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Dr. Gregory House, that cranky medical diagnostician from TV Land once said:

“Ideas aren’t soda cans. Recycling sucks. Take an old idea. Shine it up. And, add something new.”

When he said this, House was in a meeting with his brilliant and ever-patient staff. He was criticizing them once again for not living up to his medical diagnostic standards. Their brainstorming in the case of a rapidly deteriorating patient was failing to capture his imagination. (If you haven’t seen the show, this is the predicament for every episode). So, House suggests a method that works not only in diagnostic medicine, but also in art, science, business, and any situation requiring a unique solution.

He wasn’t really knocking recycling. He was hawking innovation.

Now, innovation is one of those terms that we in worship-arts circles throw around almost as haphazardly as “missional”, “emerging” and “postmodern”. It has been diluted by overuse and has lost its zing. It has come to improperly double as a word for creation. It has also evolved into a reference to something that is generally, really great. (“Boy, that was a really innovative service!”). But, are these correct uses of the word? I am inclined to quote another profound philosopher from the world of TV and movies, Inigo Montoya:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So, what is innovation and how is it relevant to worship?

Innovation is not creation ex nihilo. It is a blending of two or more existing elements to yield something unique. Innovation can also be taking a single existing element and tweaking it somehow to yield a fresh version.

The word innovate comes from the Latin innovare, which literally means “to make new”. This always makes me think of one of my favorite Jesus quotes: “See, I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5). Evidently, Jesus was an innovator since he was (and is) in the process of renewing creation.

You might say that humans never create in the strictest sense. We only take parts of what God has already provided in Creation and combine them or tweak them to reveal a new manifestation. It is often taught that part of the Imago Dei in us is evidenced through our creativity. Perhaps, we might more properly say that we display God’s image with our innovativity. (Someone needs to tweak the old idea of a manger scene just so we can say the words “nativity innovativity”).

What should be our motivation to make things new?

Humans innovate to make life easier. We also innovate to be more efficient – though this doesn’t always work out the way we envision it. We may innovate simply to have more fun. Scientists innovate for progress. Business leaders innovate for the bottom-line. Artists innovate for beauty’s sake. Why do (or should) church and worship leaders innovate? To what end? The answer is: So that God may be worshiped well. We innovate so that all we practice when we gather ultimately points to God and reminds us who he is, affording us the opportunity to respond authentically.

Aside from the desire for your church to worship well, why else should you innovate? Maybe your feel your worship is boring. Maybe changes in culture – both global and local – are necessitating an innovative approach in your worship (George Barna’s “Revolution” is an excellent, concise discussion on these changes). Maybe some other aspect of your church has undergone innovation and this requires worship innovation in response.

Once you understand innovation and you determine the need to innovate, it can seem overwhelming, even impossible to begin. Let me share with you two practical approaches to worship innovation: curating and renovating.

We start with curating. In the art world today, a curator acquires objects appropriate to a given collection. They research, collect, and organize the various pieces to make a cohesive whole. Curating, when applied to worship can function a number of different ways. In the case of innovation, curation means renewing your collections of rituals (worship services) by finding existing rituals to use in place of your old ones. Practically speaking, this could be as simple as finding and choosing a fitting song you’ve never used before. For instance, say you are creating a service on God’s guidance. You might find the old Celtic hymn “Be Thou My Vision” and choose to insert it into your worship service. This is worship innovation in the simplest sense.

One of the beauties of curation innovation is that you do not have to be a skilled creator. You do, however, need to make wise decisions about what kind of rituals are needed and appropriate for your context, and have an idea where to locate them. This is a good place to start.

Though simply curating rituals can work fine in almost any situation, many pre-existing rituals are better with a little contextual tweaking. I call this tweaking, “renovating”.

When you renovate a kitchen, you bring it up to date. You replace old appliances – stove tops, ovens, refrigerators – with new technology, discovered since your original kitchen was built. You change the cracked and scuffed linoleum to more durable stone tile (if you have the money!). You alter the color scheme from mustard yellow and brown to a light blue or taupe to bring your cooking environment out of the 1970’s and into the present day.

When we renovate a found historical form or ritual, we do similar activities. Our renovation might include updating archaic language in written prayers. It may include editing out portions of text or video that are too long or not focused enough for our immediate context. This kind of innovation might also include changing the musical arrangement or feel of a song to make it more relevant for those who will be singing it.

Taking our song example “Be Thou My Vision”, we might decide that doing the old hymn as it appears in the hymnal does not suit our context. Renovating it could mean altering the length of each phrase so that this song – which has no refrain – is extended to a more comfortable length. It might also mean choosing not to do verses with gender specific language, such as “Thy my great Father, and I Thy true son”. It may even mean altering the melody just enough to add a little pop sensibility.

Renovating means examining carefully our selected ritual to locate anything that may need changing, in order that communication may be improved – so that people may connect with the Spirit of God.

Where are you and your church in the innovation scheme? Are you mostly curating toward liturgical innovation? Have you done any renovating of existing forms for your unique cultural context?

It’s time to move beyond innovatory novitiate toward becoming a nouveau initiator of innovation action. Say that ten times fast.

There are so many things not to like about Los Angeles… the smog, the traffic, the hoards of people, the traffic, the fires and earthquakes (in fact, just this week I was jolted awake by a 4.4 at 4 a.m.), and did I mention the traffic?

On the other hand, I truly hold it a privilege to live here. I live in a part of the city where I can walk to get where I need to go most of the time. It’s also near-perfect weather for much of the year. Another reason I count it such a privilege to live here is what happens in the air this time of year in Pasadena.

Right around the middle of March, the blooming begins. Pasadena is known as the City of Roses, but there are so many other fragrant flowers and bushes everywhere you turn, filling the air with a brilliant bouquet. With eyes closed, you might imagine you’ve just set foot in the corner florist.

Walking this week, I was confronted by the fragrance of a bush that ran the entire length of the block. The scent was so strong. I literally had to take a moment to consider whether or not breathing such odorous air was good for me. Of course, I quickly realized I was being silly. Smog is one thing, Star Jasmine blooms, another.

The scent of early Spring buds has another key difference from carbon monoxide: I WANT to smell it. In fact, I find myself stopping to snort the scent-filled air as if I were a hopeless cocaine junkie. The smell is distracting. It is intoxicating. I cannot get enough.
(Just now, a waft of blossom-air just greeted my nose through the window next to the table where I’m sitting. I think I’m high now.)

But why am I so urgently drawn to such a simple thing as the smell of a flower? Part of the reason may be that I associate this wonderful smell with an important time in my life twelve years ago, a time that was both difficult and full of beautiful life-changing experiences. The amazing reality is, the Spring blossoms in Pasadena enkindle my emotions and transport me back to an earlier period. And, they seem to do so more effectively than seeing, hearing, or touching anything associated with that time in my life.

These olfactory experiences are powerful, but they are at the same time elusive. I recall numerous past encounters with specific scents and knowing without doubt that they are connected to particular past experiences. Yet, in those moments I also recall struggling to pinpoint exactly who or what the person or place is that my mind is associating with that particular smell. Without fail, before I figure it out, the sensation is gone.

Why are these scent-sory moments so powerfully redolent and so mysteriously elusive at the same time? The scientific explanation for redolence is that unlike our senses of sight, touch, or hearing, the senses of smell (and taste) are directly connected to our brain’s hippocampus – the center of the brain’s long-term memory. Our other three senses are filtered through the thalamus – the part of the brain associated primarily with language and consciousness.

For the mysterious elusiveness, we must look beyond the the olfactory gland. A second – some say “vestigial” – organ has been located in most humans. It is called Jacobsen’s Organ and resides just inside the human nostrils. It was discovered as recently as two centuries ago (by Jacobsen, who else!) because it consists only of two very tiny pits, one on each side of the septum. Some believe that this organ feeds a primal part of our brains, enabling the capacity to monitor minute physiological changes in those around us. Perhaps Jacobsen’s Organ provides physical evidence for that “sixth sense,” which makes some of us so sensitive to the “invisible”. I smell dead people.

All of this scientific insight causes me to wonder why we typically use so little smell (and taste) in our gatherings relative to sound, sight, and touch. Think about it. What is primary in your gathering? Chances are you think first of sound. The music. The preacher. The verbal responses. Even video. Of course, video is also visual. There are powerpoint/keynote/media shout/pro-presenter presentations. Images and words are projected. There are seasonal decorations and colors. There is the furniture and architecture. And, somewhere in-between the sights and sounds we locate touch. Hands are shaken. Hugs are given. (We mostly only joke about sharing ‘holy kisses’). In some communities hands are laid in prayer. Baskets are passed hand to hand, and often so are the bread and wine. Which brings us to taste.

However, once we get to taste (and her partner, smell) it becomes more difficult to make a meaningful list of sensory examples. Sure, we taste the bread and wine. But, the tasting experience really rises or falls on one’s church heritage. Fresh hot loaves, baked on-site with sweet wine that has been allowed to breathe – a fine tasting experience. Stale bits of cracker with Welch’s – not so much.

Some communities like the one I’ve been attending, have a hot meal every time they gather. Hospitable aromas fill the warehouse as those who’ve agreed to cook enter with their Corningware and crock-pots. Together, we share the taste of hot food that is always creative and always an excellent prelude to further worshipful acts.

Short of community meals and communion, how else is the Church of the twenty-first century going to engage noses to the glory of the One who knows us? (Sorry, it had to be done).

Maybe through a call for more “culinary artists” in worship. (I like the term “worship chef”). There is already classic food symbolism found in the Passover Seder and the Eucharist. But, with all the thousands of tastes and smells available to us, why stop with bitter herbs, wine, and bread?

How about “worship florists” who work for more than funerals and weddings. Let’s save on the extra boxes of donuts some Sunday morning and spring for some fresh flowers once in a while, the fragrant kind, and something other than Easter Lilies and Christmas Poinsettias.

Perhaps it’s time to bring back censers (stationary vessels for burning incense) or thuribles (censers swung on a chain for spreading incense) to stimulate the old, olfactory. (You’ve GOT to see this). Incense brings the added visual beauty of rising smoke, representing the prayers of the people.

Or, MAYBE, it’s time for some young, whipper-snapper-worship-leaders to come up with fresh ways to engage our sense of smell in gathered settings to the glory of God.

The English word “redolent” is a curious word. It is an adjective that means ‘strongly reminiscent of something’. It derives from the Latin “redolent” meaning, “giving out a strong smell”. Somewhere along the line, translators made the connection between smell and memory.

If worship is largely “remembering” (who God is, what he has done, what he has promised to do) and then responding, we would all do well to innovate more “strong smelling” worship forms that are redolent of the Trinity.

I am pretty sure that Chris Tomlin is not gay.

As far as I know, neither is he an iconoclast of the ethos of abstract expressionism. Nor, does he live with his mother and his mother’s cat.

These are only a few of the reasons why Chris Tomlin is not like Andy Warhol.

Still, these two artists have one thing in common from my perspective. They both provide models for worship leadership.

Of course, there are some problems with this comparison, seeing that Tomlin is actually considered a “worship leader” while Warhol is not. Warhol is considered a multi-media artist and pop-icon of the last century. He is not popularly associated with Christian ideas. Quite the opposite is true. He is typically lumped in with the freaks, drug addicts, and people in various stages of homelessness that lived in and around his studio. (Wait… Jesus was lumped in with the freaks, drug addicts, and people in various stages of homelessness, too. Hmmmm.)

If you’ve thought of Warhol this way, you may be surprised to learn that every Sunday – cross around his neck, missal and rosary in his pocket – Andy faithfully attended St. Mary Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite with his mother. But Warhol’s spirituality will have to be the topic of separate blog post.

My use of these two icons as models for worship leadership really has more to do with their art-making practices than their spirituality. Let me explain.

Chris Tomlin is the perfect embodiment of the late-modern worship leader. First of all, he is a musician. Though we all give lip-service to the idea that worship is “so much more than music,” in practice 95% of evangelical churches (I just made that number up) associate worship with singing more than any other ritual form.

Besides being a musician, Tomlin is also a song-writer who performs with a band. He writes modern hymns useful for congregational worship singing. His primary performance venue is large gatherings, which often resemble theatrical productions. (I am not being negative here).

In these large worship events there is participation by everyone present. However, I think it is fair to say that the weight of participation is carried by those on the stage, the ones considered the “leaders” of the gathering. The congregation participates through singing, clapping, shouting, etc. However, their participation (at least on an individual level) is clearly of secondary import to the apparent success of the gathering.

This is modern worship. (Now I am being a little negative).

My rhetoric would be completely absent of negativity were it not for the fact that the Church is changing before our very eyes. As the culture in the West has been slowly shifting from one mindset (call it modern) to a new mindset in reaction to the old one, the Church has begun to react, as well. This reaction has led to some major changes in the practices for worship among a growing number of churches.

One major change is the decentralizing of worship. In other words, gatherings in many new faith communities are not held in one particular building on one particular day. This seems horrible, until you realize that they groups actually gather more often due largely to the fact that members live in geographical proximity to one another. This is in high contrast to the suburban mega-church where members drive many miles to “attend” their church.

Another major change is the deprogramming of worship. It is not just the modern mindset that is being deprogrammed. The hyper-structure of modern worship is being transformed in many cases into something more spontaneous (do not read: Pentecostal) which allows for much deeper and broader participation. The smaller size of these communities also makes real participation by all present utterly essential.

All of this adds up to bad news for Chris Tomlin (well, not actually bad news for him, but bad news for many of the modern worship leaders he represents). Think about it. If your church has no main building for worship, does not meet on a set day, doesn’t plan or follow a program, and is fairly small in number, what happens to you and your big worship leading gig?

The worship leader in this new church scenario must necessarily not be the guitar-slinging, band-leading, singer-songwriter. The emerging parameters for churches in the 21st century make this particular role nearly obsolete. Who can we look to as a new model for worship leadership?

I propose Andy Warhol.

Warhol was not a musician, though he was often surrounded by musicians. He was an artist that worked in a variety of mediums, including film, sculpture, installation, photography, silk screening, to name a few. Incidentally, leadership that incorporates multiple artistic forms is better suited for today’s culture than music alone.

The reality of multi-media’s current reign was driven home to me recently as an acquaintance was searching for one of my worship songs on the web. To my great interest, I found that instead of searching iTunes or some other store from which they might download the audio track, this person searched YouTube. They were actually quite dumbfounded that my song was not to be found in some kind of multi-media format. This is the new cultural expectation when it comes to popular art: that it will be a multiplex of communication forms. Warhol’s style in combining numerous genres makes his style of art-making a better model for worship leadership in the 21st century. But, how does Warhol also model art leadership that fits with decentralized and deprogrammed worship?

The simple answer is, he was a communal artist. This is an understatement. He was not the prototypical solo artist who spent days alone in his studio mulling over his work. Instead, Warhol spent his days with a ridiculously diverse crowd of people. His studio called the Silver Factory was literally home to many in his community. This proximity meant art-making could take place anytime and with anyone.

Warhol was famous for making an “artist” out of everyone who set foot in his studio (Google “Warhol screen tests”). He chose to invite all those around him – most of them non-professionals – to participate in his art. Actually, they did more than participate, since often Warhol’s pieces resulted from nothing he actually did himself apart from giving permission and some direction.

His artistic collaboration was also often spontaneous. For instance, films were script-less, and the “actors” became anyone who happened to show up at the Silver Factory on a particular day.

All of these aspects of Andy Warhol’s art-making can be translated to the artist who is a leader of worship in one of the many developing forms of postmodern church. Imagine a leader who’s “job” is to be present wherever and whenever the people gather and to instigate, direct, and ultimately co-produce communal, multi-media expressions of that community’s faith.

Could a person with a role like this be the worship leader of the future?

Do you have any bad habits?

This is a silly question. Of course you do. Please list your five worst habits in the comments section of this blog before continuing to read.

All humans have bad habits no matter what age, ethnicity, or other determining factors. Infants pick their noses. Come to think of it, I just saw a guy driving a pick-up truck doing this. He was not a baby. Some people smoke and cuss. Others have gambling habits. Still others have bad habits like blaming those around them for their own mistakes. I could go on.

Of course, what it is that makes a habit bad is a matter or moral judgment. (I already know that many of you reading this seriously question my labeling of smoking and cussing as bad habits. This is how we know we are worship leaders of the twenty-first century). Whatever your scruples, the word habit generally conjures negative thoughts.

Why are habits so rarely thought of as ‘good’? The word ‘habit’ has picked up negativity through years of habitual use. Even the dictionary definition betrays a negative tone calling a habit a “repeated action that is hard to give up”. The implication is that any habit with which we are involved ought to cease to be a habit for us. All habits are best given up.

However, there is one wise Frenchman who viewed habits as having incredibly positive potential. Blaise Pascal in his Pensees said it like this:

“We must resort to habit once the mind has seen where the truth lies, in order to steep and stain ourselves in that belief which constantly eludes us, for it is too much trouble to have the proofs always present before us. We must acquire an easier belief, which is that of habit.”

Read that again. It’ll be worth it.

Here, habits are seen as positive means toward belief and faith in God. For Pascal, habits sustain ‘belief’ much more easily than rational proofs do. In other words, knowing the right stuff does not create faithful people as effectively as actually doing faithful stuff does. There is a strong element of repeated and active participation necessary for ‘steeping and staining’ us in faith, according to the Frenchman.

It is interesting that Pascal uses a tea metaphor. We all know he drank French Roast. But, there is another reason I find this interesting. Have you ever seen someone with tea-stained teeth? Such a stain does not come from sipping a single cup of Earl Grey. One must be a habitual tea-drinker to gain this kind of stain. Of course, with today’s teeth-whitening craze, it is rare to actually locate such an odontological tint. Scientists can eliminate the effects of such bad habits, but those lads in lab coats can’t stop us from drinking, or smoking, or whatever we’re doing habitually that is the root cause of our difficulties.

See, look at that. Here I am talking about bad habits again. @#%$^!

Anyway, Pascal is right. There is such a thing as good habits and the right ones can lead to a deepened and deepening faith in God.

There is another word for these kinds of habits. I call such habits, “worship”. My most recent version of an always morphing (and hopefully continually improving) definition of worship helps clarify:

Worship is habits of ritual and missional action that glorify God while simultaneously forming us more and more into the likeness of Jesus.

Let me explain a bit about the two kinds of habits mentioned in this definition.

Ritual has a bad reputation especially in many Protestant communities. For instance, I grew up in a Protestant home where all things Roman Catholic were taboo, including their penchant for rituals. My understanding of ritual was some action that was performed mindlessly and which was completely devoid of value. I now know that a ritual is simply a repeated practice done in celebration of someone or something. In other words, the fact that something is a ritual does not make it bad (the same way that all habits are not bad).

Birthday parties are rituals celebrating the person who is turning a year older. Tail-gating at the football game is a ritual celebration of the (hopefully) impending win of the favorite team. Rituals for worship celebrate God. ‘Ritual habit’ is a somewhat redundant phrase since the idea of repetition is already contained within ritual’s definition.

What about missional habits? These are repeated actions through which we bless others in the name of God. A missional habit can be serving regularly in a homeless kitchen, or habitually putting another’s needs before your own.

The reason I like this language for worship is that throughout all of scripture – no matter when or how worship is mentioned – it fits into one of these two categories without fail. Try this exercise: Think of an instance in scripture in which worship is either talked about or is actually taking place. Then decide, is it ritual or missional worship.

The worship of the Levitical priests? Ritual. The offering of one’s body as a living sacrifice as talked about by Paul in Romans 12? Missional worship. Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats? Missional again. In serving the ‘least’ we serve Christ. The entire book of Psalms is made up of ritual worship songs.

Why should we care that good worship boils down to habitual action of either the ritual or missional kind? I can think of two reasons.

First, knowing that God desires both ritual and missional worship, we should want to check our progress. Take a moment right now and ask yourself: Am I a better ritual worshiper these days or a better missional worshiper? In which kind of worship am I weak? It may be time to develop some new habits in one category or the other.

Second, if we are struggling in faith, it is possibly due to the fact that we are striving to keep the “proofs always present before us” in order to sure up our belief. This is the more difficult path according to Pascal. Instead of rational striving for faith, it may be time to choose some concrete ritual or missional actions to add to your personal and corporate worship schedule. Once these new habits begin to develop, you may be surprised at how naturally your faith proceeds.


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