Category Archives: worship

Preparing to Worship

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Mount Helix

Photo copyright 2011-2015 by Randall J. Ehle

Rock music was part of my teen world. In those days before earbuds were ubiquitous, I would sometimes pull the stereo speakers down from the shelves, place them on the floor facing each other, and lay with my head between them while Led Zeppelin or the Eagles pumped into my ears like an IV. The same music filled my head on Sunday mornings, too, while I was getting dressed for church…until, that is, my dad would ask me to turn it down or even off, replacing my selections with Bach, Beethoven, or whatever he had in the way of Christian music. His reasoning: we need to prepare our hearts for worship. I grumbled about the change then, with the same type of argument my kids give me today.

As parents ourselves now, my wife and I have one-upped my own parents and talked about how preparing for worship needs to begin on Saturday nights, not just Sunday mornings. Sometimes those preparations are practical, like laying out clothes for the next day; sometimes they’re mental or even spiritual in nature—after all, how well does watching Braveheart prepare my mind to hear from God? But preparing to worship is not only about music and movies and clothes. It is about my heart, my mind, my soul… this is starting to sound like something God said on more than one occasion, and saw fit to write down for us:

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” —Mark 12:30

In fact, this command is repeated several times throughout the Bible and, for Jews, has been a centerpiece of twice-daily prayers for thousands of years. It’s also a good guide to preparing for worship. Here are some thoughts on how to do that:

Heart: Think of the heart as the seat of our emotions. We can prepare to worship God by keeping our emotions and relationships in check. This might be as simple as a pleasant morning greeting or a hug and kiss for our family members, or as difficult as intentionally avoiding a relational conflict about clothes! (That’s one reason setting out clothes on Saturday night can help so much on Sunday morning.)

Soul: The soul represents what we most often think of as the spiritual. We can point our soul toward God by listening to God-focused worship music—as my dad exhorted—or by reading a devotional book or the Bible (especially some of the Psalms). The discipline of silence is also helpful; not just refraining from speech, but blocking out the noise around. I know what you’re thinking: “But I’ve got three kids under age six—where am I supposed to find silence?!” Be creative in location and brief in duration. You may not find silence on the couch, but bathrooms—even the shower—are usually good alternatives. And if you’ve never intentionally sat silently before, then you’ll find that even thirty seconds seems long…and can do wonders.

Mind: Reading the Bible can focus the mind as well as the soul, though this is a different type of reading. If you can find out ahead of time what passage the sermon will be focused on, read that. Or if your pastor sends an email or newsletter during the week, read that. These can get your mind pointed in the direction the message will soon be taking it.

Strength: Loving God with your strength isn’t about doing push ups in the morning (though that may be good for you, too). Rather, it is about preparing your body to worship Him. That can mean anything from the clothes you wear to the breakfast you eat to the sleep you get on Saturday night. Setting out clothes the night before—especially for kids or indecisive dressers—can reduce worship-inhibiting morning stress.

All of this can be challenging enough when you’re single; add a spouse and any number of kids—from infant to teenager—and it becomes exponentially more difficult. My wife and I, for example, have opposite ways of getting ready to go to church on Sunday mornings: she prefers to wake up leisurely and relax with a cup of coffee as she slowly dresses and does makeup, then rush the drive to church. I’d rather quickly get myself all ready to leave so I can relax for ten or fifteen minutes before we get in the car, then drive casually, and have plenty of time to find parking and seats before the service starts.

Here’s the rub: going to church is easy. Preparing to worship the Creator of the universe, though, takes forethought and planning… and that can’t happen on Sunday morning. Sometime this week, take time to think through and write down how you can best prepare for worship. Include each of these areas—heart, mind, soul, and strength (body)—noting what is needed in each and what time constraints there may be. If you’re married, do this together; if you have kids, share it with them (or better yet, work with them on it). Here’s a quick sample, assuming your church service starts at 9:00am.

Saturday evening: after dinner, everyone sets out clothes—right down to underwear, socks, shoes, and jackets—and gets appropriate approvals (from mom, dad, husband, wife). Iron what needs to be ironed. Do something fun together as a family, like a board game, puzzle, or fun G or PG movie that ends by 8:30.

Sunday morning: everyone is up in time for showers, breakfast, and coffee. Get dressed, put on makeup. Mom helps younger kids with hair; Dad helps them get dressed while Mom does her makeup. Aim for everyone to be dressed, hair combed and teeth brushed, and ready to leave fifteen minutes before departure time. Relax. Be quiet. Read. Listen to worship, praise, or instrumental music. Finish coffee. Five minutes before you have to leave, get out the door. 

A word of caution: this isn’t simply about having a preset morning schedule; it may mean changing your perspective on things. It may mean that the time nazi who’s always watching the clock needs to chill out, and the one who has no concept of time needs to gracefully receive reminders. And as far as time is concerned, keep in mind that this isn’t about “being on time for church,” it is about preparing to encounter and worship God—and in that worship, we get to bless God.

Church Music

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My mother-in-law shared an article on Facebook that got me thinking about church music. What she shared was a blog post called “13 Solutions for a Church That Just Won’t Sing,” by Jonathan Aigner, the Director of Music in a United Methodist church. I’ve never heard of Jonathan before; all I know about him is what he wrote on his blog, www.theologyinworship.com, where he says he grew up Southern Baptist, has Bachelor’s and a Master’s degrees in music, as well as Master’s degrees in both theology and educational leadership. In other words, he seems to have some credentials backing what he wrote. And what he wrote was good, even if I don’t agree with some of his proposed solutions.

You really should read Jonathan’s article because I’m going to respond to some of his thoughts and there’s a good chance that something will get lost in translation going from him to me to you. I don’t want to misrepresent him; neither do I want to come across as disagreeing with everything he says. Rather, I want to use his article as a springboard for some of my own thoughts. Briefly, here are his thirteen solutions (all are direct quotes except where italicized):

  1. Teach—how, what, and why to sing.
  2. Dust off the organ console.
  3. Bring the choir back.
  4. Don’t perform.
  5. Get rid of the lead soloist.
  6. Don’t sing so much.
  7. Sing all the time.
  8. Build a resonant sanctuary.
  9. Encourage and support the arts in the community.
  10. Bring the kids back into corporate worship.
  11. Use hymnals.
  12. Make the music worth singing.
  13. Stop doing the same songs over and over and over.

For starters, I agree that churches can teach us how to sing, what to sing, and why to sing. That’s how learned: standing in church between my alto mother and my bass father, I learned to follow the little black dots as they floated up and down the clefs. Those lessons laid the foundation for my three years of clarinet, a year of high school chorus, and four years in a singing and drama club.

But learning to sing—even for the purpose of worshipping and praising God—is not what church is really about, so I’d go a step farther than Jonathan suggests and use music as a teaching tool. After all, many of the great hymns were written, at least in part, to teach about God, not only to praise him. Since music by its very nature tends to stick with us, the songs we sing on Sunday mornings have the potential to stick in our minds far longer than the words of my sermon. We need to tap into that potential.

As for choirs and organs, I agree with Jonathan’s reasoning even if I don’t think his solutions are necessarily the right or even best options. What he wants is instrumentation “able to support sustained, hearty congregational singing” and “a sizable, confident, prepared group” to lead that singing. Both of those goals can be achieved with options other than an organ and a choir, but it takes a skilled and intentional worship leader and team to do so…just as it would demand a skilled organist and choir. I’ve seen—or rather heard—the difference in singing when a well-trained and versatile person is on the piano instead of someone who simply plays the little black notes. No instrument in the world will make an average musician sound great; on the other hand, a truly exceptional musician can make an average instrument do wondrous things.

Having said that, I certainly agree with Jonathan that an organ is a uniquely adept instrument for supporting congregational singing. But that doesn’t apply to every organ; electronic organs can be little more than glamorous synthesizers. A pipe organ, though, is unbelievably versatile, especially at the hands and feet of a well-trained organist. [Full disclosure: I married into a pipe organ family; my father-in-law has been building them for longer than the half-century I have been alive, so I’m just a little biased. That said, if you are at all interested in church music—which you probably are if you have read this far—you owe it to yourself to get in on some good pipe organ concerts.]

Let me take on several of Jonathan’s points together—numbers 3, 4, 5, 11, 12, and 13—and boil them down to this: if you want the congregation to sing, then invite them and allow them to do so. Don’t drown out the congregation with amplified instruments (even a pipe organ) or worship team (even a choir). As Ed Stetzer has written, sing singable songs in singable ways. Follow these ideas and you will probably avoid having your up-front team being performers before an audience. Hymnals can help people sing…if they’re inclined to sing, know how to read music, and are familiar enough to find the song in the time they have to do that. In other words, hymnals might help church people sing. But if you’re trying to help non-church people encounter God, then projecting the words on a screen is a far better choice. (Just be sure your tech people are good enough to stay with the musicians and get the right words on the screen at the right time.)

I may write about worship again another time, but let me close with one more encouragement to read Jonathan’s blog for yourself, and not simply to either argue against or agree with, but to reflect on and impact your own thinking about corporate worship.

Sanctuary in the Wilderness

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God, You are my God; I eagerly seek You.
I thirst for You;
my body faints for You
in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water.
So I gaze on You in the sanctuary
to see Your strength and Your glory. (Psalm 63:1-2, HCSB)

These words from David convict me. My prayer is far more often, “I eagerly seek from You. …I thirst for what You can give me.” I wonder if I will ever be satisfied with God rather than constantly longing for what God offers.

I wonder, too, how David went from the wilderness of the first verse to the sanctuary of the second. This may be poetry, but the dry and desolate land is no mere metaphor for David; he was in an actual wilderness, most likely running from a blood-thirsty King Saul—and yet it is not water he craves, but God. He needs water; he thirsts for God. He needs food; he faints for God. I, on the other hand, need God; but I long for a job. I need God, but I crave security, stability, income.

So… A simple word that suggests the answer to a problem, the satisfaction of a need. David is thirsty, fainting for God, so he “gazes on God in the sanctuary.” But wait—David was in the wilderness, not the temple; he was in a cave, not a house of worship. Was the sanctuary a metaphor? Maybe both yes and no. David seems to have cultivated a life of worship, much of which was likely experienced in the temple (actually, probably the tabernacle at this point—sort of a mobile, portable tent-temple). So as a poet, David could probably simply close his eyes and imagine himself there, worshipping God in the company of the people and the presence of the priests.

But as a shepherd he had also spent countless hours and days outside, bearing the sun’s blazing heat, the bitter cold of wilderness nights, the bone-drenching winter rains. He had worshipped God there, too, alone in the company of his flocks, coming alone to his God without the benefit of a priest; looking up to God not through the cloth and skin ceiling of the tabernacle, but in the canopy of space and stars and clouds.

Here, alone again and fainting from thirst in the wilderness, David again looks to the sanctuary of space and finds God’s strength and glory. And he worships. And he is satisfied. And…

My lips will glorify You
because Your faithful love is better than life.
So I will praise You as long as I live;
at Your name, I will lift up my hands.
You satisfy me as with rich food;
my mouth will praise You with joyful lips.

When I think of You as I lie on my bed,
I meditate on You during the night watches
because You are my helper;
I will rejoice in the shadow of Your wings.
I follow close to You;
Your right hand holds on to me.

Praise. Glory. Meditate. Rejoice. In the wilderness sanctuary.

Understanding Worship

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(Originally posted on Jan 18, 2007 at randehle.com) Why has worship been at the core of so many divisions both within and between churches for the better part of four decades (if not longer)? Perhaps a significant reason is that we do not have a clearly-defined understanding of what worship is. In Worship by the Book, D.A. Carson accurately presents worship as far broader than either music or corporate worship.

He begins by noting the difficulty we will have in constructing a theology of worship. Indeed, he takes a full eight pages out of his 52-page first chapter just to explain why an agreeable definition of worship is difficult to come by. And when he does present his definition, he takes 16 lines to do it! Here is the first sentence Carson offers, which I believe is an accurate summary of biblical worship: Worship is the proper response of all moral, sentient beings to God, ascribing all honor and worth to their Creator-God precisely because he is worthy, delightfully so.” (The balance of his paragraph adds a number of nuances to this summary.)

If it is so hard to come to a definition of worship, and harder still to develop a solid theology of worship, it should be no wonder that so much division has arisen over this one topic. So what are we to do? As church leaders, a big part of our task is to educate the church body (cf Ro 12:7, 1 Co 12:28, Ep 4:11, Co 1:28, 3:16). If worship is to be a significant focus of our corporate gatherings, should we not teach about worship?

Here are some points Carson makes:

  • If worship is a “proper response” to God, then we need to consider how God wants his people to responds to him. We need only look at Cain and Abel to recognize that God may actually have his own worship preferences – and that ours may not line up with his.
  • Worship involves (though not exclusively) remembering and retelling. This is at the heart of the Lord’s Supper, and is a theme prevalent throughout the Old Testament, as well.
  • “Worship is no longer primarily focused in [religious action and ritual] shaped by a liturgical calendar, but it is something in which we are continuously engaged.” (p. 38) In other words, we don’t go to church to worship; rather, when we go to church, we continue to worship, now as a body.
  • Worship is both adoration and action. That is, we delight in God (adoration), but we also serve his people (action). These are not sequential or mutually exclusive, but rather concurrent. We are to do everything to the glory of God, as Paul admonished. In our actions, God may be adored. In our adoration of God, we may also serve others.
  • Worship is both individual and corporate.
  • While a thorough study of scripture will show us many elements of worship, “there is no explicit mandate or model of a particular order or arrangement of these elements.” (p. 51) Let us not be too eager, then, to over-promote our own preferences or denigrate another’s.

Carson also states that “it is folly to think that only part of the ‘service’ is worship” and continues by saying that “the notion of a ‘worship leader’ who leads the ‘worship’ part of the service before the sermon (which, then, is no part of worship!) is so bizarre, from a New Testament perspective, as to be embarrassing.” (p. 47) In a footnote on the same page, he comments about “the fact that many contemporary ‘worship leaders’ have training in music but none in Bible, theology, history, or the like.”

Carson concludes his chapter with this wise counsel: “Somewhere along the line it is important not only to explain that genuine worship is nothing more than loving God with heart and soul and mind and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves, but also to show what a statement like that means in the concrete decisions of life.” (p. 63)

Do you have a clear definition of worship? Do the people in your church know that definition? When was the last time you spent significant time teaching and/or preaching about worship (i.e., a series of messages)? Worship leaders: In what ways might your leadership be enhanced by pursuing more theological training? Senior/lead pastors: Do you need to encourage and enable your worship leader to deepen their theological training?