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Should worship be only about God and me?

Filed under: Discipleship,worship — 4:10 pm

I love the conversation that Missio Alliance — a network churches connecting around a theology and practice of mission — is curating these days for the sake of the world. They are thoughtful, diverse, bold, and completely committed to joining God’s mission of redeeming and restoring of all things. If you’re exploring the intersection of theology and mission, definitely check out their website and get connected.

the cross2

Today, I got to write for their blog and share something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: Should worship be only about God and me?  Here’s the post…

It recently occurred to me that 95% of modern worship music is about God or about me. We largely sing about who God is (“Good Good Father”), what God has done for me (“This is Amazing Grace”), and what I’m going to do for God (“The Stand”). I affirm all three of these postures as deeply good and necessary.

However, Jesus didn’t only teach about God and me. Much of Jesus’ teachings were about how we treat one another and how we treat “the other.” In fact, Jesus directly tied our love for God to our love for others, and directly linked God’s forgiveness for us with our forgiveness of others. (Matt 6:15) Notice how much of his most famous sermon (on the mount) explores how we treat those inside and outside of our community, rather than our own relationship with God. We find this all over the scriptures (the laws of Moses, Paul’s letters, etc). God seems intent on creating a holy people, not just billions of holy individuals. Much of what it means to follow God in the way of Christ has to do with how we treat each other.

Yet we come together each Sunday and sing individualistic songs to our personal God. We all stand facing the same way (rather than toward each other), dim the lights (so we’re not distracted by seeing each other), and have a deeply personal, one-on-one experience with our Creator…

Read the whole post here.



Too much Bono in the church?

Filed under: church,Discipleship,music,worship — 9:30 am

About ten years ago, I wrote a piece called “Everything I Know about Worship Leading I Learned from an Irish Rock Star“.  But after seeing U2 last week in Chicago, I no longer agree with what I wrote. Let me explain…

The concert was incredible. I’ve seen U2 over a dozen times, and the first half of last week’s show was one of my favorite performances yet. (The second half felt a little tired.)  Bono’s voice was in top form, and the journey they took us on was powerfully stunning. I loved it and am already looking forward to their next tour.

U2 Chicago 07.02.15

U2 – Chicago 07.02.15

But as I marveled at Bono’s ability to create such an epic worship experience, it occurred to me that this anthemic, euphoric, cathartic, euphoria is the perfect model for a traveling rock show, but a potentially unhelpful model for weekly church. And yet so many worship leaders–myself included–have been trying to emulate this mountaintop experience every Sunday morning for years: “Did people lift their hands in the air? Did they sing loudly? Did they have a deeply authentic emotional experience?”  These questions, learned from traveling rock stars, have come to define so much of the current Christian worship culture.

Why might this be a problem?

Disney World is a wonderful place to visit, but would be a strange place to live. And an extravagant, 12 course meal is great for an anniversary celebration, but would be impossible to replicate every night.
In the same way, I’m becoming convinced that the rock concert worship event is wonderful in small doses, but dangerous when it becomes normative. A few reflections…

First, mountaintop experiences are not the entirety of the Christian life. And if our worship mis-communicates that this is what everyone should be feeling all the time, we do a huge disservice to people who are currently in the valley or will be in the valley…which is everyone. There’s a reason the Psalms include celebration, lament, anger, joy, dancing, and doubt.

Second, a steady diet of rock concert worship doesn’t teach us how to engage 99.9% of real life, which is not spectacular or very entertaining, and often involves quiet, awkwardness, and less-than-spectacular people. Reality is gloriously diverse. A worship culture that doesn’t equip and propel us to find God in every moment of life is not a gift…and much too narrow to form well-balanced people.

Third, a pressure to be spectacular can be crushing to worship leaders, pastors, and everyone involved. Every Sunday can’t be the Super Bowl. And trying to create epic experiences every week often leads to burnout (everything needs to be bigger and better than last week) and eventual disappointment (no church has the resources of U2).  Check out Ian Cron’s words about this.

Fourth, if left unchecked, this form of worship can form shallow worshipers–because always getting what we want, like, and enjoy has unintended consequences that can keep us from certain depths. We often learn best when outside of our comfort zone. Furthermore, God often speaks in a whisper, and constant over-stimulation can actually distract us from what God is trying to say and do in the moment. Sometimes a simple and quiet space is the biggest gift we can offer.

U2 live

U2 live

So can worship leaders learn from Bono? Absolutely! We have SO much to learn from him that will benefit the church and world. But let’s also learn from poets and parish priests, therapists and theologians, praying grandparents and passionate 2nd grade teachers, spiritual directors and singers of the old spirituals. The Kingdom of God is infinitely high and wide and near and deep and mysterious and closer than the air we breathe. May our worship help us to humbly embrace it all.

Grace and peace,


Three ways to begin exploring Liturgy

Filed under: A New Liturgy,church,worship — 3:56 pm

The traditional church had the form but lost the heart.
The modern church found the heart but lost the form.
Our invitation may be to anchor our hearts in the form,
and join God in the holy tension.

More and more people seem to be exploring the intersection of liturgy and modern Christianity. My evangelical friends often love the energy of our tradition but feel it’s a little too thin. And many of my mainline friends are deeply committed to their roots, but trying to breathe new life into the form.

It’s a really exciting time.

And while there are many people exploring this both/and path, here are three that really inspire me…

Brilliance / Packiam / Common Prayer

Brilliance / Packiam / Common Prayer

(1) The Brilliance. In my opinion, David Gungor and John Arndt are creating the best spiritual music on the planet right now. Their honest, beautiful, raw, and haunting albums provide a powerful soundtrack for Lent, Advent, and every season of life. Check out their newest project – “Brother” – which comes out next Tuesday.

(2) Glenn Packiam: Discover The Mystery of Faith.  Any time a worship leader asks me: “So what is liturgy all about? How do I move beyond singing into a more formational approach?”…I recommend Glenn’s book Discover The Mystery of Faith. It’s the most winsome, intelligent, and compelling invitation into this conversation I’ve ever seen. Especially for evangelicals. And his accompanying album The Mystery of Faith fleshes these ideas into powerful songs.

(3) Common Prayer (A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals).  This resource by Shane Claiborne and friends is a freight train of goodness. I’ve used it for my personal prayer many, many times, and it continues to influence how we approach Sunday nights at The Practice. Shane and I even got to lead the Willow Creek Community in one of the liturgies (watch video). Most of all, “Common Prayer” connects our inner prayer life with the outer world…inviting us all, over and over, to become contemplative activists.

What resources would you add to the list?  What are the other resources, artists, thinkers, and authors you have found helpful?


Robin Williams and The Liturgy

Filed under: God's movement,music,worship — 10:32 am
It's not your fault (1)

It’s not your fault

The death of Robin Williams has really messed with me.  It’s just so profoundly sad and heartbreaking.  But while re-watching many of his interviews and movies, one scene keeps playing in my mind, reminding me of the power of slowly repeating the Truth in love.  Remember the famous “It’s not your fault” scene from Good Will Hunting?  (Watch it here)

This brilliant scene is profound at a number of levels, but lately it’s been reminding me that we all need to hear the Truth more than once.  Slowly, firmly, and with great compassion.  Over and over.  Reality takes time to seep through our defenses and distractions, and we can’t always hear the beauty of Grace when she first begins whispering.

So as a worship leader, this raises a number of questions…

(1) If most of us need to hear the gentle truth repeated over and over, why do I spend so much time pursing innovation in worship and creative ways to reimagine our liturgy? Why are we so quick to add video content, moving lights, and production value to keep things fresh?

(2) If God often speaks in an easily missed, gentle whisper, why are many of my worship sets so loud? It’s pretty hard to hear a whisper at 110 dbs.

(3) Am I more afraid that people will be bored, or more afraid that I will add to the distraction?

(4) Do my worship liturgies create space for people to hear God whispering over and over, or do I give people one more entertaining opportunity to miss God’s voice?

(5) At the core, is my faith in God or in my ability to lead people to God?

These are easy questions to ask and impossible questions to perfectly answer.  But we need to wrestle with them.  I certainly do!

Which is why the Liturgy continues to capture and mess with me.  We gather together to tell the Big Story…over and over, over and over, over and over…until it finally begins to sink in.  Slowly and deeply.  And in these holy moments, the beautiful Truth God has been graciously whispering to us since the beginning of eternity sneaks past our defenses and into the cracks of our aching hearts.  Hallelujah.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

May we all learn to have ears to hear what God keeps whispering.


The moment when you realize that a song you wrote is being performed WAY better than you will ever perform it…

Filed under: music,worship — 5:52 pm

I love this!  So great…


The Practice: a few reflections after our first six weeks

Filed under: Discipleship,The Practice,worship — 12:05 pm
The Practice

The Practice

Hey everyone!  Thanks for all the questions and encouragement and interest in this holy experiment we’re calling The Practice.  The last few months have honestly been one of the best seasons of my life. Not easy, of course. And really overwhelming at times. But this is the kind of adventure I want to give my life to, and an incredible team to explore with. I’m just so thankful to God.

Now that the first six weeks are done, we’re getting ready to jump into a four week exploration of the practices that help us become people of action and contemplation. But before we move ahead, can I tell you about those first six weeks?  This is a bit of our story so far…

We began with our shared desire:  We long to be a tribe who doesn’t just believe things
about Jesus, but is willing to rearrange our lives to put his words into practice.
 In order for this to be true, we believe three things must be present at the end of our 18 month experiment: Vision, Practice, and Tribe.

(1) Vision. We must begin with a ravishing view of the Kingdom of God. What did Jesus teach and invite us into? What does it look like for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in Heaven? We need to start with the Big Story.
(2) Practice. What are practical, concrete actions that help me align with God’s Kingdom among us?  What are the disciplines and habits that I can choose to put me in the flow of Grace…so that God can do in me what I could never do othe
(3) Tribe. We can’t do this alone. We need to walk and practice together.

We’ve always known that a weekly service couldn’t accomplish this on it’s own. A two-hour gathering is only 1.2% of our time and can’t compete with how we spend the rest of the week. But a service “in service” of a community practicing the way of Jesus could be quite powerful. So with this in mind, our Sunday night gathering has become very important to the journey.

Meeting most Sunday nights, 7-9pm, we have tried to turn the Willow chapel into a holy living room.  Simple, reverent, and human.  We set up the chairs in the round because we desire to become a community, and placed the Eucharist table in the very center of the room because Christ is the very center of everything. It’s simple, of course, but hopefully the space preached louder than any words.

The vibe of the gathering was…

Read the full Story of our First Six Weeks


Getting the tribe together for the first time

Filed under: church,Discipleship,The Practice,worship — 11:11 am
The first night

The first night

As you know, last Sunday was the first gathering of The Practice tribe.  To watch this holy experiment begin to live and breathe in the hearts and bodies of our community was really moving.  To me, as beautiful as it was to pray and worship and practice a “divine reading” of the scriptures together, the absolute highlight was communion. Wow. I can’t stop thinking about it and can’t wait for this coming Sunday.

Our prayer is that after 18 months, every one of us would have a Vision, a Practice, and a Tribe…

•A Vision of the Kingdom of God – the redemptive Movement of God on this earth and
His invitation for each of us to join Him.
•A set of Practices, or rule of life, that help us daily align with God’s Movement
•A Tribe of people who are walking and practicing together in Jesus name.

Vision / Practice / Tribe

To learn more and be a part of this journey, please visit us at PRACTICETRIBE.COM.

Every Monday morning, we will post the week’s Kingdom Practice on our blog. We believe that gathering
on Sunday nights is only helpful if it launches us to PRACTICE the way of Jesus for the rest of our week.
Sunday night is not the main event, but simply a springboard into where the actual
holy work happens: Our real lives.

So please practice with us!  This first week we’re diving into the ancient practice of Lectio Divina.  On our blog, you’ll find a short explanation, some simple coaching, and the specific texts we’ll all be engaging.  You don’t need to attend with us in order to practice with us.

Let’s learn the unforced rhythms of Grace.


Holy music for this season

Filed under: God's movement,music,worship — 11:42 am

If your December is as crazy as mine usually is, then we both need some help to create holy space along the way.  A few of my friends have been creating incredible Advent/Christmas/worship music these days, and here are four highlights…


(1) The Advent Project.  Last year, all the worship leaders from around Willow Creek (S Barrington) came together to create a four part Advent liturgy. Each recording is meant to lead you on a 20 minute journey of music, prayer, scripture, and preparation for Christmas.  And the best part is that it is FREE! Download all four at and read the story behind The Advent Project.

(2) The Brilliance:  Advent (part 1, 2, and B-sides).  Of all the spiritual music being created today, The Brilliance is my favorite.  The beauty and depth of their albums move me deeply and will probably be the primary soundtrack in our home this Advent.  Download from iTunes/theBrilliance or bandcamp/theBrilliance.

(3) Page CXVI: Advent to Christmas.  For a couple years, Page CXVI has been releasing absolutely stunning recordings of old hymns, and their new release is no exception.  Haunting and gorgeous and holy and artistic.  Find it at

(4) Eastlake VII: Heavy Hearts, Heavy Love.  This is not a Christmas or Advent album, but it’s new and amazing and I had to include it!  Their last album – Eastlake VI – was one of my favorite modern rock worship albums of the year, and this new one is equally great.  The raw honesty in their lyrics is rare and inspiring. Check it out at bandcamp/EastlakeCC.


Is there anything I missed?  What albums help you create holy space in this season?


An embarrassing picture for a great event!

Filed under: church,God's movement,worship — 6:06 pm

Seeing a cartoon of myself is quite scary…but this event will be really great.  Please join us!!

On Saturday, November 2nd, a band from both Willow Creek and Mars Hill is joining me for a night of worship and stories to benefit the widows and orphans of Ghana and Ethiopia.  I had the privilege of being a part of this event last year, and it was wonderful.  Really, if you live anywhere near Grand Rapids, please join us!





Peter Rollins, worship, and going to a pub to get hammered

Filed under: church,God's movement,worship — 4:09 pm


Until last Sunday I had never met Peter Rollins. From a distance I thought he was brilliant and fearless, and up close I found him to be gracious, warm, and really humble.  Oh, and brilliant and fearless.

We were talking about worship in the church and he shared this great insight…

“People go to a pub for one of two reasons. Either they go to get drunk and forget about their pain, or they go to have a drink and talk about their pain with someone else on the journey.  They’re either trying to escape the Truth or dig deeper.

In a similar way, church can be a place to avoid Reality or honestly enter into the depth of it.”

Worship that only stays on the happy surface does a wonderful job of entertaining people into forgetting about their actual lives, but it only tells half the story.  And after church, people return to the complexity of Reality without actual tools to engage it honestly with God, and this is so very unhelpful.  On the other hand, worship that creates a safe place for people to honestly face both their joy and pain–while inviting God and the community to walk with them in healing, mourning, hoping, and celebrating –is something entirely different.  And desperately needed.

The first understanding could be in danger of proving Karl Marx correct when he suggested
that “Religion is the opiate of the masses”.

The second understanding shouts “Amen” with the great African-American tradition reminding
us that “Church should be a hospital”.

Are you a part of a spiritual community that walks with you into the messy realities of life? Does your church teach you how to find God in the depths of darkness AND the highest light? Does Sunday propel you into honest engagement with the full complexity of Monday?

Worship leader friends, how do you create space for us to ask big questions and confront the questions that we run from all week?  Do you trust that God is infinitely able to meet us in the tension of Reality…if we’re willing to go there?  What might it look like–in your actual community–to follow the Psalmist’s embrace of every part of the human experience as we turn our whole, glorious, messy selves back to the God who’s been with us all along?


A FREE book that every worship leader and pastor needs

Filed under: books,church,God's movement,worship — 1:09 pm

Today and tomorrow, Glenn Packiam is giving away his fantastic book “Discover the Mystery of Faith” HERE. If you are a worship leader or pastor who cares about how our church gatherings form disciples, then I highly highly highly recommend this book. Here’s why…

(My blog post from 03.05.13)

The Mystery of Faith

The Mystery of Faith

Today, my friend Glenn Packiam is releasing a new EP and book called “The Mystery of Faith“. Glenn has been asking profoundly important questions about the nature of worship and formation in the church, and this project was the result. I sincerely think every worship leader should dig into this with him. (Here are a few thoughts about Glenn I posted last week).

In the book’s forward, Ian Cron writes:

As I travel the country, it’s clear that a much-needed shift is taking place. Worship leaders are exhausted. The weekly pressure to plan and deliver innovative, seismically moving, crowd-attracting worship services is unsustainable.

Essential and far-reaching questions are surfacing: is contemporary worship compassing people toward a transfiguring encounter with God or pandering to our culture’s addiction to peak experiences, entertainment, and celebrity? Has the word relevant become code for “keep the consumer satisfied”? Do services designed around themes address the longings of people in search of a narrative that will make sense of their lives? Have we become more focused on “Lights, Camera, Action,” than on “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”?…

To my worship leader friends: Does this capture your experience well? What do you feel when you read it?

To my non-worship-leader friends who attend church: What does reading this assessment make you think or ask or feel?

Here’s how Glenn has responded…

I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Liturgy is not a style, but a feast

Filed under: A New Liturgy,church,worship — 1:39 pm

As you may know, I believe that our current approach to worship music is both fantastic and way too narrow. The modern rock, anthemic, expression-driven worship music that dominates the CCM world and most evangelical churches is one kind of healthy spiritual food.  And it is wonderful for what it does.  But I worry that a steady diet of it will create malnourished worshipers.  Which is why the liturgy is so brilliant.

The Liturgy is, in my wife’s excellence words, a well-balanced meal.

This doesn’t mean that every church should turn into a traditionally “Liturgical church”, whatever that means. We don’t need to become stylistically Catholic or theologically Episcopalian or suddenly hang stained glass everywhere.  This isn’t about style, but about form.  Do we have a plan in place to help form our community into Christlikeness?  It’s not about the songs we choose or the genre of music, but the questions we begin with.  

So as a worship leader, I’ve been asking myself:  Am I offering the church a well-balanced meal?

Over the course of a month…
-Do we practice a number of different worship forms…or do we only sing?
-Do we focus on many aspects of God’s character…or just the most common in worship songs?
-Do we encourage the full range of human emotion (joy, sorrow, gratefulness, lament, etc)…or find ourselves in a pretty narrow bandwidth?
-Do we learn how to worship from many different traditions…or are we only influenced by our own tradition?
-Do our worship practices create space for the Spirit to produce a wide range of fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc) in us…or do they invite a rather narrow response?

If my church community feasts on the worship practices we offer, month after month, will they become well-nourished Christ-followers?

well balanced feast

the feast

What about you and your church?  What are the worship practices that keep your community healthy?  Is there a certain “food group” that you might need to introduce…or take a break from?


All the notes, slides, and links from my ECHO breakout

Filed under: A New Liturgy,church,God's movement,worship — 1:00 pm

ECHO 2013

This afternoon I have the privilege of sharing a bit of my journey at the ECHO Conference.  This topic is something I’m deeply passionate about, but if I’m honest, still wrestling with.  So who knows what will happen!  The breakout is called…

“Evangelical Worship Leading, The Liturgy, and me.”

“While leading worship in a mega-church for the last ten years (at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, MI and Willow Creek in Chicago, IL), I’ve been feeling more and more drawn to The Liturgy – both personally and as a worship pastor.  The depth, reverence, and historical grounding have been profoundly moving.  But how does this fit into an evangelical mega-church with big screens and moving lights?  Is there a way to bring these ancient practices into this modern context, or are they fundamentally incompatible?  In this breakout, I’ll share what I’m learning, what I’m wrestling with, and a few big mistakes I’ve made.  And then we’ll dream together about the future.”

ECHO Breakout notes

ECHO Breakout powerpoint


The Story of A New Liturgy (video)
Ian Cron: “Becoming the Liturgy” (video)
Glenn Packiam’s blog
“Church is Bigger Than the Church” (my article for Relevant)
“Common Prayer”, Clainborne, Wilson-Hartgrove
The Book of Common Prayer online
Brian Mclaren’s open letter to Worship Songwriters


“Desiring the Kingdom”, James KA Smith
“A Guide to the Sacraments” John Macquarrie

“The Immortal Diamond”, Fr. Richard Rohr
“Everything Belongs”, Fr Richard Rohr
“The Holy Longing”, Fr Ronald Rolheiser
“To Change the World”, James Hunter
“Finding Our Way”, Margaret Wheatley
“Liturgy For Living”, Weil, Price 
“The Wisdom Jesus”, Cynthia Bourgeault

Examples (video):

A New Liturgy No 4: Creation (live at Willow Creek)
A New Liturgy No 2: Blessed to Be a Blessing (live at Axis):   (password = liveliturgy)
Love Can Change the World / St Francis / Have Thine Own Way (live at Willow)
The Resistance Experience (live at Willow)
Worship band IN the room (live at Willow)


The best book about worship I’ve ever read

Filed under: books,church,worship — 10:08 am
Desiring the Kingdom

Friends, I recently read a book that not only gave brilliant language to something I’ve been feeling for a long time, but also pushed me into territory I didn’t even know existed…

“Desiring the Kingdom” by James K. A. Smith.

Smith’s thesis is that human beings are not fundamentally “thinking beings”. We’re not even just “believing beings”. But at our very core, we are “Loving Beings”.  We become what we love.  And so schools, teachers, and churches who try to change people by giving them new information are ultimately not addressing the core issue.

We become what we love.  And the only way to change a person is to redirect their LOVE toward a different source.  And this only happens through certain practices.

But here is where it gets really interesting.  Smith spends a whole chapter talking about how brilliantly this is already happening in our world – in the shopping mall.  In “The Liturgy of the Shopping Mall”, he walks us through all the ways that the shopping mall is masterfully created to form us into certain kinds of people.  The Mall doesn’t just offer us information, but through environment, senses, and vision, it helps us love and embrace certain versions of “the good life”.  (One example: “If I can have those certain clothes, then I will be attractive and wanted.”)

And then he drops this bomb (especially for those of us who work at churches)…

“If the mall and its “parachurch” extensions in television and advertising offer a daily liturgy for the formation of the heart, what might be the church’s counter-measures? What if the church unwittingly adopts the same liturgical practices as the market and the mall? Will it then really be a site of counter-formation? What would the church’s practices have to look like if they’re going to form us as the kind of people who desire something entirely different—who desire the kingdom? What would be the shape of an alternative pedagogy of desire?”

This absolutely haunts me.  What if our Christian worship does exactly what the world’s liturgies do:  create self-oriented people committed to their own happiness and success?  The only difference is that we Christians use Christian language to accomplish this.

For example, I have a pastor friend who realized one day that the consumer-oriented marketing they were doing to attract people to their church was EXACTLY CONTRARY to Jesus’ call of discipleship.  If he filled the seats by marketing and meeting people’s felt needs, how could he then say “Okay, Jesus is asking you to pick up your cross, die to yourself, and follow Him.”?  The medium is ultimately much louder than the message.

So what would it look like for our worship gatherings to truly be counter-cultural?  Instead of just repackaging the values of the world in christian language, what kind of worship practices can form us into entirely new kinds of Kingdom people?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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