Worship is at the heart of the Church, flowing directly from its identity and purpose. It is both a responsive event, as we respond to all that God has and is doing, and a formative event, as we are shaped and formed into the people who are and will continue to carry out the Missio Dei as the Church gathered and the church scattered.
In thinking through what a theology of worship ought to look like, I do so from with varied images in my mind. There is the image of the church in which I was raised, now comprised of an increasingly aging congregation struggling with changes in society and changes in the church. There is also the image of my current stateside home church—a large, fairly wealthy congregation with creative “worship environments” that run with clocklike precision and professionalism. Finally, there is “J”, a young chuch planter in Asia who meets weekly with one new Muslim-background-believer (MBB) and his friend, who is not yet a believer, to read Scripture, discuss it, pray together, and encourage one another. What is worship and what should it look like?
I often tell people when I am stateside that the rapidly changing U.S. context is increasingly similar to my rapidly changing Asian context. In fact, the principles of ministry in each setting are virtually identical, even as the way they are carried out certainly vary a good deal. As we begin to think through what a healthy theology of worship ought to look like, it seems, there are some basic principles found in all three of the above images I have shared as well as around the globe (even as a snapshot of worship in each location will certainly reveal many variations).
Debates over what worship is and what it ought to look like often reflect any number or theological (both practical and theoretical) misunderstandings and shortcomings because the way we approach “worship” in the local church setting flow directly from our understanding of the church—its purpose, place, and identity. Three important aspects of such a poor theology of worship center around three important ideas of what worship is not.
Worship is NOT performance and music
Why is it…that the church’s worship and liturgical life is not more Refrigerator Door and less Rembrandt? Hillsong’s Darlene Zschech is a Picasso of praise music. Matt Redman is a Rembrandt of praise music. But why does every praise song have to be a Hillsong, Integrity, or Maranatha production? Why can’t we feature creativity that looks and feels more like a refrigerator door than a copycat “classic”? Why can’t we embrace more kitsch and schtick and less slick?
There is an important difference between pursuing excellence in worship and pursuing excellence in performance. The aging congregation mentioned above sings with gusto and enthusiasm, although the song leader had a mediocre voice at best and most of the congregants are off tune. It’s not a great musical performance but it’s excellent worship. The large, wealthy congregation, by contrast, enjoys concert-level-quality musical performances on a weekly basis; so good, in fact, that many enjoy the music silently rather than join in. When J meets with his MBB friends on Tuesday morning, they sometimes don’t sing at all!
It is important to note from the beginning that worship cannot be reduced to a level of performance excellence while at the same time refusing to acknowledge the dangers of being either too concerned or too unconcerned with the actual carrying-out of the worship experience. To go a step further, is it easy to notice that often times in the local church, the definition of “worship” often centers around music. Music is one means by which we can worship, but music is not, itself, the definition of worship.
Worship is NOT marketing and evangelism
…being missional is not a matter of taking overseas short-term mission trips, of having a program of missions, or of changing the style of a worship service.
Being missional—embracing Missio Dei and living it out in our world—is one of three core values in the Church of the Nazarene, the church in which I was raised and still call home. For many local churches in the recent past, one of the key questions asked with regard to worship planning was “What can we do to get more people in the seats?” (Or something of that sort). Getting new people in the doors of the church and providing them a “worship experience” that would keep them coming became a priority and was thought to be part of the way in which the Great Commission was being fulfilled, according to Brent Peterson in Created to Worship. Worship, however, “becomes less than it ought to be anytime our focus shifts from love and honor for the Almighty to an event designed to attract the masses” (Peterson, 20).
The worship time and space of the local church is not the primary (or ideal) space in which the people of God ought to engage the “unreached” or “unchurched” world around them. Sure, some people may be attracted to the authentic and meaningful worship in which the church engages, but this is not the primary purpose of worship. If we plan our worship for the purpose of meaningful and authentic worship of God these things may well happen. We might even pray that such things would happen. But if we plan our worship with the “outsider” as our primary target, we will likely miss the mark of meaningful and authentic worship of God.
Worship is NOT outcomes-based
Worship is not about our feelings. Jesus, in his ministry, often confronted religious leaders and those who held religious authority and power. Of primary concern, according to Robert Fringer and Jeff Lane, in Theology of Luck, was that “Israel’s religious rituals have become actions meant to appease God so God will overlook their sin…they are not actually worshiping God, because their motivation is not love or relationship but selfish gain (Fringer and Lane, 655) In short, whenever worship turns from God to me—what I want or what I get out of it—then it ceases to be worship. If I only worship when I feel good, or as a means to help myself feel good, then I have strayed far from its true meaning and purpose.
Would I be able to show such uncommon forgiveness and unexpected love? Would I be able to say the same kinds of things that came from his heart?
Originally posted October 7, 2019
Amber Guyger and Brandt Jean
Much has been made lately of the message of hope and forgiveness given to former police officer Amber Guyger by Brandt Jean, brother of the man she killed. It was an uncommon forgiveness shown in a most unexpected way at a most unexpected time. Displays of forgiveness such as the one described here are not normal, particularly in the litigation culture in which we live, where words are closely guarded and lawyers serve as gatekeepers of what should and should not be said. Most of the time, rather than forgiveness, we run in the direction of anger, revenge, litigation, and punishment. Rarely do we see the wronged and hurting move in the direction of love, forgiveness, and mercy.
And I’m not going to say I hope you rot and die, just like my brother did, but I personally want the best for you. And I wasn’t going to say this in front of my family or anyone, but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do.”
One wonders what his family thought of this statement and the subsequent embrace that he offered to Amber in the front of the courtroom. Based on his comment, it seems likely the others in his family may have not been on the same page; in which case makes his words all the more powerful.
Reading this story and watching the video of the extended and heartfelt embrace, I couldn’t help but see healing already in process. I imagined what it might be like to be in Brandt’s shoes. Would I be able to show such uncommon forgiveness and unexpected love? Would I be able to say the same kinds of things that came from his heart? What if I were in Amber’s shoes? What would words like that mean to me?
Pope John Paul and Steve Taylor
Back in the 1980’s controversial Christian musician Steve Taylor released a song that, unlike much of his other music, did NOT ruffle the feather of the religious establishment. Its message was powerful:
I saw a man, he was holding the hand
That had fired a gun at his heart
Oh, will we live to forgive?
I saw the eyes and the look of surprise
As he left an indelible mark
Oh, will we live to forgive?
—First verse of “To Forgive” by Steve Taylor
The opening words of Taylor’s song refer back to 1981 when Pope John Paul II was shot, and nearly killed, by Mehmet Ali Aqca (see more of this story here). Aqca was sentenced to life in prison by an Italian court and then, in 1983, after having recovered from his life-threatening wounds, the Pope visited Aqca in prison. The photo of the two of them talking in the bare prison cell became an iconic reflection of Pope John Paul II life and work. In 2000, having remained in communication with Aqca’s family, the Pope requested, and was granted, a full pardon for the man who tried to murder him.
This is uncommon forgiveness.
Follow his lead
Let the madness recede
When we shatter the cycle of pain
Oh, we will live to forgive
—Second verse of “To Forgive” by Steve Taylor
A similar story is told of Ronald Reagan, following his attempted assassination by John Hinkley. In a Seattle Times article from 2004, Ronald Reagan is said to have been inspired by the Pope’s actions and truly desired to do the same for Hinkley, but knowing that Hinkley had been found to be insane by the courts, said he “only wanted to do what was in Mr. Hinckley’s best interests.” In the end, Hinckley’s caretakers decided it would not be wise for the President to visit. This was not the only time that Reagan expressed compassion for Hinkley. The President, according to Hinkley’s own lawyer, was ”a man of grace, great grace.”
This is uncommon forgiveness.
I saw a Man
With a hole in His hand
Who could offer the miracle cure
Oh, He said live, I forgive
—Verse three of “To Forgive” by Steve Taylor
Amish Community at Nickel Miles
Thirteen years ago on October 2, 2006 Charles Roberts IV walked into the one-room schoolhouse in Old Order Amish community of Nickel Mines, took the female students, aged 6-13 hostage and shot 8 of them, killing 5, before killing himself. Read more here. In the midst of grief, questions, and tragic loss, the Amish community did something uncommon. They didn’t point fingers, cast blame, hold press conferences with their attorneys, or demand justice. What they did do was reach out with compassion toward the killer’s family, visiting the Robert’s family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain.
This is uncommon forgiveness.
The Amish seek to closely follow the teachings of Jesus. Anyone who has spent much time in the Scriptures, and particularly with Jesus, will see clearly that forgiveness is a significant theme in his teachings, along with placing the needs of others on par with, if not above, ones own. Vengeance, revenge, and pay-backs are to be left to God. But as Jonah found out, even God is more than willing to offer mercy and forgiveness—a fact that God’s people today, same as Jonah, find that hard to accept and leave alone. It can seem much better—even right—to take things into our own hands.
Uncommon forgiveness is not easy…or natural.
The killers mother explained in the years following this tragedy that “love just emanated from them.” She recalled one of the Amish fathers saying to her that “none of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it, you can’t put a price on that.” The Amish community, it seems, understands the power of the “miracle cure” of forgiveness. Some will surely question the wisdom, perhaps even the fairness and honor, of offering such forgiveness. But then we see Jesus, teaching his followers to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Mt 6:12).
Jesus taught, and modeled, uncommon love and uncommon forgiveness.
Unfortunately, the Church does not always reflect Christ’s love and forgiveness in it attitudes and actions towards others. Christian leaders to not always model the the humility, and courageous love that causes the victimized to show uncommon grace to the guilty. Followers of Christ, in their daily interactions at school, work, and social media, too often cling to their rights, resort to name-calling, labeling, and general rudeness in order to win the battle of words with those who oppose their own thoughts and ideas. There is a reason stories like Brandt Jean, Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Amish community of Nickel Mines make headlines. They are uncommon.
“The pillars of true peace are justice and that form of love which is forgiveness.”
—Pope John Paul II
The “Uncommonness” of Uncommon Forgiveness
“Forgiveness is above all a personal choice,” said Pope John Paul on January 1, 2002 celebration of the World Day of Peace, “a decision of the heart to go against the natural instinct to pay back evil with evil.” This can only be done by the power of holy love; the love that God pours into the hearts of those who, in faith, have put their trust in him. Again, the perfect example if Jesus Christ on the cross, praying, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
Forgiveness is all about a potential long-term good even when the short-term prognosis seems anything but good, fair, or just. Violence and revenge are all about indulging short-term impulses at the expense of never finding the miracle cure, never breaking the cycle of pain, and never having the opportunity to leave an indelible mark of hope, grace and peace.
Uncommon forgiveness reflects uncommon hope.
The Pope continues, saying that “Forgiveness may seem like weakness, but it demands great spiritual strength and moral courage, both in granting it and in accepting it.” Some will say that forgiveness weakens us, causes us to lose our place of power, or makes us less than what we ought to be. Forgiveness, he says, “leads us to a fuller and richer humanity, more radiant with the splendour of the Creator.”
Uncommon forgiveness requires uncommon strength.
It was said of John Paul II, that he was “unafraid of the vulnerability created by living in forgiveness, of sitting in total love with the enemy. It was a stunning paradox, and one he didn’t just preach about from pulpits far removed from ‘real life,’ but one he lived right to the end.” Or, in the words of Scripture,
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
—Colossians 3:12-15 (ESV)
If I must err, let it be in the direction of love…let me learn to forgive.
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
One of our most powerful tools of witness is our presence rather than our presents; not the stuff we wrap up nicely with a bow and give to people out of our abundance…but rather the giving of ourselves, the gift of being with, whether it’s convenient or not.
To get the most out of life you must pour yourself out
A comment on my recent post entitled Perfect Plans and Purposes ended with “…living our lives to the fullest for God to our very last breath, whenever that may be.” (Thanks, Beth!) . This got me to thinking.
My response to this comment ended with a short phrase that reflected one of those rare moments when words just fall out onto the floor perfectly arranged with no need for re-wording, re-ordering, or re-thinking:
Living to the fullest means emptying ourselves fully.
Not that I came up with this on my own. Scripture is full of this kind of language, beginning with the well-known image of Christ as the perfect image of God—the one human who could truly and rightly claim to fully display the image of God—emptying himself and humbling himself to take the form of a servant.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
—Philippians 2:3-8 (ESV) — emphasis mine
Matthew and the other writers of the gospels reflect on what Christ did on the cross by also utilizing the image of being poured out. Modern practices of communion have focused on the communal consumption of the bread and juice. Unfortunately, pre-packaged wafers and communion cups do not carry with them the powerful image of the breaking of the bread and the pouring of wine—symbols of humility and sacrificial giving of himself—that are so important to remember and “see” regularly. The wine (or juice) being poured out is a powerful reminder that we get the most of life when we pour ourselves out, just as Christ did.
And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
—Matthew 26:27-28 (ESV) — emphasis mine
The only real value in life, according to Luke and others, is in pouring oneself out. We can try to keep milk in our fridge, hoarding it for later, but it ends up going back rather quickly. It’s better to drink it regularly while also continuing to refill continually. The same is true of our lives. We get the most of life—our short time here on this earth—by being poured out and refilled, poured out and refilled, continually.
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?
—Luke 9:24-25 (ESV) — emphasis mine
John Wesley reminds us that God not only sees, but “communicates greatness” to, the very smallest of faithful acts of service (whether seen or not by human eyes). The truly happy, he writes, are those who give their lives to doing good and, finally, that oftentimes those who are seen the least (because they are constantly on their knees before the LORD) are among the chief causes of transformation that occurs. We get the most out of life by doing good to others for the sake of our witness and testimony of Christ.
God is so great, that he communicates greatness to the least thing that is done for his service.
“Happy are they who are sick, yea, or lose their life, for having done a good work.
“God frequently conceals the part which his children have in the conversion of other souls. Yet one may boldly say, that person who long groans before him for the conversion of another, whenever that soul is converted to God, is one of the chief causes of it.
—John Wesley (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection) — emphasis mine
Therefore, we can understand what Paul is saying when he tells us to sacrifice ourselves not through death, but rather by offering our very lives to the service of God and others. We get the most out of life by not thinking constantly about what life is giving us, but by giving ourselves fully to the lives of those around us.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
—Romans 12:1 (ESV) — emphasis mine
After all, our goal and purpose is to grow in holiness. The grow in holiness means to be increasingly Christlike. The grow increasingly Christlike means to grow in love for God and for neighbor. We get the most out of life by living holy lives of love.
He who says he abides in Him [Christ] ought himself also to walk just as He walked.