Category Archives: Worship

Letter 23: When Keely Smith Sings the Beatles


Last night, I was listening to a most peculiar album, “Keely Smith Sings the Music of Lennon and McCartney.”   In and of itself, there is nothing remarkable about it. Ms. Smith was a second tier singer of standards during the 1950s, and like so many singers of her ilk, the coming of the Beatles brought a significant career challenge. Hitherto, while rock and roll laid a strong claim on popular attention, they often drew from the same sources for material, and there was much overlap, and the two existed side by side. Now, however, the old standards were pressed to the background, and only the first tier talent was still drawing attention.

What to do? The curse here, was relevance. Top stars of the older generation, like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, could pick and choose what current songs they performed, including some Beatles songs. But in the main, there was little change. People still came to their concerts and bought their albums, though it was now mostly an older audience, those on the edges did not feel so out of date.

The second tier performers found it much harder to attract an audience. One could choose to set up shop in Vegas, or hit the country fair circuit, or try to re-invent one’s self. Thus Keely Smith turned to covering the Beatles. It made for a strange marriage.

Smith was a good singer, who had refined her pop sensibilities through years of live and recorded performances with her then husband Louis Prima. But it was the pop of a different era. For some of the songs it works. For others, it leads to something utterly unrecognizable, a once poppy tune turned syrupy and saccharine. Yuck.

As an aside, the real irony is that these days aging pop stars have found refuge in the old standards that were once Ms. Smith’s stock in trade. Ms. Smith herself has followed that path. I am not sure if the old songs are simply easier to sing, or just better fit superannuated singers.

There may be a lesson in this sad tale for us. The “Worship Wars” that so many of us had hoped were now past now seem to be returning with a new twist. Young people are decrying contemporary worship as superficial, empty, and worst of all, “inauthentic.” When they experience modern worship, they are apparently picturing Keely Smith singing Beatles’ songs.

So what makes worship “Authentic?” Does it require use of archaic language? Must it possess an ancient pedigree? It seems we keep circling back to the question of what is worship, and what we should be trying to accomplish in worship and through worship.

Outside of the sacrificial system, which we believe to have been fulfilled and abolished by Christ, the one place were Scripture regularly demonstrates worship is in the Psalms. The Psalmist engages in a conversation with God. He describes both his experience of God and the state of his soul. He declares the truths about God, and offers and account of walking with God, both its ups and its downs.

Using this model, our worship should be both descriptive and normative. What I suspect strikes people as “inauthentic” is our tendency to be descriptive when we should be normative and normative when we should be descriptive. Authenticity comes from trying to balance the two aspects of worship. We should be honest about the state of our souls at the same as we declare the great truths about God, because they are not always the same.

Church probably shouldn’t look or feel like anything else, either.  We are, after all, trying to connect people to a reality that transcends our world.  It will always be imperfect and messy, but a church service should never be mistaken for a talk show, or a concert, or a TED lecture.  That, too gets smeared when Keely Smith sings Lennon and McCartney.


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Letter 13: The Building Blocks of Worship

ImageHandlerWhat should we be seeking in worship? Outside of the proscribed sacrifices and festivals in the Old Testament, the Bible does not offer a comprehensive and normative statement of what should be in a worship service. Strangely, beyond the command to keep the Sabbath, there is no apparent obligation in the Old Testament to attend a weekly worship service. Formal worship was strictly centered on the Temple. Given the Sabbath travel restrictions, it is highly unlikely the people worshipped on a weekly basis as we do. We do have example of private prayers (Hannah, David, Daniel), and private altars, (Jacob, Gideon). From the accounts of the temple, we also know that there was music and choirs.

Turning to the New Testament, its authors seem to consciously steer away for any specific instructions on how we are to worship. Temple worship is abolished, so all of the sacrificial rules and regulations are no more. We do know that congregations sang and prayed. Words were spoken, as either teaching or prophecy (see I Cor. 14: 26ff). Given Christ’s teaching (Matt. 5:23), confession was expected, and these meetings were regular. Revelation envisions worship in heaven as including prayer, singing, and offering of praise to God.

This leaves the question of Communion. Christ clearly commanded it, but how often are we to receive it? Weekly? Monthly? Quarterly? Since Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension are the core of the Christian message, I believe it should be a part of the weekly service. Communion forms a visible and tangible representation of the message, and serves as bond of unity within the body, as we all partake, at the same time. Paul offers some specific guidance on how we are to partake of it (I Cor 1:17ff)), which again highlights its importance and centrality to Christian worship. Here again, Paul makes mention of the need for self-examination and confession, as a prerequisite for partaking.

So we have some sense of the basic ingredients of worship: Prayer, Praise, Song, Teaching, Confession, and Communion. How might these flow? Some of this is dependent on what we take to be the apex of worship. We know that the basic models suggest: Communion, Sermon, or Experience. I am not sure any of these are entirely adequate. The worship model depends too much on the state of mind or soul of the congregant. If I do not reach the desired state of worship, I do not really participate in the service, and thus the service fails. In the traditional Protestant model, if the minister mishandles Scripture, again, the service fails, or worse, commits blasphemy. The catholic model offers the advantage of offering every worshipper something that is not limited by any of the participants. But is that satisfactory for the focus of the entire service? I will consider that question next.

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Letter 12: The Architecture of Worship

appealing-church-interior-design-ideas-is-modern-church-interior-design-with-bright-white-themed-1306x979Getting back to worship, much ink has been spilled over the past twenty years or so about worship, particularly worship style. While the debate has been fierce, I believe that nearly everyone involved was missing the point. What should worship be about really should be the first question. Sadly, that question is usually resolved in an unstated assumption, which prevents us from having any meaningful opportunity to determine the validity of each defense.

Church architecture offers three different model of what the church has done over the years. There may be others, but these are the three I’m most familiar with. Whether we are aware of it, how our church is laid out says much about what we believe worship to be about, often more than any formal written statement.

What I’ll call the catholic model, places the altar at the center, where the Host is sacrificed at each Mass. The altar is usually flanked by a lectern and a pulpit, various candle stands, and, if applicable, statues or illustrations of saints. The Eucharist is the focal point of the service. It links directly with the Temple worship of the Old Testament, as the focus is on the sacrifice. By partaking, we receive God and have our sins atoned for. I use the name “catholic” as it is used in the Creed, as this approach typifies both Orthodox and Catholic churches, as well as some Lutheran and Anglican churches.

The Reformed model is typical of most Protestant churches. The pulpit is front and center, with the Lord’s Table behind, and, in Baptist churches, the baptismal tank, either before or behind. While the overall focus is on receiving God in His several forms, Word and Sacrament, the Word is foremost. Communion may not be held every week, but the Word must be preached at all times and places. Indeed, in its most severe forms, think colonial Congregational churches, the physical setting is devoid of any ornament or embellishment other than the pulpit. Nothing will detract or distract from the Word.

“Worship” models are a much more recent development. The dominating feature is usually the projection screen where the song lyrics, Bible verses, message outlines, and videos are shown. Everything else is built around this. The focus is on worship as an experience. There will usually be open space at the front where people may dance or be prayed for. The pulpit is usually off to the side, and quite minimal. The worship team will also be very prominent, due to the amount of real estate they occupy. There may or may not be a small table at the back.

Each model has its own internal structure, designed to bring the worshipper to its intended point. The structure of the first two is very similar. There is a call to worship, followed by some congregational singing, followed by some readings and a congregational prayer that can serve to highlight news of the congregation. Here they diverge. In the catholic model, the priest offers a brief message, which leads to the celebration of the Eucharist, which follows its own pattern of confession, institution, distribution, consumption, and conclusion. In the Protestant model, there may be a prayer of confession placed at some point the service. There follows the sermon, which will consume the better part of the service. Both will conclude with a hymn and a benediction.

The worship model starts with an extended time of worship, and can last from fifteen to forty-five minutes. There is no break between the songs, as worshippers are expected to enter into the experience as it builds. This is followed by a time of testimony, and maybe a prayer. The preacher then gives a message, where Scripture may be read, and is followed by more worship and ministry time, where congregants come to the front for prayer. There is generally no confession.

Each of these models seeks to worship God, God of course, but they want you to come away with very different things. Under the catholic model, the central act of worship is tangibly receiving God through the Host of the Eucharist. The focus is entirely sensory and tactile. The Protestant model wants you to hear and receive the Word of God, with the expectation that you will respond to it. Worship is to engage the ears and the mind. The worship model seeks to leave worshippers with an experience that resides largely in the emotions.

These, then, are the way in which we seek to worship God. In the entries to come, I want to begin to develop and outline of worship, to supplement, and correct these models.

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Letter 10: Where Have All the Worship Songs Gone?


He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

Matthew 13:52 (NIV)

This past Sunday, due to a shortage of musicians, we sang mostly older worship songs in the praise and worship service at church. Many were songs we had not sung in two years. People quickly joined in the singing. There was a sweet spirit in the air, and it set me to asking, “Where have all the worship songs gone?”

I can guess, literally, what has happened to many of them. They lie in a box in a storage closet somewhere moldering. Just a pile of old overheads that will eventually be thrown out whenever the church goes through a spring cleaning.

I did find it very strange though, that we are unlikely to sing older worship songs. I asked my wife, who was one of the musicians that day, about it. She explained that many songs have a dated feel to them that simply don’t fit with the rest of the worship set. It may also be that certain songs require a certain set of instruments to perform, and as time passes, the church may not have the requisite musicians to perform that piece.

But I countered, we do just that with the hymn service, which she also plays for. We play old songs. We play nothing but old songs, really, and we will mix various hymns of different styles: old Reformation chorales, Wesley hymns, Victorian sentimentalities, and turn of the century revival songs. Somehow that works. Why not with worship songs?

Every hymnal is the result of a centuries long editing process. Each hymnal is a bit like amber, freezing in time the thoughts and sentiments of whatever body produced them. But across the spectrum of hymnals at least a third of the songs would be the same songs. Roughly another third represent the particular tradition of the publisher: Psalms in a Presbyterian hymnal, the works of Charles Wesley in a Methodist hymnal, a sampling of house writers and composers in a hymnal produced by a publishing company, etc.

The remaining third represents newer songs, perhaps carried over from a prior edition because somebody liked it, and hopes enough people like it going forward to move it to one of the other two categories going forward, or brand new inclusions. Most of these aim to be “contemporary” expressions, focusing on particular issues of the age. For that very reason, they tend to be the most dated. But there are a handful of these that live to future editions, and may yet join the ranks of the perennials.

My concern is that the practice of worship music does not allow that process to continue. The perennial hymns remain because they struck a chord with the congregations that originally sang them, and they saw fit to pass them down to succeeding generations that found similar value in them. But they achieved this status only by virtue of repetition. We do not repeat worship tunes long enough for them to pass on to posterity.

In this, our practice seems to follow the world. A song enters the stream of music for play. It catches on, and gets played more frequently. If its popularity grows further still it will be played still more frequently. Should it enter the blessed ranks of the top 10, it will become inescapable over the airwaves. Make it to the top two, and you may well hear it twice within the hour. But then a funny thing happens. Having ascended the greasy pole of popular tastes, a song’s decline will be rapid indeed. Within weeks, it is hardly, if ever, heard. It may make a brief reappearance at year’s end or on an awards show. Then it is heard no more.

Why? In the case of Top 40, the need for novelty, and the ever changing tastes of the teenaged ear explain much. But why are we so fickle when it comes to worship? We are supposedly worshipping an eternal God (“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever.” Heb. 13:8). Why wouldn’t we try to convey something of that eternity in our worship?

A worship service can fill many functions. In it, we teach about God, and what He expects of us. We explain something of the Christian life. We are encouraged, chastised, and renewed. We direct our worship toward God, and remember the elemental truths of our faith.

In the Apostle’s Creed, we state that we believe in “the communion of saints.” We speak of it as if it were a present reality. But what is that communion? This side of heaven, I believe this works out to a sort of conversation across time, as we commingle the old words and songs with the new. To do that, we occasionally need to sing some songs we haven’t sung in some time.

So, if I may from this remote vantage, suggest to worship leaders that they dig out those old boxes of overheads and troll them for selections for the coming week’s service. You will be doing the Church Universal a favor, and in a small way, be fulfilling the will of God in helping to leave generations yet unborn some new timeless masterpiece.


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