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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.

Not all artists are leaders. This is true not only in the highest cultural settings or our planet, but also in the church. So, then, if an artist also desires to lead, what quality or value distinguishes them from the rest?

When I think of an artist in the strict sense, the vision of a solitary painter comes to mind. Alone with her brushes, tubes of paint, and gessoed canvas, she is sequestered until another inspired vision of shape and color is made manifest. No other soul enters the painter’s process (or room) until the work is completed.

When I think of a leader, I do not think of the leader. (Pause for a moment of silent Zen meditation). What I mean is, to be a leader implies that there are those who are following you. So naturally, a leader is (ought to be) surrounded by all kinds of people, most of the time. When I think of a leader, I think of the people being led who are part of the leader’s creative process on a regular basis.

For instance, one of my mentors in the area of leadership travels all over the world visiting various ministry sites. He is rarely traveling alone. This is because he chooses to invite a less experienced leader to come along every time. Gratuitous? Yes, it certainly is. When you consider the extra cost of plane fare, meals, hotels, travel on the ground, and the general complication of traveling with two instead of one – it is gratuitous. But this “gratuitous collaboration” is exactly what differentiates the effective leader from the solitary artist.

The worship leader of today is typically an artist. At the same time, they are a leader. It says it right there in their title. Unfortunately, I have found that many worship leaders more closely resemble the solitary artist than my inclusive, traveling, missionary friend. “Wait!” you say. Worship leaders always include others. Think of the typical guitar-slinging Chris Tomlin type, or the mic-wielding Darlene Zschech type. Neither takes the stage alone. They are surrounded by other musicians, not to mention the sound engineers and lighting and media techs. This is collaboration, indeed. But I file this brand of group creativity in different column. This, is what I would call “necessary” collaboration.

In contrast to gratuitous collaboration, necessary collaboration is, well, necessary. Necessary collaboration is not unwarranted or lacking good reason (as is often the perception with gratuitous collaboration). Many modern worship leaders are compelled to collaborate simply to accomplish the desired outcome. Taking it a step further, some of these leaders will even pay collaborators to participate. In this case, the collaboration is undeniably of necessity. The motivation is getting it done, alone. (Double-meaning intended).

[Side-note: I don’t think this makes anyone who functions this way a bad person. It just makes them a bad leader.]

So, practically speaking, what steps might we take to be more gratuitous in our collaborative leadership rather than simply collaborating out of necessity? Here are a few suggestions to get you started…

First, always invite someone along. Are you writing a song (something you’ve done one hundred times before)? This time, invite a less experienced musician to join you in the process. She will learn from watching you. You will become aware of the profound, unarticulated depths of your own process the first time she asks you, “How do you come up with that first lyric phrase?”, or “What makes you choose a major chord over a minor chord?”

Second, practice “planned absence”. My friend Neil once told me that he had started a simple church which was ready to continue without his leadership. Only thing is, the members of this church were convinced they still needed him. Neil knew this was not the case, and in fact had his eye on a person in the church who was ready to step up and lead. In an act that can only be designated as a venial sin, Neil phoned this reticent leader an hour before the church meeting and explained that something had come up and he would not be in attendance. The result? That leader stepped up, church was had, and Neil was free to start another one.

Third, you might try simply involving an unlikely person. Instead of inviting the aspiring actress or published poet in your community to be the public reader of scripture, why not nominate the shy, single mother of two to bring the scriptures to the gathered community. This is counter-intuitive if your goal is polished excellence. However, if your goal is deepening the richness of your faith-community through the participation of the whole body, this might be the most shrewd and beneficial use of “talent” you’ve ever conceived.

These examples are all gratuitous in that they each involve ‘unnecessary’ action. Each external goal could have been met with far greater ease and much less inconvenience had these risks not been taken. And yet, these gratuitous actions reveal the best leaders.

There was a time in history when being a collaborator was bad. In Europe during WWII, those designated “collaborators” were the same ones accused of treason and helping the Nazi cause.

Today, being a collaborator is a wonderful thing. It is especially wonderful if you are one who is a leader of worship. It is unspeakably wonderful if your brand of collaboration is “gratuitous” for its unnecessary and reckless habit of involving (many) others in your creative endeavor, throughout every step of the process.

Will you choose to collaborate gratuitously, or will you opt for the sexier “necessary” form of collaboration that gets the job done, but without considering the importance of bringing people up in faith and craft?

As one popular song puts it, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

While that song spies Christmas through the lenses of marshmallows and mistletoe, there is another (clearer) lens through which we might choose to view this season. I am speaking of the lens of worship.

The shepherds, the angels, the Magi, were all compelled to worship at the arrival of the baby king. You could even say Herod worshiped as he ordered the slaughter of innocent babies in an effort to eliminate this new threat to his throne. What!? Yes, Herod worshiped too – just not the baby king. Rather, Herod’s adoration was focused inward. He worshiped himself.

Everyone worships. Or, as Harold Best said in his book Unceasing Worship, “Nobody does not worship.” We all worship someone – or something. The real question ought to be: “To whom are we dedicating our lives?” Or, “Toward what are we directing most precious resources (time, money, intellect, etc.)?”

This has proven to be a challenging question for me in 2009 and I assume it will continue to challenge me in 2010.

As we reflect back on another year gone by – and while we have the immediate opportunity over the next few days to contemplate the meaning of the arrival of Jesus – the question is re-posed to all of us: “Where will our worship be directed over the next 365 days?”

I’ve been thinking lately that the “worship” question discussed above is a much better question to ask than, “Are you a Christian?” Unlike the “Christian” question, the worship question cuts through all kinds of (often) superfluous doctrine and cultural clutter.

To say one “worships Jesus” is indivisibly clear. Conversely, to “be a Christian” can mean all sorts of things – things likely not intended by Jesus, Saint Paul, the Gospel writers, and many of the initial architects of the Christian faith.

At the risk of being spiritually intrusive, I want to pose this question in the reader’s direction: Do you worship Jesus, alive, the one revealed in the Gospels, who literally presented to us God in the flesh? Or, have you perhaps been distracted lately by shinier things, things like technology, celebrity, money, or even family?

May Jesus, himself, become brighter than the brightest heavenly star to you starting this December 25th and continuing on through the twelfth month of 2010 (oops, that’s sounded an awful lot like a Hallmark card, sorry). And may you respond once again to him – without the distractions of guilt and regret for the past – and simply become a worshiper (of Jesus) once more. I, for one, am attempting just this.

I was hanging out with Asher today in his bedroom with the window open. As a plane flew overhead, he spoke the “word” he uses to refer to planes.

“Dool”, he said.

I think that stands for ‘duel engine aircraft’.

Anyway, planes fly overhead all the time and he always points up and says his word. Today, however, the plane sound was immediately followed by another familiar city sound – that of sirens. That is, it’s familiar to me. Somehow, Asher hasn’t heard these as often in his short life. He simply gave me a puzzled look. I’m sure he’ll soon have a word for sirens, too.

I’m not sure what he was thinking, but for me, a very specific past experience came to mind. I suddenly remembered something that I hadn’t thought about for quite sometime.

planeBack before I was married to Nathalie, we had a small group – like a simple church – which was made up mostly of her girlfriends who worked with her at Moose McGillycuddy’s bar. What I remembered today was what one girl used to say when ever sirens were heard.

“God Bless,” she would utter, almost under her breath.

I also remember that Nathalie picked up on this at some point. Based on accompanying utterances (usually also whispered) I found that this public expression of blessing was really a spontaneous prayer for those who may be injured in whatever accident to which those public servants were being called.

This memory got me to thinking: What other daily liturgical practices do we engage in without even noticing it?

The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word leitourgia. This word, used in the Greek city-states long-before Christian worship existed, means “public works”. The Assembly of the city-state would assign specific projects to its rich citizens. These assignments were works designed to enhance public life.

When the term was co-opted by Christians (it appears thoughout Scripture and is often translated “ministry” or “worship” in English) it came to refer to specific works done in the context of a public worship service. The Liturgy of the Mass involved (and involves) specifically ordered acts of worship including prayers, music, and rituals. Even Baptists have “liturgies”. These basically consist of whichever practices are regularly used for worship, however “informal” we might label them.

Reflecting back on the original concept of liturgy as “public works”, I started thinking: Is there some kind of unique daily liturgy that each of us follow as we go about our busy lives? Do we perform “public works” – in the midst of others, on behalf of God?

Now, I am not talking about some official daily public works, such as the Daily Offices (prayer practice structured throughout the day at specific hours, originating in medieval monasteries). Rather, I mean: The casual words we speak and actions we perform on a semi-regular basis that somehow refer to our faith or point us and others to God.

“God Bless” at the sound of a siren certainly fits this category.

So would the blessing of someone when they sneeze. I also feel compelled to pray for strangers when I see ambulances at the scene of an accident. Our mealtime thanksgivings are certainly in this vein. What about non-prayers?

If we view our city as our “cathedral”, we might imagine that walking out our front door constitutes an “Act of Entrance”, just as the procession of clergy is, or call to worship songs are. Following the fourfold worship pattern, our “Word” piece, would have to do with the ways we listen for God’s voice as we tromp around the city streets. Do you hear Him in your server at breakfast? The news articles peeking out from the newspaper dispensers? Is he audible even in the midst of honking horns and blaring sirens?

In most churches, next comes some kind of “Eucharist” piece. Even if it doesn’t include the bread and the cup, this “Thanksgiving” time is typically focused on gratitude for the work of Christ on the cross. What is our eucharist of the streets? Perhaps it is our grateful response to that reoccurring (often nagging) realization that if it were not for Grace, we would find ourselves begging on the streets like that homeless woman, or yelling in anger at that shop-owner for getting our coffee order wrong. What is our grateful response to our daily state of grace?

Maybe we respond with a tangible act of blessing as we invite the homeless woman to share a bagel and some coffee with us. Maybe it is another silent but focused prayer that God would meet the angry man in his anger and the cursed barista in her derided spirit. With some intentionality, it is very possible that through these simple liturgical acts (public works) we could be remembering His body and blood and proclaiming his death until he comes again.

Finally, comes the Benediction – or “Sending into the world”. In our ‘world as sanctuary’ this part of the fourfold service seems a bit askew. Haven’t we already been “sent” as we walk along the alleys and sidewalks? Yes, but it seems that we often forget our “sentness” and our mission. Maybe all of the public works listed above – and the many more we haven’t mentioned – all function to remind us that we have gone into the world, and it is here we are to preach the gospel.

If necessary, using words.

Is technology appropriate for incorporating into worship? If so, how much and toward what end?

This is a loaded question. First of all, technology connotes ‘electronic media’ in most contemporary church circles. One immediately thinks of presentational technologies – anything that can be projected on a screen, for instance video, song lyrics, still images, etc. However, technology in the purest sense refers to those methods or ‘techniques’ we utilize for accomplishing something. In this truer sense, printed books are technology. At the advent of the printing press, it is certain that these compact, hand-held, widely available, compendiums of an author’s thoughts were considered ‘technological’ more in the modern sense – as we consider computers today.

A medieval scribe.

A medieval scribe.

Actually, another ‘technique’ that was quite controversial in the Church was the writing down and copying of Scripture. It seems almost silly today, but some – including major Church pundits – were not at all too excited about moving from a more ‘reliable’ oral tradition to the fixed, but open for unguided interpretation form of written tradition.

So, technique or technology is really just the idea that humans develop and are constantly developing new ways to accomplish tasks.

The task we are discussing is gathered worship. So, what techniques ought to be considered for use in the service of worship?

The general answer is, ‘all of them’. But, more specifically, I think each technology must be run through an ideological grid before it is employed toward the leading of the praise of God. The first, and most important question of the grid should be: What is worship? (Or, you might ask: What is the goal of worship?)

Simply put, worship is the dialogue between God and humans, in which God initiates the conversation and humans respond in cyclical fashion. The goal, then, would be to facilitate this dialogue (to the extent to which we can).

Once we have agreed upon our goal or definition of worship, there are more questions to ask that are specifically relevant to evaluating the technology in question. For instance, we might ask:

How will this technology help us ‘hear’ what God is saying to us?

Traditionally, we hear what God is saying in numerous ways: the reading aloud of the Word, words given by the Holy Spirit through individual worshipers, the Spirit again speaking through the preacher of the Word, etc. These all have to do with speaking and listening. What other techniques might we use for ‘hearing the Word of God’?

In the Middle Ages, most church goers were illiterate. On top of that, the Mass was said in Latin, which was not understood by most present for the Eucharist. The common people spoke whichever vulgar language they spoke. How did these worshipers ‘hear’ the Word of God?

In fact, they ‘saw’ the Word, to ‘hear’ the Word.

Bas relief stone carvings – which can be seen today in cathedrals all over Europe – depicted vignettes from the Gospels. Stained glass windows also depicted scenes from the life of Jesus, or Old Testament stories. Statues of saints reminded worshipers of the faithful ones who came before. The shape of the cathedral interior, the placement of the altar, and the seating arrangements (all technologies by the way) ‘spoke’ of the holiness of God, the reverence of the Meal, and God’s relationship to his people. These technologies ought to be – and have been – critiqued for their effectiveness toward hearing the Word of God.

A final interesting point here is that a really good and true evaluation of one techniques effectiveness is not eternal. While the images in a Roman cathedral may have been duly effective, by the time the Reformation had come and changed many hearts and minds regarding the uses (or abuses) of images, these became less and less helpful and perhaps more distracting to Protestants who assigned negative feelings to such non-verbal communication.

And, yet again, in our present age, images are familiar and prevalent. In fact, our culture is ‘image saturated’. Once again, it is necessary to judge the credibility and effectiveness of images. And, this must be done from one culture to another, and every time major cultural shifts take place.

Other important questions include:

How will this technology in question help us respond to God?

In the case of images, these can be viewed and reflected upon toward the offering of prayers. If practical, worshipers might even create their own images as prayer-offerings to God from their hearts. Negatively speaking, images tend to be limited in conveying complex ideas. In this sense, images may not always work as a communication tool for responding to God.

What are the possibilities for distraction?

Images that are offensive to some are not offensive to others. Those who plan worship must be well-versed in the values and sensitivities of their congregational body. Also, images that are displayed poorly or just wrought with a lack of skill can deter people from either hearing God or responding to Him.

Does the chosen technology/media change the message that is being communicated in a destructive way?

Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” In other words, all media take an intended message and alter it in some way before it reaches the receiver’s ear. In the case of images, the question becomes, how does a picture of something differ from a verbal description of it? What is gained or missed when a picture is employed instead of actual words?

We could go on listing these questions for there are many. But perhaps now we can better answer our initial questions posed here:

Is technology appropriate for incorporating into worship? Yes, in fact it is likely impossible not to employ some technique in worship.

If so, how much technology? This depends on which technologies are attempted and also what cultural sensitivities are at work in the society in which the worship will take place.

And toward what end? The end is worship -dialogue with God. We must always determine whether or not our technologies are promoting dialogue with God, or instead promoting entertainment and distraction.

HamHave you ever been misunderstood? This is a silly question. Of course you have. We all have. The nature of language is such that even those who are (supposedly) speaking the same one, often receive an unintended message. I think communication breakdowns occur not just for language problems, but even more often simply because we are not listening to one another. This is unfortunate.

However, many misunderstandings do occur for very understandable reasons. It is not uncommon for two individuals or groups to miscommunicate when acting cross-culturally and/or cross-linguistically. In August, I experienced this and it proved to be a rather light-hearted and memorable moment of the trip.

I was with about forty Serbians, leading them through a day-long training called “Building the House of Worship: Toward Becoming a More Active Worshiper”. We were more than half-way through the training and things had been progressing nicely. My translator was doing an excellent job translating my words on the spot – as I spoke them.

My workshop uses the metaphor of a house with the different parts of it representing different aspects of worship. The Foundation is ‘what the Bible says about worship’. The Upper Room represents each participant’s own ‘definition of worship’. The Roof represents the two main categories into which our worship actions fall: ‘Missional Action (i.e. serving others) and Ritual Action (singing, etc.)’. There are other concepts corresponding with the Attic, Dining Room, Living Room, Kitchen, and Front Porch.

The Attic is one of my favorite rooms of the House of Worship. It represents all the various historical forms that have been used by Christians for worship since the dawn of the Church. As with each of the house-parts, I was introducing the Attic by verbally drawing out the metaphor. This introduction always helps connect it with what we learn in that segment. The dialogue went something like this:

Eric: In the U.S. many houses have attics. Do you all have attics in your houses?

Group: Yes.

Eric: That’s what I thought. What is it that Serbians keep in their attics?

(The answer I was fishing for was something about “old stuff that we don’t use very often and have mostly forgotten about, but was at one time useful and important to us”)

Group: (loudly, in unison) Ham!

Eric: (turning to translator) What? Are you sure? You must have mistranslated that. Did they understand my question?

Translator: No… they definitely said, “Ham”.

As it turns out, Serbians LOVE to cure their own meat by hanging it in their attics.

My brain didn’t fire too many synapses before I realized that the idea of aged meat, hanging from the rafters in the dark part of someone’s house is not a very good metaphor for Gregorian Chant, Lectio Divina, or any of the other dusty old worship forms.

(Upon further reflection, I have subsequently realized that I CAN work with ham. I should have simply said that the important thing about the Attic is that we can all “meat” with God is such a broad variety of ways.)

(Ok. Maybe it’s good I didn’t say that.)

Within a minute or two we were all laughing at this miscommunication. It was a good reminder that though those of us in that room shared so many similarities – for instance our love of God and desire to worship him well – we also came from very different backgrounds with unique traditions and cultural practices, not to mention languages.

Actually, this is exactly the point I was trying to make in the first place. God has created each human being with the capacity to develop his or her own unique approaches to worshiping him. Though these forms don’t always ‘translate’ across cultures, sometimes we are inspired by those different from us who approach God in fresh ways – ways that can potentially breathe new life into our daily and weekly worship routines.

Someone recently asked me if I was interested in the NWLC. I wasn’t sure what that was so I Googled it.

Was he wanting me to join this? I suppose I could stand to learn more about women’s rights.

Or, was I being invited to this? Umm. I really hope not.

Finally, I came upon this. Certainly makes more sense. But, I probably won’t be attending. It’s right before I go to Europe and besides… it’s in KANSAS.

I think there should be a copyright on acronyms. Once one is created, no one else can use it.


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