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Can Traditional and Contemporary Worship Be Complimentary?

091018-image.jpgSince my ordination in May, I have been charged by the leadership of Christ’s Greenfield Lutheran Church (Gilbert, AZ) to explore ways that we might plant new works in the Valley of the Sun. This has led me to seek out pastors in our network to find out what they’re doing in mission, and to seek ways that we might be able to advance the gospel through collaborative projects. In getting to know our neighboring Lutheran churches, I’ve been greatly blessed! … but also discouraged.

Worship Styles

One of the areas that creates tension between us is our approach to worship. Some churches have such a strong dedication to the classical forms of liturgy that they see contemporary expressions as inherently wrong – to the point that some of these traditional churches want nothing to do with partnering with the contemporary ones. Equally distressing are the churches that are so enamored with the positive reviews and growing numbers of contemporary churches that they have abandoned substantial principles and practices that are foundational to classical Christianity (and, therefore, Lutheranism). They look at churches dedicated to traditions as hopelessly out of date, and destined for a death-by-attrition, as the old-school believers eventually pass away, their churches and styles with them.

This isn’t just a Valley of the Sun issue. It is a huge issue for the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod denomination. Already this issue has divided us relationally. It threatens to divide us institutionally if we can’t find a way to lovingly coexist moving forward.

Worship at Christ’s Greenfield

Without patting ourselves on the back too briskly, I do want to point out that … well, we seem to be doing something right. I think it looks like this:

Traditional Worship: At our traditional worship services, there are some strong commitments to the most important principles of corporate, Christian worship. Yes, we sing mostly hymnody, and most often with organ accompaniment. Yes, we make much of the Lutheran Service Book (readings, chanting, sitting and standing).

Incense
If you think this kind of worship could never “work for you”, you may have an unhealthy bias against traditional worship styles.

But this isn’t the substance of our traditional worship. What is important is our emphasis on the Word (readings, preaching), our allegiance to the Lord’s Supper, our practice of Absolution, our commitment to shared prayer, and our understanding of the need for these things to be placed in their appropriate narrative order. Like the prophet’s experience in Isaiah 6, we see the Lord, are humbled to repent, hear the proclamation of forgiveness, are made ready for the hearing of the Word, and are given opportunity to offer ourselves to our God and His call.

Many traditional worship services I’ve visited recently remind me of this verse: These people approach me with their speeches to honor me with lip-service–yet their hearts are far from me, and human rules direct their worship of me.” (Isaiah 29:13). I’m sure this happens in pockets at CGLCS, but overall I believe we are a church of people whose hearts are close to the Lord, and that we are entering into worship not just by formula, but by deeply thankful intention.

Contemporary Worship: Over in the Life Center, there are also some strong commitments. We sing songs that are more representative of our cultural norms and context. There is more casualness in appearance (no robes, no altar) and actions (more clapping, hand-raising, laughter).

But this isn’t the substance of our contemporary worship. What is important is our emphasis on the Word (readings, preaching), our allegiance to the Lord’s Supper, our practice of Absolution, our commitment to shared prayer, and our understanding of the need for these things to be placed in their appropriate narrative order. Like the prophet’s experience in Isaiah 6, we see the Lord, are humbled to repent, hear the proclamation of forgiveness, are made ready for the hearing of the Word, and are given opportunity to offer ourselves to our God and His call. (See what I did there?)

guitar_jesus

If you find this image sacrilegious, you might have too strong a bias against contemporary worship styles.

Many contemporary worship services I’ve visited recently remind me of the story of Aaron, the people of Israel, and the golden calf. The people love what they love, and will clamor for it, even if it’s not appropriate. The measure of “good worship” becomes their enjoyment, not God’s prescriptions. “Confessing sins? Long scripture readings? Standing for prayer? These are uncomfortable, and bad theater!” I’m sure there are a few at CGLCS who hope that our contemporary services move away from our moorings, and become like the Jesus infomercials of modern Evangelicalism … but overall I believe we are a church of people whose hearts are close to the Lord, and that we are entering into worship not just out of personal preference, but out of thankful obedience to God, and a desire to please him in all that we do.

What CGLCS is getting right:
 Our traditional and contemporary services are the same in all the most important ways. This allows us to go back and forth, and still be a part of the same worshiping community. It also anchors

What CGLCS needs to be cautious about: We can never adopt an animosity toward what is going on in the other worship venue. Appreciate your preference, yes … but the day we start lobbying for our preference alone, and condemn the practices of our brothers and sisters across the courtyard, is the day we get infected with the poison that is crippling our denomination.

How CGLCS can help change the world! Rather than succumb to our propensity to divide, we need to shine as an example to the broader Christian and Lutheran communities of how alternative worship styles can remain grounded, compliment one another, and bear much fruit. If we can do it at 425 N. Greenfield Rd. in Gilbert, perhaps we can do it across the country? I believe so.

– EO

(This article was originally published via the Christ’s Greenfield Lutheran Church Blog.)

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Amos’ Last Judgment

Today, it’s one last look at Amos’ pronounced judgment on Israel … tomorrow, we get three days of grace before Christmas!

Amos 9:1-8a

“I saw the Lord standing beside the altar, and he said ‘Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake, and shatter them on the heads of all the people; and those who are left of them I will kill with the sword; not one of them shall flee away; not one of them shall escape.”

Get the picture? God is standing in the worship center, where the syncretistic, back-slidden worship has been taking place. As we have learned throughout this book, God hates it. He in essence says, “bring it down.” Those who don’t die from the building’s collapse will be slain by the sword. Such was the flood in Genesis 7. Such will be the retribution experienced by unbelievers at Jesus’ return. So sad that these think they believe – they’re actually “at church” when their destruction comes. A specter of the future?

“If they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them.

If they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down.
If they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, from there I will search them out and take them;
If they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them.
If they go into captivity before their enemies, there I will command the sword, and it shall kill them. I will fix my eyes upon them for evil and not for good.”

Hell, heaven, mountain top, sea bottom, in a far-off nation … there’s no getting away from God’s will. (See Romans 8:35-39 for the flip side of this story. God has His eyes fixed on you … one way or another.)

“The Lord God of hosts, he who touches the earth and it melts, and all who dwell in it mourn, and all of it rises like the Nile, and sinks again, like the Nile of Egypt; who builds his upper chambers in the heavens and founds his vault upon the earth; who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth—the Lord is his name.”

When John the Baptist wanted to know if Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus said, “tell John what you hear and see” (Matt. 11:4). God the Father? Same. Just look at the power of creation – “That’s Me”, says the LORD.

“Are you not like the Cushites to me, O people of Israel?” declares the Lord. “Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir? Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground.”

All this is happening to “God’s chosen”. They think they’re special, and that God could never bring judgment like this upon them. But God reminds them of the gospel truth: All the nations have always been in the hand of God. Israel is certainly no better – they just have a different purpose, and enhanced expectations. Unforgiven sin is unforgiven sin, no matter who commits it. Without repentance, and the shedding of blood, there is no salvation.

No question Amos was an unpopular preacher. He and his message were, like so many prophets before him, rejected. “We’ll roll the dice, and hope that he’s wrong. Our worship, and the way we spend our money … it can’t be that bad, can it?”

Yes, God came. Israel vanished for two millennia. He’s coming again, soon, and promises judgment on sin. And grace to those who believe, and are born of the Spirit (we’ll get to that tomorrow!) Are you ready?

– EO

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2015 in Advent 2015, Amos

 

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Don’t Criticize Our Worship!

Read Amos 7:9-17

A bit more on the plumb line text from Amos…

God shows Amos that he is “setting a plumb line in the midst” of the people. And it’s clear that the people won’t measure up. Destruction is imminent … but where will it be centered? “The high places”, “the sanctuaries”, that’s where (v. 9).

When it comes to worship, the people of God have, throughout the scriptures, always had the propensity to drift. Specifically, we tend to want to incorporate what we think are attractive additions to God’s prescriptions- either things we dream up, or things we pick up from the culture around us. Golden calves. Unauthorized fire. The high places. But why would we go beyond what God has called for? Almost always, it’s because we want to enjoy His worship more.

In today’s text, the high priest Amaziah has had enough of Amos. Amaziah is the leader of the worship program at Bethel – a brand of worship enjoyed by the wealthy Samarians, which incorporates some of the most attractive, diverse, intercultural elements of the neighboring religions. This bumpkin Amos has already declared Bethel’s worship offensive to the very God it claims to honor. Now, he has the gall to say that the sanctuary building will actually be ruined? Who would say such a thing about a fine, successful, religious man, his organization, his services, and his facility? So, Amaziah rallies the political support of the King, and then tells Amos to go home to Judah, and never return*.

It is almost impossible to speak prophetic correction into someone’s worship experience: there is so much self there. Worship can be very emotional. The use of the arts helps us express that emotion. When it comes to one’s heart and art, it gets very subjective, very personal. To say to someone “your worship is wrong” can, and does, elicit a violent reaction.

But Jesus is coming! In Luke 18:8, Jesus asked cryptically: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” The very fact that Jesus asked that question should make us cautious and reflective about our faith practices as we await His return. Are we willing to hear Amos-like challenges to the way we express ourselves to God? Or are we so confident in what we’re doing (after all, I picked this church because I really like the worship!) that we, too, would be dismissive of corrective criticism?

Because we need it! We need a plumb line for our worship more than ever. Because, like lemmings to the sea, our contemporary church has let the influences of our secular culture not only infect, but even set the agenda for our gatherings. They are now far less for God, and far more for people – often for unbelieving people. We do this in the name of “evangelism”, which is often simply a pseudo-spiritual redefinition of business development and procuring market share. Most church leaders have given little-to-no thought about the actual divine prescriptions for their people’s worship. Oh, that Amos would come to us today … and that we would not just send him away, but would hear his voice, repent, and do what is needed to be found pleasing Him in our worship when He returns!

(You…you want me to go now?…)

– EO

*(By the way, Amos could have said, “Okay, sorry, I went too far, I’ll just go.” Instead, Amos tells Amaziah that his wife will become a prostitute, his kids will be killed, his country will be taken over, his people Israel will be exiled, and he himself will die. Talk about doubling down!)

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2015 in Advent 2015, Amos, Eschatology, Worship

 

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God, Do You Hate Our Worship?

Read Amos 5:21-27

I have been a pastor for worship for several churches in my career. One thing that has always been true: When it comes to high holy days, we ramp up the arts. It seems obvious that the major festivals – especially Christmas and Easter – deserve our best, artistic offerings of worship. It’s as though we want to give God the biggest possible “thank you” for His actions connected to these important days. (Either that, or we want to impress and entice unbelievers.)

Today’s passage in Amos 5 makes me wonder if we’re really on the right track, especially during Advent.

Israel’s religion was strong. The faith-centers were well funded. The music being made was probably at a never-before experienced cultural apex.  Hey, if God is prospering us, attendance is great, and our arts expressions are excellent, surely God must be pleased, right?

A paraphrase of v.21-23 for our modern day has God saying through Amos … “I hate your big productions, as well as your pensive, ‘worshipful’ services. You’re taking big offerings, but they’re not for me, and I don’t want them. I choose to not even take notice. I prefer silence to your worship music, and I’m ignoring your massive bands and sound systems.” Is there any chance God feels this way about today’s contemporary, megachurch worship? Especially during the holidays, when so many of the people singing along don’t even believe?

But why, exactly, was God so against these services? Because the people were practicing injustice and unrighteousness (v.24). The familiar theme of Amos is repeated: The economics of the rich were oppressing the poor. In addition, their worship practices were filled with unholy influences. Sakkuth, Kaiwan, some images … very trendy, very inclusive, very fashion-forward, very worldly … and very much detested by the LORD. The next stop for these worshipers? Forced exile.

The heart of Advent is that we would prepare our hearts from the coming of Christ. If these Israelites had prepared themselves in light of Amos’ prophecies, they would have jettisoned their corrupted worship practices, and focused their attention on generously loving their neighbor as themselves. We ought to do the same thing. But it’s hard to focus on this kind of self-assessment and repentance when we crank up the Christmas music, go to special performances, gorge ourselves at parties and feasts, and spend hours in the temples built to the god Mammon (the malls).

My takeaway today? I need some silence this season. Time to truly consider the LORD, the call of His Word, and the needed preparations for His arrival. As the carol declares, “He makes the nations prove the glories of righteousness.” Before He does that by means of the nations, may He do that, by His Spirit, through His holy nation, the people of God. Might His righteousness roll like an ever-flowing stream from the lives of His church.

Then our songs shall truly be heard by the only audience that matters.

– EO

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2015 in Advent 2015, Amos, Worship

 

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Cow Great Thou Art?

Read Amos 4:1-6

Okay, this is a funny passage to me. I grew up in Santa Barbara, California – a hive of the rich, privileged and pretentious. When I first heard this passage about the “cows of Bashan…who say to your husbands, ‘Bring me a drink!”, I thought surely Amos was talking about my town, not Samaria!

Seriously, the politically correct image painted by Amos must have been incredibly offensive to the self-absorbed Samaritan elite, who were “crushing” the needy through their methods of financial gain. Referring to them as cows was a direct reference to the quality of beef being produced in the region. Like cattle, these unsuspecting socialites will be herded out of town by meat hooks … and, there will be so many exiles that they’ll run out of big hooks, and have to resort to little fish hooks at the last.

After describing this human cattle drive, Amos gets very sarcastic. A paraphrase of verses 4 and 5 might read, “Go ahead. Keep worshiping the way you have been – sacrifices, tithes, offerings … you love it. But in God’s eyes, it’s just sin after sin after sin. And you don’t even see it.”

Image result for "john phillips" "Exploring the Minor Prophets"Some profound thoughts from John Phillips’ commentary: “The Israelites were deluded by the national religion, which had been born of apostasy. Every animal sacrificed on the false altars at Bethel and Gilgal was an affront to God. All false religion is an offense to God, especially when its devotees are so duped that they think they are pleasing Him. With their rites and rules. The Israelites thought they were secure in the favor of heaven because of their religious observances, so Amos tried to jolt them with sarcasm, urging them to sacrifice more and more.”

Image result for sunday best attireThe United States is a land of incredible opulence. It’s also a country where many, many people have every confidence in their religious observance. Yet, our faith communities are full of racial intolerance, economic class divisions, and indebtedness. I wonder how much of what happens in churches across the land is an affront to God.

This Advent, might Amos get the attention of us and our herds? Quick, before He gets out the hooks…

– EO

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2015 in Advent 2015, Amos, Uncategorized

 

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