Healthy tensions that should exist in worship (and other stuff)

Our church hosted a conference on worship this weekend led by Bob Kauflin. (That’s his picture from his Twitter there.) It was encouraging and fun to meet and hang out with Christians from other churches – even had some people from Canada! (OK, it isn’t that far away.) Well, I hate to attend a conference and keep it all to myself so I thought I’d write a post sharing some of what I learned.

I’m going mostly from memory (plus some notes Bec made), so apologies to Kauflin if I got anything wrong or interposed some of my own thoughts with his.

Let me share a couple quick thoughts before we get to “healthy tensions”. At the first session I attended Kauflin began by asking everyone to shout out their denomination at the same time – unintelligible cacophony ensued, of course. Plus the people who had to say “Reformed Church in America” were still talking after everyone else had stopped, which was awkward. (OK, I made that part up.) Then he asked everyone to shout out who was head of the Church – and everyone yelled “Jesus” in perfect unison. (Except a few people said “Christ” – tsk tsk.) Then he said, “see, doctrine divides us, but Jesus unites us.”

Right on cue, the audience groaned. My kind of crowd. But fear not, Kauflin doesn’t really believe that, he heard it at another conference and wanted to try it. In fact, doctrine matters a lot. And why does doctrine matter in worship? Because it’s how we know God, it represents all we know about God. One cannot really worship an intentionally vague “God”. In fact,

Vagueness about the object of our praise inevitably leads to making our own praise the object. Praise therefore becomes an end in itself, and we are caught up in our own ‘worship experience’ rather than in the God whose character and acts are the only proper focus. – Michael Horton

Kauflin also spent time talking about worshipping God with our body, mind, and soul – but our body especially, since most of us are not super great at that. He pointed out that as we live our day-to-day lives the emotions we experience usually have some physical manifestation – we smile, we cry, we shout, we dance. (Well, I don’t dance, but I can hop about in a manner that worries the cat from time to time.) Except in church! There, where our greatest affections are being discussed, we are often artificially reserved. We get more excited when our team wins the game than we do when singing about our salvation. Is that sensible? And if it isn’t, what is stopping us? Fear of man? Cultural conventions that we need to fight or change?

I think Kauflin would say that we can worship God with our bodies by just letting our emotions find their natural expression. (And I would say – God is not a football game, rejoicing in our salvation probably shouldn’t look just like rejoicing over winning the game.) There are plenty of Biblical examples of people bowing down, dancing, and lifting hands in praise. And we benefit other people this way too – I love being in a church where people do sing passionately, some raise their hands – I get encouraged by watching and listening to them. A comment John Calvin made on prayer is also relevant here,

The inward attitude certainly holds first place in prayer, but outward signs, kneeling, uncovering the head, lifting up the hands, have a twofold use. The first is that we may employ all our members for the glory and worship of God; secondly, that we are, so to speak, jolted out of our laziness by this help. There is also a third use in solemn and public prayer, because in this way the sons of God profess their piety, and they inflame each other with reverence of God. But just as the lifting up of the hands is a symbol of confidence and longing, so in order to show our humility, we fall down on our knees. ~John Calvin, Commentary on Acts

But the session I most benefited from was the final session, which was on healthy tensions that should exist in worship. I’m pretty terrible at healthy tensions – I tend to grab one side and run with it all the way, and then judge people who seem to have chosen the other side. So this session was especially good for me. Here are some of the healthy tensions mentioned.

Mind v. Heart

Do we want to sing songs that engage our minds, or our hearts? Yes. Many hymns are good examples of the former – “Immortal, Invisible” was mentioned.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great Name we praise.

Almost every word in that song is packed with meaning – in fact, that’s one of the complaints people raise against hymns, right? That even at the slower hymn-pace, we zoom through them so quickly that you can barely grasp the magnitude and majesty of what you’re saying. They’re definitely “mind” songs. An example of a “heart” song would be “I Love You Lord“.

I love you Lord
And I lift my voice
To worship you
O my soul, rejoice

There is nothing especially profound in those lyrics, they’re a simple expression of love for God. Songs like this can be quite moving, and there is a place for them in church worship services too – as long as we don’t fall into the trap of only singing songs like this. If you do not know the object of your worship, your emotions will certainly not persist – “emotional fire needs doctrinal fuel”. And mind songs teach and remind us of doctrine.

Vertical v. Horizontal

Is worship supposed to be an experience between you and God, or are we trying to encourage each other? Yes. Probably not many people out there who need to be convinced that worship should be between you and God – but there are people who think that that is all it should be. Other people are a distraction and they get in the way – turn the lights down so I can’t see them! No. If you really think that, then why sing songs at church at all? Sing in your bedroom at home. No, we are also singing to encourage each other.

And there are practical applications to this – it makes good sense to have a few people at the front of your church during worship that everyone else can see, whether this means a choir or a worship team. If you’re constructing a new church, you might design it in a way that allows people to naturally see one another during the service – something other than long parallel rows stretching back to infinity.

Planned or Spontaneous

Do we want ordered worship services, or should we allow spontaneity to allow God to speak in unexpected ways during our services? Yes. I especially liked Kauflin’s point that the Holy Spirit can work before a worship service just as well as he can during a service – he can work during the planning time. A planned service is not a service that excludes God. “Make your plans, but don’t be ruled by them” was his summary statement.

Transcendence v. Immanence

Do we want songs that emphasize God’s otherness (“Holy, Holy, Holy”), or his nearness to us? Yes! Just, please, not too many “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. Maybe that’s a personal request.

C’est tout! I believe I heard that videos from the conference would be posted on our church website some time this week, so check there in a few days if you’d like to “attend” the whole conference.

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