Archive for March, 2011

Some Things To Consider Including in Your Worship – Planned Prayers

March 18, 2011

In the free worship tradition, almost nothing is as frowned upon as the idea of prayers that are read or planned. These are seen as the embodiment of vain repetitions, and a clear sign of dead formalism and mindless liturgicalism. For years, I thought that unrehearsed, spontaneous, off-the-cuff prayers demonstrated how very real our connection with God was. We spoke with Him as we would anyone else in the assembly. The thought of planning a prayer seemed to me to be some form of fakery, like a boy who finds out what the topic of his impromptu speech is to be and prepares beforehand.

For all my pride in our spontaneity, Tozer’s words did seem to represent my experience.

“We of the nonliturgical churches tend to look with some disdain upon those churches that follow a carefully prescribed form of service, and certainly there must be a good deal in such services that has little or no meaning for the average participant—this not because it is carefully prescribed but because the average participant is what he is. But I have observed that our familiar impromptu service, planned by the leader twenty minutes before, often tends to follow a ragged and tired order almost as standardized as the Mass. The liturgical service is at least beautiful; ours is often ugly. (A.W. Tozer, God Tells the Man Who Cares.)

Tozer’s words resonated with me, partly because of how empty most public prayers that I heard were. The typical recipe was: a few stock phrases, some effusive words of praise, the Lord’s name repeated like a verbal hiccup, plenty of “we just wanna” and “I pray that” and finished off with the mumbled evangelical incantation, “injeeznameamen”. No wonder then that minds wander during prayer, when there is little to interest or grip the hearers.

When I first heard public prayers with some thought and planning involved, I was tremendously challenged. My impiety in prayer was exposed to my own heart. My slovenliness in addressing God during public worship was revealed. I was gripped by the importance of leaders modelling right responses to God in their prayers. I began to see that preparing to pray might be a serous task. R. Kent Hughes got my attention when he wrote, “Next to preaching, I spend most of my preparation time on prayer.” (R. Kent Hughes, “Free Church Worship: The Challenge of Freedom,” in Worship by the Book, D.A Carson, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 175.)

At the same time, I seldom lean towards reading a prayer. Spontaneity in prayer is important, because worship must involve responses to God’s revelation, not all of which can (or should be) rehearsed. Reading another man’s prayer may work for some, but it can feel like reading another man’s sermon. All true, but not part of the man who reads it, and the lifelessness is often apparent to the ones listening. As Horton Davies said, “Free prayers, under the guidance of a devout and beloved minister who knows well both his Bible and his people, have a moving immediacy and relevance that set prayers seldom attain.” How do we strike a balance between soulless reading and mind-numbing informality?

Several writers have given good advice on the topic. Many of them encourage familiarizing oneself with prayers contained in books like Valley of VisionBook of Common Prayer, and Hughes Oliphant Old’s Leading in PrayerA Workbook for Ministers. Unless your conscience is troubled at the idea of listening to recorded prayers, there can be value in listening to the prayers of another, from time to time.

The best ‘practice’ for public prayer is private prayer. Praying intelligently in secret will certainly show up in public. Being full of Scripture and Scriptural prayers is crucial. For an extended pastoral prayer, it can be useful to outline some points for the prayer.

Since corporate prayer is said into the ears of both God and the congregation, we have a responsibility to both worship and teach. That requires some thought and planning.

You Say Non-Essentials, I Say Truncated

March 15, 2011

Conservative Christianity is concerned with conserving all it means to be Christian. Broadly speaking, all Christians want to see Christianity conserved; our disagreement consists in what we think must be conserved to achieve that.

Generally, evangelicals and fundamentalists think that the preservation of Christianity consists in the conservation of the gospel itself, along with a strong commitment to biblical doctrine. If I read them right, methods which preserve and propagate the gospel and sound teaching are the means to conserve Christianity. Therefore, a large amount of hope is being placed in expository preaching, church membership, church discipline, biblical discipleship, spiritual leadership, theological literacy, clear evangelism and robust missions. Certainly, the revival of emphasis on these aspects of Christianity is to be applauded and welcomed.

While I agree with the commitment to the gospel and biblical doctrine, I don’t think these alone are enough to conserve and propagate biblical Christianity. I think several other things are essential to Christianity and need to be conserved. I believe Christianity is a life of love; therefore, Christians have to be very concerned with the matter of the affections: what we are to love, to what degree, and in what way. We further have to be concerned with what shapes those loves, what affects and moulds our imaginations. To navigate these issues, we have to be concerned with meaning, discovering what various objects, things, gestures, practices or other cultural artifacts mean, since we end up using them in life or worship. Therefore, I urge the study and understanding of such things, not because I want some complex form of Christianity, but because I think these things are essential to Christianity.

I think that Christianity lacking these distinctives is, in fact, a truncated Christianity. That is, instead of being a sleek, supple, essentials-only Christianity, I see it as ultimately incapable of sustaining the life of faith. I think that the removal of a right understanding of the affections, a neglect of what shapes the imagination, an incorrect understanding of how we know, and a failure to relate the centrality of the affections to the doctrine of sanctification will result in a severely under-developed spiritual life. The resulting Christianity walks into the gale-force winds of modern unbelief with something barely more than a mental and volitional commitment to certain biblical facts. In the face of such a storm, quite literally the majority of those who have grown up with such a minimalist Christianity are blown off into apostasy or a secularized form of religion. A small minority of people barely hang on to their creed by the tips of their fingernails. Sadly, this massive fall-off is considered normal, and is proof-texted with the parable of the soils.

In other words, my commitment to conservative Christianity is not due to cultural imperialism, or an obsession with particular applications of the Bible to behavioral standards. I embrace conservative Christianity because I think it is a full-orbed Christianity, and the only kind that will ultimately survive. I think that it is the kind of Christianity that had always existed in various shapes and forms before its secularization in the 19th century.

So here is the irony and the misunderstanding. As I look at Christianity, I think that the conservative take on it is not baroque and ornate; it is simply what is required to sustain healthy Christianity. I look at those who disagree with me and I see  a reduced, skeletal Christianity that can barely keep its own head above water, let alone seriously defend or propagate the faith in the challenging years ahead. I see the current state of evangelicalism and fundamentalism as emaciated and spiritually anaemic, scarcely holding on to life. Worse, it regards its weak pulse and laboured breathing as evidence of its healthy commitment to ‘core essentials’, and thanks God that it is not as other men are: legalists, cultural snobs, elitists, or even as this tax collector.

On the other hand, those I’m looking at see my take on Christianity as a massive confusion of non-essentials with essentials, of turning applications into doctrines, and of seeing inferences and non-biblical knowledge as authoritative. I’m the guy wearing four woolen jerseys on a summer’s day, unnecessarily laden-down with joy-killing extras. As far as they are concerned, they have streamlined, flexible, gospel-centred Christianity, free from cultural imperialism and fundamentalist taboos, brimming with nothing but Scripture and Scripture alone.  Conversely, I think this Christianity is not supple, slick and Scripture-centred; I think it is abbreviated, inconsistent and intentionally agnostic where it needn’t be.

I know God can do anything, and that God’s ultimate purposes will prevail. I know that God continues to use all kinds of means and imperfect men and methods. However, a steward does not have the right to be careless and sloppy because his Master is sovereign. I urge the ideas of conservative Christianity because I love Christ and His church, and want to see Him honoured and His church conserved and propagated.

In the Dark Age we’re in, we can’t afford to defend anything but the essentials. I’m convinced that’s what I and others who share these convictions are doing.

Some Things To Consider Including In Your Worship – Reiterations and Explanations of Hymns

March 4, 2011

In 1880 J.S. Curwen wrote Studies in Worship Music, an attempt to study the psalms and hymns sung throughout English churches of the time. The final third of the book records Curwen’s eye-witness accounts of the churches he visited. The following are some excerpts from his visit to the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

“Mr. Spurgeon evidently takes delight in the service of song, and is anxious above all things that every man, woman, and child in the place should sing. In announcing the hymn he generally makes some remark, such as, ‘Let us sing joyfully the 48th Psalm,’ — ‘Dear friends, this hymn is full of joy, let’s sing it with all our hearts,’. Occasionally he will stop the congregation, and make them sing more softly or more quickly, when the effect is at once felt in a surprising degree.”

“The first hymn on Sunday morning last was ‘God is our refuge and our strength,’ to the tune ‘Evan.’ Mr. Spurgeon read it slowly through, then he announced the tune and read the first verse again. As the people stood up the precentor advanced from the back of the platform, and started the melody with a clear voice…The second hymn was ‘Thou hidden love of God,’ to one of the old tunes, ‘New Creation’, made up from Haydn’s chorus, ‘The heavens are telling.’ This the people enjoyed, and sang as generally as before. The third hymn was ‘Beneath Thy cross I lay me down,’ to the tune ‘Buckingham,’ which, of course, was a congenial melody. The people were warming to their work, and the volume of sound poured forth more solid and powerful than before. But why should the hymns be read twice through? It may help some illiterate people to understand the words, and Mr. Spurgeon’s energetic reading may infuse the devotional spirit of the poet among the congregation; but nearly all the hymns are so well known that these considerations must be of little practical worth. The reading takes up time, and is evidently wearisome to many; besides, it takes away the freshness of the thoughts that are to be uttered.”

Some observations are in order. As wearisome at it seemed to Curwen, and as familiar as the hymns were to most, Spurgeon apparently thought it needful to read through each hymn, and make remarks before singing them. Apparently, Spurgeon thought the risk of seeming tedious was worth the benefits brought by such a practice. What could such benefits have been? Here we speculate, using our own experience as a possible guide.

  1. Reading all or certain stanzas of a hymn before singing prepares the mind to work with the heart. The nature of a good melody is to evoke certain affections in us. These we often feel apart from the lyrics. The more challenging the lyrics, the more we find ourselves swooping in and out of conscious comprehension of what we are singing. For a real synergy between head and heart, it is often worthwhile to give the mind a walk-through what it will be saying, praying or confessing in song.

  2. Reading the stanzas can stave off musical autopilot. Familiarity tends to lead us to a kind of automatic response. Not all such memorised responses are ‘vain repetitions’, nor do they need to seem new every time we sing them. However, there is something to be said for our love for God being unfeigned – that is, sincere in every way. Words sung with little conscious attention on their meaning can hardly be thought of as fully sincere.

  3. Reading the stanzas of a hymn gives appreciation for what is about to be offered to the Lord. To sing a thing of beauty to the Lord is fitting; to be aware that it is beautiful magnifies the enjoyment of the offering. To find poetic expression of love for God that take us beyond our own expressions of piety serve to grow and stretch our conceptions of God. But if these are done while trying to learn or keep up with a melody, the result may be less illuminating, than if the mind had been given a few moments to meditate.

Curwen’s comments remind us that this can be overdone. Done too often or too frequently, it becomes obnoxious and patronising. The aim is not to explain what is self-evident, or to dissect word-pictures as if they were butterfly abdomen on an entomologist’s table. We do not have to explain every ‘thee’ in the hymn, or ask repeatedly, “Do we really mean what we’re singing?” In my experience, this kind of thing tends to get in the way of worship, rather than assisting it.

However, for many Christians, hymnody may be some of the only serious poetry they encounter. The better the hymnody, typically the greater the comprehension and apprehension gap will be present. If we’re going to resist the dumbing down trend, we had better do our share of “lifting up”: where appropriate, explanations, reiterations and exhortations.