Nostalgia Is Not Worship

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Remembering without Falling Back

Isaiah 46:9-10 KJV
Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure: 

Philippians 3:13-14 NKJV
Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

He was upset by my song choices. 
I was doing too many new songs and not enough of the old songs.  I was the new worship leader at our church, so he made an appointment to come see me at my office.  He had a list of songs that I should be doing.  I asked him to choose his favorite song and we would discuss it.  He selected, “The Old Rugged Cross.”  I asked him to tell me what came to mind when he heard that song.  Tears filled his eyes and he struggled for words.  In a few minutes, he started talking about his mother.  She used to sing that song.

I tried to be gentle with him at such a tender moment.  In my own mind, I wanted to shout, “Nostalgia!  That isn’t worship!”  But I didn’t.  I explained to him that not every strong emotion we feel in church is a move of the Spirit.  The soul can also produce identical emotions to those we experience as we yield the spirit within us to the Spirit of God.  We can tell the difference by what fills our minds when strong feelings fill our souls. When we sing a song about the Cross and we are filled with visions of the cross or scriptures about the meaning of the Lord’s sacrifice or our own experience at the cross, those emotions are from the Holy Spirit.  Other earthbound images and ideas may be wonderful, but they may also be more about us than they are about Jesus.  I told him I would make a solemn pledge to him. While I could not sing off his list of favorite songs or anyone else’s list—even mine!—I would promise him that I would only bring him songs about Jesus and His Kingdom as the Spirit led me, and that the songs would be sing-able and well-prepared.  He could sing them, old or new, if he chose to.  He left my office better informed about public worship and comforted, I think, by my promise to him.

I was in my 40s when this office visit took place and now, I am in my 70s.  I have a much larger storehouse of memories connected to the songs of worship now than I had then.  The new songs of public worship are not songs of my generation or the generation of those who raised me, so I find singing them more of a challenge, but I manage.  It seems I have changed places with my office visitor that day! Nostalgia is a greater danger to me now than it was then, but it remains a danger for us all.

Between the Poles
In my book, More than Music, I deal extensively with the fact that a worship leader does his/her ministry in a space between opposing forces of influence.  I call these forces polarities.  Among these polarities we can find opposite, powerful forces like these:

  • Spirit and Truth,
  • Planning and Spontaneity,
  • Transcendence and Immanence as in “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise”
  • Celebration and Solemnity, and, of course,
  • Old songs and new songs.

These opposing forces exert strong pulls on the worship leader who functions in between them.  The worship leader’s skill at finding the dynamic centers between these poles is crucial to his/her success.  Of these the most prominent is Old Songs vs. New Songs. The expectations of the pastor, the team members, the congregation and of the worship leader are usually expressed in terms of song selection.  At the heart of this set of opposing expectations is a question:  Who is the music of public worship for, God or God’s People?

My Second Conversion
My first conversion happened at about age five from a wicked little boy into a follower of Jesus.  We were singing, “Oh How I Love Jesus” in my mother’s Sunday School class. At age 30 my second conversion happened. For the first five years of my music ministry I prided myself in my ability to minister to people.  Pride is the proper word for this; I knew I was really good at figuring out what people wanted to hear.  I was not leading worship in those years, so this skill was related to the repertoire of the choirs I led.  I did not yet know about ministering to the Lord.

At that five-year mark in 1980, I became the Worship Leader for Bethel Assembly of God in Wichita, KS and I began my life-long study of worship from the Scriptures under the tutelage of my pastor and life-long friend Pastor John Gifford.  When I learned that the purpose of worship was to offer to the Lord a sacrifice of praise and worship—to minister to the Lord—everything changed.  My life-verse became the leading truth and prime motivation of my ministry and has remained so to this day. 

Psalm 29:1-2
Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty, give unto the Lord glory and strength. Give unto the Lord the glory due unto His name. Worship the Lord in the beauty of Holiness.

Here is the goal of every service and the purpose of the music of praise and worship.  The Bible commands us to minster to the Lord.  I now had a new measuring stick with which to judge the music I made—“The Glory due His name!” When we minister to God, He is faithful to the promise found in Psalm 22, the psalm of the Cross.  To see the fullness of this promise we need two translations

Psalm 22:3 KJV, NKJV
But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.
But You are holy, Enthroned in the praises of Israel.

When we minister to the Lord, He inhabits and is enthroned upon our worship. When He is present and in charge, He then ministers to everyone who opens his/her heart to Him.  Our job is to minister to the Lord in Public Worship! His work is to then minister to the people.  This was a second conversion for me, from a people-pleasing musician to a Holy-Royal Priest unto the Lord.  There was and is no turning back.  I saw nostalgia as a great but subtle danger to be avoided.  I must not choose and present music that fills the hearts of the people with earthbound images of family and home and the good old days at the expense of the-Truth-the-Spirit-wants to burn into their hearts that day.  Warm feelings of nostalgia were distractions setting us slightly, but significantly off-center.  The role of the Holy Spirit is to center us on Jesus; nostalgia puts our memories at the center.

There is a role for memory to play in public worship.
Witness the plethora of scriptures commanding us not to forget what God has done and what He has promised to us. In fact, we are commanded to come into His presence through the Gates of Thanksgiving. This passage is by definition, an act of remembrance.  The fellowship meals of the Old and New Covenants, Passover and Holy Communion, are wonderful acts of remembrance.  Failing to remember is as great a sin and as prevalent a danger as any facing worshipers today. For this reason, the neglect of the traditional songs of the church is most unfortunate.  They are the artistic, anointed record of remembrance penned by our forebears and should be retained in the church’s repertoire.  Not only do they assist us in our passage through the Gates of Thanksgiving, they also help us fulfill the biblical ideal of one generation declaring His works to another.

However, gates are passageways not destinations.  The testimonies preserved by the arts of the previous generations are designed to encourage us to hear from God today, to see His deliverance from our enemies and to see His Word at work in our lives.  The great cloud of witnesses seen in Hebrews 12 serves to us stir us on to our own victory, not to ruminate endlessly on their histories.  The legacy of Pentecostalism is to hear from God today and to obey what the Spirit tells us to do now.

So, how does a worship leader function, poised between the past and the present, in search of the future?

Remembering without Falling Back
Song selection for public worship must be taken from the whole repertoire of the congregation according to the leadership of the Spirit for each service.  Each song set should have a theme, a central idea.  I call this “the-Truth-the-Spirit-wants” for that service.  With this truth in mind, I select songs to introduce, develop, and respond to this truth.  I do not select songs because they are new or old, or cool, or because “they will really get them going,” or even because I like them. These are unworthy attributes of songs because they are people-centered.  This method of song selection is one of the differences between a song service and a time of praise and worship through songs. Nostalgia is only one of the false feelings that can be confused with the move of the Spirit.  Another difference is a related one: the songs are chosen to engage the whole church in worship, not to please the desires of some of the people.  These two factors express the difference between ministering to the Lord and ministering to the people.  Just as nostalgia is not worship, neither is novelty. The leadership of the Spirit is not subject to popular trends. I love many of the old songs and many of the new songs, but I love the leadership of the Spirit more.

Song-driven Spirituality vs. Spirit-led Worship
There are two dangers to be avoided in song selection.

  1. Forgetting what must be remembered, and
  2. Missing the full message of the Spirit to the church.

Song-driven spirituality contains both for it is characterized by worship that can only be enabled by certain types of songs.  These can be old or new, but the worshiper is enabled by certain songs and disabled by other songs. If the new song is preferred the danger is one of forgetting the testimony of the past. If the old song is preferred, the danger is one of missing what the Spirit is saying to the churches today.

In stark contrast, Spirit-led worship is the ideal, containing the full potential revelation from the Spirit of God.  The Lead Worshiper (the Lead Pastor) enables the Worship Leader to seek the leadership of the Holy Spirit in song selection, new and/or old.  The Truth-the-Spirit-wants is the goal.  This lifts the process of song selection, preparation, and presentation out of a culture-driven, market-driven realm of personal tastes into the realm of the Spirit of God.  This selection process must be matched by a congregation that has been taught who they are—the Holy-Royal Priesthood of God.  They know their ministry is to focus on the Lord, like Mary of Bethany, and present their personal, costly sacrifice of praise to Jesus, shunning any warm, fuzzy feelings rooted here on earth, no matter how sweet.  Their goal is like that of the Hebrews correspondent, “We have come to Mt. Zion.”  This is a time of praise and worship, not a song service.

So, here in my 70s, I seek to remember the lessons learned 40 years ago when I discovered the joy and power of ministering to the Lord.  I will treasure the leadership of the Spirit through those He has anointed to prepare our sacrifice of praise.  The goal of my worship leader is to engage me in worship not to entertain me with the songs I already know and love.  Songs are the tools we use for the work we have to do.  What is the work of public worship?  It is a well-known list of “things to do today.”  We gather in the name of Jesus to

  • Give thanks to God for who He is and what He has done,
  • To proclaim in detail the excellence of our Savior as we give Him the glory due His name,
  • To worship Him even as the hosts of heaven worship Him,
  • To seek His face in prayer for His Father’s House is a House of Prayer using songs of prayer,
  • To exhort our brothers and sisters to join in the praise of heaven and earth,
  • To tell the Jesus Story in song,
  • To memorize and confess scripture songs,
  • To sing with the Spirit and with Understanding, and
  • To open our hearts to the moving of the Spirit through His gifts to the church.

This is the multi-faceted work of worship and songs are the tools we use.  When we do this work, Jesus becomes the focus of the meeting.  He inhabits this worship, granting us the amazing gift of His manifest presence.  He rules in our worship making signs and wonders and miracles our portion, gifts from His sovereign hand.

More than Just a Gate
Why should I seek nostalgia for what God once did for us when He is standing ready to pour out His Spirit today?  The Bible calls for public worship to be an inter-generational conversation about the Glory of the Lord.

Psalm 145:4 NKJV
One generation shall praise Your works to another and shall declare Your mighty acts.

Psalm 79:13 ESV
But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.

This means that the church needs to sing the great songs of previous generations (as they are led by the Spirit) and the current songs written in this moment for these times.  It is foolish to turn a deaf ear to either song.  Traditional songs can function at any juncture of the service, not just at the Gates of Thanksgiving.  They too,  are “psalms, hymns, a spiritual songs” and are therefore of great use to the church.  They can help us remember the right things and forget the hindering things.

New Wine and Wineskins
Advocates of the new at the expense of the old often quote the parable of the New Wine and Wineskins as their license to destroy the old ways they do not like in favor of the new ways they prefer.  This is a shallow and dishonest reading of the words of Jesus.  The obvious and clearly stated purpose is the preservation of both the old and the new wine. To me, the new wine refers to the fresh move of the Spirit which will lead to new methods but is not intended to replace the old wine which some say, “is better.”

Luke 5:36-39 NKJV
Then He spoke a parable to them: “No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined.  But new wine must be put into new wineskins, and both are preserved. And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better.'”

Back to the Center
So here we are, back at the dynamic center between the wonders of the old songs and the power of the new songs seeking the leadership of the Spirit in our choices of what to sing today.  If pleasing people is our goal, the ones who are left out this week will just have to accept that while the included ones around them enjoy their time of worship.  If pleasing God is our purpose, the Spirit can lead us to the very songs that will span generational lines and make us ONE, just as Jesus prayed we would be.  We can remember without falling back.

Semper Reformanda!

© 2020 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

Nostalgia Is Not Worship

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