(Author’s Note: This essay was written during the 2016 election. However, it seems the national situation has not improved. Please adjust for the differences these four years later. Stephen Phifer)
The Importance of Worship in Troubled Times
Psalm 61:1-2 NKJV
Hear my cry, O God; Attend to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I will cry to You,
When my heart is overwhelmed;
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
To all singers and instrumentalists, technicians and pastors:
It goes without saying: For America, these are troubled times:
- We have seen the most divisive and confusing presidential elections in history.
- Political parties are pulling apart.
- Our representatives battle each other rather than the dangers that face us.
- In critical elections, politicians who say they are not politicians smile at us. Perhaps some are true but how do we trust a moving image?
In the face of these troubles, worshipers enter the sanctuary (or tune in online) each week deliberately gathering together as their private worlds seem ready to fly apart.
We need good news.
- We all need blessed assurance that God has not forgotten His Covenant.
- We need affirmation in the stand of faith each of us has made in our lives, our homes, our careers, and in our ministries.
- We need to repent of the sins of the nation and the church.
- We need to lament the injustice of those who suffer from the wickedness of others.
- We need to mourn our losses as we hold tightly to the hope we have in Christ.
- We need, above all, to celebrate Jesus and His victory freely shared with us.
Artists, take the lead!
All these laments, petitions, confessions, and exultations are legitimate modes of public worship. Church musicians are the ones who get to lead in this important corporate ministry. If there ever was a time in our lives when we see how important what we do really is, this is the time. We are not Christian entertainers; we are leading the praise-songs, worship-songs, and prayer-songs of the people of God.
Psalm 61 (and so many others) speaks of “crying out” to God. This may be incompatible with our carefully worked out and handed down worship cultures, but it is exactly what the times call for. I have heard of pastors who will not allow negative expressions in public worship. This may be a well-intentioned editorial process, but the people of God need to cry out to God. Songs can do that in an orderly fashion.
It is certainly more fun to lead the joyful song. The song of joy is commanded and it must be sung. The worship of Yahweh through Jesus by the Spirit must be uplifting and affirming. But the Bible says there is a time to mourn as well as a time to dance. (Proverbs 3:4) We cannot read very far into the Psalms or the Prophets before we receive a command to cry out to God.
- The purpose of music is to collect our individual prayers into a corporate expression that is passionate, sincere, and orderly.
- There is much to repent of and mourn for in our nation and in the church.
In North America, we live in a vile and corrupt age.
- Public decency is a museum concept, an artifact of a bye-gone era.
- Standards for public broadcasting are non-existent.
- Truth is up for grabs in the marketplace of ideas. (For a description of this age, read Isaiah 59.)
- In the church, many are running their lives and ministries, not by the teachings of Jesus, as James calls it, “the wisdom from above,” but by the wisdom from beneath, earthly wisdom “based on the principles of this world” and not on Christ.
James 3:15-18 NIV
Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
Colossians 2:8 NIV
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.
Crying Out to God
In these times, we worship leaders need to seek out the songs that cry out to God.
- Sometimes they are songs of repentance and at other times they are cries for mercy.
- Often they seek the face of God, the hand of God, the Spirit of God, or the presence of God.
- Some songs even celebrate the paradoxes of God’s character as in these words, “He gives and takes away.”
- As in the Psalms, lament should always lead to praise. The Psalmist said, “I will cry to You, when my heart is overwhelmed; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”
Build It on the Rock
We are all familiar with the words of Jesus at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. If we hear His words and obey, we are like a house built on the Rock. Rains pour, streams rise and winds blow but the house stands. Those who do not hear and obey Him build their houses on sand and the storms destroy them. (Matt 7:24-27 NIV)
This is also true of the “spiritual house” we build for the Lord as our liturgies (song sets) build up the church. (1 Peter 2:4) We need to build our ministries on the bedrock of the Word of God and not on the shifting sands of personal or public opinion.
Let us build them on the Rock, Christ Jesus.
- We need to be thoughtful as we select songs, not just do songs “that work” or that people respond to quickly. Many times a song that requires little of the people has little lasting impact while one that needs a few outings before the people embrace it keeps on being useful for years.
- We need to use songs that tell us about Jesus and His Kingdom, about His promises and His Covenant. He is the Rock and He is still solid. We need to celebrate this in songs of faith and encouragement.
- We need to sing of the greatness of God, not just how we feel about Him. We expect the pastor to have a “word from the Lord” for the congregation each week.
The worship leader should also have a “word from the Lord” every time. With this theme, as a guiding truth, he/she can then select or reject songs based on something bigger than the songs themselves. This is one of the dimensions of worship in spirit and truth. I call the theme “the-Truth-the-Spirit-wants” for the service.
Learning from a Film
For example, when I saw the short but powerful resurrection sequence of Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ,” I knew immediately that my job was to change that sentence every week. From Palm Sunday through Pentecost that year, each week the song set I used featured a different truth about Jesus:
- “The Resurrection of the Christ,”
- “The Love of the Christ,”
- “The Power of the Christ,”
- “The Names of the Christ,” and so on.
Mel Gibson’s job was to tell of Christ’s passion and mine was to tell everything else about Him I could in the song sets I built each week.
Jesus is still the Rock and He is still solid enough to support us even in these challenging days. Let’s be careful to make our worship be a revelation of who He is today. As much as we need to lament, we also need to confess the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. (1 Peter 2: 9)
Tell the Story
My mentor, the late Dr. Robert E. Webber, impressed upon his students that the worship we lead must tell the Jesus Story. He warned against topical worship (family, depression, success, etc.) because it tends to limit the scope of the truth celebrated in worship. He also taught that we should celebrate Holy Communion each week because, when we do it as the Church Fathers did–as a great thanksgiving–the Lord’s Table tells the whole Jesus story. For those of us whose traditions do not embrace a weekly Eucharist, we can use the song set (the liturgy) to praise the Lord in the most complete form possible.
At one church I was allowed to summarize every song set with the proclamation of the Mystery of Christ, a rich, ancient confession: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” When the last song was “high praise” we shouted these words. When the song set ended in the stillness of the Holy of Holies, we almost whispered them. Either way, we told the whole Jesus Story. This is a liturgy built on the Rock.
The Unshakable Kingdom
Our faith was made for troubled times. Our friend, the writer to the Hebrews, helps us understand worship under stress. In chapter 12, just after describing the earth-joining-heaven nature of New Covenant worship, (v 22-24) he warns us of troubled times ahead. He said the voice of God was shaking the earth so that everything that can be shaken would be clearly seen. The things that cannot be shaken will remain. Indeed he says,
Hebrews 12:28-29 NIV
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
When we choose our songs, prayers, confessions and scripture readings, we are partaking of the Kingdom that is beyond the forces of the economy or politics or even terrorists and dictatorships. The church has survived and even thrived in all such shakable situations because we are receiving the Unshakable Kingdom. This is the good news we bring each Sunday. We can lament and we must. But we do not do so without hope. We know that God hears our “cries” for mercy and for His presence.
We can praise God because we know the things that may rock our world do not rock the Rock!
© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved