This might sound strange coming from a 9Marks guy, but I suspect one of the least-diagnosed pastoral blind spots is a lack of imagination.
I don’t mean that pastors need to cram their sermons full of creative stories or coax a bold vision for their church out of the murky depths of their subconscious. Instead, I mean that it’s all too easy to limit what we think is right to what we think is possible. Often, if a pastor can’t see how he can lead his people somewhere right now, he may not be inclined to consider whether God in fact points him there in his Word.
Say you’re pastoring a church that has had a 9:00am “traditional” service and an 11:00am “contemporary” service ever since worship wars rocked the church back in the mid-80s, twenty-five years before you became the pastor. The demographic division this perpetuated has bothered you, but not enough to prompt you to whack at that particular hornet’s nest. You’ve had plenty of other hives to upset.
Now, though, you’re eating breakfast with a church-planter friend named Tim who’s all hyped up about congregationalism. He’s going on and on about how the Greek word for church, ekklesia, means assembly, and you can’t have an assembly that doesn’t actually assemble. So if you have multiple assemblies, you actually have multiple churches. And according to Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, Jesus has given authority over the church to the church as a whole—the entire assembly. So those who exercise discipline over one another should be those, and only those, who regularly assemble as one body.
That’s why, unlike many church planters who build multiple services and sites into the ground floor of their planting strategy, Tim is committed to keeping his church assembling as one. To do anything else, on his understanding, would be to depart from Scripture’s normative pattern.
“Hey,” Tim pivots, “have you ever thought about combining your church’s two services into one?”
What’s your initial, inward reaction to Tim’s question? I suspect for many pastors it would be, “Yeah, I have, but it’s just not possible.” We’ll probe that response in a moment.
What I’m even more interested in is this: what do you do with the set of biblical arguments Tim’s just given you?
I don’t know what you personally would do, of course, and I’m not presuming to tell you. But I suspect that many pastors—faithful, gospel-loving, Bible-treasuring pastors—would simply ignore them.
It’s not that you open the door, enter the room, spend a few days there, and conclude that the arguments don’t add up to a biblical imperative. Instead, you simply leave the door shut. What’s the point of opening the door if it’s just going to open a whole can of worms with it?
Let’s stick with the multiple services issue for a second, though my point here isn’t the particular issue but the principle, the posture. When you think about trying to combine the 9:00am service with the 11:00am service, all you see is a train wreck. There’s no way your people will go for it.
And who knows—you may be right. But here’s where you may not be right: the fact that such a change would cause a train wreck now does not mean it would always only ever cause a train wreck.
I suspect that some pastors shrink back from even considering arguments that would lead them to alter their church’s basic structures and practices because they can’t see their way through to a happy ending. They may think—or even feel in their gut—that if they embrace the premise, the only conclusion is splitting the church or getting fired.
But of course, “no change” and “instant train wreck” are not your only options. Pastors know better than most that in the Christian life and in the church all growth is imperfect and incremental. If you become convinced that your church should meet as one gathered body, who knows whether the Lord will enable you to lead your church there? Perhaps your role will be to preach on unity, teach on biblical ecclesiology, exhort your members to consider others’ musical preferences more important than their own, and so on, for twenty or thirty years without making a single structural change. Perhaps the entire fruit of your ministry in this particular area will be that the next pastor can lead the church to make a biblical decision once you’re gone.
So take the long view. Don’t ask how much healthier things might get in the next three years; ask how much healthier things might get before your funeral.
And who’s to say change is impossible? Unlike those early disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19:2), I trust you’ve heard of the Holy Spirit. You can’t change hearts and minds, but he can.
Pastoring, like politics, is the art of the possible. You can only lead people where they’ll follow you. But pastoring is also, and more fundamentally, the art of the impossible. Raising the spiritually dead. Rescuing people from the dominion of sin. Forging unity out of division and love out of enmity. You can’t do any of this, and yet it’s what you rightly preach and pray for every week.
So apply the same imaginative confidence to church reform that you do to evangelism. Don’t effectively tell God that it’s impossible for his people to keep his Word in this or that area. That’s what the new covenant is for—enabling God’s people keep his Word from the heart.
There are other spiritual issues wrapped up with the pastoral pitfall I’m trying to put my finger on here: trust in the power of God’s Word and the effectual working of his Spirit vs. confidence in the flesh; courage vs. fear of man; sensitive concern for what the sheep can handle shading into self-preserving don’t-rock-the-boat-ism. But I think imagination and its absence deserve a place on this list too.
Imagination draws the line between what one can and can’t conceive of. So we could say that an increasingly biblical imagination involves faith expanding your view of the possible. Biblical imagination means making space for God to surprise you. It means letting God’s Word name problems you didn’t know you had and provide solutions you didn’t know you needed.
God isn’t asking you to teleport to the end-goal of a healthy church. Health is his to give, not yours to achieve. Instead, he’s asking you to put one foot in front of the other.
So will you let God’s Word lead you in a new direction even when you can’t see through to the destination? Will you step into the Jordan before you see the waters start piling up? Will you set out, maybe knowing where you’re going, but having no idea how or when you’ll get there?
Will you pastor by faith, not by sight?
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.
How do we know when evangelism is happening? Well, the answer depends on how we define evangelism. Defining evangelism in a biblical way helps us align our evangelistic practice with the Scriptures. If we don’t have biblical evangelism nailed down, we may not be doing evangelism.
For example, a housewife meeting with a friend over coffee may be evangelizing, while a brilliant Christian apologist speaking to thousands in a church sanctuary may not be. Few see it that way, but that’s because we have false understandings of what evangelism is. Defending the faith is a fine thing to do, but it is easy to give apologetics for Christianity without explaining the gospel—and we cannot evangelize without the gospel.
Here’s a definition that has served me well for many years:
Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.
Sort of dinky, huh? I bet most people would expect much more from such an important theological word. But this definition, small as it is, offers a far better balance in which to weigh our evangelistic practice than looking at how many people have responded to an appeal.
Here is how amplify my definition: Evangelism is teaching (heralding, proclaiming, preaching) the gospel (the message from God that leads us to salvation) with the aim (hope, desire, goal) to persuade (convince, convert).
Notice that the definition does not require an immediate outward response. Walking an aisle, raising a hand, or even praying a prayer may tell us that evangelism has happened, but such actions are not what evangelism is. Notice, too, that if any of the four components are missing, we are probably doing something other than evangelism.
There is much sickness in the church worldwide because of churches calling something evangelism when it is not. So, teach clearly what the gospel is and what is required of a person to turn to Christ.”
Have as an aim to persuade, but to persuade without manipulation. Don’t exclude what is hard about the Christian life, however tempting that may be; don’t confuse human response for a move of the Spirit; and especially don’t lie about results. Be wary of calling people Christians without some evidence that they are truly converted followers.
Recognize the temptation to sacrifice biblical principles for results and “success.” As I look around, I see much practice of unbiblical evangelism. The gospel often remains untaught, and unbiblical words water down the poignant true meaning of sin, death, and hell, or confuse those who are genuinely seeking truth.
Promises of health and wealth deceive the most vulnerable: the poor, disadvantaged, and sick. And many churches offer a costless, comfortable, and benefit-giving “gospel” that is found nowhere in the Scriptures. In fact, the gospel is subverted with what Paul calls “different gospels,” which are not gospels at all (Gal. 1:6–7). By catering to the desires of people, churches communicate that their focus is on non-Christians, not on the glory of God displayed by his people worshiping him.
So often the church service becomes an avenue for entertainment rather than worship. Jesus was engaging, but he never entertained; there is a huge difference, one that just might be lost on the modern church. The high-pressure sales job of yesteryear has been replaced by the soft sell of self-help.
These kinds of things are the result of worldly temptations that undermine biblical evangelism.
But there is an answer to such temptations. It’s no different today than it was in Paul’s day. The solution is to fix biblically principled, gospel-centered evangelism in our minds and hearts. It is to learn how to teach the gospel with integrity and to keep the big-picture aim of true conversion in view.
So in the next post, let’s carefully “amplify” the four parts of my definition: “teaching,” “gospel,” “aim,” and “persuade.”
Note: This post is an excerpt from Mack Stiles' book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus.
“What does your church do for middle and high school students?” A pastor friend recently asked this question.
I have no special expertise with youth, and I tend to think there is some measure of programmatic flexibility. Do you host a weekly event? Who is it for? What do you do? Special projects or trips? I will leave that for you to sort out.
But here are a few biblical principles that we should heed no matter what, and my sense is the many youth groups don’t heed them.
1) Whatever you do, maintain a clear line between church and world.
Jesus, Paul, Peter, and the rest are adamant that we draw clear lines between the church and the world, whether a person is 14 or 84 (e.g. Matthew 18:15-20; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; 1 Peter 2:9-12). Very un-modern! But as God was deeply concerned with who was identified with his name in the Old Testament, so Jesus is concerned about who is publicly identified with his name in the New (e.g. Ezek. 36:20-27, 36; Matt. 18:20; 28:19; cf. 1 Cor. 5:4).
The temptation of youth ministry, if I might coin a word, is to sloppify this line. You know, you got a mix of church kids and unchurched kids. Some claim to be Christians; some don’t. But who can say, really, right?
Well, that’s just the point, which is why some churches prefer not to baptize adolescents, a course of action you might consider. Whether or not you agree with this stance, make sure that your words, programs, and methods help youth to understand that "There is the church and there is the world. Period." You love your teenagers best by helping them to understand that the most important decision they will ever make is deciding which side of the line to stand on. Who are you with?
As such, don’t treat the youth ministry as a separate wing of the church where the normal rules, expectations, and identities of church membership don’t apply. Instead…
2) If you do baptize adolescents, treat them like adults.
Again, I’m not recommending that you baptize adolescents. I’m not sure you should. But if you do—and I know many of you do—you must treat them like adult Christians. They have been baptized into the family name (Matt. 28:19). Therefore they are responsible, together with the whole church, for the family name (Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 5:4-5). They are a part of the body, and therefore must be drawn into caring for the body (1 Cor. 12:21-26; cf. 2 Cor. 2:6).
They should have a vote in members’ meetings. They should be subject to the church’s discipline if they get caught up in the party scene at high school and begin living in unrepentant sin. They should be required to attend the main meeting of the church, and asked to pray for the church. They should be asked to reconcile any broken relationships before taking the Lord’s Supper. They need to come under elder oversight. And so forth.
After all, to insist on the full adult responsibility of membership is to insist on the basic responsibilities of being a Christian. Jesus means for all his sheep to care for the family name, to watch over one another, to build one another up in love, to be peacemakers. You don’t want to teach the youth otherwise by practicing otherwise.
Baptizing an adolescent into church membership means giving the church a kind of authority over the youth’s profession of faith that the parent does not possess. Church leaders, no doubt, should always involve the parents in ministering to him or her. But in the final analysis the parent must defer to the church when it comes to their baptized child’s inclusion or exclusion from the church. The church possesses the authority of the keys, not the parent (Matt. 16:18-19).
Should all this make you slow down before baptizing? Yes!
3) Baptized or not, integrate them into the chronologically rich life of the church.
Western business and media spends gazillions of dollars each year marketing to youth and training them to be consumers: “Hey kids, you can get what you want on your terms right away.” As such, today’s youth don’t show up at church expecting to live in an adult world, like they would have done 100 years ago. They expect to hang out with a bunch of people who are just like them--their peers.
I’d encourage you to be very cautious about playing to these instincts in your youth programming since consumerism works against the maturity of selflessness. But whatever you do, realize that making genuine disciples works best by drawing youth into the chronologically rich life of the church. Again, they need to see the whole body at work to know what Christianity really represents. They need to see the older discipling the younger, and the younger learning from the older (e.g. 1 Tim. 5:1; Titus 2:2-6; 1 Peter 5:5).
The way of Christianity is the way of unity between old and young saints in the body, and if you want our youth to take this way, show them the road.
4) Equip parents to minister to their youth.
The Bible commands parents, not youth pastors, to train up their children in the way they should go (eg. Eph. 4:11; 6:4). I’m not saying we should get rid of youth pastors. I’m saying, youth pastors, make sure your work and programming doesn’t give Christian parents an excuse to disobey the Bible, but instead facilitates the work of parents in obeying the Bible.
5) Take advantage of the evangelistic opportunity of this season.
As a church elder, I read every single membership application and therefore every testimony of people joining our church. (How joy-giving that is for my soul!) What’s striking is how many people came to faith in junior high or high school, both from Christian and non-Christian homes. This is an opportune season to share the gospel with people.
What does this look like programmatically? I don’t know. But do something!
6) Whatever you do programmatically on points 1 to 5, don’t let your manmade plans interfere with these biblical objectives. Facilitate them.
Make sure the structures or groups you have in place don't work against your young people’s involvement in the life of the congregation, or blur the line between church and world. You want them being discipled by older members, not just peers.
I’m not sure how all this works out programmatically (have I said that yet?), but my sense is that there might be some room for clean whiteboard brainstorming here. Why do you think so many parents watch their “Christian” youth go off to college and then abandon the faith? My guess is that, in many circumstances, there were two failures: a failure of discipleship, and a failure to exercise wisdom in the structural matters of baptism, membership, and discipline.
So how do you both carefully draw the line between church and world with your churched youth and help them to be evangelistic? Let’s hear some proposals!
If I’d heard the advice only once, I might have forgotten it. By the fourth hearing, though, I got it.
I was about to become pastor of a historic church that had fallen on hard times. I figured I should plot a course of change for working through as quickly as possible. But when I consulted with four pastors from quite different traditions, each independently told me the same thing:
“Don’t change anything for five years.”
If you’re getting ready to enter a pastorate, you might have your list of changes ready. Good changes, no doubt. Changes that would contribute to the health and mission of this beloved church of Christ.
YOU MIGHT NOT REALIZE WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
Can I encourage you to tuck that list away for a while? You might not realize what you do not know.
1. You don’t know who’s there.
Maybe you visited the church a half-dozen times, and have some impressions of where the members are spiritually. But you don’t know them. So take time to know the members. This was my first-year goal.
Try to arrive early and stay late for worship. Enjoy meals with different people. Have people in your home. Do what you can to learn this body of Christ.
2. You don’t know what’s there.
The website and bylaws do not tell the whole story. How do meetings function? Who makes decisions? Which ministries are important to which people? Where are the evidences of God’s grace? You’ve got to take time to learn the church.
Spend time with leaders, both elected and assumed. Attend meetings eager to listen and learn, then discuss the meetings with congregants you trust. Ask them to identify weaknesses in your present system; you might be surprised by their responses.
3. You don’t know where they’ve been.
It’s easy to write off what happened before us because, well, we weren’t there. That is foolish. We must take time to respect the past. This will be harder if the church has strayed from the faith. But at one time it probably was orthodox. So dig into your church’s history. Quote former pastors. Listen eagerly to longtime members recounting their history with the church. When you are away, invite previous pulpit suppliers to preach, at least once. Strive for as much continuity as possible, even if you’re facing a major rebuild.
4. You don’t know where you are.
I genuinely believed my original plan of action came straight from the Bible, but in fact it was a faithful application of Scripture for one church in one place at one time. But that place and time is not my church’s place and time, but another’s. So take time to understand context, not only the culture inside the church (as discussed above) but also the community where the church exists.
To this end it is useful to read locally. Find out what periodicals people read. Go to your bookstore and pick up works by local authors. This is a great way to learn your community's values, fears, and idols.
5. You don't know what you’re changing.
Just because you aim to keep everything the same doesn’t mean you are. Your pastoral presence has more effect than you realize, and not just with your sermons. In the hospital, at the graveside, in counseling, with the hurting—everywhere your work has profound consequences, changing more than you realize. So take time to answer questions and listen.
Your ministry philosophy may be new to this flock. Give people space to ask you what you do and why. You may think nothing is happening, but God might just be changing the culture of the church right before your eyes.
6. You don’t know where you’re going.
Your general direction may be clear (e.g., meaningful membership), but the specific application is not (e.g., the wording of a church covenant). Rather than mimic what another church does, take time to study the Scriptures together.
Preach on biblical texts that inform particular decisions. Ask them to identify such passages, too. Then talk about the Scriptures together. If you impose your will by pastoral fiat, the change is only as strong as your personality—in other words, not very. But if the congregation amends itself based on an increased understanding of the Word, the change will outlast you.
7. You don’t know what your idols are.
We pastors are quick to attach our identity to the apparent success or failure of ministry. Our idolatry is manifest when we don’t take a day off, can’t find time to exercise, or treat our congregants as more important than our children. Pastoral ministry is deeply sanctifying, so take time to repent.
Name the idols of your heart: pleasure, affirmation, power, glory. Read devotionally and listen to preaching that makes you a better Christian, not just a better communicator. Find pastors who expose your idols and direct you to Christ. You lead best when you humble yourself before the Lord, acknowledge the sins of your heart, and find hope in the gospel of Christ.
8. You don’t know what God will do.
Some days may seem bleak. You look around and don’t see enough people, resources, or energy to accomplish what you think has to happen. But take heart: the church isn’t yours, and the Head hasn’t abdicated. Mounting challenges and shrinking resources are divine indicators that you need to take time to pray. Who knows what God will do for this flock?
Our church still faces a litany of issues, any one of which could sink our congregation’s efforts at renewal. We have a ways to go, and I haven’t been entirely successful in holding off changes for five years. But that golden advice has slowed me down long enough to show me what I don’t know, and to enjoy what the Spirit is doing in this body of Christ for the glory of God.
And that’s been worth the wait.
Matthew Hoskinson is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in the City of New York and director of member care and mobilization for Frontline Missions. Like Jim Gaffigan, he lives in Manhattan with his wife and five children.
So I just want to be clear from the starting block: anyone involved with the worship ministry of a church should read this book. Those interested in good biblical theology should read this book. Pretty much everyone reading this review should read this book. Let me show you why.
Peterson proposes to test the following hypothesis against the data of Scripture: “[The] worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible” (20, emphasis his).
He begins his test by surveying the Old Testament to determine its overall view of worship. The key to understanding its view, he says, is that “the God of heaven and earth has taken the initiative in making himself known.” And this action on God’s part is progressive. It was given “first to the patriarchs of Israel and then, through the events of the exodus from Egypt and the encounter on Mount Sinai, to the nation as a whole” (48). The symbols of the ark, the tabernacle, and then the temple entailed a whole system of worship that acknowledged God’s initiative to make himself known.
Click here to continue reading.
Editor’s Note: We asked a handful of pastors around the world the following question: “You are familiar with American churches. Yet you pastor in a non-American context. What has your present experience taught you about how to be biblically faithful yet cultural sensitive when it comes to selecting the songs that your church sings?” Their responses are below.
When it comes to selecting songs for church, one doesn’t need to choose between being biblically faithful and being culturally sensitive. Instead, the latter helps the former. With “biblically faithful” I am looking for songs that are true and clear. With “culturally sensitive” I am looking for songs that are singable and engaging for the congregation.
Biblical faithfulness takes priority, but we don’t have to choose between them. We are always choosing a musical language, whether consciously or intuitively. If part of the aim of singing is communication, should we not aim to choose a musical language that fits the cultural milieu of our church? We are naïve if we think cultural sensitivity is irrelevant, and we will be irrelevant if our songs are untrue or unclear.
During a recent sabbatical that my family and I enjoyed in America we had opportunity to visit several churches across the country. I appreciated that the churches we visited were thoughtful about song choice; not only were lyrics true but the music served to prepare people for and respond to the sermon.
Poor lyrics confuse and mislead people, and poorly considered musical style can build communication barriers. I am not sufficiently adept with American culture to know how successful each church was in communicating songs with the appropriate musical language, but my impression was that some churches clearly thought about this issue, others less so.
What I most appreciated was that even when the musical style seemed to be dictated by long-term tradition or hindered by a lack of skilled musicians, all the congregations we visited sang with conviction and joy, and we rejoiced with them. I may personally prefer to sing “And Can It Be” to indie-rock accompaniment, but when I heard a thousand voices singing the same hymn to a traditional piano accompaniment I was encouraged and wanted to sing. God’s people singing God’s truth trumps the limitations of our musicians and the foibles of church tradition.
Murray Campbell is the lead pastor of Mentone Baptist Church in Melbourne, Australia.
I will always be a lover of the great English hymns. It’s a Christian legacy worth remembering here in South Africa. But in our many years here we have also enjoyed the rich heritage of biblically sound and singable African hymns and songs. Many African believers today, familiar only with the shallow contemporary Charismatic and prosperity gospel songs, are not even aware of their own Christian heritage of older hymns in Zulu and other native languages. Helping them rediscover these beloved and meaty songs can make an African congregation come alive in a way that Watts or Wesley may not.
I must also add that when Bob Kauflin was here last year, the African folks also loved his music and came alive. His leading is so encouraging and contagious (and expressive, like Africans), and his songs are so biblical and singable, that his music had a unifying effect in this very divided, post-apartheid country. The more communal African culture here also understands better how we can “sing to one another,” as Scripture says, ministering to one another in how we sing.
In training African pastors in various contexts, we urge them to find the most Scripture-saturated, God-centered, gospel-driven, edifying, and singable songs they can find, both old and new, and let them loose! In any culture, God’s people need songs that will teach them to live and to die for Christ.
Tim Cantrell is the senior pastor of Antioch Bible Church in Johannesberg, South Africa.
I confess that I struggle with this one. Our congregation consists of people from sixty nationalities. So whose culture and musical forms do we choose? I’m convinced that the most important element of our songs is not the musical accompaniment, but the words being sung. So we sing the best songs that I'm aware of—written by people like Isaac Watts, William Cowper, Charles Wesley, Bob Kauflin, and Keith Getty. As for the musical accompaniment, we typically use the common arrangements, with some amount of acapella. If we can add a musical instrument that is more reflective of our demographic—say, a Pakistani tabla drum—then we try to incorporate it.
In all of our music, our goal is to enhance the congregational singing, not suppress it. We also aim for congregational participation, as opposed to an entertainment focus. By God’s grace, our congregation is singing better than ever. However, I am still not satisfied with the musical accompaniment we use (I feel it’s still too Western) and I’m looking for more indigenous forms of music (Arab, African, Indian) to go along with the solid lyrics we are singing.
John Folmar is the senior pastor of United Christian Church of Dubai.
Germans love U.S. music. This is reflected in many of our churches. It is not unusual that the majority of the songs during a Sunday church service will be in English, pretty much all being “contemporary worship music.”
The problem is that while most Germans do speak some English, some don’t, and many don’t understand everything. This means that we often claim to worship God without even knowing what we are singing to him.
In order to facilitate true worship in song, we are trying to encourage the writing of new, biblically faithful German songs, the translation of solid English songs (a good number of Getty and Townend and Sovereign Grace songs have recently been translated), and the re-introduction of some old German hymns, sometimes set to a contemporary tune.
Germany has a rich treasury of wonderful hymns written by Martin Luther, Paul Gerhardt, and others, many of which have been translated into English. The one great challenge is to teach Germans to pay attention to the words. Sadly, some American contemporary worship songs have led many Christians away from true worship, and our churches have adopted these songs without even realizing this. So the greatest challenge is not the difference in culture, but gleaning the good from the U.S. while rejecting the bad, and then translating it into the heart language of our people.
Matthias Lohmann is the pastor of Freie Evangelische Gemeinde München-Mitte in Munich, Germany.
I pastor a multicultural church with people from the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas in Sydney. The songs we sing are a mix of old and new, reminding us of God’s redemptive work throughout history. And they also hail from as many different cultures as possible, reminding us of the global reach of the gospel.
As Australia is a cultural melting pot, an ideal scenario would be for us to sing a breadth of songs reflecting the nation’s cultural diversity. However, it’s hard to escape the dominant historical connection Australia has to the UK and American Christian culture. Therefore, many songs we sing originate from these countries. (The CCLI top 100 Christian songs from the UK, USA, and Australia are very similar). It’s also difficult to source songs from other cultures as they may have not had the same rich heritage as the UK or USA in songwriting.
Nevertheless, we deliberately select as much from Australian composers as we can to remind the congregation of God’s saving work in our own country. We also encourage those in our own congregation with gifts in musical composition to help express universal truths about God in a culturally relevant way.
Michael Prodigalidad is the pastor of Stanmore Baptist Church in Sydney, Australia.
The repertoire of theologically solid, contextually relevant songs in Hindi is very small. Most songs that have good theology have been translated from older Western hymns or contemporary worship songs. So although the words might be faithful, the music is not indigenous and the local people find them difficult to sing. Also, such songs only confirm people’s suspicion that Christianity is a Western religion.
On the other hand, Hindi songs that are musically contextualized are often light on theology, repetitive, and devoid of Scripture. Sometimes songs pick up tunes that are currently used in the temples; many new believers find these tunes very unhelpful. In our church we try to avoid both these kinds of songs.
Therefore the first thing that I look at when choosing songs is its doctrinal soundness. If a song is theologically unsound, then we won’t sing it, however contextualized it might be. And if the words are good but the tune is not Indian then we will not sing it either.
So we choose songs with Indian tunes and faithful words. Granted, there are not many songs that fall in this category. But we are slowly building our repertoire.
Harshit Singh is the pastor of Zion Church in Lucknow, India.
“I just want to know who’s in charge?” That sentence brought light to my situation. I had just preached my candidating sermon, and was about to grab a brief lunch before Q&A with the congregation. But instead of eating, the chairman of elders and the interim executive pastor whisked me to a back room for a hastily convened meeting with the pastor of worship. He didn’t beat around the bush but got right to the point:
If I was called as lead pastor, who would decide what happened in the Sunday morning service prior to the sermon? Who would pick the music? Who would determine the order? Who, in short, would be in charge?
It was a reasonable question. He had been responsible for those decisions in the church up to that point, and apparently I had dropped enough hints in my candidacy that he had begun to wonder if things were going to change. And, in fact, I did plan, as the new lead pastor, to assume final responsibility for the whole service. I even planned to choose the music. So that’s what I told him.
While there are biblical principles that undergirded my answer, in the end it is prudential and pragmatic. Biblically, I believe that some elder should exercise oversight over picking the music and all the other details of the worship service. Prudentially, I think it’s good for the lead preaching pastor to be that individual.
Here are the three reasons for these convictions.
SINGING IS TEACHING
We usually think of our singing as the expression of our worship to God. And that’s correct. But that is not all that is going on. Our songs teach and reinforce what we believe about God, and because they are set to music, our songs may often exert a more profound influence upon our members than we realize. As R. W. Dale, a nineteenth-century English Congregationalist minister, remarked in a set of lectures he gave on preaching at Yale University, “Let me write the hymns and the music of a Church and I care very little who writes the theology” (Nine Lectures on Preaching, 1878, p. 271). He may have been overstating the case a bit, but not by much.
Paul instructed the Colossians to admonish and teach one another by “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16). Since teaching occurs when we sing corporately, the elders are responsible to give oversight, and particularly the pastor/elder who’s been given primary responsibility for the teaching ministry of the church (Titus 1:9). If we’re not giving attention to the words that are being sung at our church week in and week out, then we are not being obedient to our calling as elders. Admittedly, this doesn’t require that the lead pastor pick all the music personally. But it does require that he is familiar with it and approves it. In my own church, I work closely with our worship leader who is far more familiar with contemporary music than I am, while I’m more familiar with the hymns. We make a good team, but in the end, as the elder, I’m responsible.
MUSIC IS CULTURE SHAPING
Beyond the overt teaching of our songs, it is undeniable that the music we use and the way we use it shapes and defines the culture of our church. I hardly need to explain this to those who’ve lived through the worship wars in their local church. Those wars have been so intense because they are essentially culture wars, in which music is the proxy for a larger divide between the generations. It is why every church planter wants a like-minded musician on his team. It is why church growth experts advise you to adopt the preferred musical style(s) of your target demographic. So from a purely pragmatic perspective, if the pastor wants to give leadership to the shaping of his church’s culture, he has to be involved in decisions about the music.
But what if you want to lead your church in a biblically informed counter-cultural direction? What if you want a multi-generational congregation that is eager to love one another by singing one another’s music? What if you want to promote congregational singing, rather than a passive concert experience? What if you want to encourage a culture of worship that isn’t driven by performance values? What if you want to have corporate worship that expresses itself in more registers than the triumphant and the happy?
Carl Trueman has incisively asked, “What can miserable Christians sing?” (The Wages of Spin, p. 158). That’s a good question in our incessantly happy clappy CCM world. If all you want is a club for twenty-somethings, or baby-boomers, or urban hipsters, then hand the music over to the band. They’ll do a great job. But if you want a culture that is richly textured and diverse, profoundly congregational, and allergic to the values of the entertainment world, then, pastor, you must lead it in that direction, because it won’t go there on its own.
THE WHOLE SERVICE SERVES THE WORD
There is very little explicit instruction in the Bible on what should happen in our corporate worship services. But as Protestants, we’re convinced that the Word is the center and climax, because it is the preaching of the Word that gives us Christ, and it’s the hearing of the Word that elicits faith by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 10:14). Because of that singular and profound truth, it makes sense that the person who is preaching the Word gives time and thought to planning the rest of the service, including picking the songs, so that the entire service prepares for, and then responds to, the preached Word.
In my church, that means settling on a theological theme that arises out of the passage I’m going to preach on, and then selecting a variety of songs and Scripture readings that develop and interact with that theme. What’s more, since the point of Christian worship is the exaltation of Christ in the gospel, there’s an opportunity to arrange the songs, prayer, and readings so that the gospel is explored from the thematic perspective of the sermon text, before the gospel is preached from the sermon text. The whole service then is not only in service of the Word preached, but is a publication of the gospel itself. While other elders could do this work, it seems to me that the person who’s going to preach the text is in the best position to select and arrange songs with the specific emphasis of the sermon in mind.
In practice, what this looks like is thinking through my preaching schedule and then the themes of the services well in advance. I then spend a couple days thinking though the songs we’re going to sing, the Scriptures that will be read, and the arrangement of it all. Joel Harris, our music leader, is deeply involved with me in that process, adding his expertise and drawing on his admittedly superior musical sensibilities. Once that’s done, each week I sit down with my staff team and go over the plan for that Sunday. Occasionally, we don’t change anything at all. But quite often the team has great suggestions and together we change my original service plan. After all, the responsibility to plan the service doesn’t convey infallibility! But all of this fine-tuning (and sometimes wholesale revision) takes place within the context of something that the staff can’t do for me, and that’s careful meditation on the sermon text.
If he is able, the pastor should give leadership to the selection of music. If there are others that can help, he should use them. But one way or another, elders, not the band, should choose the music. I’m not the only person in the conversation about what happens each Sunday morning, but as servant of the Word, I begin the conversation and set the destination. My goal isn’t micromanagement or control. It’s simply that from start to finish, every song we sing, and every other element of the service, serves the Word. Because it is through the Word that we have Christ.
Michael Lawrence is the senior pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon and the author of Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church (Crossway).
At my church’s Sunday gathering, the preacher and everyone leading the service sits on the stage facing the congregation.
In the past, I’ve been tempted to wonder if they’re really worshipping, or just looking around. Doesn’t someone who is really worshipping close his eyes, put up his hands, and wear an expression of rapture?
At least that’s what I wondered until it was me sitting on stage, looking at the congregation. When the singing begins, I’m beholding God’s people praise God. And it’s unbelievable!
WHAT I BEHOLD
Some eyes are closed and some are open. Some hands are raised and some are not. But the posture of their bodies is not the point.
We’re singing the sixteenth century words of “A Mighty Fortress,” and I notice a woman who was recently assaulted now sing with all her might of a “bulwark never failing.”
We’re singing the eighteenth century words of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessings” and I’m heartened by the older saint who has persevered in the faith for decades, still singing, “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O, take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.”
We’re singing the nineteenth century words of “It Is Well,” and I look out and see the middle-aged brother struggling with discouragement over his fight against sinful anger now raising his voice to shout, “My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought: my sin, not in part, but the whole is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”
We’re singing the twenty-first century words of “In Christ Alone,” and I see the talented young mother who is tempted to regret what she’s given up to have children now exult in her new ambition: “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song.”
As I sit, look out, and behold, my own praises to God are strengthened by the stories and songs of others. My faith is invigorated and enlarged by his work in them.
THE ECHOING WORD
Churches sing because their new hearts can’t help but echo the Word which has given them life. Whether those songs were written in the sixteenth century or today, they should echo Scripture. If there is any place where God’s Word should literally reverberate, it should reverberate in the church’s songs. Remember, Scripture alone gives life.
Therefore, a church’s songs should contain nothing more than the words, paraphrases, or ideas of Scripture.
And churches sing together because it helps us to see that our hearts’ praises, confessions, and resolutions are shared. We’re not alone. Singing in the church, I believe, is about listening as much as it’s about singing. So Paul commands us to “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19, niv). If I’m to speak to others in song, I’m to listen to others as well. In fact, I do sometimes stop singing just to listen and thank God for the voices around me!
“These brothers and sisters share my new heart, my new identity, my Lord and Savior, my comfort and support, my hope and ambition, my glory and joy. I’m with them, they’re with me, and we’re with him.”
WHY WE SING
Believers sing in churches because Christ has commanded us to sing (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19). And we’re commanded to sing, I heard minister of music Bob Kauflin observe, because God means for creatures created in his image to do as he does (e.g. Zeph. 3:17; Heb. 2:12). Yet let me unpack what I’ve said so far by articulating three reasons for why I expect God would command his people to speak to one another not just in prose, but in poetry and melody.
We Sing To Own and Affirm the Word
Singing is how the congregation owns and affirms the Word for itself. In the Bible, singing is one God-ordained way for the members of a congregation to respond to God’s revelation. It’s how they raise their hand and say, “Yes, I believe and affirm these truths with my whole person.” For instance, the Psalmist tells God’s people to proclaim God’s Word to others: “Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day” (Ps. 96:2). Singing of his salvation means we’ve owned it as our message.
We Sing to Engage Our Emotions with God’s Word
Singing is how the congregation particularly engages its emotions and affections with God’s Word. When we sing, it’s hard to remain emotionally disengaged. Just as the sense of smell can evoke strong associations and memories, so the sound of music both evokes and provokes the heart’s joys, griefs, longings, hopes, and sorrows. Jonathan Edwards proposed that God gave us music “wholly to excite and express religious affections.” The Psalmist seems to embody this idea when he writes, “My heart overflows with a pleasing theme” (Ps. 45:1).
Singing, I’d say, is the medium by which God’s people grab hold of his Word and align their emotions and affections to God’s.
It’s not surprising therefore that Paul would command churches to sing the psalms, and that the Psalter would be referred to as the church’s hymnbook. John Calvin called the Psalms “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul” since it offers readers words which they can place into their own mouths for properly expressing the whole range of human emotions. In the preface to his commentary on the Psalms, Calvin writes, “for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.” How can Christians express grief in godly fashion? Or sorrow, fear, and doubt? By echoing the Psalms, like Jesus did again and again.
Yet even if churches don’t take their lyrics directly from the Psalter, they should consider the Psalm’s balance of confession, lamentation, exaltation, and thanksgiving, and seek to mimic something similar in their own hymnody. Do we know how to lament in our churches through music? Or confess?
In seminary classrooms, budding preachers are sometimes warned, “A congregation will only be as careful with the Word as you are in the pulpit.” The same is true, I’m convinced, of our singing in church, and our ability to emotionally encounter God throughout the week. A congregation which learns to sing in church with robust confession and contrite praise better knows how to sing to God with their hearts at home, whether they do it to melody or not.
We Sing To Demonstrate and Build Unity
Singing is one way of demonstrating and building corporate unity. Once again, it’s not difficult to imagine how Israel used the Psalms to demonstrate and build the unity of their hearts with one another. Some psalms make this explicit:
[Call] Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!
[Response 1] Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
[Response 2] Let the house of Aaron say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
[Response 3] Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:1-4; see also 124:1; 129:1; 136)
The psalmist makes a declaration, and then he asks three groups of people to echo him: the nation, the priests, and then all who fear God (including any foreigners and Gentiles in their midst?). The words “his steadfast love endures forever” is the source of unity, but the poetry and—perhaps—music encourages the people’s hearts to embrace, own, and rejoice in this glorious truth.
The context of Paul’s command to sing is worth noticing as well: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:15-16). Notice the train of thought: We’re to let peace rule, since we’re called to one body. We’re to be thankful. And we can do all this by singing Christ’s Word together. Again, the Word is the source of unity; but the music gives expression to that unity.
No doubt, this point can be combined with the last one. Singing God’s Word is how a congregation tunes its heart together across the whole range of biblically-driven affections.
What should be clear in all three reasons for why we sing is that singing in church should be about the church singing—congregational singing. Perhaps choirs and soloists can be carefully used to call the church to respond, as in the Psalm above or as an exercise in “speaking to one another in song.” And musical performances outside the gathered church are wonderful. But God has given music to the gathered church so that the people together can own, affirm, rejoice in, and unite around God’s Word. Far better than the sweet harmonies of a few trained singers is the rough and hale sound of pardoned criminals, delighting with one voice in their Savior.
The most beautiful instrument in any Christian service is the sound of the congregation singing.
Jonathan Leeman is an elder at the Capitol Hill Baptist Church and is the editorial director for 9Marks. He is the author of several books, including Reverberation: How God’s Word Gives Light, Freedom, and Action to His People. You can follow him on Twitter.
Pastors’ Forum: What do you do and not do to accommodate ethnic diversity in your worship service planning?
Answers from Dave Furman, Kevin Hsu, Paul Martin, John Onwuchekwa, and Juan Sanchez
I will never lose the gospel for the sake of unity in diversity, but I will preach the unadjusted gospel consistently.
I will never water down theology to a lowest common denominator in order to accommodate more people and cultures, but I will consistently preach rich doctrine as seen in Scripture.
I will never focus on things in our worship gathering in order to please any specific culture, but I will instead focus on things that all Christians do: We practice the sacraments (baptism and Lord's Supper), pray, sing, read, and listen to the word of God read and preached.
I will never do anything to unnecessarily alienate or elevate any one culture, but I will strive to have people from different ethnic backgrounds assume roles in our worship service, participate in ministry, and serve the church together as one body.
I will never plan and create vision for our worship services alone, but I will seek the input from a diverse group of leaders from within our church.
Dave Furman is the senior pastor of Redeemer Church of Dubai, which has members from over 50 countries.
What We Do:
- Preach the Word of God that crosses all cultures and ethnic groups.
- Intentionally think through how to apply God's Word to members of various ethnic groups.
- Intentionally include members in good standing from different ethnic groups in the service.
- Pray for God's Word to deeply penetrate every ethnic group in our diverse Bay Area, and to the nations.
- Ask people to bring their ethnic dishes to our church potlucks.
What We Don’t Do:
- Under-value ethnic diversity by thinking the gospel eliminates all differences. In re-making us into one new race in Jesus Christ, the Gospel brings unity amidst diversity, not uniformity.
- Over-value ethnic diversity by intentionally dividing people into different classes, small groups, or ministries based on ethnicity
Kevin Hsu is the pastor of Urban Grace Church in Oakland, California.
I pastor in what the United Nations considers to be the most culturally diverse city in the world. Nearly 52 percent of the millions who live in Toronto were born outside of Canada. Thankfully, that diversity is represented in our church.
Here are our top five ways we try to promote diversity in our services:
5. Ask qualified members of different backgrounds to read, pray, and serve in our services.
4. Sing songs we can sing. Avoid trying to be what we are not as a congregation.
3. Celebrate and enjoy diversity, especially in the preaching. Apply and illustrate cross-culturally.
2. Stay Word-focused. The Bible crosses all cultural boundaries, is immediately relevant to everyone, and its faithful application guards against cultural snobbery.
1. Be a normal church. Don’t specialize on cultural diversity or uniformity. The number one thing to avoid is elevating any culture over authentic gospel-culture.
Paul Martin is pastor for preaching and vision at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Canada.
What We Do:
We look carefully at songs, language, or references that could estrange a particular demographic. When we find these things, we don’t necessarily take them out, we just want to be mindful of them so that we can explain them and invite other people to participate. That may look like us changing certain lyrics in songs, musical arrangements, and so on.
Our musical selection is the place where this is the most visible. We try to sing a healthy mix of hymns, contemporary, and gospel, although we never have as much of balance as we’d like.
We encourage people to engage with others who don’t look like them. The battle for ethnic diversity is won and lost in the hallways before and after church.
We try to make what goes on up front reflect the makeup of the congregation. Whether you call them a service leader or emcee or host, we try to make sure this group is diverse.
In our preaching, conversations, and worship leading, we don’t assume that everyone in the room has the same family structure. We’re mindful of single moms and kids that don’t know their mothers or fathers or have been raised by grandparents.
What We Don’t Do:
We don’t track measure diversity with any official metrics—at least not anymore. We don’t make it the North Star and become overly consumed with it.
At the end of the day, we can do all of the right things and not be a very diverse church. If we’re faithful and sensitive with what we do and say, then we trust that the results are up to God and him alone.
John Onwuchekwa is the teaching pastor of Blueprint Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
At High Pointe Baptist Church we have learned that the miracle of the gospel is not mere ethnic diversity but harmony among the diversity. So, perhaps it is better to point out what we don’t do first, followed in each case by what we do:
We don’t focus on a particular ethnicity/demographic in our music. Instead, we seek to select music that is gospel-centered and congregationally singable.
We don’t plan ethnic diversity on the platform each service. Instead, we encourage everyone to serve in various capacities and diversity is regularly witnessed.
We don’t emphasize Americanism in our services and avoid “patriotic” emphases. Instead, we speak about being world Christians who are strangers and aliens on this earth. We also display flags of different countries in our auditorium and outside our building.
We don’t promote men as elders on the basis of ethnicity. Instead, we train all men; ask the Lord to raise up qualified men to serve as elders; and we have gratefully seen God raise up a diverse elder board.
Juan Sanchez is the senior pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.