Far then Near – Worshipping the Transcendent then Immanent God of Wonder(s)

          Worship pastors and worship leaders have the unique privilege of placing the very words of worship into the mouths, hearts, and minds of the people we lead—an enormous assignment carrying with it profound implications.  We have the responsibility not only of providing the words for the worshiper in the dialogue of worship but also, and more profoundly, of representing God, his words, his actions, his character, and his nature in the dialogue of worship.  We must faithfully represent both sides of the worship conversation—the overtures, character, and nature of the Creator and the responses of the creature.  The very idea that we are called upon to represent God in the discourse of worship should bring us to our knees in humble submission to God and to God’s word.  

            The Christian worship service is spiritually formational; therefore, it is a vitally important event in a believer’s life perhaps only trumped by his or her daily devotional life with God.  Because the worship event is so important and formational, the worship service requires our thoughtful care and attention to the meticulous details of planning and preparing the drama of the worship dialogue that will be played out Sunday by Sunday in churches throughout the globe. 

            To tell the story of God well, order and sequence matter.  God was transcendent first before he was immanent.  Convey God’s transcendence first in your worship service, either through song, through Scripture, through prayer, or through a brief reflection about God in his transcendent otherness.  Where you start matters.  Where you start can affect your final destination.  Use the biblical models as your scriptural mandate to provide a theological substructure to your worship that incorporates the rhythm of transcendence then immanence throughout your worship service, but especially at its beginning.

            As we lead our congregations to celebrate God’s amazing work of grace through Christ’s great redemptive act on the cross, we must remember that the cross and the gospel can only be most clearly understood against the backdrop of God’s holiness and his sovereignty, both of which represent profound transcendent attributes of God.  As we tell the story of the gospel, reenact its profound passion, and celebrate the wonder of redemption, we must always remember that the gospel does not begin at the cross but begins squarely with this foundational truth: “God is holy”—arguably the most profound representation of the transcendent nature of God.  The cross of redemption must always be considered through the lens of God’s transcendent wholly otherness in order for the gospel to be most clearly communicated. With transcendence in full view first, the starting point of the gospel becomes God and God’s holiness rather than man and man’s corruption by sin.  As a result, the transcendence of God and the immanence of God in Christ will both be magnified to their appropriate levels of significance.

            God’s transcendence singularly provides the appropriate context for understanding most fully and completely God’s immanence. We must fight modern culture’s propensity to casually bypass the transcendence of God while running ill-equipped to embrace God’s nearness, God’s provision, God’s care, and God’s works on our behalf—all of which will be misunderstood (or incompletely discerned) without the appropriate transcendent contextualization.  How often do we sidestep the mysterious, fearful, awe-full, righteous transcendence of God to embrace him primarily as the one from whom all blessings flow?  Praising God for what he has done is not wrong; in fact we are commanded to praise him for his magnificent work on our behalf.  However, it is a mistake to praise God for his work without establishing first who God is.  Without transcendence perpetually operating in the foreground of religious thought, both God’s transcendence and God’s immanence are diminished leaving incomplete and malformed thoughts about the character and nature of God. Transcendence unlocks the full meaning of immanence and uniquely provides the answer to the question, “who is this God who draws near?”  Immanence prior to or to the exclusion of God’s transcendence weakens the church, diminishes a believer’s capacity to worship rightly, and ultimately creates a picture of God in the minds of Christians that is incomplete, inaccurate, and dangerous.  Likewise, transcendence without immanence renders a believer’s thoughts about God as distorted and his knowledge of God truncated.              

            To reverse the “rush to immanence” propensity of modern times will require effort and intentionality.  We must fight our own acculturated tendencies and inclinations and, as worship pastors, establish the transcendent otherness of God as we call our people to come in fear and trembling before a God who is above, beyond, and other than we are.  Worship pastors, we must ensure that believers understand the God they worship, the wholly other, transcendent God for whom their transcendence-starved souls hunger.  Then, the work of God and the blessings of God (expressions of his immanent care and concern) may be all the more valued and appreciated.

This article is written by Chuck T. Lewis, Ph.D.  Dr. Lewis serves as Associate Professor of Church Music and Worship at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Lewis is also currently serving as Worship Pastor at Hurstbourne Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and has formerly served as Worship Pastor of the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Florida.

Tom and the Psalms: Using the Psalms in Corporate Worship

Meet Tom. Tom has been leading worship at his home church for several years now.

Tom doesn’t always have a ton of time to dedicate to what some higher-ups would call “professional development,” but Tom does his best to read articles, listen to podcasts, keep up with new music, and stay informed on new ideas as much as he can. He really takes his job as worship leader serious.

If you were to follow Tom around for a couple of weeks you would usually find him on Wednesday or Thursday night scouring and hunting the internet, blogs, Spotify, and whatever else he can get his hands. He tries hard to find resources to help him plan ahead. Like I said, Tom takes his job as worship leader serious. Tom has even read some of the how-to books about worship leadership and is currently working his way through one of those big, tough-to-read theology books because he knows stuff like that will just help him serve his church better.

Tom probably wouldn’t be able to explain this fully, but he does all of this because he wants his church to know the truth about who God is and how they should respond to Him. Tom totally realizes that his church doesn’t primarily need him to be a pro on the new lighting system that looks more confusing than rocket science, but rather that his church needs him to understand the Bible.

I’m sure you, like Tom, search, hunt, and do your best to be the worship leader your church needs. You care about what your people say, what they sing, and what they learn about God. Tom is a pretty good example. I mean, he wouldn’t claim to have it all figured out, but really, who does.

Have you ever thought about how a worship leader in the Old Testament would have led? What about a worship leader in Jesus’ day? What about the ones who led worship at the apostles’ churches? Have you ever thought about what the corporate worship service would have looked like for all of human history before, I don’t know, 200 AD?

It must have been hard to lead in those times. Think about it, how in the world did they even know what songs to pick before the internet!? And since the times were so different, can we even assume Tom’s job is the same job those guys had forever ago?

I think so. There is a whole group of people talked about in the Old Testament called the psalmists who wrote songs and poems and led the people of God in worship. The modern worship leader’s job is the same as the psalmists’ job— that is to form the people of God around the story of God’s creation and redemption. The psalmists have been leading the people of God to respond to God in service, artful expression, and obedience in a corporate setting since the beginning of the Torah. So, back to the question, how did these Old Testament worship leaders lead and what can we learn from them?

Well, lucky for us, we have a curated, collected record of what Hebrew worship looked like right in the middle of the Old Testament. In fact, that record shows what it looked like AND some of the actual words, stories, prayers, and poems they used! You probably know where I’m going, but God has preserved for us a record of Hebrew worship that I think should be pulled back out and used by Tom, and every other modern worship leader—the book of Psalms.

As God showed himself to the Hebrews, they responded in the prayers, poems, and songs found in the Psalms. Even the structure of the book is in such a way that teaches the worshiper more about who God is, who we are, and how we relate to God and each other.

These are just two ways that the modern worship leader can use the Book of Psalms.

1. Use the Psalms as your guide for what you teach your church about who God is and how we respond to him. Really take a look at what the Psalms say and the story they tell. See if the words you put in the mouths of your people lines up with what the Psalms say.

See what the Hebrews were learning about God through the Psalms and compare that with what your church is learning about God through your songs and prayers. No, this is not easy. Yes, this will take some real work and require you to try and understand the structure and message of the Psalms. But folks, this is what God Himself gave us to lead with!

2. Use the Psalms as your tools to structure your corporate worship service. There are so many ways to do this, but at its most fundamental level it would look like your church saying, singing, praying, etc. exactly what a specific psalm or group of psalms would be saying.

The psalmist is telling the people of God to rejoice because of God’s steadfast love in Psalm 117? Tell your people to rejoice because of God’s steadfast love. Is the psalmist telling the people of God to put away foreign idols and serve God only or else destruction will come in Psalm 99? Use Psalm 99 to encourage your people to have no idols in their own lives and to serve God alone.

Using the Psalms in your corporate worship will shape your church’s thinking about God, man, the world, and how we respond to it all. It really is kind of simple when you think about it.

So, like Tom, keep working, keep searching for the best resources, and keep taking your job serious. And on a foundational level, see your job as similar to the psalmists. Use your influence to form the people of God around the story of God by using the Psalms.

Now Tom can go out there and know he is jumping in on a multi-millennia task of leading the people of God in worship. Tom and the psalmists are partners now—co-workers if you will. Tom is teaching his generation what the psalmists taught their generations about who God is and how we respond to him. Tom is not alone—and you are not alone. Let’s join together and worship with the Psalms.

Keith Willis serves as the research assistant at the Institute for Biblical Worship. He and his wife Amanda currently serve at Sojourn Community Church while he pursues his Master of Divinity at Southern Seminary.

Worship Leaders, Get Rid of Your Green Room

Performers on stage, whether actors or musicians, usually have a “Green Room” designated for them to use when they are not on stage. In this room there are comfortable chairs, food and water. It is a place they can escape and be separate from the audience. Many larger churches today have green rooms for their worship musicians. Between multiple services church musicians can relax and have conversations with others on the team. Sometimes it is a place a worship team goes during the sermon portion of the service. This particular arrangement sets a poor model for how a worship ministry should operate. The worship leader and team are servants to Jesus and to the church and should carry out their roles with great humility among the congregation. Using a green room can cause your congregation to see the team as a separate, elite group of performers instead of a team that is serving Jesus and the people.

Yes, the worship team often does need a place to leave their things, check on equipment and seek refreshment, but it is not a place the team should camp out. Even though a worship team member may not be the main worship leader, he or she is still considered a worship leader because they are on the platform in front of the congregation assisting with the worship music.

Worship has a vertical and horizontal aspect to it.  Through our corporate worship we offer a sacrifice of praise to our great God.  We strive to bring him glory for who he is and what he has done for us. Our services should also have a horizontal aspect where people are genuinely encouraged in their walk with Christ. Hopefully, we are doing well bringing glory to God, but how are we doing in the building up of our people? Focus on the congregation should go beyond what happens on the platform.

What is a worship leader to do with a team that has a green room philosophy on Sunday mornings? Here are a few suggestions on helping your worship team see their role at the church:

1.  The worship leader leads by example. If you want your team to see how they should use their “off-platform” time on Sunday morning, you must model that behavior for them.

2. The worship leader should get involved in a small group ministry on Sunday morning if possible. It may mean only being in the study time for 30 minutes or less, but there is a connection with people. Expect your worship team members to be involved in a small group (Sunday school, weekly home Bible studies). Here is where they can build relationships beyond the worship team.

3. The worship leader should organize the rehearsal time on Sunday morning so that there is extra time available before the worship service or between the services. This will allow the worship team to be in the congregation prior to the service to greet and encourage people who are arriving for the service.

4. The worship leader should encourage the team to move out to the congregation once they have finished the musical portion of the service. Rather than going off the platform into a back room, have the team walk out into the congregation and find a place to listen to the remaining of the service. Some may think this is distracting but it shows support for the preaching portion of the service and acknowledges the team’s need for spiritual nourishment just like the rest of the congregation. If your church has multiple services on Sunday, I am not advocating that the worship team should sit in the congregation for all services.

5. Worship leaders should teach their teams the meaning of biblical worship and the team’s role in the worship service. The musical portion of the service is not a performance.  I would encourage worship leaders to not use the term “stage” with their teams.  It is a platform. Semantics, I know, but it could help with the team’s view of their role.

6. Worship leaders should lead with a great amount of humility, show servant leadership, and teach their teams to do the same.

7. Worship team members should strive to build relationships with many in the congregation on Sunday mornings.  Sometimes the worship leader has to strongly encourage their team members to pursue relationships with those in the congregations. Musicians in general can be introverted and often this is displayed the minute they move off the platform. 

8. The worship team’s effectiveness in ministry is not limited to their leadership on the platform. Sometimes they are much more effective in encouraging the congregation with conversations they may have before or after a service than in their platform leadership.

Worship leaders, if you currently have a green room, don’t make it comfortable. Take out the chairs and make it a “stopping off place” rather than a “camping out” place. In fact, don’t call the room a green room. Much of worship leadership is about influence. Each week we strive to encourage, edify and admonish the saints through our worship leadership, and this happens on the platform and in the congregation before and after the service.

Dr. Greg Brewton is a professor and chair of the Department of Biblical Worship at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.

Let's Sing the Beauty of Confession

When I sit down to write a song, it’s often a solitary exercise. I tend to write both music and lyrics at once, fitting them together closely. But I also enjoy shaping melodies around existing texts or poetry. It helps when the poem I’m working with already has a rhythm to it. I’ve practiced this over the years with 18th-century English hymn texts, especially the gems you can find in old poetry books or hymnals that just have the words in metered form. Occasionally, I’ll co-write with a friend in present-day collaboration where I just add music to a poem, or a story, or journal entry they’ve written.

Last year, Don Carson sent me a poem to see if it might be a good candidate for congregational singing. I sat down with the words at the piano and sent a voice memo version to get some feedback from Don. After a few small edits, I recorded a final version with a friend and producer, Lucas Morton, whom I met while working on an Indelible Grace project a few years ago.  

I was compelled by Don’s text because it’s a confessional and Psalm-like subject, and because confession isn’t en vogue in our contemporary church songs. I wonder if we often resist this subject in our corporate songs because, like our first parents in the Garden of Eden, we’re swamped with a low hum of guilt as we go about our everyday life. We hide out in fig leaves of blaming and resenting and counting up our losses. When we cover ourselves with anything but Jesus, we get stuck in the shadows of our own hearts and feel powerless in our broken relationships.

If you’re living in community, don’t be surprised when you experience these lurking shadows within your own heart and the hearts of those you love. When we hide out, we miss out. We miss out on the community of love we were made for. Rather than covering and shifting to nurture our bitterness and loss, the way to abundant life is to let God turn on the lights. He summons out of hiding. He calls things what they are.

Confession is even more challenging when we encounter unsafe people; especially those who’ve wounded and attacked us. But there’s good news! When we go deeper into honest confession, God himself proves to be our defender. He is our true safe place. We can trust him with all things. When we confess, the Spirit brings the gospel’s cleansing power to bear on our guilty souls. And when we confess, he both purifies and heals, shedding his resurrection light into every dark shadow.

The more deeply and specifically we confess, the more the gospel is specifically applied to bring forgiveness and wholeness to our hearts and minds and relationships. Confession is the threshold we cross to become unburdened from guilt. Forgiveness mends our relationships, seven times seventy-seven, or as long as it takes. And that’s something to sing about.  

‘I Am Ashamed’

Lyrics by Don Carson; music by Sandra McCracken

I used to nurture bitterness,
To count up every slight.
The world’s a moral wilderness,
And I have felt its blight.
     Self-pity ruled, resentment reigned;
     No one understood my pain.
I spiraled down in murky night,
Insisting that I had the right
To hate and hate again.

I am ashamed;
O, my Lord, forgive.

But then the gospel taught me how
To contemplate the cross.
For there Christ died for me—and now
I’ve glimpsed the bitter cost.
     He bore abuse, and blows, and hate;
     He did not retaliate.
Triumphant malice sneered and tossed
Blind rage at him—he never lost
The love that conquers hate.

I am ashamed;
O, my Lord, forgive.

To make no threat, to smile, forgive,
To love—and not because I must,
For Jesus showed me how to live
And trust the One who’s just;
     To suffer wrong and feel the pain,
     Certain that the loss is gain—
O God, I want so much to trust,
To follow Jesus on the cross,
To love and love again.

Originally on August 2, 2016. You can find the posting here.
Used with Permission.

Sandra McCracken is a gifted singer and songwriter who has contributed to the church's worship language by combining her soulful, folk-gospel sound with her stirring lyrics. Her music is regularly used by congregations in corporate worship. Learn out more about Sandra McCracken and buy her music on her website here.

Worshiping in the Dark

I am not usually an advocate of worship services where the congregational lighting is very dim. In a dark congregational worship area, it is easy for individuals to feel they are worshiping alone. Singing in worship services is a corporate activity; something brothers and sisters in Christ do together.

Although not a normal congregational gathering, a spontaneous worship service occurred in a Philippian jail in Acts 16. Here we see Paul and Silas praying and singing in the dark at midnight. The overarching emphasis of this passage demonstrates how the Gospel message is unstoppable even when the messengers are imprisoned. In the midst of this great truth we see another principle that speaks of the hope and trust these men placed in God when faced with trial and jail.

In that dark prison they held an informal worship service.

Paul and Silas were in Philippi for several days sharing the gospel story. They were troubled by a certain slave girl who, on a number of occasions, called out to the crowd saying that Paul and Silas were servants of God proclaiming salvation. This slave girl was a fortuneteller and through her fortune telling she provided income for her owner. One day Paul commanded the evil spirit working in this slave girl to come out and immediately she lost her ability to fortune tell. As a result, the slave owner stirred up a great commotion which eventually led to Paul and Silas being brought before the magistrates in Philippi. They were accused, stripped, beaten with rods and put into the inner prison with their feet fastened in stocks.

Acts 16 says that “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison was shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved.” And they said believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:25-31).

The Lord was in the midst of all this and used this seemingly difficult and possibly deadly event to do something miraculous – bring the jailer and his household to faith in Christ.

I have often wondered what my response would be if placed in a similar position as Paul and Silas in this dark jail. Would I be praying and singing hymns to God?  I think there are several implications that we can glean from this passage.

1.   Christians have a reason to sing no matter the circumstances. Despite the conditions in which we find ourselves, our worst problem in life has been solved – we were dead in our sins but have been brought to new life in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-9). For the believer there is always the hope we have in Christ. Despite being in stocks in a dark prison Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns.

2.   When we sing it reminds us of the greatness of our God and the wonder of the Gospel. Worshiping in the midst of life’s difficult times encourages us and keeps our focus on Christ.

3.   We sing with eternity in view despite the outward circumstances of our lives. In this life we may have family conflicts, health issues, job stress or the sorrow of the loss of a loved one. These may seem like real chains but we need to be reminded that in Christ we are freed from the chains of sin and death. In John 16:33 Jesus says “in this world we will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”  We need to keep our eyes on Christ.

4.   Our worship is a witness to a lost world showing the salvation and hope we have in Christ. In Acts 16:25 we observe the other prisoners listening to Paul and Silas praying and singing. It also seems that the jailer knew enough about what Paul and Silas were sharing that he immediately asked them how he could be saved.

5.   Worship is especially appropriate in difficult situations. Our worries and anxieties need to give way to worship. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts (Colossians 3:15-16).

These verses give us a wonderful picture of believers who trusted God’s sovereignty in their lives so much that they could worship in a dark prison at midnight. As Christians, we are not promised that an earthquake will occur and break our chains freeing us from all difficulties, but we are promised that Christ will never leave us or forsake us (John 14:18, Romans 8:31-38). This assurance should cause us to keep our focus on Christ and worship Him in the midst of trials. Lord, let us worship like Paul and Silas. Amen.

Dr. Greg Brewton is a professor and chair of the Department of Biblical Worship at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.

"Your Gear Can Wait." Wisdom from an Ordination Council

Last week I sat on an ordination council for a worship student who has faithfully served his rural Baptist church in Indiana while attending Southern Seminary. His church is one of many around the seminary that views itself as a “sending” church. They take young greenhorn worship musicians and shape them into more mature spiritual shepherds. Nothing substitutes for the opportunities students have when they apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to real-time, real-life church work.

Prior to the interview, the young worship leader submitted written answers to 50 questions ranging from specific theological perspectives to philosophy of ministry and worship service methodology. The following questions were asked during the in-person council:

*Explain justification by faith.

*Explain your view of sanctification. What are the various means God uses to sanctify the believer?

*Can a person have Christ as his Savior without submitting to Him as Lord? Explain.

*What is your position on inerrancy?

*How does the Bible relate the sovereignty of God to salvation?

*What does the Bible teach about the extent of man’s depravity?

*What does Christ’s atonement accomplish?

*What is the proper use of the Old Testament Law?

*Do you believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin? What is the significance of your belief?

*What is your interpretation of the biblical teaching on Hell?

*Do you believe that the events described in Genesis 1-11 are factual or symbolic?

*What is the church?

By the end of our meeting the ordination council had covered these questions and more—from congregational worship languages and cultures to dealing with cantankerous church members. I could not have been more proud of our Department of Biblical Worship student who will graduate this week with his M.Div. from Southern Seminary. 

I’m recounting my experience on the ordination council because I’m overwhelmed with gratefulness. As I listened to the young worship leader answer the questions with confident humility, evidence of his rigorous study at the seminary in tandem with the shepherding experience he had developed at the church became wonderfully obvious. The Apostle Peter’s charge was beautifully displayed during the council meeting: “…make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-9)

I left the rural Indiana church that day encouraged by so many things, but three stand out in my mind: 

1. The pastor and the church take ordination very, very seriously.

2. Our student was incredibly well-prepared for the ordination interview. He worked hard during his time in Louisville, both in his studies at school and as a worship leader at the church. He grew theologically, musically, spiritually, and pastorally.  

3. The ordination council never lost sight of the vital role of an ordained man: being a pastor/shepherd.

While I was both thrilled and grateful to be a part of a council that explored so many vital areas of ministry, I was also reminded that pastoral ministry is primarily about shepherding and caring for people. In fact, people are the ministry. 

One of the pastors looked at my student and said, “I remember watching you work at putting all of your music and gear away at the end of the service the first few weeks of your ministry here. Do you remember what I said to you about three weeks after you started?” “Yes sir,” replied my student, “Quit messing with your gear and go shake hands with the people.” 

That’s a good word for all of us.


Dr. Crider is the Executive Director of the Institute for Biblical Worship and a professor of Church Music and Worship in the Department of Biblical Worship at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He also serves as Worship Pastor at LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, KY.