In the next few posts I will continue to recount some of the content from the Sunday School class I taught on Worship and Music at Trinity. Keep in mind that I used the curriculum published by BiFrost Arts to structure our discussions. Read more about the curriculum here.
The curriculum asserts that Christian worship will be scriptural, triune, redemptive, and participatory.
Worship should be governed by the language, themes, and story of the Bible. Commentaries, confessions, and Christian literature are all valuable. But for corporate worship, the Scriptures should shape and guide our choices of prayers and songs.
While we may all agree that Scripture is important, it is often the case that our worship services are shaped only by a limited number of passages of the Bible that resonate and feel familiar instead of all the Scriptures.
Without the guidance and governance of the Scriptures, we can easily choose the comfortable passages and shape for ourselves an image of a God who is like us and loves the things that we love. Instead, we need the Scriptures to show us who God is and what he loves, and to teach us to love those things as well.
Look at the songs we’ve sung recently at church. Can we find scripture references for the lyrics? Is this scripture a complete passage or thought, or just a series of emotive phrases?
God's word gives us a framework for our praise, but more importantly, it is where we see and learn the unending worth and praiseworthiness of our Triune God.
We do not praise in a vacuum.
The reason and content of our praise is a reaction to God’s revelation of Himself.
"Worship is not only something coming out of us through expression,
“Over time, cultivating the formative aspect of worship will cultivate in us patience and trust in the Holy Spirit’s work. It will free us from frustration and despair when we find that worship is not a rapturous emotional experience every single week. Instead, we can declare together, “God was present, I heard his word, and I know that he is at work in me.” This is not an affective experience on one given Sunday; it is a lifetime of Sundays.”
Trinity’s Adult Choir
Soloists: Jennifer Aitken, soprano and Timothy Wilds, baritone
Violin: Mariya Potapova, Paul Stroebel Viola: Stephanie Quinn Cello: Franklin Keel
Piano: Vance Reese Reader: Danielle Teague
Pastor: Duane Davis Director: Anthony Moore
The Seven Last Words from the Cross are seven expressions of Jesus during his crucifixion, gathered from the four Gospels. These seven sayings have been widely used in Good Friday worship services since the 16th century and have set to music by many composers including, but not limited to: Lassus, Pergolesi, Haydn, Gounod, Franck, Dubois, Gubaidulina, and Macmillan.
As I was considering a new musical setting of our Lord’s dying words, I was drawn to another scriptural list of Jesus’ sayings from the beginning of his earthly ministry – the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are proclamations from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Each is a declaration of blessing, without a narrative context, that forms a major biblical theme. These blessings have a gospel logic that is contrary to earthly wisdom: the poor in spirit and the meek, not the strong and powerful will have the kingdom of God and inherit the earth.
When I began to contemplate the seven words and the beatitudes together, I noticed many similar themes. Jesus said that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be blessed, but on the cross he thirsts in agony as the only true righteous man. He promised that those who are merciful shall receive mercy, but he receives his Father’s wrath against our sin even as he implores his Father to forgive those crucifying him. For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
I have used a chiastic structure for the music. A chiasm is a literary device in which a sequence of ideas is presented and then repeated in reverse order. The result is a “mirror” effect as the ideas are “reflected” back in a passage. The term chiasm comes from the Greek letter chi, which looks like our letter X. This structure is found often in the Bible, especially in the Psalms and Old Testament as well as the music of J. S. Bach.
There is even a mirroring of Jesus’s relationship with his Father in the structure of the seven words. In one and seven Jesus addresses God as his Father (“Father, forgive them” and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”) but in word four the relationship is broken and Jesus, forsaken on the cross, cries out to him as “my God.”
Jesus secures for us the very blessings and benefits he is denied on the cross.
This is an excellent, yet brief discussion among D. A. Carson, Matt Boswell and Keith Getty on the nature of the songs we sing in worship and their impact upon us. I particularly appreciate Keith's point about songs not merely being a vehicle for orthodox theology, but a work of poetry, beauty, and excellence. Theological precision is merely the starting point. The offerings of songs and lyrics must be honorable, lovely, and commendable as works of art.
One of the primary emphases in worship and music Sunday School class has been to distinguish between principles and preferences. Many battles over worship have been fought over critical aspects of our faith, but many in recent history have been waged over preferences, stylistic concerns, and music.
Scripture offers us very little about the specifics of our corporate gatherings. We know that early believers "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). But how should we teach? What does the fellowship look like? Was the breaking of bread a full meal, a symbolic remembrance of Jesus' death or some conceptual combination of both? Principles are guiding concepts that come from the overall teaching of Scripture. These principles will have multiple expressions depending on the time in history and cultural location.
Saying that worship songs should be based on the language and themes of Scripture is a principle, but saying that worship songs should always utilize an organ, band, or synthesizer is a preference. Universal principles should be applicable in all points and locations in history - from the house church risking persecution to the cathedral or from the first century church to the twenty-first century church.
There have been an astonishing number of good books on worship written in the last 15 years, but if I have to choose a favorite it would be Harold Best's Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts. His work is the most comprehensive and holistic approach to worship I have seen.
The core of the book is Best's concept of “continuous outpouring.” Best states that if from eternity the triune God “cannot but give of himself, reveal himself, pour himself out,” and if humans were created in God's image, then humans also bear his image as outpourers. We began to pour ourselves out towards God from the instant of our creation. We were not created to worship, implying God needed to be worshiped. We were not created for worship, with that being one element which can be separated. We were “created continuously outpouring”… and all that we “pour out” is intended as worship. Worship is “human outpouring” in response to the divine “outpouring of lordship” (p. 24).
While worship before the Fall consisted of mutual outpouring between God and imago Dei, Best stresses that the Fall did not end worship or continuous outpouring. When Adam and Eve fell, “Our outpouring was falsified. But it continued, with one telling difference: we exchanged gods” (p. 25). This is the heart of idolatry and why it is at the root of all sins. When we sin, we do not cease to worship, our worship changes direction - from the Creator to something created.
I have our church sing these extra verses at least one Sunday in Advent. The scriptural allusions show us that God's plan of redemption first promised to Eve in Genesis is fulfilled in the work of the second Adam (Jesus).
Glory to the newborn King!
Worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible.
To worship God ‘in spirit and in truth’ is first and foremost a way of saying that we must worship God by means of Christ. In him the reality has dawned and the shadows are being swept away (Hebrews 8:13). Christian worship is new covenant worship; it is gospel-inspired worship;
it is Christ-centered worship; it is cross-focused worship.
-D. A. Carson
Worship is what we were created for. This is the final end of all existence-the worship of God. God created the universe so that it would display the worth of His glory. And He created us so that we would see this glory and reflect it by knowing and loving it-with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.
Worship is the believer’s response of all that they are – mind, emotions, will, body – to what God is and says and does.
…acknowledging that someone or something else is greater – worth more – and by consequence, to be obeyed, feared, and adored… Worship is the sign that in giving myself completely to someone or something, I want to be mastered by it.
Worship is the submission of all our nature to God.
It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth;
the purifying of imagination by His Beauty; the opening of the heart to His love;
the surrender of will to His purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration,
the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.
Worship is the continuous outpouring of all that I am,
all that I do and all that I can ever become
in light of a chosen or choosing god.
When looking at the Christmas narrative, the supernatural events surrounding Jesus’ birth dominate our focus. As we read the beginning of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, it is very easy to freeze Joseph, Mary, the Shepherds, the Magi, and Herod into two-dimensional characters witnessing angelic messages and spirit-filled dreams. It is helpful to remember that they were flesh and blood people and that most of their life details are not recorded in Scripture. How do they deal with God’s unfolding plan for their lives?
Mary and Joseph were betrothed. They were anticipating a married life together and the hopeful blessings of a future family when God intervened. Mary will bear the Son of God and Joseph will raise the child as his own. The shepherds were living and working in the fields. Considered ceremonially unclean because of their work, they had come to terms with their limited and low status in society when God intervened. The angelic proclamation of the birth of Jesus is given to these men and they are brought near to the Son of God in worship. Three astrologers in the East are looking for the sign of the Messiah, and then one ordinary day, they find that God has arrived. The Magi immediately travel to Bethlehem and see the young Jesus and offer worship and extravagant gifts because they recognize God has entered time and space.
The question before us is not whether God will intervene in our lives, but rather how we respond when He does. Life just doesn’t turn out as we would plan, but that is very often when God reveals His presence. Relationships are broken; cancer ravages a loved one; good friends move far away; children and parents lock in conflict. When God interrupts our lives, do we react by wrestling in faith with his providence, seeking his love and trusting his fatherly care? As Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds, and the Magi learned, no life works out as expected, but the Lord is at work.
This Christmas, take the hopes and fears of all your years to God.
He will meet you.
Anthony is the Director of Music and Worship at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC.
Recommended Music for Worship
Keith and Kristyn Getty
With One Voice
Look and Live
Rhythms of Grace
The Worship Architect
The Stories We Tell
Music Though the Eyes of Faith
Christ Centered Worship