The Visible Gospel

It seems that one of the trendy things for Christians today is to leave the church. For many, church is seen as the biggest problem with Christianity, a place full of hypocrites and those pursuing wealth. Yet individual Christianity is not an option. We are called to “not neglect meeting together, as is the habit of some,” and are called to encourage each other on a daily basis. One of the primary reasons we are commanded to meet together is because we so often neglect or marginalize the gospel in our daily lives. I stumbled across a video today in which Jerry Bridges explains why you never outgrow the gospel. In the video, he states, “The gospel is for sinners, and if we do not acknowledge ourselves as sinners, then we tend not to put much value in the gospel.” Tim Keller has similarly said, “The gospel is not just the ABC of the Christian life but the A to Z of the Christian life.” So how do we remember the gospel on a regular basis? One way is through our church services, which are meant to be the gospel made visible.

In order to demonstrate the gospel, we first need to understand what the gospel is. 9Marks has a helpful definition that is broken down into 4 parts: God, man, Christ, response. God has created the world and everything in it, including man. Man sinned, separating himself from God and other men. The only way to be reconciled back to God is through Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin. That sacrifice leads to a call for everyone to respond by repenting of sin and trusting in God to be saved. These 4 parts should affect the way we plan and structure our worship services, with thought given to how each of these parts can become a regular part of our worship. So what does that look like? Here are some ways I’ve tried to work this in to each of our services.

1.God

Each service begins with a call to worship, where we are reminded who God is. That he is completely separate from us, completely holy, and is thus worthy of our worship. I also try to begin our services singing about who God is, so last week we began by singing “All the Earth,” and this week we sang “Blessed Be Your Name.” These songs remind us who God is, that he has created everything in the world and orchestrates everything according to his perfect plan.

2.Man

This element seems to run contrary to the previous one (how can there be an emphasis on man when our focus needs to be on God?) But we need to remember that we are all sinners and apart from God’s grace are destined for an eternity in hell, separated from God. We need to remember that we have no hope apart from God’s work, which will be demonstrated in the next point. So to demonstrate our sin, we will sing something like “Lamb of God,” or this past week we read question number 16 from the New City Catechism: “What is sin? Sin is rejecting or ignoring God in the world he created, rebelling against him by living without reference to him, not being or doing what he requires in his law—resulting in our death and the disintegration of all creation.” This is also a great time to read a public confession of sin, or create a time of silence for people to confess their sins privately to God.

3. Christ

Then we see that we are not left without hope, because Christ has defeated sin and death and has thus reconciled us to himself through his death on the cross. Some of my personal favorite songs to use to remind us of this message are “O Praise the Name,” “At the Cross (Love Ran Red),” and “Man of Sorrows.” These songs do an incredible job of pointing to our need for a Savior and remind us to respond to God in awe and worship – with our whole lives.

4. Response

Finally, we are called to respond. This can be done through singing, Scripture reading, the sermon, or the benediction. I am not a big fan of alter calls, because they tend to be emotional manipulation, but there needs to be times for people to respond to the gospel message, which can be as easy as inviting people to talk with you after the service. A couple that we’ve ended with recently are “His Mercy Is More,” and “The Stand.” These call us to respond to who God is and what he has done in and through us – even in the past hour we’ve spent together, gathering around His Word! We also include a benediction, which is a Scripture reading encouraging us to allow the sermon to influence our lives. The Bible has many benedictions throughout it that can be helpful conclusions to our time together, such as Hebrews 12:1-2, Hebrews 13:20-21, Jude 24-25, and 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.

While these elements do not need to be a part of every service, and sometimes it’s more helpful to focus on just one part of the gospel to better allow it to permeate into our thinking, these should serve as the regular structure of our services to allow us to better steep in the goodness of God through the gospel message. It’s vital that we think through the elements of our services to allow our congregations to see the gospel throughout everything we do! As John Calvin said, “Without the gospel everything is useless and vain.”

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3 Ways to Fix Our Eyes on Christ

I had the privilege of spending last week in Louisville, Kentucky for the bi-annual Together for the Gospel conference. While the speakers and free books are great, it’s often even better to spend time with friends – old and new! One of my friends encouraged me to pick up writing at my blog again (thanks Kevin!) So here we go. I’m going to try to write a weekly blog on some things I’m think about in relation to worship – both gathered and scattered. One thing that stuck out to me was something one of the speakers said: Christians are leaky, like a sieve. We get the gospel poured into us, but it has a tendency to leak out very quickly. This is part of the reason it is so important for us to “not neglect meeting together.” (Hebrews 10:25) We gather to be reminded. But what are we reminding each other to do? One of those things that I pray every week before our services begin is that it reminds us to fix our eyes on Christ. (Hebrews 12:2) So here are 3 ways during our weekly worship that we can better fix our eyes on Christ:

  1. Read Scripture

One of the most impactful classes for me during my time in seminary was in the first class I ever had: Survey of Christian Doctrine. The professor stated that we as Evangelicals claim to be book-centered people. But if that’s true, why is Scripture not a greater part of our weekly worship? How many services have you been to where Scripture isn’t read until the preaching portion of the service? But not only does Scripture need to be read, but read WELL. The Bible is “living and active,” (Hebrews 4:12) and many people do a disservice to the reading of God’s Word by reading it in an un-engaging way.

One way I’ve tried to do a better job of implementing Scripture reading is by beginning all our services with Scripture – generally from a Psalm. This helps us to reorient our hearts and minds to what we’re about to do together: focus on Christ. By beginning our time with God’s Word we are reminded to ground everything we do in that Word, as Colossians 3:17 reminds us, “Let the word of Christdwell in you richly.”

  1. Get Our Eyes Off Ourselves

Another way we are encouraged to fix our eyes on Christ is by getting our eyes off ourselves. Obviously this is just the opposite of fixing our eyes on Christ (we can’t fix our eyes on 2 places, after all), but this is another area where we often need reminders. Philippians 2 encourages us to have the same mind among ourselves as Christ Jesus: humility. Every person on the planet is prone to naval gazing at the expense of gazing at Christ. So when we gather together to sing, read God’s Word, give our offerings, and encourage one another, we do so to help each other get our gaze off ourselves and onto Christ.

  1. Look Also to the Interests of Others

Finally, as Paul also reminds us Philippians 2, we need to remember to “count others move significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Each week when we gather, we’re coming with different life stories, expectations, proclivities to sin, and areas where we need encouragement. By fixing our eyes on Christ we can better serve each other and remember that our focus needs to be on those around us instead of ourselves. I love what Ephesians 5:19 says about our purpose for gathering: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” We are called to address one another on Sunday mornings. This helps us look to those around us who are in need of encouragement and support to faithfully live out God’s commands for another week. This then helps us to get our focus off ourselves and reorients our lives to better reflect the realities of our changed lives.

What Makes a “Worship” Song?

One of the perennial issues I receive comments on is on the music we sing on a Sunday morning, and whether or not it’s actually “worshipful.” So what exactly makes a song a “worship” song? And is that the question we should be asking? A song is made up of a few different things: melody/notes, rhythm and words. Let’s look at each one of these.

  • Melody

The songs we sing on Sunday shouldn’t jump around too much, and should be easy for the entire congregation to sing. This means rap wouldn’t be good to use as a tool of worship with the congregation. This doesn’t mean that songs that have melodies that jump around a lot can’t be used as a tool to worship, but they shouldn’t be one of the songs we sing on a regular basis at church. And a melody doesn’t inherently make make a song worshipful or not. When Martin Luther was writing his hymns he wrote them to well known bar tunes so people could join in and sing with him. The focus for Martin Luther, and for us, is that the congregation sings together (Col. 3:16). Therefore, any melody can be used as song of worship, but a certain melody does not a worship song make.

  • Rhythm

As I was growing up, one of my favorite songs was Audio Adrenaline’s ‘The Houseplant Song.’ A line in there said, “If it’s syncopated rhythm then your soul is gonna rot!” (Coincidentally, this was one of the first songs I learned on guitar!) Once again, you can have a song that is used for congregational worship with all sorts of different rhythms, the key is making it a rhythm the congregation can sing. Are there too many words in too short amount of time? Are there too few words for the pace of the music? Is it in a weird time signature that’s hard to pick up (like 7/8 or 5/4)? As weird as it sounds, this is why I think it’s important to keep up with top 40 music, so we can learn what our congregation is listening to and what is shaping their ideas of music. Once again, a worship song can have a wide range of rhythms and still be a worship song.

  • Words

That leaves us with words. Words alone make Christianity unique. Jesus is the Word made flesh. God revealed and reveals himself to us through his Word, the Bible. A phrase that gets thrown around a lot that I despise is “Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.” Supposedly St. Francis of Assissi said it. I don’t hate it because he never said that, but because the gospel by definition, requires words. The word we translate as gospel more literally means “good news.” How can you hear news unless someone tells it to you? (Rom. 10:14) So, the only thing that makes a song worshipful or not, is the words. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the WORD of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The Word alone and the words alone of the song are what make them useful for worship. Are these songs teaching us truths we see in the Bible?

Most of the complaints I get about the songs we sing on a regular basis are because of the melody or the rhythm being something that someone doesn’t like. A more helpful question to ask is: does this song help me teach those around me the truths of Scripture? If it does and the melody is relatively easy, and the rhythm allows us to catch on quickly, let’s proclaim that truth together, but apart from the words we can’t tell if a song is worshipful or not. How can you ensure that the word of Christ is dwelling in you richly? By paying attention to the words you’re singing!

What Do We Believe?

I have been in the Evangelical Free Church of America for pretty much my whole life. The statement of faith of the denomination is comprised of 10 points that all churches who are a part of the denomination agree to. I took this 10 points and wove them in to our services for 10 weeks to help us remind each other what we believe.

One of the purposes for us to regularly gather together as the church is to both remind each other of the gospel message that transforms us, and encourage each other to live out that gospel message as we continue to be the church scattered throughout our various vocations and locations during the week. We, as finite humans, are forgetful people, who are so easily distracted by the things that are going on around us (Hebrews 12:1), and we need the weekly reminders of what we actually believe, and how that affects our daily lives.

This is part of the reason having something like “The Apostle’s Creed” memorized is so helpful! It’s the early church’s attempt to have a succinct statement about what we as Christians believe. Obviously, this does not explain every detail about God’s story, but it does an amazing job of summarizing what makes Christianity unique.

So at the end of a weekly gathering, are you reminded what you believe? Are you able to encourage others to remember what they believe?

Formed By What?

We all have habit and routines that shape us. As my beloved Adventures in Odyssey taught me: addictions can be habit forming. The same is true of our weekly worship services. Whether we like to admit it or not, our corporate gatherings are times that shape our view of God. This means we need to think through the songs we sing, the architecture and decor of the church and even the use of the Bible in the services. Everything we do affects our view of God, either positively or negatively.

Bryan Chappell in his book Christ Centered Worship argues that throughout history, the church has followed a gospel centered liturgy. That means that our worship services from the flow to the language used in the service should lead us through the gospel message each and every week. In the book, he lists several components that comprise a gospel centered service:

  1. Calls
  2. Prayers
  3. Scripture Readings
  4. Music
  5. Offerings
  6. Creeds and Affirmations
  7. Benedictions and Charges
  8. Rubrics
  9. Sermon
  10. Sacraments
  11. Expressions of Fellowship
  12. Testimonies
  13. Oaths
  14. Ordinations and Commissionings
  15. Church Discipline
  16. Fasting
  17. Other?

All of these will not take place every time we gather, but should be regular parts of our worship. Which of these do you see taking place regularly, and which ones do you not see? How are some ways you think the church could grow in their reminders of the gospel routine? How can you personally better grow in your re-telling of the gospel in your own life?

Being Contextually Aware

The past month I had the wonderful privilege of leading music at 2 incredibly different conferences. The first was the EFCA Theology Conference in Chicago, where over 300 pastors gathered from across the country to hear lectures on the Reformation. The time was rich and deep, and we sang many hymns that are hundreds of  years old, as well as some new hymns. The instrumentation was just me playing piano. There is something incredibly unique about 300 men raising their voices together! Then, this past weekend, I got to lead the music for our district Middle School retreat where something like 500 middle schoolers gathered in Estes Park hyped up on energy drinks and excited to be away from parents for the weekend. This time I had my wife singing, an electric guitar, a drummer and myself and we only did songs that have been written within the past 10 years! Instead of sitting behind a piano this time, I got to dance around and jump along to upbeat energetic songs, and it was a blast! But it was funny to me to compare the 2 situations, and reminded me of the need for both in our corporate worship.

Some services we need time to dance and get excited about what God is doing among us! And other times we’re going to need the simplicity of 1 instrument and 1 lead vocal singing songs that are a thousand years old. This is the beauty of singing the gospel together: it covers every spectrum of the human emotion. There is no right or wrong way to join together in worshipping God, and we should all allow and encourage those around us to continue worshipping God with their whole lives! God is worthy of our dancing, and our piano playing, and I hope that whatever is played and sung is an opportunity for us to be made more like Christ.

The Importance of Ordination

After being at Grace Church for almost a year, I finally got my books organized! As I was organizing them I found a book I read for Seminary last year by Eugene Peterson titled, “Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity.” In it, he argues that Pastors have a tendency to get caught up in the day to day administration in the church instead of what we have been called to: prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. If you haven’t read it, and are in pastoral ministry, I’d whole-heartedly recommend it. There is one small section that has stuck with me that I’d like to share, it’s long, so bear with it! Peterson explains what a church is doing when it calls people to be their pastor, and he says it as only he can:

Century after century Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, “We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that the Holy Spirit is among us and within us. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator in turn amused and alarmed by the wreckage of world history but a participant in it. We believe that everything, especially everything that looks like wreckage, is material that God is using to make a praising life. We believe all this, but we don’t see it. We see, like Ezekiel, dismembered skeletons whitened under a pitiless Babylonian sun. We see a lot of bones that once were laughing and dancing children, of adults who once make love and plans, of believers who once brought their doubts and sang their praises in church – and sinned. We don’t see the dancers or the lovers or the singers – or at best only fleeting glimpses of then. What we see are bones. Dry bones. We only see sin and judgment on the sin. That is what it looks like. It looks that way to Ezekiel: it looks that way to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to think; and it looks that way to us.

“But we believe something else. We believe in the coming together of these bones into connected, sinewed, muscled human beings who speak and sing and laugh and work and believe and bless their God. We believe that it happened the way Ezekiel preached it and we believe that it still happens. We believed it happened in Israel and that it happens in the church. We believe that we are part of the happening as we sing our praises, listen believingly to God’s word, receive the new life of Christ in the sacraments. We believe that the most significant thing that happens of can happen is that we are no longer dismembered by we are remembered into the resurrection body of Christ.

“We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don’t trust ourselves – our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to help us: be our pastor, a minister of word and sacrament, in the middle of this world’s life. Minister with Word and Sacrament to us in all the different parts and stages of our lives–in our work in the play, with our children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle. This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: word and sacrament.

“One more thing: we are going to ordain you to this ministry and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficulty belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours, and that your mind can play the same tricks on you as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices. There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing–God, Kingdom, gospel–we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.”

That, or something very much like that, is what I understand the church to say to the people whom it ordains to be its pastors.

Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Ministry by Eugene Peterson, pages 16-18.

The Need to Ask Questions

I have read a couple articles a while back about Rob Bell and the fallout from his book Love Wins that came out 5 years ago. Bell was most popular for asking really good questions about things many Christians assumed to be true, but either didn’t have the confidence or desire to question what they’d been told their whole lives. There seemed to be a resurgence in asking questions when I was growing up. Rob Bell was hitting his stride, Donald Miller was Blue Like Jazz, and youth group was where we’d go to have fun. I agree that it’s an incredibly important aspect of our faith to ask questions, God will NEVER be fully understood, but there are some things that are true, and will remain true, and we need to remember to proclaim.

In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is a statement we can be sure about. It’s so easy in churches to get bogged down in the confusion of eschatology or blow small comments out of proportion instead of keeping our focus on Christ. One of the most impactful verses for me in my biblical interpretation over the past few years has been Luke 24:27, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” The point and purpose of the Bible is to point us to Jesus. It’s a book for him and about him, and he should be the focus of all of our lives. This also needs to be the focus of our corporate times of worship. If Jesus is the focus, it shouldn’t matter what kind of music we sing, how long the services are, how long you stand or sit, or how many people you’re forced to interact with. The point and purpose needs to be Jesus.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t ask questions at all! Some of my biggest times of growth have come from asking questions, or someone asking me a question I didn’t know the answer to. But, as Augustine said, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” We can trust in the God that has chosen to continually reveal himself to us through his Word and his people. This is why it’s so important for us to gather as the body. The church doesn’t exist as a single component of the body (you can’t have church by yourself in the mountains), but when we gather, we are to remind each other of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We will never completely understand everything, but we serve and worship the God who does.

Passively Engaging with God

One of the most difficult aspects for me during a worship service is to be actively engaged with what is happening. Someone moving down the row from me, or someone coming in late, or a child crying or a funny joke all distract me from the primary purpose I’m there: to commune with the family of God and to spend time in awe of who God is. It takes a concerted effort to be engaging with people and with everything that happens during the service. This is the difference between being an active participant and being a passive participant.

Being a passive participant means I expect everything to go my way, for the music to be my favorites that I enjoy, for the sermon to be perfectly applicable to me and relate to me. This leads to both an entertainment model of church and a me-centric model of church. Church is all about me and what I get and want from the weekly services.

Being an active participant means I look for opportunities to serve those around me. Instead of wanting the music to be my favorites, I look for the ways these songs can serve us as a whole. I actively listen to the sermon and think through ways I can encourage the pastor for being faithful to the Word, ways I can grow as a believer, and support those around me.

This is part of the reason I ask for people to stand when we sing. By standing people are forced to be more engaged in what they are doing. Not to mention, it’s much easier to sing with correct posture, like you have when you stand.

Instead of looking for ways that we can get something, I hope we as a church can look for ways that we can engage with the Word of God and allow that to change our lives and the ways we interact with each other.

Individual vs. Corporate

I get many e-mails and comments from people about songs they’ve heard on the radio or from friends that they love and really want to sing at church. I’ll listen to all of them, but very rarely have they been a song that will make it to the list of songs we sing at church. Often it’s not because they’re bad songs (although some are!), but it’s usually because they’re either lacking in clarity, difficult to learn to sing, or far too individualistic.

One of the primary things I look for in songs for the congregation to sing is that it speaks to a wide range of people. This is incredibly difficult to do well. With hundreds of people attending church in a weekend it’s impossible to do that every week, but if it’s something that can be easily universalized then I think it’s very helpful. This is where it’s incredibly important to note the difference between songs that are helpful for individuals verse songs that are helpful for congregations.

One of the most stark examples of a song I use for my own edification and personal worship is “When I Lose My Heart to You (Hallelujah)” by Hillsong United. The chorus would be incredibly difficult for most people to sing, but I love the message of the song and will often use it for me to sing praises to God.

The other component to think through in this is active verse passive engagement with songs, which I’ll address at some later point. But the goal of our time together on Sundays is active engagement with everything that happens. This means being actively engaged during the message, announcements and singing. Which also correlates to the songs that we’ll sing: hopefully they encourage active participation.