31 December 2012

The Worship Lifestyle, Pt. 2

I've had the privilege of leading music at my church for the better part of eight years.  Ever since I was an awkward teenager in our youth group who dug his mothers' vintage Fender F-70 out of the attic and began learning chords so I could play U2 songs, I've had a passion for singing about the Lord and engaging with others in worshiping Him.  One of the most difficult things I've encountered in conversations with people about what the musical side of worship should encompass is the issue of emotions and what their appropriate role should be.  This topic is something I've written about before (hence the "Pt. 2" in this blog's title), but I'd like to dig into the matter once again, not only because it is a very pressing issue in how the church worships (both privately and corporately), but also because it's something that is dear to my heart as a worshiper of Jesus Christ.

I've encountered several extremes concerning emotion's role in worship.

One is this mindset: "I don't worship God when I don't feel like it, because it would be meaningless."

A second is this: "I'm going to worship God whether I feel like it or not, because it's the right thing to do."

Another is as follows: "I worship God when I feel close to Him."

As is usually the case, all of these perspectives possesses some very real shreds of truth.  On one hand, we absolutely want to worship God when we feel like it, because that is a genuine outpouring of our dependence upon and love for Him.  On the other hand, we want to worship God even when we don't feel like it, because our emotions are unstable and we can't base worship upon them.  Additionally, we want to celebrate God when we feel close to Him, because his nearness means joy and salvation (Psalm 73.28).  However, worshiping God is never a "fake it 'til you make it" type of learning process, nor does it allow for a "follow your heart" mentality.

After leading for so long and studying a number of excellent resources (most notably, Worship Matters by Bob Kauflin and Desiring God by John Piper) in addition to the Word of God itself, the conclusion at which I've arrived is as follows: worship is 1. built upon sound theology and 2. expressed through our emotions.  It is always a two-step progression, and it is essential that the process happens in that order: our response to God should be emotional, but the foundation of our worship should never be.  In fact, Bob Kauflin says it perfectly: "Magnifying God's greatness begins with the proclamation of objective, biblical truths about God, but it ends with the expression of deep and holy affections toward God."  This is rooted in the fact that worship is all about God's character.  It's all about Jesus.  That's why worship transcends musical style, be it through ancient or modern hymns.  That's why worship is a lifestyle, and not just an action.  Worship is a celebration of who God truly is, expressed through our desire to see His truth proclaimed - both to others and to our own hearts.

It's simply all about Jesus.  Therefore, we respond whole-heartedly, emotionally, to Him.

Another way to think about it is that we worship God through our emotions and in spite of them.  This is due to the fact that while our emotions are incredibly unstable, God's character constant forever.  When we are wrestling with sorrow, anxiety, and even anger, we must worship in spite of our emotions.  If I find myself walking into a worship service while in this frame of mind, then in order for me to worship God effectively, I need to mirror the heart of Job, captured in Matt Redman's "Blessed Be Your Name:" "My heart will choose to say, 'Lord, blessed be Your name!'"  In this vein, although I am singing out of a heart which needs divine comfort, I am also magnifying the Lord's sovereignty and compassion, effectively minimizing my suffering in the wake of His provision.  It may sound like a subtle difference, but it is all the difference that is necessary.  It's a matter of perspective: instead of weeping over my pain and begging the Lord to take it away, my worship is now built upon a sound understanding that God is sovereign (Deut 10.17) and that He cares about my pain (Psa 56.8), poured out in humble expression of my desperate need.  It doesn't mean that I'm all of a sudden carefree, it just means that in esteeming God to be greater than my circumstances, I experience the Joy of the Lord which transcends pain and heartache.  Inevitably, my worship then becomes about His character, not what I am feeling.

On the other side of the coin, when we are soaring on Cloud 9 with joy, or when we experience a peace that surpasses understanding, then we worship God because of our emotions.  If I find myself here, then I must channel my celebration into magnification of God's benevolent character and esteem Him the author of my good fortune, while at the same time acknowledging that my promotion or an answered prayer ultimately takes a back seat to the gift of His Son (Psalm 13.6; Titus 2.13).  Otherwise, I begin to stray dangerously close to arrogance, independence, and even self-worship.  Once again, by celebrating the Creator because of who He is rather than simply because of what I feel, I am subtly shifting my perspective so that my worship is dependent upon His character, not what I experience or achieve.

There is a third mindset toward worship, however, that I haven't mentioned yet.  That perspective is one of indifference.  If I find myself in this position, then I have to very honestly and very carefully consider my own heart.  It's been said that the opposite of love isn't hate, because both are driven by passion: therefore, the true opposite of love must be apathy.  If we simply don't care, if we could take or leave a worship service, then we certainly can't engage in worship that magnifies a holy and righteous Creator.  John Piper writes, "The engagement of the heart in worship is the coming alive of the feelings and emotions and affections of the heart.  Where feelings for God are dead, worship is dead."  However, the problem I need to address is not my lack of emotions, but the condition of my heart.  To try to change how I feel would be to treat the symptoms and not the disease.  Either something in my understanding of God needs to change, or a sin that is callousing my heart toward Him needs to be addressed.  Only when the heart has been cleansed can emotion follow that may be used to glorify God.

In sum, worship is expressed through emotion, but is not built upon it.  In this regard, the appropriate expression of our feelings in worship should always be in response to God's character, and we should use our emotions to magnify Him above what we feel and experience.  However, worship is also very much dependent upon our feelings, because love is empty and meaningless without passion.  It can't be 100% objective in the same way that it can't be 100% subjective.  The Bible makes it very clear that God desires worshipers who celebrate Him in spirit and truth - in other words, with all of their being and with their fullest understanding of His character (John 4.23; Matt 22.37).  Jesus also proclaimed that it is out of the "abundance of the heart" that the mouth speaks, a statement which clearly implies that the only lips worthy of offering praise are those which are connected to a heart full of passionate love for God (Matt 12.34).  As Bob Kauflin states it, "What we love most will determine what we genuinely worship."  If God truly sits on the throne of our heart, if He truly encompasses our being, then we will only desire to worship Him, no matter what circumstances beset us.  Encountering His greatness should always result in the outpouring of heartfelt emotion, because He is holy, wonderful, and eternally deserving of our praise.

I'd like to conclude with a passage from Kauflin's Worship Matters as a final encouragement: "Worship is accepted not on the basis of what we have done, but on the basis of what Christ has done.  It's not uncommon for us to 'feel' accepted and loved by God when we're engaged in worship.  But if that feeling isn't rooted in the gospel, it will be an elusive sensation.  It's not enough to sing songs about God's love that produce warm feelings in our hearts.  We need to glory in the reality of Jesus Christ, beaten and bruised for our transgressions, giving up his life in our place on the cross.  There will never be a greater proof or demonstration of God's love."

Successful worship is worship that celebrates Jesus Christ as our mediator.  Successful worship is worship which glorifies God as our Holy Father, who - out of unfathomable love for us - gave such grace that He poured out all of His just wrath against sin upon His only Son.  Therefore, successful worship is dependent upon the condition of our hearts, in response to that truth.  Whenever we enter into a time of singing, prayer, or Bible study, we should always preclude entry by pausing to evaluate ourselves.  No matter what stage of life, no matter what frame of mind, we need to constantly check where our hearts are in relation to God.  If there's one thing I know about myself, it's that I am a wicked human being and my heart is incredibly deceptive (Jer 17.9).  As believers, it is our responsibility to be certain that we are loving the Lord with all of our hearts, souls, and minds.  Frequent self-evaluation is necessary to ensure that we are not behaving as the Pharisees did, whose lips were quick to spout all the right answers but whose hearts were simultaneously distant from the Messiah's (Matt 15.8-923:27).

So examine your heart, because if it is far from God, then worship is impossible.

26 December 2012

Observations from the Studio, Post-Mortem

I'm apparently not much a blogger, because the guys in the band had to tell me to write this.  If I were truly a blogger, I would obviously have posted it before they had a chance to think of it.  The fact that I also haven't written anything since we left Nashville in October also says something...

But I digress.

For those of you hanging on tenterhooks, the Twenty Committee's album is finally 100% recorded, two full months after our trek to Nashville.  With the help of Stephen Wise, a friend and fellow musician who has appeared on albums by Stevie Wonder and The Roots, we were able to nail down the backing vocals and officially take a deep breath, knowing that the last stage of finalizing the album rests in the magical hands of Mr. Jerry Guidroz.  Back out west, the Nashville String Machine recorded string arrangements for tracks 3 and 6, songs entitled "Airtight" and "Tonight" (part III of The Knowledge Enterprise).  It's a testament, first, to the quality of Geoff's keyboard, because upon a first listen to the raw EP, the string parts which he recorded almost sound like they're being played by real cellos and violas.  It's also a testament, however, to the quality of real cellos and violas that they were able to add an organic element to those tracks which a synthesizer never could have managed.  The final mix, which none of us have heard yet, is sure to be absolutely stunning.

In other news, practices continue and Joe and I are now juggling instruments in order to keep the live performances of our material as close to the studio versions as possible.  Literally, juggling.  Also, a photoshoot is currently in the making, probably utilizing some rundown factory in Philadelphia or some similar overused rock album cliché.  We promise to make it really artsy and not at all cheesy.

Keep your eyes and ears peeled for the album drop in January.  Personally, we can't wait to get it into your hands!