Jesus Isn’t Looking for Perfect Music (Or Musicians)

Several years ago I read the book Music Through the Eyes of Faith by Harold Best, and for me, it was one of those books that I couldn’t stop underlining, re-reading, and devouring.

In particular, I loved the point Harold made with respect to the ramifications of Jesus – as the perfect Son of God on earth – singing songs and hearing music written by sinners.

He wrote:

“Let’s concentrate on something that almost never comes to mind: the music that Jesus heard and made throughout his life – the music of the wedding feast, the dance, the street, and the synagogue. As it turns out, Jesus was not a composer but a carpenter. Thus he heard and used the music made by other, fallen creatures – the very ones he came to redeem.

The ramifications of this single fact are enormous. They assist in answering the questions as to whether music used by Christians can only be written by Christians and whether music written by non-Christians is somehow non-Christian. But for now, it is important to understand that even though we don’t know whether every piece of music Jesus used was written by people of faith, we can be sure that it was written by imperfect people, bound by the conditions of a fallen world and hampered by sinfulness and limitation.

So even though we do not know what musical perfection is, we do know that the perfect one could sing imperfect music created by fallen and imperfect people, while doing so completely to the glory of his heavenly Father.”
The Fall, Creativity, and Music Making, pgs. 18 and 19

Jesus sang imperfect music written by imperfect people when he walked the earth. This is good news for us!

So let’s not try to impress Jesus with our perfect music this Sunday. Let’s thank him for making our imperfect music and imperfect worship acceptable through his perfect sacrifice. What a Savior!

O Praise The One Who Paid My Debt

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 2.50.00 PMLast month I observed one of my favorite fall traditions in Northern Virginia.

I paid my Fairfax County Personal Property Tax.

For the privilege of driving on their roads, and parking my car in my own driveway, each year I get a bill in the mail from Fairfax County, based on their assessed value of the two cars Catherine and I own, meaning I have to write a big fat check by the first week of October. It’s wonderful. It fills me with autumnal joy.

And so like I’ve done many times before, I dutifully paid my taxes to satisfy the Fairfax County Government. And now they’re pleased.

But come next summer, when they send out another bill, demanding my money by the first week of October, they won’t be pleased anymore. So I’ll have to do my civic duty and satisfy their demands so that they’re happy with me, and don’t penalize me even more, or threaten to take my car away.

It’s a constant cycle of demands-payment-satisfaction, demands-payment-satisfaction, demands-payment-satisfaction, that never ends.

Sounds to me like how a lot people view worship.

God demands it. So we dutifully (if not resentfully) give it, even if it’s very occasionally. And this “payment” of sorts will satisfy God and make him happy with us. Before our next sin rolls around. Or before the next Sunday rolls around. And then God isn’t happy with us anymore, and so he demands we come to church again, and so we do, and he sees that we do, and he’s happy. For a few days. Then he’s not happy anymore.

You get the picture.

Approaching worship like we’re paying taxes to a demanding God, in order to make him happy with us, is tragic. And I think it’s pervasive, which makes it even more tragic.

Two important correctives:

First: God doesn’t demand our praise in order to make him happy.

In the words of John Piper“God’s demand for supreme praise is his demand for our supreme happiness. Deep in our hearts we know that we are not made to be made much of. We are made to make much of something great… If he “humbly” sent us away from his beauty, suggesting we find our joy in another, we would be ruined… The reason God seeks our praise is not because he won’t be complete until he gets it. He is seeking our praise because we won’t be happy until we give it. This is not arrogance. It is love.”

I love that. God doesn’t demand our praise like a maniacal dictator who needs to puff up his own pride. He demands our praise because he knows “we won’t be happy until we give it”.

Second: Our worship isn’t payment to God. Our worship is gratefulness for Jesus’ payment.

When people know that they were dead, but now they’re alive, they praise the one who raised them to life. We were born spiritually dead. Then God made us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:1-8). This is the motivation for our worship. We’re not worshipping God in order to satisfy him! Jesus satisfied him perfectly for us. That’s motivation enough: simply to say “thank you” in a thousand ways, on a thousand Sundays, with a thousand tongues.

We worship God because it’s what we’re created for. And we worship God because in Christ he raised us from death to life.

So I’ll keep paying my personal property tax to Fairfax County every year. I’ll keep trying to make them happy with me. I’ll keep trying to stay on their good side.

And I’ll worship God with the full assurance of pardon from my sins, grace unending, and a heart of thanks that Jesus paid my debt forever.

Pointing At The Same Thing From Different Angles

1In his book Christ Centered Worship, Bryan Chappel suggests eight components to a “gospel structure” for corporate worship, drawing from the narrative of Isaiah 6:

  1. Adoration (recognition of God’s greatness and grace)
  2. Confession (acknowledgement of our sin and need for grace)
  3. Assurance (affirmation of God’s provision of grace)
  4. Thanksgiving (expression of praise and thanks for God’s grace)
  5. Petition and Intercession (expression of dependence on God’s grace)
  6. Instruction (acquiring the knowledge to grow in grace)
  7. Communion/Fellowship (celebrating the grace of union with Christ and his people)
  8. Charge and Blessing (living for and in the light of God’s grace)

Worship leaders need to keep this structure in their minds when they’re planning services. To think through the placement of songs and different elements in such a way that coherently and cohesively tells the story of the gospel, it’s helpful to frame it against the narrative from Isaiah 6, like Bryan Chappel’s “eight components” so helpfully do.

Within this gospel structure there is a large amount of freedom. That’s the beauty of it. For worship leaders, it allows for all sorts of songs, kinds of songs, topics of songs, and “moods” of songs. It’s not so narrow that it’s limiting, and it’s not so broad that it’s maddening. Amazingly, yet not surprisingly, the gospel works.

And so it’s unfortunate when worship leaders, seeking to faithfully lead worship within this wonderful gospel structure, get stuck in an every-four-minutes spin-cycle, which re-sets with every song, and by the end of the progression of songs, hasn’t actually progressed anywhere at all.

If I had to summarize this spin-cycle, it would be:
1. Confession (I am a worm)
2. Assurance (God saved me through Christ)
3. Thanksgiving (I’m grateful!)

And then that song ends, and the next one begins, and we sing the same three points again. It’s like we’re afraid of betraying the core of the gospel if we dare to have a progression from point A to any point between B and Z, and take the risk of having our congregation articulate responses to the gospel, within an Isaiah 6 gospel structure, that might go beyond the bulletproof safety zone that requires fairly little ingenuity from week to week.

It seems like some worship leaders get the idea that every song needs to say the same thing, in the same way, using the same formula, following the same trajectory, and focusing on the same pillars of the gospel. The pillars are there for a reason: to provide a structure. So let the gospel structure free you and inform you, but not constrain you. Focusing on the same pillars in the same way from song to song is what I’m describing as the spin-cycle which can end up robbing our people of the opportunity to explore the unsearchable greatness of God.

If we sing the same three (or so) structural points, starting over with every song, we portray the gospel as myopic, the glories of God as describable, the implications of Christ’s finished work as easily summarizable, and our response as containable. Instead, we should feel free to use as wide a musical/lyrical/thematic vocabulary as possible, clearly within a gospel structure, but expansively and robustly broad, helping our people exalt a God whose glories couldn’t be fittingly exalted even if we had a thousand tongues.

It’s a huge and tragic problem when churches have no structure to their theology of worship, jump from theme to theme, follow no recognizable progression, and occasionally happen to land on the gospel when a song conveniently mentions it.

But it’s also a problem when churches/worship teams get stuck in a worship spin-cycle, failing to show any other angle of the indescribably beautiful gospel besides the one they’ve come to believe they grasp. Healthy gospel structures, like the one derived from the account in Isaiah 6, free us to exalt a God of grace, who redeemed us through his Son, and has sent his Spirit. Unhealthy gospel structures, and yes, I’m saying there can be such things, constrain us and limit us to see the bullet points instead of the masterpiece.

A tour guide at the Grand Canyon is always pointing to the Grand Canyon. And to help his group see more of the beauty of the Grand Canyon, he takes them on a journey from overlook to overlook. They don’t just stand in one place and look at it from the same angle. The scope of the Grand Canyon can’t be captured from one spot.

Similarly, a worship leader is always pointing to Jesus. And to help his congregation see more of the beauty of Jesus, he takes them on a journey from song to song. They don’t just stand in one place and sing from the same angle. The glory of God, revealed in the face of Jesus Christ, can’t be captured from one spot.

You can point to the same thing from different angles. That’s what a gospel structure ensures!

So let’s avoid the false security of the every-four-minute spin cycle, saying the same thing, and saying it in the same way. Turn the seat-belt sign off and move around the cabin!

Jesus Is The Feast

1There’s a line of thinking from those who prefer traditional forms of worship/music that goes something like this:

Contemporary worship is like dessert. It’s sweet, appealing, and easy, but not long-lasting. It might bring people in, but it won’t keep them nourished. It might bring immediate satisfaction, but it isn’t healthy. Traditional worship and more classical forms of music are more like a feast. It’s like the difference between plasticware and fine china. Traditional hymns and classical instrumentation require a more refined, mature, and discerning pallet. We can’t have the sounds of the world in our church services. We must move people beyond the dessert and into the feast. Only then will our congregations experience the “real thing”.

On the flip side, there’s a line of thinking from those who prefer contemporary forms of worship/music that goes something like this:

Traditional worship is all religion, all ritual, and all routine. Classical forms of music are irrelevant to most people in our culture, and the traditional hymns don’t engage people’s hearts like contemporary songs do. No one can relate to choirs, organs, hymns, or hymnals. If you want to help people really worship – not just with their minds but with their hearts – you’ll use the more accessible contemporary songs. And if you want to draw in the younger generation, you’ll use the kinds of music they’re used to hearing. Contemporary music feeds people and meets people where they are. Traditional worship starves people and leaves them cold.

I’ve heard both of these arguments for almost my entire life. My guess is that most of you have too, and you’ve probably made one (or both) of these arguments at one point or another. The problem, of course, is that they’re both ridiculously off-base.

Why? Because Jesus is the feast.

Few issues generate as much passion and division as the topic of music in the church. And for generations, scores of well-meaning and godly people have come down on all sides of the “is music neutral” or “is music non-neutral” argument. I tried to tackle some of this several years ago in my most “Handiwork and Jesus” but for now I want to make one simple point and give one simple reminder:

Jesus is the feast. And music is a tool. 

Music is not the feast. Our choirs, organs, harpsichords, festivals, liturgy, and soloists are not the feast. Our bands, screens, effects, lights, state-of-the-art worshiptoriums, and worship leaders are not the feast. When they are, and when we make them to be, then of course we can exalt or put-down the lesser-feast that we see down the road (or down the church hallway at the alternate service).

The Church must never forget that Jesus is the feast. Music (traditional or contemporary or hipster or whatever) is just a tool. A passing tool. A tool that will inevitably look like bell-bottoms to some future generation. But Jesus never fades, changes, or disappoints. Jesus always satisfies. May our churches embrace a confident, wide-range, biblical, and whole-hearted embrace of all sorts of styles of music as we seek to exalt and point to the One who calls us to feast on him.

Let’s All Be A Bit More Childish

1I am a big proponent of worship leaders thinking seriously about their role, thinking deeply about their theology, thinking practically about their skills, and thinking critically about current trends and pressures. A lack of introspection, evaluation, and hard conversations will inevitably result in a shallowness and flimsiness that doesn’t serve the Church well. To put it succinctly, worship leaders should always be growing up.

But if there is a downside to all of this serious/deep/practical/critical thinking, it could be that sometimes we lose our childishness.

There is such a wealth (praise God) these days of solid resources/articles/blogs/videos/conferences/books aimed at getting worship leaders to grow up and into their pastoral role and their function as ministers of the gospel. Most of the time it’s all really solid stuff. But sometimes I fear that some of it might run the risk of making us lose our childishness.

In the gospels, we have three different accounts of Jesus embracing children, saying “let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14, but also in Luke 18:16 and Mark 10:14). In all three accounts, people bring their children to Jesus, the disciples try to keep the children away, and Jesus tells the disciples to stop. And then Jesus says that he wishes everyone was more like the children!

Fundamentally, we must always come to Jesus like a child. Helpless. Transparent. Needy. Light-hearted. And, yes, clueless. But the thing about a child’s cluelessness is that it’s two sided: (1) they don’t know a lot of stuff that grown-ups know, but (2) they don’t know what they don’t know (and they don’t care). Is it any wonder why Jesus points to childishness as an ideal?

There’s a difference between childishness and immaturity. And to all the resources, articles, blogs, videos, conferences, and books aimed at helping worship leaders grow and mature, I say “the more the merrier”. But when I start to feel like I’m a child being turned away from Jesus because I don’t know enough stuff, I start to get nervous. And so should you.

So where’s the balance?

1. Always pursue growth. And always pursue leading in a more mature, skillful way. That honors the God who gave you the gifts you have (and some gifts you might not know you have).

2. Stay childish. And help your congregation stay childish too. Come to Jesus like little children. You might not know everything, you might not say everything the right way, and (gasp) you might even exhibit joy in your body/hands/feet (children are known to do that from time to time…) But that’s what you do when you’re a child. You’re helpless, transparent, needy, light-hearted, and clueless too.

In the disciples eyes, there seemed to be two different types of people around Jesus: the disciples and the children. Perhaps Jesus’ point was that, if he had his way, there wouldn’t be any difference between the two? Worship leaders, let’s not forget it.

A Theology of Worship

1I was recently asked this question:

What is your theology of worship? Specifically, how do you understand God at work in corporate worship and your purpose and role in worship? 

And I wrote a really long answer. Here’s what I said:

God is infinitely worthy of worship because of who he is and because of what he has done. He is great, he is greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable. His greatness and his glory are supremely displayed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, God has lavished his children with undeserved kindness and the glorious riches of his grace. God, the creator and ruler of the world, the judge of all men, and the loving Father who sent his Son as a ransom for many and poured out his Spirit on all flesh, is the object of all of heaven’s praise, and will receive unceasing worship for all eternity.

The glory of God in Jesus Christ must be the central element to a theology of worship. That is the core to which we attach all secondary, yet essential, discussions of corporate worship, music, songs, services, and worship leadership. When the core is compromised, all the branches will die. Worship is, fundamentally, the revolving of oneself around the greatest greatness in the universe: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Why should we revolve our selves, our lives, our families, our songs, our Sunday mornings, and our chapel services around this God? Is it because he’s needy? No. It’s because we’re needy.

In the words of John Piper, “God’s demand for our supreme praise is his demand for our supreme happiness”. Is the deer that drinks from a stream to be accused of being deer-centered? No. Is the baby who feeds from her mother to be accused of being selfish? Certainly not. When one expresses his worship, his neediness, his longing, his utter dependence on another, this is not selfishness. In the same way, we worship God, in view of his mercy, in the light of his great glory, as objects of his mercy who should have known wrath, because it is only in worshiping him – in making much of him – that we are satisfied.

With the glory of God in Jesus Christ as the core of a theology of worship, and his demand for our praise (with the goal of our supreme joy) as the impetus for our corporate worship, we can see that God is at work during corporate worship drawing people to himself. The Spirit of God is moving in the midst of the people of God, pointing them to Jesus, convicting them of their sin and neediness, filling their hearts with songs of praise, guiding their prayers, illuminating the very Word he inspired, comforting the afflicted, and stirring up gifts that he gives as he pleases. The Spirit is not pointing to himself. He is pointing to Jesus. And Jesus points to his Father. We are invited into this community of joy during corporate worship, and reminded yet again that it is purely a gift of grace.

My role as a worship leader is to use music as a tool to help people exalt and encounter the greatness of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. With a pastoral heart of humility, musical gifting, prayerful preparation, and skillful leadership, I primarily serve as a pointer to Jesus. I should be like a tour guide at the Grand Canyon who points out the greatness of what the onlookers have come to behold and then gladly steps back so they get as clear a view as possible. My role is to not overly interject myself into the process of God’s revelation to and work amongst his people. At the same time, if he really is great and greatly to be praised, then I should do the best job I can to help people see him and encounter him. A worship leader doesn’t lead anyone into God’s presence. Jesus leads us into God’s presence by his blood. So a worship leader points to Jesus.

Music won’t save anyone’s life. A good song won’t bring anyone eternal joy. A good show won’t feed anyone anything nutritious. Jesus changes lives. Jesus brings eternal joy. Jesus is the bread of life. The fruit of a theology of worship that revolves around Jesus is corporate worship and worship leadership that exalts him above all things.

We Believe Our God is Jesus?

1What do you do when one word introduces theological imprecision to an otherwise good song? This is the dilemma in which we find ourselves with a song titled “Once and For All” featured on the new Passion album “Let the Future Begin”, written by Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, Jason Ingram and Matt Maher. It’s a great song written by great worship leaders, but I want to highlight how one word can present a problem.

The first verse, second verse, and bridge have solid lyrics and a memorable melody. They say:

Verse 1:
Once and for all, the Father’s love
He is the light in the darkness
He took on flesh and took our place
The weight of the world on his shoulders

Verse 2:
Once and for all, our debt is paid
There on the cross it is finished
The Lamb of God for us was slain
Up from the grave he is risen

Jesus, Jesus, God from God, Light from Light
You are our salvation
Jesus, Jesus, God from God, Light from Light
Your Kingdom is forever

Nothing is the matter so far. The verses and bridge all point to the person and work of Jesus, him being the demonstration of the Father’s love, the one who secured our salvation once and for all, and the one who is very God and the light of the world. Great stuff.

But then we have the chorus. And in the chorus is one word that presents a dilemma.

We believe our God is Jesus
We believe that he is Lord
We believe that he has saved us
From sin and death once and for all

Did you catch it? It’s in the very first line of the chorus. The other lines are good and strong, but the first line, “we believe our God is Jesus” is the issue. You might think I’m being incredibly picky. Maybe I am. OK, I probably am. But let me try to explain:

To be clear: we do certainly believe that Jesus is God. There were early Church fathers who spent their lives defending this doctrine. Jesus is fully man, and he is fully God, and this is a clear and foundational doctrine of our faith. 

But to be just as clear: we believe that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We worship a God who is one in being yet distinct in three persons. Neither the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit is any more or less “God” than the other “person”. It’s a mind-boggling truth, but it’s one we embrace, and it’s one that this good song, in one little line, makes unnecessarily fuzzy. And the fact that it’s the first line of the chorus makes it a prominent fuzziness.

To say “we believe our God is Jesus” should feel just as odd to sing as it would be to sing “we believe our God is Spirit”. Your reaction should be “well, yes he is, but he’s also Father and Son”. To say that “our God” is only one person of the Trinity is a bit of shame, particularly in a song that will be downloaded and purchased hundreds of thousands of times, be incorporated into thousands of churches’ repertoire, and inwardly digested by the people singing the words on Sunday mornings all over the world.

When I heard this song for the first time, I wondered whether anyone else thought it was odd to say “our God is Jesus”. As I looked at reviews of the album online (which, I have to say, is a really great CD and has some wonderful songs on it and I recommend it) no one raised any concerns.

I did read one review that mentioned this song and said, interestingly, that it “…is a remediation of the Nicene Creed, and… proclaims the attributes, character, and mission of Christ”.

Not quite to the first part of that statement. The Nicene Creed is a robustly Trinitarian statement of faith which begins: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty…” continuing with: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light…” and concluding by saying that: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…”

So while this song does feature the phrase “We believe…” and “God from God, Light from Light”, it could hardly be called a “remediation of the Nicene Creed”.  But I agree that it proclaims Jesus’ “attributes, character, and mission”.

I really do like the song! Just not the first line of the chorus and I wish they had changed the one word to avoid all of this confusion. If the line said “we believe our King is Jesus”, I think that would be an improvement.

I asked Dr. Lester Ruth, Research Professor of Christian Worship at Duke Divinity School, whether he thought I was being unreasonable in my criticism of this line in the song. He kindly responded and said:

Great question. You hit the nail right on the head. If our God is Jesus, then one has to wonder who the Father is in “The Father’s love” and who the God is of “Lamb of God”. Does this just mean “Jesus of Jesus”? Of course not…

I don’t think that single line (“…our God is Jesus…”) should disqualify the song, particularly if you can couple it with other liturgical items that bring out a more Trinitarian, New Testament way of speaking. Put the song in a good, strong, more balanced context. The line is not wrong per se but it is not the best way to express things.

I thought that was very helpful feedback.

I also asked Simon Ponsonby, the Pastor of Theology at St. Aldates Church in Oxford, for his thoughts. He said:

In an age when so many worship songs are little more than self-centered emoting, void of theology and a vision of God’s glory, I am grateful for song writers who are attempting to write in a modern idiom, biblical, theologically robust songs, that exalt God. This song is just such an attempt by a gifted song writer.  The question for me is not so much about the phrase “we believe our God is Jesus”  – though the sentence does sound unusual to my ears –  rather, in a song that echoes the Nicean Creed, I personally would have liked to see a similar Trinitarian completeness.  The statement “we believe our God is Jesus” without reference to Christian belief also in God as Father and Spirit, might appear to some observers to reduce God to Jesus per se.  And that is not what I believe.

So from all of this, there seem to be 5 takeaways:

  1. To say/sing “We believe our God is Jesus” is not technically wrong, but misleadingly incomplete.
  2. This line doesn’t disqualify this otherwise good song, but raises the stakes of completing its theology with the other songs/liturgy surrounding it.
  3. If the song really were a remediation of the Nicene Creed, it would have been more careful.
  4. One word can make a huge difference in a song.
  5. I need to use the phrase “per se” more often in my writing.

I’m grateful to God for worship songwriters like Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, Jason Ingram, Matt Maher, and so many others who seek to serve the church by providing it with fresh, congregational songs of praise to the glory of God. It’s harder than it looks to write good worship songs, and these guys consistently do a good job and I am one of millions who have been blessed and edified by their work.

In this instance, I think this line slipped past some theological editing that would have made the song a lot better. My hope is that this post will convey my thankfulness to these songwriters for their work, and encourage all of us to be careful in what words we put on our congregations’ lips.