Category Archives: worship

Worship As Spiritual Formation: 5 Theses (Brannon Hancock)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been out on the worship conference circuit this summer, raising awareness for our new Worship Arts specialization, that can be taken as part of our Master of Arts in Ministry degree, or along with the Master of Divinity. Two weeks ago I was at the National Worship Leader Conference in Dallas, the fifth and last of the “tour,” representing the seminary and teaching workshops on “Worship As Spiritual Formation” and “The Worship Leader as Pastor.” Having now shared these talks multiple times in various venues throughout 2015, I’m about ready to retire them, at least in their present form. But before I do, I thought I might share one of them here. So, without further ado, and for the sake of brevity, here are the first 5 of my “10 Theses” on Worship as Spiritual Formation – I’ll share the other 5 next time. (Note: this is also pertinent right now because Colleen Derr and I are teaching Congregational Spiritual Formation together to our Marion onsite cohort, and I can’t talk about “CSF” without talking a whole lot about worship.)


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3 Things I’ve Learned on the Worship Conference Circuit (Brannon Hancock)

My first year as a full time faculty member at Wesley Seminary has been exciting, in no small part because we are still constantly tweaking, refining, innovating and collaborating to be the best seminary that we can be for our students. I’ve also learned that, in an innovative environment like Wesley Seminary, one must be careful what one says in committee meetings, because a random idea just might become reality (and create a bunch of additional work!).

In late 2014, our (outgoing – *sniffle*) Dean Ken Schenck, our Director of Admissions Aaron Wilkinson, and I had a “meeting after the meeting” where we discussed our current Master of Arts in Ministry specializations. At that time, we offered Leadership (Bob Whitesel’s area); Children, Youth and Family Ministry (Colleen Derr’s area), and Church Planting and Multiplication, Church Revitalization, and were in the process of rolling out one in Pastoral Care.

Worship MA
So, the newbie professor (me), says, “Okay, so what would it take to have a specialization in worship?” “Four worship classes,” says Ken. Aaron’s eyes lit up as he asked, “What would the four classes be?” So we hit the whiteboard for a few minutes, Aaron left to do some market research, and long-story-short, by March I was writing course proposals, Aaron was putting together a marketing plan, and by May, it was all getting the green light from the appropriate committees. (Click here for more info about the Worship Arts specialization.)

Part of the marketing plan involves sending “yours-truly” to five major worship conferences this summer and early fall: three National Worship Leader Conferences (in Kansas, California and Texas) and two Experience conferences (in Texas and Orlando – apparently there are a lot of Christians, and a lot of mega-churches, in Texas!). I’m teaching some workshops and hanging out at our booth to tell people about the new program, which is already gaining applicants, and (all being well) will launch in January 2016 with our first cohort! (Operators are standing by.)

I’ve been leading worship in local churches for more than 20 years (yes, unfortunately I am old enough for that to be true), and was a full-time worship pastor for almost 7 years before coming to Wesley Seminary. I am blessed to know a lot of worship leaders. Many of them went into their ministry roles thinking they were taking a “music job” (church musicians have a bad habit of referring to it as a “gig”), only to realize the job of a worship pastor is about 30% music and about 70% pastor.

So we’ve designed this program primarily with the active worship leader in mind, who is musically equipped and already doing the job, but wishes to enhance her ministry with additional theological, biblical and pastoral training. Hence, the degree is an MA in Ministry, with a specialization in Worship Arts: 36-hour degree (1/3 of that is worship-related) that can be completed online in 2 years, without stepping away from an existing ministry role.

As I’ve been out talking to people at the first two of these five conferences, this new program seems (as I imagined it would) to address a very real need, both for individual worship leaders and for the Church. Worship is changing, because the Church is changing… because the culture is changing. Here are a few things I’m noticing as I look at the Church today, and how it is encapsulated at these worship conferences I’ve been attending lately:

1. We’re ready for a break from “the big show.”

Highlights at both conferences I’ve attended have been stripped down acoustic sets, in some cases by artists who are known as big, loud rock bands. At the NWLC in Kansas City, headlining band Jesus Culture did a set with just two acoustic guitars and their voices. They returned after a plenary talk by Hillsong’s Darlene Zschech and ended by leading the 1200 or so of us in singing “Shout to the Lord” – a major “throwback” as modern worship goes!

At the Dallas Experience Conference, the most talked-about session was an “in-the-round” night of acoustic worship, led by members of the conference steering committee, most of whom are relatively unknown local church worship leaders. (Well, they did have CCM legend Al Denson playing piano!) No fancy lighting, no hazers, no projectors – in fact, we were given no lyrics at all! We just sang familiar worship songs, old and new, for a solid 90 minutes.

Say it with me, friends: “Less is more.” Don’t mistake impressive for excellent. Excellence doesn’t require virtuosic talent or expensive technology. (And for a $60 concert ticket, I can usually get way better than anything a church can pull off.) There may be a place in some contexts for the big production, but: A) that isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the standard for every church; and B) even if it is the norm in a given context, there’s value in occasionally stepping away from it, and stripping it down to the basics every once in awhile. God is glorified in our weakness, so it’s okay to allow our flawed humanity to come through in our worship services.

2. We’re ready for more substance, theology, and (gasp!) tradition.

As evidence, here are some of the workshop titles on offer at the conferences I’ve attended: “Liturgy in Modern Worship”… “Making the Past Present”… “Reimagining the Psalms for Gathered Worship”… “Worship as Spiritual Formation” (that last one is mine). Yes, there are also sessions on sound design and environmental projection and how to help your guitar players get along with your keyboard players… but, to my pleasant surprise, workshops delving into scripture, theology, liturgy and discipleship were also presented to packed rooms, some standing-room-only.

Of course, this is not unrelated to the previous point. Our culture is inundated with advertising, which forms us into consumers. I think we’re (younger people, especially) just tired of constantly being sold the next latest, greatest thing. The church can either try (and usually fail) to compete in that game… or we can provide an alternative to it, and relief from it. In a culture of disembodied, technologically-mediated experiences, Christian worship provides authentic, embodied presence. In a culture of change and impermanence, the Church provides something anchored, something that lasts: not traditional-ism, which is the dead faith of the living, but tradition, which is the living faith of those who have gone on before us. We need worship that forms us not as consumers but as Christians.

3. We’re all in the same boat.

The nice thing about attending ministry conferences is that, as you begin to talk to others, you realize you’re not alone. Everybody’s dealing with the same struggles, from how to control our stage volume to how to reach our communities. It’s even nice to be in the big plenary sessions with the big-name artists and realize that they make mistakes, and their guitarists play the occasional wrong note, and their lyric projectionist is sometimes slow with the slide changes, too!

It’s possible, of course, to see all the technology, and hear the headlining artists, and get all pumped full of big ideas, and then realize you (as I!) have to go back to your small church and lead with just a guitar (and no fancy moving lights!)… and get discouraged. But I leave excited that Kingdom work is going on everywhere, in all kinds of places, in all kinds of styles, to reach all kinds of people. There is no perfect church, and no one church is capable of reaching everyone. In our diversity, and amidst our common struggles with people, budgets, technology, apathy, egos, and faulty mic cables, God is making the Kingdom present among us in the here and now. That is good news (gospel), indeed.

In Defense of “Religion” (Brannon Hancock)

At some point – I know not when – religion became a dirty word. And this attitude doesn’t just come from critics outside the church. I’ve heard many Christians make this distinction as well: “It’s not about religion; it’s about relationship.” Or “I’m spiritual, but not religious” – religion often serving as a cipher for rituals, moral codes, spiritual disciplines, and the like.

A couple years ago, this attitude was brought to its clearest – or at least loudest – articulation by Jefferson Bethke in his spoken-word video “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” The video had 1.2 million hits within its first 24 hours online (that’s an average of 14 views per second); 11 million hits the first week; and has been viewed nearly 30 million times in the three years since it was uploaded. (That’s off-the-charts virality, especially for a piece of Christian pop culture.) Continue reading

Worshipping God, or Ourselves?; or, Why Tradition Keeps Us Faithful (Brannon Hancock)

For 7 years prior to joining the faculty of Wesley Seminary, I gave oversight to music and technology in a church whose worship “style” is decisively “contemporary.” Congregational singing is accompanied by a guitar-driven “praise band” (drums, bass, guitars, piano/keyboard) and augmented by a choir and praise team (3-4 vocalists on individual mics; 25-30 in the choir). At the front of the sanctuary hang two large screens onto which are projected lyrics, scripture readings, videos (for announcements and illustrations), images and graphics intended to reinforce the sermon theme or other elements of the service. The majority of the congregational songs have been published within the past decade, and we add new songs regularly (about one per month).

Although many in the congregation may not realize it, our services also incorporated many aspects of traditional or historic Christian worship. As a staff, we identified some “essential elements” of worship that we felt were important enough that they should be included in every service: call to worship, welcome (including a few key announcements) and invocation, passing the peace (“take a minute to greet one another”), congregational singing (the so-called “worship set”), the sermon (including scripture reading) leading into a time of response that includes prayer a communion (every week), the benediction and dismissal. We would “mix up” the order from time to time, purportedly to keep things from feeling “stale” or becoming too rote and “ritualistic” (a big “no-no” in contemporary churches, of course), but the basic elements outlined in Acts 2 were always present: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer.

I love this church. As their worship pastor, I felt very fulfilled nearly all of the time in the ministry to which God had called me for that time and place. It was a joy to lead my congregation and work with the musicians, technicians and other creative folks that were entrusted to my leadership. And yet if I’m honest, I would confess that I was often left with a nagging feeling that something was not quite right.

It’s not that the service wasn’t good enough – we usually hit pretty close to the mark we set for ourselves. To the contrary, it’s almost like, by putting on such a great show, by “performing” so well, perhaps we implied that maybe, when we were really “on,” we did get it right. Like we may well have worshiped our great God with every bit of the quality and passion and fervor He deserves (why thank you very much). Like…you know…God’s pretty awesome, and, well, frankly, we’re pretty awesome at worshiping Him. Like maybe the focus was more on ourselves – our skill, ingenuity, creativity – than on our Creator…

The responsibility to plan worship every week can be overwhelming – to choose every word that a congregation will corporately say or sing in the service. Of course many churches don’t create or write their service each week – they have a fairly scripted service or “liturgy.” While there are variations in hymns and readings and prayers, these churches are not required to create their worship from scratch every week. Their worship has been handed down through generations; it is a gift, not something they are entirely in charge of but something of which they are “stewards.”

Perhaps by the very use of liturgical texts in worship, the Church acknowledges her inability or even incompetence to worship God rightly if left to her own devices. In his monumental book Symbol and Sacrament, Catholic theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet writes:

The fact that there is a [liturgical] text signifies that at the outset we are not competent to carry out such an action. In sum, it is not natural for us to render thanks to God in a Christian manner. To carry out the Eucharist requires that the Church first gain this competence. It is precisely the text that allows the ecclesial subject to gain this competence. This text thus makes the assembly follow an itinerary which, by means of certain “transformations,” has for its goal the assembly’s conversion: it is not God but we ourselves who are changed by the Eucharistic prayer. (Symbol and Sacrament, p. 269)

It might take reading that quote a few times before its truth begins to detonate. It leaves me wondering: is it possible that we think we don’t need a liturgy because we have so much confidence in ourselves? Do we fall into the trap of thinking we are capable of worshiping God rightly on our own?

Now, before you write me off for pronouncing that all evangelicals need a prescribed liturgy, let me clarify. I am well aware that scripted liturgies seem foreign to many Protestant evangelical traditions today (my own Church of the Nazarene included). But worship “by the book” is certainly a part of the Protestant heritage of Luther, Calvin and Wesley. Perhaps this is part of our birthright that could be reclaimed and repurposed for the renewal of worship today. In fact, take a look at most old hymnals (before we started singing “off the wall” with projectors and screens) and often you will find creeds, prayers and responsive readings in addition to hymns. With the shift in technologies, from book to screen, perhaps something that was once considered valuable has been lost.

Perhaps, without thwarting our freedom of expression in worship, we could glimpse, not a “better” “style” of worship, but the witness of a people who looked beyond themselves for a test of what it means to worship God faithfully. A people who believed that forms and rituals they didn’t come up with on their own, and words that had stood the test of time, had a value worth preserving. I’m suggesting that looking beyond ourselves and the fleeting winds and whims of our culture may be one way to ensure that our worship is worthy of the awesome, timeless God we worship. Perhaps a little “tradition” may keep us not only faithful, but humble as well.

Are You Singing Your Faith? (Safiyah Fosua)

(Ephesians 5:18b-20 NRSV) … be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Most of us remember that worshipers in earlier centuries learned Christian doctrine, virtues and values from the songs they sang.  If you thumb through an old hymnal, you will find songs about perseverance, holiness, the deity of Christ, the sovereignty of God, devotion to God, kindness to our neighbors and a host of other teachings.  Having songs that taught the faith and would be carried outside of the worship space was important for several reasons.  To begin, many of the worshipers of previous centuries were non-readers.  Packaging the faith in a tune was just one of several ways that teaching took place.  Another benefit was evangelism. Practically every Christian awakening or revival period has been known by its music.  However, we often forget that memorized songs are also a means of discipleship.  Music hidden in the heart often rises up at odd moments to instruct, comfort or warn.

Do your worshipers remember the songs that you sang in church after worship is over and they have returned to their homes? 

A second question to consider: is your music in a form that can be carried away from church?  By this, I mean, are you using memorable, singable songs?  People in the music industry tell us that songs are often either lyric driven or music driven.  Lyric-driven songs are often carefully worded poems or reflections set to music. The words and their meaning catch our attention, give us pause, cause us to think. Music-driven songs are very different.  As the description hints, we remember the beat, or tune of the song while the words may get lost in the background.  The music industry suggests that a “good” song is one that has both meaningful lyrics and a memorable tune.  As we think of Christian music that survives more than one generation, we often find the same to be true.  These are songs with a good theological message and memorable singable tunes that beg to be memorized and repeated.

Several weeks ago, I asked members of our faculty for a list of the top ten Christian songs that they felt should be memorized.  I would like to extend this survey to you. Which ten songs would you hope that every Christian in your congregation knew from memory?  Songs on your list can come from any century.

If you would like to participate, the link is link will be open until September 1, 2013.  Please feel free to share this link with your networks.  I plan to write a short article about the findings after data has been collected and analyzed.  I am sure that the survey results will be interesting!

I hope that you will take a few moments to participate!

Transfiguration Moments (Safiyah Fosua)

The Church is often divided when it comes to the liturgical calendar.  Some feel that having predetermined weeks for themes or texts is far too restrictive for our free-spirited times.  Others run to the calendar for refuge, preferring the challenge to preach outside of their “favorite zones.”

Me?  I had thought of myself as a chameleon, more “when in Rome-ish” than having a preference.  But, here lately, I am finding myself yearning for the calendar and for ways to join the seasonal rhythms of the worldwide Church for which Christ died.

I am writing this blog in the shadow of Transfiguration Sunday, the day set aside on the church calendar to remember when Jesus, with Peter, James and John in tow, appeared with Moses and Elijah on a distant mountain.  A day when the position of Christ in human history was clarified – one greater than Moses the Lawgiver, one greater than Elijah the prophet – dazzling with otherworldly light.  When, again, humanity heard the voice of God from heaven, repeating what we heard at Jesus’ baptism: my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.

It is no accident that every year in the church calendar, this Sunday precedes Ash Wednesday and the start of our yearly Lenten journey.  Transfiguration Sunday functions as the New Testament version of Isaiah 6 , where Isaiah, known to be a person of faith beyond just “regular attender” — a priest — had an out-of-the ordinary encounter with God in his place of worship that changed him for a lifetime.  Isaiah had a transfiguration moment, where God was revealed, “high and lifted up,” when God’s presence filled the Temple.  This “God sighting” made Isaiah aware of his sin and drove him to repentance and renewed commitment.  I am a man of unclean lips… here I am, Lord, send me.

Transfiguration Sunday, reminds us to look at Jesus, greater than Moses or Elijah, to listen to him because he is the Son of God.  Like Isaiah, this fresh vision of divinity reminds us that we partake of fallen humanity, and so we place dust on our heads to remind us that we are dust and that we are imperfect before we are called to the howling wilderness of the soul to face and conquer our demons.

Today, I am thankful to be called to prayer and some form of Sabbath rest as I contemplate my soul’s condition.  I am thankful that the Church is shouting:  “slow down!  Listen!  Reflect.  Pray!”  I am relieved that at least once a year I have a legitimate reason to put away Superwoman’s cape, to drop the mask, and to stop the charade by putting the ashes on my head that betray that I am human and flawed and prepared to join my new friends here, and my old friends in Nashville and New York, Atlanta and Ghana on the yearly soul’s journey to be more like Christ.

May this year’s Lenten journey begin with a fresh vision of Christ and be fueled by a fresh vision of who we really are.

Gobbled up by Tradition (Safiyah Fosua)

Several years ago, I figured out that you could sound remarkably like a turkey if you said “gobble-gobble-gobble” several times in rapid succession!  And so, I adopted the throaty “turkey gobble” as my signature telephone greeting on Thanksgiving Day.  It was not long before the holiday greeting became part of the holiday tradition for my friends and family.  Over the years, reactions have ranged from surprise to uncontrollable laughter to a four-year-old granddaughter’s “grandma’s got a turkey in her house!”  To my surprise, I discovered that close relations began to look forward to the greeting that began as a light-hearted way to spice up the day — more campy than prankish — and I thought temporary.  It has now been more than twenty years since that first gobble.

This year I found myself weighing whether or not I had outgrown the need to gobble until I got a “gobble call” from one of my adult sons, reminding me that the gobble was no longer just mine, it was ours!  It has become a tradition that reaches beyond our immediate family to friends in several states.  As I basked in the smile of my son’s gobble (not his first), thoughts quickly raced to worship and how traditions are formed or perpetuated.

New worship forms rarely emerge as an intentional effort to change the culture of worship; they are usually part of a search for transcendence and meaning.  The “traditional” music of some denominations was born in the relatively recent camp-meeting movement.  What we think of as contemporary worship today began decades ago as a Baby Boomer quest for more meaningful worship.

And, contemporary worship is no longer the new kid on the block.  In the arc of recent history, it seems that worship is always changing and morphing into new forms.  Emergent style worship, around for scarcely a decade, is quickly giving way to a variety of worship expressions.

Worship communities are also constantly creating and perpetuating their own traditions.  While we might apply style categories to a congregation like “traditional” or “contemporary,” “emergent” or “hip-hop,” within each of those communities you might find a number of local traditions that have emerged, like my turkey gobble, over time.

Several questions to ask as you evaluate the worship style and worship traditions of any congregation:

  1. When did this practice begin?  There are some old practices that have withstood the test of time.  There is something about singing Doxology that connects us with historical Christianity.  By contrast, there are some practices that have no connection to 21st Century worshippers and should be prayerfully examined.
  2. Why did this practice emerge?  Worship often loses meaning when a critical mass of people is no longer connected to the rationale for the practice.  I remember serving in church embroiled in conflict because the baptistery had been moved from its customary spot in the middle of the aisle near the front.  The old-timers remembered when a previous beloved pastor had placed it there during a sermon to symbolize the place where the two beams of the cross intersected.  More recent members, who were not present for that sermon years ago, wanted it moved for weddings and other worship activities.  Clearly the placement of this worship symbol was in danger of losing meaning.
  3. How does this practice connect us to God?  Take a notepad to worship with you for the next four Sundays and jot down the real order of worship – those things that actually take place during the worship hour.  At the end of the month ask of each entry:  did this take us closer to or further away from God?  If you find that the actual worship of God has been crowded out by other things like extended announcements, long pleas for programs and activities, tributes, special programs and other non-worship related items, it might be time to revision worship planning.
  4. Finally, do worshippers continue to find meaning in your present worship practices?    I do not know who began the practice of closing Christmas Eve services with lighted candles while singing Silent Night, but I do know that worship planners who tamper with that part of tradition do so at their own peril.  I hope you see this as a strong caution against change for change sake.  Ultimately, it does not matter if pastors and planners are bored with some traditions; the real question is does it continue to “make meaning” for worshippers.

This brings me back to the yearly gobble.  I had almost decided to abandon it; in fact I was late with my calls this year because I was tired from travel.  When I finally did crawl out and make those calls, my gobbles were met by a shower of affirmations that reminded me how much friends and family had come to associate the gobble with me and with the day.  As you prepare your congregations for Advent and Christmas this year, in all of your planning and innovation don’t forget the power of tradition.