Congregational Singing: A taste of heaven

One of the great burden-lifting joys God has graced me with is a church that values congregational singing. I love the Christ’s church, caring for her is the joy and duty and mission of my life. Proclaiming her message and protecting her purity is, by God’s grace, what I’ll spend the rest of my life doing. I don’t want to start a successful business, be president of a large company, or spend my life traveling the world. I want to serve the church. Period.

I don’t love the church because it’s an easy place to be. I’ve heard, and have no problem believing, that there is no “occupation” more difficult than pastor. It isn’t that everyone is “nice” at church. That’s not even true. It’s not that I’m a people-person and I need to be around people a lot. What draws me is the picture of what’s happening every time we gather. I am dwarfed by the vastness of God and the Great Story that, though blind I often am, is all around me. But when we sing– together, loud, enthralled–I am lifted out of myself to realize what is really happening. I remember what Christ’s church is all about. And it’s far more than a song.

Sinners, made saints by the grace of God, come to behold their Creator, to hear from him, and to align themselves together to worship obey him. God comes down, steps in, speaks life and truth and joy, and we are changed– even if it’s only a degree (2 Cor. 3:18).

So as I look around the congregation, I see trophies of grace, and am drawn to the great God-triumphant, Redeemer Jesus, who is scooping up mounds of dirt and making diamonds. Singing together with these people is literally a heavenly experience– and I don’t mean that in a Hallmark-y sort of way. We actually will do this in heaven. Revelation 5:11-14:

[11] Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, [12] saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” [13] And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” [14] And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

O how small we will feel when we see the angels, towering up and up like an unending wall of faces, “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,” when every creature in heaven and earth gathers before God, shoulder to shoulder, joyfully enraptured, to shout their praise to God!

And on Sunday I get a small taste of that. And it’s sheer joy.

I can’t put it better than Jonathan Leeman does in his book Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People but this is what happens when I join my church to sing:

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 Blessing” 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 with My Soul,” 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 though: 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 ambitions: “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song.”

As I sit, look out, 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.


Remember Nadab and Abihu

From the beginning, God has determined how his people should worship him. The sacrificial system wasn’t a human idea, it was God’s idea. The priest’s clothing was meticulously detailed by God. Blueprints to the original place of worship were given from heaven with divine meaning and purpose. They were clear and concrete. They were binding and authoritative. And to ignore them was the pay a great price.

In other words, God established very early on that when it comes to worship, God makes the rules.

I wonder if some of the Israelites balked at the various customs God required of them. Confessing your sins to a goat, for example, may have seemed kind of silly. But of course, God had a great plan in mind when he instituted these things. They had a purpose beyond Israel’s limited understanding; something they could not see from their perspective. They didn’t know that the veil would be torn from top to bottom, indicating that the believer is now able to enter into the presence of God through Christ. They didn’t know that every time they slaughtered a lamb they were pointing to the greater reality of the ultimate Lamb of God, who would be slaughtered for the sins of many. God determined how they would worship, and it was Israel’s responsbility to obey scrupulously, even if they did not fully understand what it all meant.

When men take matters of worship into their own hands and attempt something to worship God in a way that God has not prescribed, they tread on precarious grounds. It seems to be the pattern throughout Scripture: the first thing sin affects is the attitude toward God in matters of worship.

After Genesis 3 comes Genesis 4. (Profound, right?). Genesis 3 records the Fall. And Genesis 4 gives us the account of the first humans born with original sin. Cain and Abel. And what was Cain’s sin (before the murder)? It was in he way he attempted to worship God.

That’s why when Israel becomes a nation and is freed from Egypt, the first thing that they get is law. Guidelines. Stipulations. Regulations. If they are to be the people of God, they must know how to worship him.

And right smack in the center of the law-giving is a very peculiar story. And I believe it’s there to slap you across the face and tell you, “Wake up, man. God is holy. Do things his way.”

And if you’ve read the title of this post, you probably know where I’m going. Nadab and Abihu. Leviticus 10. Remember them?

In one of the ceremonies in which they were to worship God by their offering, they offered “strange fire.” ESV translates it, “unauthorized fire.” As they offered it, the fired jumped out from their censers and devoured them. God was not pleased, and at that moment he killed them for their sin. What was their sin? Other than the fact that they offered strange fire, we’re not sure. No specifics are given. We don’t even know what was strange about the fire, or what made it unauthorized. I think Moses purposely doesn’t tell us what exactly they did because he wants us to get the point: God is holy. Fear him. Follow his directions.

Isn’t the point here clear? When it comes to worship, God makes the rules. Human innovation isn’t allowed. This is not an Old Testament principle. This is a principle for human beings in a universe ruled by a holy God.

When we gather to church on Sunday mornings, remember that we’re coming toward Nadab and Abihu’s altar to serve Nadab and Abihu’s God. The method of our worship has changed (by God’s design), but the principle laid down for us in Leviticus 10 has not: don’t bring unauthorized fire into the worship of God. Human wisdom has no place in the house of God. He makes the rules.

Now, I understand the New Testament doesn’t give the same specific prescriptions for worship in the church. The pastor isn’t given a certain type suit to wear, like a priest’s ephod; sacrifices are no longer viable, seeing as how the final sacrifice has already been given; and though the tabernacle was designed by God, there is no blueprint for church buildings these days. Much of the worship in the New Testament is descriptive, not prescriptive. But I think the reason why it’s that way is because the Old Testament has already been written. And if you start in Genesis, and get to know this Yahweh, by the time you turn from Malachi to Matthew you’ll get a sense of his impeccable holiness, hatred for sin, and purposefulness in everything. You’ll already know that he takes worship seriously.

So when you’re sitting around the boardroom planning your Easter service, you’re not asking whether or not it’s appropriate to play “Highway to Hell” as an opening song.

Why? Because you’ve met Nadab and Abihu. And you’ve met their God. And you’ve seen his standards. And (hopefully) you’ve learned that when you approach the throne in worship you gotta take your sandals off– you’re on holy ground.

This Sunday, remember that.

And you might find yourself appreciating Jesus more.




The top 25 songs sung in churches today

Chris Tomlin has six songs in the top 25!

1. Mighty To Save, Hillsong Live

2. How Great Is Our God, Chris Tomlin

3. Blessed Be Your Name, Matt Redman

4. Everlasting God, Brenton Brown

5. Revelation Song, Jennie Lee Riddle

6. Here I Am To Worship, Tim Hughes

7. Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone), Chris Tomlin, Louie Giglio, John Newton

8. Open the Eyes of My Heart, Paul Baloche

9. Your Grace is Enough, Matt Maher

10. Jesus Messiah, Chris Tomlin

11. In Christ Alone, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty

12. Holy Is The Lord, Chris Tomlin

13. Forever, Chris Tomlin

14. Shout to the Lord, Darlene Zschech

15. Come, Now is the Time to Worship, Brian Doerkson

16. Our God, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, Jonas Myrin, Jesse Reeves

17. You are My King (Amazing Love), Billy Foote

18. Lord, I Life Your Name on High, Rick Founds

19. From the Inside Out, Joel Houston

20. Hosanna (Praise is Rising), Paul Baloche, Brenton Brown

21. How He Loves, John Mark McMillan

22. God of Wonders, Marc Byrd, Steve Hindalong

23. Hosanna, Brooke Fraser

24. The Heart of Worship, Matt Redman

25. Beautiful One, Tim Hughes

Does this list match with the songs you sing most in your church? Which songs would you like to see in the top 25?



Come Empty, All You Sinners!

First, we should come as we are: weak and weary sinners in need of a strong Christ. It is no virtue to pretend to be without need, especially before God. That’s pride. We are needy people; we need Christ, we need His assurance, we need His hope, we need His peace, we need His rest, we need His joy, we need contentment in Him.

Before we are able to give God anything we must first come to grips with our utter inability to give God anything.  Only in the very act of desperately acknowledging that there is nothing within us to give, we are able to give to God. But the gift we give isn’t something God needs, or doesn’t have.

What we give Him is already rightfully His. He is the Great Redeemer, the Glorious Shepherd, our Hope, our Peace, our Comfort, our Joy, and when we come to Him empty, we give him the place of Redeemer, Hope-giver, Comforter, and Burden-lifter in our lives. It is His rightful place. And, in homely, earthen vessels, He shows Himself to be magnificent.

Jesus bids us “Come,” that he may give us rest! Jesus isn’t asking anything from you except to find rest in Him!

Stop trying to give to God! Come empty, all you sinners, and let your cup be filled!

Worship Pastors: How Do We Gauge Succes?

“I could actually hear the congregation singing last Sunday morning!”  worship

“Did you see Frank* closing his eyes during the last song?”

“Couldn’t you feel God’s presence this morning?”

Or in case of Fallbrook First Baptist: “They were actually clapping on beat this morning!”**

These are typical things people on the praise team will talk about after a Sunday service.  They are our gauges.  These are the factors that we use to decide whether or not a worship service was, in fact, worshipful.  Are these valid ways of measuring worship?

My answer: no.

And, though I could go into great detail why I believe that, I will give you a brief defense of my answer and give you a chance to respond.

Leading in worship is much like talking to an unsaved person about the gospel.  You can present the truth in a tasteful way, but whether or not it sinks in and affects the heart is not in your hands.

That being said, this is how we gauge success– Did we accurately proclaim gospel truth in a tasteful, non-distracting, God exalting way? If we can honestly answer yes, then we are successful.  Even if Frank didn’t close his eyes.

* I chose the name Frank because I’m pretty sure no one in our church is named Frank.  And if there is someone in our church named Frank, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t know how to find this blog.

**That actually never happens.