 4:11). Not first to encounter Him, not to attract His Presence as if He were outside our gatherings waiting to walk in when He sees us worshiping sufficiently.
Worship is not first an experience; it’s a declaration of God’s “worth-ship.” Whether we feel His Presence in our worship today like we did last week is irrelevant. We worship because the Lord is worthy. Not to generate emotion (although we should prize passionate worship) or to create an attractive environment, or not to create a Christian “alternative” to the house jam in the hip part of town.
If our divisions in this season are as intense as they seem to be, could it be that our commonness in Christ is more fragile than we thought? And if Christ hasn’t loomed large enough for us to pursue the unity for which He prayed, then is He sufficiently large in our vision? And if He is not, have we truly been worshiping Him?
Perhaps one of the first steps toward healing a fractured Church is to worship God for Christ’s sake. Simply because He is worthy. If that were the reason we worshiped, we would more readily find each other in our common devotion to Christ, thus dialing back the tensions that have polarized us.
And if we’re drawn to Jesus, we’ll be moved by His desires. And this brings me to a second step.
2. Let’s be an answer to Christ’s prayer:“May they all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:21).
This was Jesus’ focus in the hours before the cross. Not mission. Not even evangelism. Unity. If we love Jesus, wouldn’t we want to fulfill His desires? Unity is not lowering our convictions to the lowest common denominator. It is the commitment to love one another even in our differences.
And it is our love for one another that validates our message.Remember, it was Jesus Himself who stated the ultimate argument for the gospel; It isn’t apologetics, or effective mission, or manifestations of His Presence. It is the unity of His followers. I am not saying that there are no issues we shouldn’t divide over. The Apostle Paul wrote some pretty stark letters to some pretty compromised churches in Revelation. But they are far fewer than we think.
The fact that our unity is the primary means of convincing the world that God is real and Christ is the way should stir us to maintainthat unity in the bond of peace.
Still, how does unity get practical? And how might we heal damaged relationships?
We have been walking through an enormous amount of trauma. When there is this much disruption, on a scale this large, we can experience more relational tensions than normal. And sometimes we cannot deal with all of the relational loose ends at once.
But Proverbs 10:12 gives a marvelous insight into how we can tend our emotions and allow time to let relationships heal: Love covers all offenses. Or as The Message puts it, Love pulls a quilt over the bickering.
When we experience more strained relationships than we know what to do with, it can be very emotionally taxing. We so want to please God that we want to make things right with people, but we don’t know how to tend all the fractured relational at once!
That’s when love can cover. We may not be able to reconcile with everyone quickly, but in the meantime, love covers!
Love covers relational tensions while unity and trust are rebuilt. We don’t have to pull away from anyone just because we know there are unresolved issues in the relationship. And because love covers, we don’t feel the pressure to resolve all of our relationships all at once, and we don’t have to be afraid that we’re going to feel guilty carrying the emotional weight of unresolved relationship tensions for the rest of our lives just to keep other people happy. That is human fear.
So, rest in the power of His love to cover you and cover your relationships in the meantime. Give the responsibility of the healing of relationships back to God.
How do we make sense of things? Rest in God’s promise to reveal truth. Jesus told us that truth would set us free (John 8:32). We may not know everything we want to know, but God will always reveal to us what we need to be free. Start trusting God to reveal the truth about things in His way and in His time by praising His character.
Don’t worry about feeling what’s right. Just say what’s right. Confess what the Scriptures say about God. He is just in all His ways and kind in all His doings.
“But if I don’t feel that way about God right now, I will feel like a hypocrite confessing that.” But praising God’s character when you don’t feel like it is not hypocrisy; it’s the courage not to let your emotions rule you. As you do, you will be able to see everything truthfully. It might take a little while. And you may not get divine perspective all at once.
But we can rest in God’s power and grace to help us understand the truth about any situation. Including these present crises.
Second Peter 1:3 says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” God has already given us everything that we need for life and godliness, and we get everything as we center ourselves on knowing God.
Everything includes national unrest; everything includes the shock of our moral drift as a country; everything includes prophetic words that don’t seem to come to pass. Everything means everything.
Now, if God promises that we can have life, joy, and peace and respond rightly no matter how traumatic the situation, then there is emotional strength for us in what we are facing at this moment.
We have emotional strength to love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We may win a political argument. We may stoically endure pandemics. We may expend vast amounts of time and energy in the cause of right. But without love, we gain nothing (1 Cor 13:1-3). Someone paraphrased that passage this way: “I may have prophetic powers, have faith to move mountains, and give away all I have… but if I have not love, as far as God is concerned it’s as if all these accomplishments and sacrifices never happened.”
If we as a Church are to heal, we must re-center our worship on Christ. And how will we know that we’re centered on Christ? We will be awakened to a passion for unity.
Have you ever been in a worship service and seen a child worshiping with hands raised and heart abandoned? Have you ever heard the simple prayer of a child, “I love you God?” There is something special about simplicity in prayer. The prayers of children bring innocence and a simple faith to worship. Their presence edifies the church body by bringing unassuming hearts to a complex world.
Consider the story of St. Thomas Aquinas, who after completing his thesis on the Eucharist recalls the voice of Christ asking him, “What should your reward be?” Famously he responded, “Only you Lord, only you.” In a way, Thomas’ words were distinctively childlike, yet they held great power. The simple words, “Only you Lord,” spoke more to his situation than a thousand words could say.
When writing, it can be easy to get caught up in the complexity of God and his interaction with humanity. The intricacies of theology can bring richness in writing and new insights to worship; however, at times a simple phrase is all that is needed to be offered to the Lord. In a year when we have all been affected by COVID-19, when we are surrounded by so many voices and troubling circumstances, a simple faith that says, “I want you, Lord. I trust you, Lord,” can be enough. Sometimes these simple phrases hold more meaning than a long theological phrase. In Matthew 18:2-6 Jesus said,
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Prayers of children teach us about the kingdom of heaven. They teach us to receive from Christ without question or uncertainty, and they are often full of faith and wonder. We see this evidently in Luke 1:34-38 when the angel Gabriel informs Mary she will give birth to the Messiah. She responds, “How will this be? Then humbly responds to his explanation, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” When we learn to pray like children, we learn to receive Christ even when we don’t fully understand. We learn to recognize His voice and find joy in the simple things in life.
May this be an encouragement to you, to look to the simplicity and innocence of a child when writing music. Learn to recognize the kingdom of God through the voices of those who have not fully matured. Let them shape the way you see God—as one who delights in simplicity. Together we can welcome Jesus as we welcome the voices of children in prayer.
I’ve been covering songs for almost a decade now, transposing my favorite songs onto sleepy instruments like harps, strings, and bells. When my daughter, Sparrow, was born back in 2013, I didn’t want to listen to the traditional lullabies as I rocked her to sleep in the evenings, so I started creating my own lullabies. I posted a couple of the covers online for a friend to hear. The internet somehow took interest (as it sometimes does), so I kept creating these lullaby covers, releasing them on a small Bandcamp page. At the time, I knew nothing about how cover songs worked. Was I supposed to ask for permission? Do I need to pay someone? How do I even know who to ask or where to look? It all seemed so daunting.
After a bit of research, I found a handful of companies out there that were willing to help me through this process. All I had to do was provide them with the information about my release and the songs I had covered, pay them the royalties I owed, and they’d take care of the rest for a fee. This was a relief, until I saw how much the fees were. Releasing some cover songs can’t really be that expensive, right?
This led to a bit more research. I found that what I was looking for was called a compulsory mechanical license. I had to track down who the songwriters were, and which publishers administered those works. Then I just had to send those publishers some information about my covers and some royalties. It wasn’t as scary, difficult, or expensive as some of these companies made it seem.
I sent out the paperwork and royalties for over 120 lullaby covers on my own. At that moment, I realized I could help other artists get through this process of releasing their cover songs. So I formed Affordable Song Licensing as an artist, with the purpose of helping other artists traverse this tiny yet intimidating corner of the music industry. Over the last five years, Affordable Song Licensing has helped thousands of artists license just about anything you can think of. When you’re planning your next worship album, it’s as simple as signing up on our site. After you register on AffordableSongLicensing.com, you can create a new project for your release and follow the prompts. We pride ourselves on having the lowest fees online. Our turnaround time for your licenses is 2 days or less. We’re the easy and affordable option for your song licensing needs. I look forward to helping you! – Casey For more information about cover song licensing, visit us at www.AffordableSongLicensing.com.
Darren Mulligan from We Are Messengers joins us to share the song story behind the band’s current single “Come What May.” Mulligan also shares about their new album Wholehearted and the songs he’s most excited for fans to hear.
Stephen McWhirter and Jason Clayborn join us to discuss their new project together, Highest Praise, and the importance of cultures collaborating in the Church.
Stephen McWhirter and Jason Clayborn share a special acoustic performance of their new single “God Be Yourself” alongside the song story.
Even in the realm of CCM and worship music, few artists are as lyrically honest and authentic as pop/rock-oriented We Are Messengers. With songs such as “Everything Comes Alive,” “Maybe It’s Okay” and “Magnify” in their discography, the band, fronted by Irishman Darren Mulligan, has become known for their hope-filled lyrics of faith. Their third full-length studio album, Wholehearted, fortunately proves to be more of the same.
“We gave ourselves fully to the process of telling the truth again and not caring what the world thought of us. The album captures the heart of a follower of Jesus in one of the most wonderful and horrific times we have faced in modern history. We went all in, held nothing back,” Mulligan says of the new record, which was written over the last two years during the pandemic.
The title track opens the album with a declaration of God’s faithfulness to His children, always giving His mercy in abundance. Aptly following a few tracks down, “Now It’s Our Turn” is a bold response to the grace of God: “Sometimes it’s gonna hurt to love without reserve / but Jesus did it first, now it’s our turn.”
Faith in times of difficulty is a running theme on this album, first heard in the lead single “Come What May.” “My hope remains / I’ll rest in the arms of Jesus, come what may,” the powerful chorus sings. Tender “Close” continues the theme with a reminder of God’s promise to work all things for our good, while sonically uptempo “Faith Sees Best In The Dark” is a spark of hope to keep believing when life is hard.
“Holding On,” “Million Miles Away” and “Keep The Faith” are further proof that We Are Messengers’ music has one primary goal: to declare the goodness of God while encouraging the hearts of His people. Early singles “God You Are” with Josh Baldwin and “Friend of Sinners” are highlights on the record, each keeping the signature Messengers’ sound while still evolving to new levels of artistry.
Wholehearted is We Are Messengers’ best work to date. Not only is the musicality and production next level for the band, but the songwriting is Mulligan and his crew of co-writers at the top of their game. This record is sure to encourage all who hear it.
Theologians & Theorists: Reforming Worship in God’s Image
WL recently asked a question of some of the most eloquent and enjoyable people we know—those who have made studying, encouraging, and expanding our understanding of worship their life’s mission. They answered and, as we hoped, showed the amazing variation and diversity of emphasis and thought that we believe will inspire you to more profoundly lead in worship. We also included a bonus perspective on the same theme from N.T. Wright via an earlier interview.
How can worship/sung prayer be re-formed to more accurately reflect the Biblical narrative, encompass the past, present and future, remain deep, yet accessible, engage congregations in discipleship and form Christians into communities that embody Christ and extend worship into the larger world?
EXPAND your view.
By Dr. James Hart
Choral Director, Composer/Arranger, Songwriter and Author. President / The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies
St. Augustine wrote:
“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”
Human beings are hardwired for worship; everyone worships someone or something. Biblically centered Christian worship brings about the reconciliation of worshipers back to the One who made us and loves us. Then, reconciled to God, we, the Mystical Body of Christ, are sent on mission to participate actively in God’s great reconciliation of the entire created order.
As Bob Webber wrote, “Worship is the key to the renewal of the Church.” I would add, “And the Church is the key to the renewal of the world.” In worship, we tell the world its story, invite the world into the family (Church) to be reconciled, fired with the love of God, and then sent back to the world to participate in the great reconciliation of all things. The story of God in Jesus Christ is for the life of the whole world.
In the end, we thirst to know God and thirst to know God in the other. Everything we do in worship should contribute to that end, the love of God and the love of His creation.
REACH further, relate deeper.
By Dr. Monique Ingalls
Author, Editor, co-founder of “Christian Congregational Music: Local and Global Perspectives” Conference. Assistant Professor / Music Center for Christian Music Studies / Baylor University
Re-formed worship and sung prayer must flow out of a deepening relationship with the Christians across the world and across the tracks. Our collective worship is a space in which we can work to bridge division and heal the rifts in Christ’s body.
It is helpful to first build from our existing relationships. Have we partnered with a congregation elsewhere in the world? Have we served alongside members of another area church on a community service project? We can start by learning what songs, prayers, and Scripture passages are meaningful to these friends and why; then introduce them, along with their stories, to our congregations. After strengthening existing relationships, we can also build new connections.
Is there a church across the street whose worship is different from our own? We can have conversations over coffee to learn what makes them tick, and pray about what aspects of their tradition we might incorporate.
Do we feel burdened to pray for or give to a group of Christians on the other side of the world? We can listen to their worship music on YouTube and pray the Lord’s Prayer in their language in a Sunday morning service. In learning from the wisdom of our sisters and brothers in Christ, we open ourselves to what the Spirit is truly doing in the world today.
SEEK His kingdom.
By Dr. Aaron Crider
Author, Editor, Pastor, Educator, Director of Worship Studies / The Kings University
As we consider the past and future of worship and sung prayer in light of biblical narrative, there are key elements of focus for the present. Those elements are that biblical worship has singular focus. Solus Christus (Christ alone) and Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone) is every part of every corner of the conversation.
If we are to witness awakening and reformation in worship, all the indulgences of the formalized worship industry must align with a biblical movement of seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness. Never can chart ranking, sales, and awards be the goal. Soli Deo Gloria and Solus Christus has got to become our win.
WRITE songs that form patience.
By Dr. Lester Ruth
Historian, Author, Worship Activator, Research Professor of Christian Worship / Duke Divinity School
It’s quite clear in the New Testament: Christians are supposed to lean into the future and allow it to reshape their sense of who they are and how they are to live. Our lives are hid, as Paul put it in Colossians, in Christ and when He appears and is revealed (in the future) so will we in an upcoming resurrection. But our worship is often focused on the past (“Jesus did great things back then!”) or on the present (“Isn’t it wonderful to enjoy His presence today!”). Such sentiments are true but they can short circuit our leaning into the future. But how can we lean forward?
I suggest it is more than talking about when Jesus returns. I suggest it involves using acts of worship which actually form worshipers to be patient in their use. Specifically, I suggest we start singing hymns, not just classic hymns, but new hymns by you and saying the things you want to say. But say those things in a hymn form where there’s multiple verses and the payoff is not until the end.
The more commonplace structure of a couple of verses, a chorus, a pre-chorus, and a bridge allows getting to the song’s payoff quickly and repeatedly. There’s no learning how to wait and be patient. But a hymn form takes us on a journey, all the while waiting until the climax in the final verse in the final line.
Let’s learn to write and sing songs whose very structure forms us in patience, which is a fruit of the Spirit, and in hope. Hope involves waiting as Paul noted in Romans 8: “Who hopes for what is already seen?” I might add: “Or sung?”
CREATE opportunities for spontaneity.
By Jeff Deyo
Faculty at North Central University, Founder of Worship City Ministries. Educator, Author, Speaker, and Award-winning Songwriter and Artist.
The Convergence of Musical Worship and Sung-Prayer.
There is a tremendous beauty that emerges when we begin to embrace the close relationship shared between musical worship and intercession. How different are the songs we sing in our services from the desperate pleas we utter to God behind closed doors? Maybe it’s just a matter of a melody.
One of the most practical ways we can begin to help people reform their mindset is to invite them to participate in sung prayers, corporately. This involves providing opportunities for congregants to step into moments of spontaneous worship between the sections of our planned worship songs, possibly between a second chorus and a bridge, or before or near the end of a song.
As the band vamps repeatedly on a chord progression from a known song, the worship leader simply encourages the congregation to step into “Tehillâh” (the Hebrew word for praise, meaning, “To sing with songs or hymns; laudations of the spirit. The song of the Lord; spontaneous song to the Lord”).
This song doesn’t need to be complex or “professional,” but simply needs to arise from the heart of each individual worshiper, forming a symphony of individual musical prayers. As you might guess, the one true distinction between a typical spontaneous prayer—something most understand—and this newly discovered spontaneous worship song is the addition of a melody that flows from the one singing the prayer.
LET God’s story drive the narrative.
By Rev. Dr. Constance Cherry
Historian, Author, Worship Activator, Pastor, Worship Writer and Leader. Professor of Worship and Pastoral Ministry / Indiana Wesleyan University.
One significant way that worship can be re-formed is by letting the story of God drive the narrative of worship. The story of God is the biblical narrative of all that God has done, is doing, and will do from creation to re-creation. This all-encompassing narrative is centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Any time that our own agendas drive the content and actions of worship, we risk re-writing God’s story. To say that the story of God drives the narrative of worship simply means that God’s purposes for worship are honored—that worship planning and leading starts with asking the question, how can we re-enact, proclaim, and celebrate the triune God in community?
SONGS +PRAYER= spirit and truth worship.
By Andi Rozier
Prolific Worship Writer, Artist, Worship Pastor / Harvest Bible Chapel
He who sings, prays twice.
This quote is attributed to St. Augustine and has a truth that resonates with my heart. Singing brings a spiritual engagement to prayers that seems to accentuate the meaning of the words. But is it biblical?
Exodus 15:1 records the first song recorded in the Bible. David was partial to singing his prayers too. There are over 1,150 references to music in the Bible, including when the Lord Himself asks for songs. It goes without saying that the Bible admonishes us to pray…
Perhaps, combining prayers and songs is the closest embodiment we have to worshiping in spirit and truth, as John encourages us to do. Let us then, encourage one another to do the same.
ENCOUNTER God + worship as part of a greater whole.
By Josh Lavender
Author, Artist, Composer, Co-founder of the Wesleyan Worship Project. Worship Pastor / Trinity Wesleyan Church.
“…offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship…”
Romans 12:1, NIV
It’s easy to seek an individual encounter with God in a room full of people, and many of our worship songs allow or invite us to do just that. In a culture that is starving for belonging, there is great potential for the worship of the Church to renew its focus on community. I think there is room for worship leaders and new songs to facilitate community encounters with God that are deeply personal, but not individual. Worship can forge identity and lead us down the road of charity when it situates the worshiper as part of a greater whole, offering one sacrifice of worship.
WORSHIP LEADING is teaching / weakness is strength.
By Laura Story
Songwriter, Author, Artist, Scholar and Bible Teacher. Worship Leader / Perimeter Church
Imagine waking up one morning to a global health pandemic and corporate worship in churches across the globe was cancelled indefinitely. A month ago, that scenario sounded like a far-fetched plot of a sci-fi film but, as we all know, this was/is reality. Not that reflecting on my past worship sets was the first thought on my mind, but eventually I did have a moment to consider this: how did I as a worship leader prepare my congregation for a season of crisis? To put it simply, if my congregation had only the songs I had taught them and led for them from the past year to draw comfort and wisdom from, did I give them the tools they now need to weather the storm?
Questions like these not only reveal the importance of the content of songs we sing on Sundays. It also leads to the broader, most obvious question… What must we teach our congregation to sing that will sustain them in times of trial?
Focus on who God is.
Fix our eyes on Him
Sing not because we feel secure but because His character is secure, unchanging and always faithful.
Focus on who we are.
People sustained by His promises
People called to respond differently, with courage not fear.
Focus on the future glory awaiting us.
Worship evangelism idea: people are interested now more than ever in a hope not found in this world. Things are being stripped away, comforts thrown out the window.
Remind ourselves and our congregations each day of how sin has corrupted this world.
Sweet reminder that this is not the end of the narrative.
This all segues with my personal story of the [recording] label approaching me in the midst of the hardest season of my life (my husband Martin dealing with a brain tumor, disabilities) and asking if I would write worship songs. Though I struggled to see how I could write songs of praise in a season where I felt I was falling apart, they persisted that “what the church needs is songs that proclaim God’s goodness in the midst of the hard.” What they saw that I could not was that the trials I was walking through and the doubt I was struggling with were not disqualifying me from writing songs of worship—it was God’s unique way of equipping me.
A GOOD TUNE is not optional.
By N.T. Wright
Author / Speaker / New Testament Scholar, Pauline Theologian and Anglican Bishop. University of St. Andrews School of Divinity
I worry when the words of some of the modern worship songs seem to me just a random selection of Christian slogans, as it were, rather than actually a narrative of the world as claimed by Jesus and as rescued by Jesus in his death and resurrection—and the world is still a suffering place—but which is looking forward to the new creation. Some worship songs are struggling to say that, but if the narrative is broken then it’s not actually helping the people who are singing it in the way that it should.
And then the other thing I really, really worry about is the music. Quite a lot of the contemporary worship songs don’t actually have tunes in the proper sense. They have two or three notes, which they go to-and-fro on and then maybe they have a chorus, which lifts it a bit, but it’s still often not a tune. When you go back to some of the older things way back into the medieval period and through the 16th, 18th Century, etc., you have an actual tune. And the point about a tune is that it’s telling a story. It’s going somewhere. And I am very anxious about worship songs which have deconstructed the tune—the idea of a tune—and that’s the radical nature of post-modernity to deconstruct the narrative. That’s where our culture is. But we ought to be discerning how to do fresh actual tunes, not sort of past issues, copying what was done in the 16th or 17th or 19th or whatever century, but actual refreshed new creation tunes rather than simply a scattering of random notes. You can feel the difference in the congregation when they’re given a real tune to sing.
God’s world is storied, you know. This is part of the point of Scripture. Scripture gives us a gigantic story and says, “Hey guys this is your story, live in it.” And if we don’t have tunes, then we’re not actually living in a story. We are merely playing from moment to moment with ideas that may make us feel good or may make us energized to do this or that or may not, but it’s the story that carries the message.
I was in a meeting just the other day where there was a new worship song that we were introduced to and I was waiting for this thing to have a tune and it just didn’t. And it’s actually quite difficult to sing as a result. You can sort of mumble along with it and if the worship leaders are bashing it out, then it sounds good and it can have a powerful rhythm.
And okay a rhythm is a good thing too; picks up the notion of the heartbeat and you know this is a very deep part of who we are. We are rhythmic creatures as well as narratival creatures, but if there’s no story then, how can you be kingdom people unless you’re deeply inhabiting the story? …[I]f it’s a well constructed service—[it] ought to have that sense of narrative closure through it and being energized by that narrative. So it’s as much the form as in the detail content, though of course the detail content matters enormously as well.
I like to think of those of us who have responsibilities for planning and leading worship as “worship architects.”
I am called to equip present and future generations of worship architects. I do this through conference speaking, teaching in various academic settings, webinars, writing books, composing music, and producing a variety of worship resources of all types.