REblog: Habit-Forming Worship (great post!)

In most conversations about worship, an obstacle stands in the way of understanding: you. Whether you know it or not, intend it or not, you carry a deep well of ideas about what worship is, what it looks, sounds, and feels like. You’ve built this knowledge over the years and decades of your life, adding to it each time you’ve gathered with the church. One might say, “I don’t really have a theology of worship,” but in fact everyone does. That’s because we are habit-formed people.

Notice I say “habit-formed” and not “habit-forming.” We are formed by the habits in which we live.

Imagine that you’d never heard of softball. One day, someone at work invites you to go play the game with a group she gathers with weekly. You accept the invitation and go, excited to learn about this strange, unknown game.

You’re taught the rules, and after a few Saturdays, you begin to actively participate and contribute to the game. Months go by, and one day someone new comes to the game. At first, he’s excited to be playing. “I played softball for years back in Michigan,” he says, but he’s quickly troubled. On your team, the bases are run clockwise. You pitch the ball to yourself. And every home run is met with a rousing chorus of “God Save the Queen.”

Things gets really difficult when your friend attempts to help you reform the game by the actual rules, and not the Marx Brothers-inspired farce in which you currently participate. Running counterclockwise is dizzying, and everyone swings wildly at slow-pitched balls. The song is still sung on occasion, but its meaning is long gone.

The habits of your corrupted version of softball shaped the way you understood and participated in the game. Anything different was difficult to comprehend, and only after immersion in new habits over a long period of time would you begin to appreciate them.

Worship Wars

It works the same with worship. Our worshiping habits have shaped our understanding and our expectations. Most of us have positive emotions attached to the way we regularly gather with our churches, and shifting those ideas (and eventually, shifting those habits) comes painfully. This is why the “worship wars” of a few years ago were so intense. The habits of traditionalism were ingrained, connecting with powerful emotions of joy and meaning. Singing contemporary praise choruses instead of hymns and listening to preachers in polo shirts instead of suits felt a lot like running around the bases backwards.

To be clear, though, I am not saying that everyone else’s worship is a Marx Brothers-inspired farce. Far from it! I am saying that our ways of gathering are deeply ingrained habits, and their habitual nature makes it difficult to see alternatives as viable.

Forming Habits That Form Us

Nearly everything we do that’s important to us is learned through practice. No one sits down with a cello and immediately plays Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Cello. It takes years of practice to cultivate the sense of intonation and timing, the hand strength and touch sensitivity, not to mention the basic rudiments of reading and studying music. This need for time and practice is true of anything—public speaking, athletics, and creativity of all kinds. To learn any of these skills, you must develop habits and routines that make for progress. We are literally training our bodies to cooperate with us as we seek to live them out, which is why athletes and musicians talk about “muscle memory.”

We do this because we believe the reward of our efforts is great enough to justify the required sacrifice of time and effort. Some skills, like playing golf or painting with oils, take little time to learn the basics and thousands of hours to master—if mastery is even achievable. We form habits, like practicing for an hour a day or visiting a driving range once a week, and our habits form us, ingraining the correct angle of a swing or the shape of our hands over the keys of a piano.

Worship as a ‘Thick’ Habit

Philosopher James K. A. Smith, in his fascinating and helpful book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation , distinguishes between practices that are thin (and less meaningful, like brushing our teeth) and thick (more meaningful, teaching us to love and desire deeply, and shaping identity). In the thick category, Smith locates our specific religious habits, like worship and daily devotions, as well as more incipient habits, like extended TV viewing or listening to inflammatory talk radio for three hours a day.

It’s in this framework that we need to think about corporate worship. Gathering with the church is a habit we form, and it’s a “thick” habit, one that profoundly forms us. As I said earlier, a wellspring of experience from years of worshiping together has formed all kinds of ideas about what worship is, who God is, and what it means to be the church. For good or bad, our worship practices are forming us and our communities, giving shape to what we believe.

A church that gathers each week with cold seriousness, lofty architecture, dense language, and grumpy upper-middle-class white people is making a statement about the kingdom. Those who congregate there weekly are being formed into a kind of community. Likewise, a church with smoke, lights, rock-star worship leaders, and celebrity pastors is forming a particular kind of community. How we gather shapes who we are and what we believe, both explicitly (through the actual content of songs, prayers, and sermons) and implicitly (through the cultural ethos and personas).

The ancient church summed this up in the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi, which essentially means “so we pray, so we believe.” The phrase acknowledges this habit-formed reality. The identity of the church is formed and transformed as it gathers around the Word and responds in the songs, prayers, and fellowship of the saints.

So let’s all acknowledge this fact: for better or worse, our worship, regardless of our tradition or musical style or culture, is shaping the hearts and minds of our congregations. We are always teaching, shaping, and painting a picture of what the Christian life looks like. It’s in this light that we should evaluate our gatherings. What are we saying about “normal” Christianity? How do our services reflect the way the gospel changes our perspective on the world? What are we saying to those who suffer? To the poor? The rich? Those who are like us? Those who are unlike us? How are we connecting to past, present, and future?

These are crucial questions for pastors, church planters, and worship leaders. The answers we provide in our gatherings—both implicitly and explicitly—will have a deep, life-long, life-shaping effect on the faith of our congregations.

* * * * * *

This excerpt comes from Mike Cosper’s forthcoming book Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel (Crossway). Sign up to hear more from Cosper on habit-forming worship when you sign up for his workshop at The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference.

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Charles Spurgeon: The Death Of Christ

What myriads of eyes are casting their glances at the sun! What multitudes of men lift up their eyes, and behold the starry orbs of heaven! They are continually watched by thousands—but there is one great transaction in the world’s history, which every day commands far more spectators than that sun which goeth forth like a bridegroom, strong to run his race. There is one great event, which every day attracts more admiration than do the sun, and moon, and stars, when they march in their courses.

That event is, the death of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To it, the eyes of all the saints who lived before the Christian era were always directed; and backwards, through the thousand years of history, the eyes of all modern saints are looking. Upon Christ, the angels in heaven perpetually gaze. “Which things the angels desire to look into,” said the apostle. Upon Christ, the myriad eyes of the redeemed are perpetually fixed; and thousands of pilgrims, through this world of tears, have no higher object for their faith, and no better desire for their vision, than to see Christ as he is in heaven, and in communion to behold his person. Beloved, we shall have many with us, whilst this morning we turn our face to the Mount of Calvary. We shall not be solitary spectators of the fearful tragedy of our Saviour’s death: we shall but dart our eyes to that place which is the focus of heaven’s joy and delight, the cross of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Charles Spurgeon, The Death of Christ

REblog:Genuine Pluralism & A Strong Loyal Voice

With the United States Supreme Court considering whether or not to legalize same-sex marriage and the numerous inflammatory comments in the media (and from celebrities) surrounding those who advocate for the traditional view of marriage, it’s easy for the Christian to be discouraged.

Or worse, to give in to the pressure and say, “Well, this is the way the world is, so we may as well go along with it.”

But, weary brothers and sisters, this is not the way to go.

For all our talk of living in a pluralistic culture, we’re anything but. The new “tolerance” seeks to eradicate dissension from the party line (Denny Burk illustrates this well here). But a healthy society—one where genuine pluralism and exchange of ideas exists—requires a strong voice, one loyal to his or her convictions. D.A. Carson explains it well:

Genuine pluralism within the broader culture is facilitated when there is a strong Christian voice loyal to the Scriptures – as well as strong Muslim voices, skeptical voices, Buddhist voices, atheistic voices, and so forth. Genuine pluralism within the broader culture is not fostered when in the name of tolerance none of the voices can say that any of the others is wrong, and when this stance is the only ultimate virtue.

Because the new tolerance, an ostensibly value-free tolerance, has become the dominant religion among media leaders, this vision is constantly reinforced. For instance, the media may present popes such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI in a positive light, provided these popes are restricting themselves to ceremony or world poverty, but if they show how their beliefs impinge on social issues such as premarital and extramarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia, then they must be bigoted, out of date, slightly bizarre, even dangerous, and certainly intolerant.

D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Kindle location 407)

If being loyal to your faith is intolerant, be willing to be labeled intolerant—a healthy culture won’t survive without men and women who are committed to their beliefs, regardless of the consequences. The pressure to be silent is great, but the culture surrounding us needs a strong, loyal Christian voice more than it needs us to go with the flow.

REblog: Hymn Stories When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

It was a daring move when, in 1707, Isaac Watts published his first book of hymns. At that time it was the practice of almost every congregation of the Church of England to sing only Old Testament psalms in their public worship. However, Watts had grown to dislike this because it restricted the Christian from being able to explicitly celebrate in song all those aspects of the gospel that are fulfilled and illuminated in the New Testament.

In the preface to Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Watts addresses the worship situation of his time and offers a defense for writing and publishing new music.

Many Ministers and many private Christians have long groaned under this Inconvenience, and have wished rather than attempted a Reformation: At their importunate and repeated Requests I have for some Years past devoted many Hours of leisure to this Service. Far be it from my Thoughts to lay aside the Psalms of David in public Worship; few can pretend so great a Value for them as my self … But it must be acknowledged still, that there are a thousand Lines in it which were not made for a Saint in our Day, to assume as his own; There are also many deficiencies of Light and Glory which our Lord Jesus and his Apostles have supplied in the Writings of the New Testament; and with this Advantage I have composed these spiritual Songs which are now presented to the World.

Within Watts’ book, under the section “Prepared for the Holy Ordinance of the Lord’s Supper” is the first public printing of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

Concerning the hymn’s creation, there is no special story that singles it from among the many others he wrote. (He is credited with something like 750 hymns.) But what makes the hymn unique is the particular beauty of its language and imagery, and the power with which it highlights the most significant event in human and personal history — the cross of Jesus Christ our God.

Watts’ giftedness for writing hymns, combined with his courage in publishing them, would eventually turn the tide against singing only psalms and set a new standard for Christian worship in the English language. Today Watts is widely recognized as the “Father of English Hymnody.” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is his greatest hymn.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

[His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.]

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” has been recorded many times and with several different melodies. Ordinary Time has a version you can download for free at NoiseTrade. Page CXVI also has a version available for free in which they include a chorus that has been recently popularized. My favorite version, which is from my favorite hymns collection, can be found on Hymns Triumphant, an amazing choral collection.

A Devotion From A.W. Tozer For Tonight

Godly Products of Suffering

But Paul’s trials yield for us more than this negative kind of blessing. They also teach us positive lessons to help us to endure affliction by that well-known psychological law by which we are able to identify ourselves with others and “halve our griefs while we double our joys.” It is always easier to bear what we know someone has borne successfully before us.

From the trials and triumphs of Paul, we gather, too, that happiness is really not indispensable to a Christian. There are many ills worse than heartaches. It is scarcely too much to say that prolonged happiness may actually weaken us, especially if we insist upon being happy as the Jews insisted upon flesh in the wilderness. In so doing, we may try to avoid those spiritual responsibilities which would in the nature of them bring a certain measure of heaviness and affliction to the soul.

The best thing is neither to seek nor seek to avoid troubles but to follow Christ and take the bitter with the sweet as it may come. Whether we are happy or unhappy at any given time is not important. That we be in the will of God is all that matters. We may safely leave with Him the incident of heartache or happiness. He will know how much we need of either or both.

Verse

Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Romans 5:3-4

Thought

We can rejoice in our sufferings because of what God produces in us through those sufferings. Certain qualities of life are only produced through suffering. There is no other way to experience them.

Prayer

Forgive me, Lord, for trying to flee sufferings which You allow in order to grow me as Your servant.

REblog: Why Do We Recite The Apostle’s Creed

This blog post, originally published in Tabletalk Magazine does a pretty good job of explaining why churches like Ardent still use the Apostle’s creed.

I’ll never forget the first time I worshiped in a Presbyterian church. I had been raised in independent Bible churches where it was a given that Christians believed the Bible, while Roman Catholics relied on tradition. We had “no creed but Christ.” You can imagine how I was taken aback when the Presbyterian faithful recited the Apostles’ Creed with great gusto, including the line that, at the time, I could not bring myself to repeat: “I believe…in the holy catholic church.”

I soon learned that many Pro-testants still recite this ancient creed. In fact, the creed serves an important purpose in many of those churches whose roots are deeply planted in the Reformation. The Heidelberg Catechism (the beloved catechism of the Reformed branch of the Christian family in which I am now a minister), even utilizes the Apostles’ Creed as a basic summary of those things that every Christian must believe. If you were to ask, “What is it that defines Christianity?” the answer would be “the definition of Christianity is given us in the creed.”

The articles of our “catholic, undoubted Christian faith,” which question 22 of the Heidelberg Catechism introduces, are unpacked in questions and answers 23–58 of this catechism. This “unpacking” amounts to an exposition of the various doctrines set forth in the Apostles’ Creed. Protestants do not believe that creeds, confessions, and catechisms are infallible — that can only be said of Scripture. But confessional Protestants do believe that creeds, confessions, and catechisms are authoritative insofar as they accurately summarize the teaching of Scripture,I’ll use t which is their primary purpose.

Zacharius Ursinus — the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism — tells us why the Apostles’ Creed was chosen for his own distinctly Reformed catechism as the summary of what it is that Christians must believe in order to be truly Christians: “It signifies a brief and summary form of the Christian faith, which distinguishes the church and her members from the various sects” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 117).

In other words, if you are to set out those things that differentiate Christianity from all other religions, including monotheistic ones (for example, Judaism and Islam), the Apostles’ Creed would provide an excellent summary of those doctrines unique to Christianity. The creed sets forth the doctrine of the Trinity. It sets forth the basic economy of redemption — the Father is the creator of all things, Jesus is the only Savior, and the Holy Spirit is the one who gives us faith and then unites us to Christ. The creed also affirms the basic historical facts of the gospel — our Lord’s virgin birth, His suffering, death, and bodily resurrection. Furthermore, the creed affirms Jesus’ descent into hell (which the Reformed believe refers to Jesus’ suffering the wrath of God upon the cross), His bodily resurrection, and His ascent into heaven where Jesus now rules over all until He returns at the end of the age to judge the world and raise the dead.

Next, the creed affirms the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the existence of a “holy” (those whose only hope of heaven is in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ) and “catholic” church, a reference to the universal church (the body of Christ) that will exist from the time it was founded until Jesus returns. The creed affirms the communion of saints (the fellowship of justified sinners with the risen Christ), the forgiveness of sins (Christ’s work in fulfilling all righteousness and dying for the sins of His people), the resurrection of the body at the end of the age (as Jesus was raised bodily on the third day, so will we when He returns) and life everlasting (new heavens and earth).

Ursinus chose the Apostles’ Creed as the skeletal structure for the section of his catechism dealing with God’s grace because the creed so effectively summarizes the basics of the Christian faith that no non-Christian could possibly recite it. In this sense, the creed defines what is Christianity and what is not.

But as Ursinus expounds upon the Apostles’ Creed, he also endeavors to demonstrate how Reformed Christianity differs from Roman Catholicism on such essential doctrines as justification by faith alone, the nature of the work of Christ, as well as the sacraments. So, while the creed may set forth what is essentially and uniquely Christian, Protestants contend that the Roman Church sadly defaults on these same doctrines at a number of critical points.

Because there is great need to summarize the teaching of Scripture and to identify with the faithful who have gone before, many Protestant churches still recite the Apostles’ Creed. This is why the Reformed churches consider the Apostles’ Creed to be the best summary of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, and this is why an exposition of the creed lies at the heart of the Heidelberg Catechism.

This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.