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Monday, January 19, 2009
Worship and our Lost Story

It happened again this week. No matter where I go to speak in the context of a worship service I get an email like this.

J.D., we need to know your themes so we can get that to the band so they can choose songs for the worship sets. Are you looking for something soft and intimate or loud and celebrative? (i.e. the youth pastor version of this question:  do you want them up or down?) "What kind of response are you looking for?  Any particular response songs come to mind?
I experience it almost universally in worship services I attend, and to be sure, I have done it plenty of times myself.  I can often tell what kind of "key word" search the worship leader utilized to select the songs. Pastor to Worship Leader:  "I'm preaching on the holiness of God this week. I need some good songs." Worship set:  'Holy Holy Holy,' 'Holy is the Lord,' 'God of Wonders,' and (choose your favorite song that uses the word 'holy.') I'm still waiting on this one.  Youth Pastor to Worship Leader:  I'm preaching on the perils of masturbation this week. I need some good songs." Worship Leader to Pastor:  "uuuuuhhhhhhh." Worship set:  'Give us clean hands,' .................... 'Oops! I did it again!' .........

What if we moved away from this sermon-centric model of worship? What if we agreed that worship can be tied to no other agenda; no matter how relevant-- not our sermon series, not the altar call, not the stewardship campaign, not the 'idol gives back' routine, not the Super Bowl for crying out loud.  What if the musical portion of our worship ceased to be a 'platform' for the speaking portion? What if we ceased forcing our worship services to motivate, or worse, shame our people into applying our three points to their already over-applied lives? 

What if our worship, week after week after week, became a moving story (more like '24' or 'Lost' which inspire a religious-like following). What if our worship, including the sermon, (which is an act of worship) became "Story-centric," cohering around the mighty acts of God and particularly around the pre-existence, conception, birth, life, death, resurrection, appearances, ascension and reign of Jesus Christ; and all of this constantly bathed in the Spirit empowered reality of Pentecost? What if 'going to church'  re-oriented us to (situated us inside of) the real story going on in the Universe, reminding us of who we are and why we're here?  

What if we poured all our creativity into that kind of worship design and leadership? What might happen? 

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posted by John David Walt | at 1/19/2009 05:33:00 PM



Anonymous b/ said...

Thank you. Yes. So, how would you suggest interacting with the people you are planning a service with to encourage in this direction?

And what is the balance of aiding in the message with telling the story through other art forms?

9:24 PM EST  
Blogger Ben said...

"What if...?"

Then we might end up with something like the Divine Liturgy. It seems like much of that is already in place though it isn't acceptable to the Protestant pallet.

So I guess my question is how do we take the work of Chrysostom, Basil, Adai and Marie, and the others who have handed us the great liturgies and immerse ourselves in that as 21st century protestants.

10:06 PM EST  
Blogger Chris Symes said...

This is the line of thought that I've really been following in terms of preaching, as well. I do think that a primary definition of preaching is a reminding the people of the story, the story that they are a part of as the Body of Christ. And, just as you said, this pertains to worship in general. Perhaps, thinking of preaching in this way will make our worship less sermon-centric. Our sermons become one of many harmonizing aspects of worship that speak of an overall story. Do you think people are cautious and apprehensive when 'story' is placed so prominently in thinking about worship and preaching? I get the sense sometimes that people misunderstand story in the same way that they misunderstand the term 'myth.'

Thanks JD. Excellent post.

11:03 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More importantly - I have to do a sex talk with a group of guys from our youth group this weekend. thanks for the tips on songs I might include. Always practical, JD!

5:08 AM EST  
Blogger drew said...

the clean hands/oops line made me laugh out loud. i want to add to the list, but it seems like it would be counter-productive to the post.

and I'll also be honest in saying that the Lost graphic on your post got me super pumped that you were going to make a major tie-in from your thoughts on worship to the show, which I cultishly follow.

you know, I sat down with a younger worship leader a few months ago and tried to explain the whole story-idea of worship gatherings, and he looked at me like I was speaking gibberish. it was kind of disheartening...i like b/'s question: how do you suggest interacting with people as they plan and encouraging them in this direction? especially w/o overstepping boundaries (in situations that are not your home turf)?

10:14 AM EST  
Anonymous mattmaher said...

if we all followed the lectionary, then the worship would be forced to be "word" centric, not sermon centric....
call and response
people of God and body of Christ.

1:22 AM EST  
Blogger David Wofford said...

emotionalism always fades...the word remains. I don't think I'll ever hear "give us clean hands" the same again, though...

9:10 AM EST  
Blogger Rob said...

No way to say this that doesn't come off as defensive...perhaps because in some ways it is. I think you are right, JD, in speaking this as a corrective. If it is purely a prescription against all else, I have a little bit of a problem with it, because I think the possibility of "both-and" exists here.

If the sermon is story/Word centric, and if the worship is theo-centric, I'm not sure there is a problem with integration of the two. There is a way of telling the story that is consistent and helps the listener focus, follow, and engage.

I agree to plan a song to manipulate feelings is too far; but to pick songs that coherently and cooperatively (with the sermon) point the congregation toward Christ, toward God'saving story, is not only ok, but preferable.

10:22 AM EST  
Blogger John David Walt said...

HOW WOULD i suggest interacting with those planning worship? good question. I actually will often suggest particular songs that I know will remember the Story in a Trinitarian fashion and that lend themselves to intercession. When I am a guest I don't take issue with their ways. I try to work within their system while steering it in these ways as best I can.

Love Ben's question-- the word is "immersion." I remember Fr. Cantalamessa saying while he was with us, "When I was a young professor in the seminary I tried to teach what the Fathers taught. This has changed for me. Now I am trying to do what the Father's did.

Chris-- I've heard one of our professors offer this opinion about "story" as being perceived by people as "pretend" language. I disagree. There's nothing people love more about a great movie than to find out it is really true. I like the notion of "harmonizing" the elements of worship into a symphony. good metaphor.

anonymous-- good luck with that talk. ;-)

Drew-- sorry about the false advertising re: Lost. These ideas aren't something one can get across quickly. This is a way of discipleship-- a type of catechism. I find it works best when we don't focus on the method of it (as I do on this blog) but when we actually do it. When we do worship in this fashion, people start to get it in a "beyond cognitive" fashion. make sense?

wow-- is that really matt maher on my blog? the brother from the holy mother. welcome friend.

David W.-- you are right about emotionalism fading, the question is what is in its wake. emotion is good in worship-- but not ultimate. if it is wound around memory it will last. in the immortal words of clint black-- "aint it funny how a melody can bring back a memory, take you to another place in time, completely change your state of mind." miles and miles of contemplation in that lyric. country music = 3 chords and the truth.

Rob-- I agree with you and am not sure about the "defensiveness" comment. However, to let a topical sermon or sermon series shape the entire worship service is, for me, the tail wagging the dog. I think we are on the same page though. Back to Matt Maher-- one of the things the lectionary does for us is to cause us to begin with Scripture as opposed to beginning with our own ideas about what our people need. The lectionary (which is a bit of a dirty word where I come from), is full of the wisdom of God in that it actually narrates the story in an unfolding fashion. It's hard to go wrong if we start there with it's implicit agenda. I think there ways of doing what the lectionary does without following it religiously. My question is how can the lectionary be our guide in a way that we can truly begin to improvise on it in a faithful way.

great conversation team. thanks for the engagement. jd

7:57 PM EST  
Blogger Aaron Perry said...

I am not sure I understand the distinction. Check that. I understand the distinction, but I don't think there needs to be mutual exclusion between the planning the musical worship to lead to the word and between week 1 leading to week 2. Certainly the liturgy tries to do this, but so do most sermon series that pastors try to use.

I think if we thought in terms of atmosphere--because humans are atmospheric beings--then perhaps using the musical worship to lead to the word wouldn't be so negative. Certainly part of the aura of Lost is not just the fact its story continues but that it creates an aura of mystery, danger, uncontrollability, etc. during each episode.

1:34 PM EST  
Blogger Dan said...


Where's the question surrounding what the heck is worship? When do we begin to realize that every last little thing we do is worship? Granted, I may not always be worshipping the Creator when I sit in front of a computer screen and have to sing "oops I did it again," but I am worshipping; whatever is on that screen has become an idol worth more of my time than sitting down and loving my neighbor or letting whatever it means for Christ to live in us live out of us. What does it mean to be a worshipper? So, what does it mean that those facilitating an experience with the Trinity are themselves worship beings, 24/7? How does that begin to effect what happens on a Sunday morning/evening?

Love you, JD Walt. I miss these kinds of discussions face to face!

1:45 AM EST  
Blogger John David Walt said...

AP-- glad to see you back here. I guess I'm trying to move away from the sermon-centric model where the music is seen as preliminary or prepatory for the Word. Even though music is "instrumental" (pun intended) it is not instrumental to something else. In the end of it all, the gathered people around the throne will be singing. Re: your comment about shaping atmosphere. while I don't disagree entirely with you here-- i would say that the goal should not be to shape an atmosphere. The atmosphere is a fruit of the drama of the Word and Worship. Here is where we most run the danger of substituting Nirvana for Narnia (i.e. mood for memory or environment for story). you are right-- they are not mutually exclusive at all. it's all a matter of what drives. we can create a quite spiritual atmosphere without doing anything Christian at all. right? I think we may be missing each other with our exchange-- at least i'm not sure i am addressing exactly what you are saying.

Dan-- of course everything we do for the Glory of God is worship. with most of the thoughts in this conversation and others on my site, I am talking about the worship of the gathered people of God. My major contention is that the way we worship when we are together shapes and forms the way we worship when we are apart. It's a sanctuary and streets symbiosis.

8:51 AM EST  
Blogger Dan said...


I can understand that, though, I think we tend to spend more time being preoccupied with the gathering than with the streets. So much so that when a group of believers gathers together for a restaurant dinner, prays over that dinner, happens to end up talking about scripture and the way it relates to their lives, then pays the waiter/waitress and leaves, this is not generally seen as an experience in worship. It's generally seen as a nice chat with friends over dinner. A distinction is made whether we want to say so or not. For the majority of the Western church, worship is what happens on a Sunday. My contention would be that that's crap (though you'd know me better to use stronger language were we face to face...hahaha...).

Peace and love.

P.S. I think it's your turn at Scrabble. :)

10:38 AM EST  
Blogger Dan said...

P.S.S. Another way to move away from the sermon-centric model is to move the ideology out of the building and into the streets; therefore, asking the question - what does it mean to be Word-centric as a tabernacling people?

10:40 AM EST  
Blogger Aaron Perry said...

Hi JD,

Thanks for the interaction. Let me see if I can summarize your point so that I know we're not missing each other. :)

Whenever we use the song portion of the worship service to lead to the word, we make the service sermon-centric. Instead, you want a "story-centric" service that focuses around different aspects in God's story that flows from week to week. Is that accurate?

My response is that I think stories are necessarily progressive; they are marked by beginnings, middles, and ends. The "end" isn't the end without the middle or beginning. In fact, without a beginning, the end of one story could just as easily be the beginning of another story. This means that whenever worship is prior to the Word, it must lead to it for services to be story centric.

Now, I don't think that it is theologically necessary for the songs to precede the word; neither do I think it necessary for the word to precede the songs. I think being biblically story-centric could have times when we would begin in celebration and end in contemplation or begin in announcement and end in celebration.

So, when I mention atmosphere, I am thinking about story, as well. Most stories, and the Bible is no different, have foreshadowing. Word and music create atmosphere for each other, all in the context of worship. (Yes, you are right that we can create spiritual atmosphere without being Christian, but I am not sure you can enter the Christian story without atmosphere. Perhaps a less laden word would be context.)

Does this help clarify? Apologies for the length.

12:38 PM EST  
Blogger John David Walt said...

ok Dan-- i'm going to show my hyperbolic cards.

i think you are making my point for me with these words, " we tend to spend more time being preoccupied with the gathering than with the streets."

This for me is a sign that we aren't practicing worship in the sanctuary but IDOLATRY instead. The trouble with idolatry is that you don't know it when you are doing it. it's easy to look back thousands of years and spot idolatry. it's deceptively difficult now.

Here's my contention: wherever you find injustice in the streets you will find idolatry in a nearby sanctuary. the corollary is also true: where you find true worship in the sanctuary you will see justice in the streets. good worship can never be measured in the room-- only in the streets.

gets back to my point--- whatever happens in the sanctuary will happen in the streets; making what happens in the sanctuary of FIRST importance.

AP-- i think we are getting there.

3:48 PM EST  
Blogger Dan Lowe said...


I think, on at least the base level, we agree; that what happens in worship is manifested in justice. Hopefully. However, I will have to diverge with you in relationship to the idea that the first priority is in the sanctuary, if by sanctuary you mean the building in which saints gather for a "worship service." What I want folks to be encouraged/challenged to consider is whether or not our building-centric model of Christianity is a truncated version of the lived life of following Jesus.

Here's a question - no facetiousness intended - where did Abraham worship?

12:30 AM EST  
Anonymous Cory Britt said...

Dan, I believe Abraham worshipped in community with the triune God. My favorite icon is Rublev's Icon of the Holy Trinity. The icon depicts Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the images of temple, tree, and mountain in the background while the Trinity sits around an altar with a cup in the middle. It is a depiction of the visitation to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre.
I am drawn to this icon because of its depiction of the nature of God; a God whose identity is expressed in deep sacrificing relationship with himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It was not until the visitation that Abraham's identity was truly defined and that only through divine communion with God, or, if you will, worship. The story at the oaks of Mamre is filled with much action and then profound stillness. The visitor shows up while Abraham is resting in the shade. Abraham, quickly moves into action expressing the sacred code of hospitality, he goes and slaughters cattle to be cleaned, butchered, and served. Once the meal is served the action of the story slows down and the focus of the narrative is revealed: the meal. In this moment Abraham is still and listens and simply “is” in the presence of this divine visitation. From this communal act, identity is discovered and the responsive work is begun.
We say that everything is worship to someone or something. It is a nice thing to say and, yes, every breath we have can be an act of worship. But there is a form and flow to every act we do and this form and flow must have a beginning, because we are finite beings. I have been troubled much by the recent surge of the idea that we do not need to go to church to worship. True we do not need to go to a building to worship, be we do need to have regular communal worship where we as a group of people order our lives in such a way that we declare together that God is God and we are not.
Part of the narrative throughout scripture is God gathering his people together and in so doing, God is the one who defines said gathering and therefore defines the people within that gathering. The reason, I believe, that our “first priority” is our worship in the Sanctuary (which I see as the gathered people of God) is that it is in the Sanctuary that we find forgiveness, revelation, transformation, and commission… if our sanctuary is set up like Abrahams church. A place where we prepare ourselves to receive our guest, who is really the host, by, as Paul says, “considering others as better than ourselves” and “decreasing so Christ would increase” or as Jesus says, “losing our life to save it”. Abraham went out of his way to serve the visitor. Killing, skinning, cleaning, butchering, and preparing a bull is not done in an hour. Pride is swallowed when serving someone to that length. So we prepare ourselves, we then meet around the table and listen to the Divine define us over wine and bread, blood and body. Out of this meeting at the table of Christ, we are defined and commissioned. As a communal people we are transformed and invited into the communal dance of the Trinitarian God and sent to the streets as a sacramental people.

1:11 PM EST  

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