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Glenn Packiam on Exploring Christian Hope in Contemporary Worship

In this episode, pastor and songwriter Glenn Packiam shares about Christian hope in contemporary worship.

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Episode Transcript:

Host: 

Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. We pray this podcast will nurture curiosity and provide indispensable countercultural wisdom for our life together in Christ.

In this episode, Becky Snippe, program manager for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, talks with pastor and songwriter Glenn Packiam on Christian hope in contemporary worship.

Becky Snippe: 

Welcome to this podcast on Public Worship and the Christian Life. My name is Becky Snippe and I am a program manager at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. And I'm here today with Glenn Packiam from Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he serves as associate senior pastor of New Life Church. We are here today to talk about his new book Worship in the World to Come: Exploring Christian Hope in Contemporary Worship. Thank you for joining me, Glenn.

Glenn Packiam: 

Thank you, Becky. Great to be on.

Becky Snippe: 

Can you tell us the story behind the book? Why did you write it?

Glenn Packiam: 

This is my attempt to take my academic research and work and rewrite it for church leaders, pastors, worship leaders, songwriters, to be able to hopefully set some of these insights in a way that would serve pastors, worship leaders and songwriters.

Becky Snippe: 

Great. What has been the response to the book? I know it came out a few months ago. How are you hoping people will engage with the book?

Glenn Packiam: 

The response has been really positive, and I'm encouraged that both practitioners and academics are reading it. I've heard from a few friends in academic contexts who've said, look, I'm gonna use your book for my class next semester or next year. So I'm encouraged by that, but I'm also been encouraged hearing from a number of local church worship leaders saying, Hey, we're reading it because we want to dig deep into the content of our worship songs and services. And that's really what the book is about. It is driven by my own passion, my own background as a worship leader and songwriter, but also my interest as a theologian and as a pastor.

What the book does is it explores songs that worship leaders said are songs of hope and it explores the lyrical content of those songs. And then it studied in depth, two local churches, two focus groups from two local churches, to think about how people experience hope. So sometimes when we analyze or talk about contemporary worship, we look at songs and we pick apart song lyrics and all of that, but that's not entirely fair because with any ritual, it's not just the text of the ritual that counts, but also the performance of the ritual, and with Christian worship, something happens when we gather together and actually sing these songs. So I'm setting these two sort of empirical research methods side by side to give us a more complex picture of contemporary worship. Here are the song lyrics, and here are the services themselves, and what do both have to say to us in terms of how we experience hope?

Becky Snippe: 

Fascinating. How has your thinking changed? Has it changed in the process of writing or since the publication of the book?

Glenn Packiam: 

No, it hasn't changed. I think what I've realized is when you try to give a nuanced picture of something, you might either appeal to people on both sides of the discussion, or maybe alienate people on both sides of the discussion. I think there's some people who are ready to hear the conclusion that, Aha, contemporary worship songs are all thin and fluffy and pop and therefore not useful in our formation of Christian hope, but that's not the conclusion you'll find. You'll find that in some of the chapters, you'll say, these songs are not what they could be, should be. And yet there's this other side of it that says yet when Christians gathered together in worship, somehow God meets us and communicates his presence to us in such a way that inspires our hope. And so for other people who want to say, Hey, leave us alone. It's "working"; why this "critical" attitude towards contemporary worship? For those people, they might be disappointed as well because they might say, well, it is true that God meets us, and yet we can do better than what we're doing right now. So no, nothing's changed, but I have realized that in talking about the book, it requires people being willing to listen to others who might be on different sides of the issue, so to speak.

Becky Snippe: 

Great. And how might your book connect with worship practices? You've spoken about this a little bit already, but are there other ways that it might connect with worship practices in congregations across North America and beyond?

Glenn Packiam: 

The most obvious way that it connects with our worship practices is with regard to the songs that we're choosing and the songs that we're writing. There's a good section of the book that opens up---and the book is divided in four parts--and the second part of the book talks about what hope is. And so there's many ways of understanding hope: from a psychological perspective, from an emotional perspective, and then of course from a theological perspective. And when we evaluate our songs and song lyrics on the basis of a Christian vision of hope or eschatology, we discover that actually we need to do a much better job of this. We don't sing enough about the resurrection--our coming resurrection, not just Christ's resurrection, but our coming resurrection. We don't sing enough about the life of the world to come, of new creation, the new heaven, the new earth. So our songs, the ones that we're choosing and the ones that we're writing, can certainly be better.

But I don't want to place all the burden on songwriters. So I would include, and I do include in the final chapter of the book, preachers and sermons--that's one of our worship practices that also can do better. I did a short study of funeral sermons, and many of our funeral sermons focus on heaven, but not so much on the future bodily resurrection of the saints. And so I think our sermons can do a better job of pointing to the grand narrative, the big story. And then finally, the shape of our worship services themselves. So we're not looking just at individual elements of the service, but we're looking at the shape of the service itself. And this is where historic Christian liturgies are so helpful because they are not a random collection of worship elements, of service elements. Rather they are a journey or a narrative that is put together so that every worshiper, every time they gather together as the church, they're taken on this kind of progression, maybe from the gathering, the Word, the table, the sending, or whatever it might be. And I think my hope is, in talking about songs and sermons, we would also explore the service shape itself and try to have a service shape that points to a bigger story and a bigger picture and a more beautiful ending to that story.

Becky Snippe: 

Wonderful. It's certainly a good opportunity and challenge for congregations as they look ahead, especially in this COVID-shaped world, which leads me to my next question . . . has this taken on new shape, new meaning for you in this COVID-shaped world that we're living in?

Glenn Packiam: 

It's really interesting. I think in this moment, one of the most obvious ways that COVID has impacted the church is we've not been able to gather together in worship in a physical way. And I think that's an important thing. You know, in so much of my field work research with these two churches--one in a suburb of Denver and one in a suburb of Dallas--I was able to pay attention to things that happen in the room, things that happen as people sing together. So for example, one of the things that the focus group in Dallas said contributed to their experience of hope was the energy in the room. And this relates to some brilliant work by a secular sociologist named Randall Collins, who talks about the power of co-presence and emotional energy when we're in a room together. And this is exactly what was described by one of the churches in my field work.

But then there was a church in Denver that actually pointed to the--it seemed like the opposite, you know, because they talked about silence and candles and contemplation, but they also talked about prayer and fellowship in the lunchtime, in a potluck after church. And I realized that whether or not it's high-energy or whatever, we might say low-energy, the point of being co-present in a room is enough to help us build that sense of fellowship and energy together. And so I think in COVID, that's been especially difficult because here we are going through a difficult time, whether it's sickness or financial struggle or loneliness or despair or depression, and yet we can't be with one another. We can't experience the hope that comes from being together.

So one of the things that has helped is to be able to sing. And I think, you know, even looking at some of the viral videos that went around even early in COVID in March, April, May, we saw videos of the Italians on their balconies singing songs together. . . . And on a Christian level, we saw these virtual choirs singing a song like "The Blessing," and it went around the world. Some friends of mine in the UK did this amazing version of the UK blessing, and many of these iterations of these virtual choirs Zoom-like appearances have had a million views or hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. And I think part of that is even when we can't be in a room singing together, the virtual singing, which is tricky to do on Zoom, has allowed us to experience hope, and psychologically, there's a lot of reason for that. Our brains release the chemical of oxytocin when we sing with other people and oxytocin is that feeling of well-being and of positivity.

But theologically, there's something powerful about that. Singing is what Christians have always done when we are in difficult moments. The people of God in the psalms sing during exile. Paul and Silas sing at midnight in a prison. So even if we can't be in the room singing together, singing in our own living rooms with the TV screen or with the church service being broadcast has done something for us as the church. So I've been grateful for churches that have done that as opposed to . . . some churches that have said, well, if we can't gather together, let's make our online experience be non-musical. And I personally wonder if that's a mistake to take away music, even if it's virtual singing from the church.

Becky Snippe: 

Fascinating. It certainly has brought a lot of hope to see all those different pieces of music coming out throughout this time, . . . to join with those in singing in a variety of ways. Thank you.

Host: 

You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin.edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

Becky Snippe: 

Are there other opportunities or challenges that this might present for the church?

Glenn Packiam: 

You know, again, I believe so much in the power of song and music, and so much of my research focus is limited to songs and music. But I want to say that if we're zooming out and looking at practices that inspire hope, the central practice that has inspired hope for Christians since the very beginning is coming to the Lord's Table. And I know here again is a practice that has taken a hit during COVID. How do we actually share bread and wine when we're in the middle of a global pandemic? And so people have found different ways of doing this: encouraging people to have elements ready at their home; I know some people that are meeting in parks and outdoor venues say, bring your own communion, bring your own crackers and juice.

But the power theologically of the Eucharist, of the Lord's Table, is a powerful practice of hope because it brings together three dimensions of time. We say Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is what Christians confess when they come to the Lord's Table. And so we're remembering the past, we're experiencing the presence, the presence of the risen Christ by the Holy Spirit, and we're anticipating the future, the future hope of what will happen one day. And so coming to the Lord's Table is a ritual or a practice, if you will, like none other, like no other Christian practice, because of the way it ties in past, present, and future and says to us, actually reminds us that our hope is not groundless. You know sometimes we use the word hope in conversation and we mean optimism or we mean a good wish about the future. But when Christians say the word "hope" we mean something that is sure and certain because of what has already taken place. Christ has died. Christ is risen. And therefore we know Christ will come again. So the Eucharist is that moment where our grounding in Christ. Christ's resurrection becomes the basis for our future hope.

Becky Snippe: 

That's beautiful. You talk about hope as a character trait in your book. Can you speak a little bit about that?

Glenn Packiam: 

When we talk about hope from a cognitive perspective, it's definitely what's happening in our mind, or an emotional perspective . . . but Christians are very interested in hope as a virtue. Romans 5 talks about perseverance producing character, and character, hope. What does it mean to have this virtue of hope, and is it disconnected from the worship experience of hope? I say, no, it's not disconnected, but it is not automatically connected--meaning, you could go to church and experience this experience of God's presence and have your spirit be lifted up in hope. But if it is not tested through hardship, then it does not automatically develop into the character trait, the virtue of hope.

I was grateful that many people in my focus group described situations they were going through that were very difficult. And so they were not only talking about worship services that lifted their hope, but they said, you know what, I went back and I had to deal with this medical diagnosis or struggle with an adult child or marriage difficulty or legal battle or business, and in all of those situations, I asked them questions. What did you do to help your hope be resilient? And inevitably they would turn to something like prayer or worship. I turned my music back on, I'd start singing again or fellowship, or I'd open up the scriptures. So nothing new. This isn't rocket science. This is what Christians have done for centuries: prayer, fellowship, the reading of the scriptures, singing. And this is exactly what Christians do to connect the corporate worship experience with their individual worship experience, and when they form that link, the result is a hope that becomes resilient and a hope that develops into a virtue.

Becky Snippe: 

Great. So talking about suffering in this COVID-shaped world, would you then make the leap to say we're developing hope as a character trait or could be developing hope as a character trait?

Glenn Packiam: 

That's it, Becky, we have the potential to develop hope. Anytime we experience hardship, it's an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to form the character of Christ in us and to form specifically the virtue of hope in us. I think for some Christians, it's definitely been tested more than others. I think of Christians around the world that are suffering. You know, it's one thing for . . . many Americans to say, well, the hardship is I'm working from home--and that is difficult. But for many Americans, the hardship is more severe than that. And certainly for Christians around the world, it's much more severe. We were in touch with one of our global partners in Guatemala saying that children, with this particular community that we're in partnership with, because their schools have been closed they're missing out on two meals and two snacks--mid-morning snack, mid-afternoon snack. So these kids are severely faced with hunger.

So I don't want to be cheap about it. I don't want to say, Oh yeah, this is just an opportunity to develop hope. I think it's also an opportunity for the church to deliver hope in a tangible way to others. And this is, in fact, what many churches have done with delivering groceries and food. Some churches have opened up their parking lots to be testing sites. Some people have made masks--thousands and thousands of masks being sewn for people who serve. So yes, it is an opportunity to develop hope, but it's also an opportunity to be agents of hope in this world.

Becky Snippe: 

Great. Certainly a calling for all of us to be agents of hope, no matter where we are placed in this world.

Glenn Packiam: 

Yes.

Becky Snippe: 

Do you have a favorite, a poignant quote or part of the book that you'd like to share?

Glenn Packiam: 

Yeah, I do. It's in the introduction, and again, I feel like the book should come with a warning label that the introduction might get you fired up, but then Chapter 1 really slows us down with some academic kind of stage-setting, if you will, or, as people like to call it, academic throat-clearing. So I want to tell some readers, look, if you love the introduction, skip Chapter One, if you'd like; go right to Chapter 2 and you can go on with it. In fact, Part II is very much for anyone interested in diving deeper into hope from all different models. Part III is very much for people who are interested in these worship practices, songs and services and how it's experienced. And then Part IV is a great takeaway for all of us. . . .There's a great chapter on the theology of the spirit, what the spirit does to communicate hope to us, and the final chapter is what we talked about previously and what it means to be carriers of hope.

But I'll read two paragraphs here from the introduction that I'm particularly fond of. "Christians sing. In weekly worship and in dark prison cells, when hearts are buoyant and when hope seems lost, Christians sing. When Paul and Silas sang, the ground shook and the prison doors flung open. Christians awaken the dawn of the age to come with a song, even when it's midnight in the world. Christians sing because we are people of hope. In the face of fear, in the shadow of death, in the midst of suffering and pain, the Christian stands tall. We are shaken, but not moved; pressed, but not crushed; down, but never out. Christians are those who believe that because Jesus was raised from the dead, the worst day will not be the last day. Christian hope is resurrection and new creation, and it makes all the difference in the world."

Becky Snippe: 

Thank you. Those are great paragraphs that summarize a lot of the book. Anything else that you'd like to share with listeners today about Christian hope? Any last words?

Glenn Packiam: 

Let me say a word about the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we think that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts, and in Christian worship, that is particularly not true. You know, you look around and you think, what are we doing? We're singing a few songs, saying a few prayers, hearing a talk from the scriptures--how could this really be all that significant? And yet, of course, we know Rome thought that the early Christians doing this was so seditious that they had to find a way to shut it down. And Christians have sustained themselves, changed the world, because of the way that we worship together.

So in the book, I outline three specific things about the Holy Spirit; this is in Chapter 9. What the Holy Spirit does when Christians gather together in worship that relate to hope specifically. And the first is this: the Holy Spirit is God's eschatological presence. Now, all that means is the Holy Spirit is how we foretaste the future. Paul calls the Holy Spirit a down payment. He says to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 15, one day God will be all in all; when Christ returns his presence will fill everything. But in 2 Corinthians, he says the Holy Spirit is how we experience that now. That's the down payment of the future. So whenever we gather, whenever two or three gather in worship--in our small house gatherings, however we're doing that during COVID--there's no "junior Holy Spirit." There's no small church / house church Holy Spirit and megachurch Holy Spirit. There's only one Holy Spirit. And that same Holy Spirit is with us to help us experience in advance the future infilling of all things. That's why we have hope. We're foretasting the future.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit is God's powerful and empowering presence. From a cognitive, psychology perspective, hope happens when we believe that we have the power and when we believe that we have a path and a plan, but as Christians, we say we don't need to have the power, and we don't even need to have the plan or the path. We believe in the God who is all-powerful and the God who makes a way where there seems to be no way. And so every time we worship, when we sing "How Great Is Our God," "Great Are You, Lord," we're saying--we're transferring, in a sense; we're transferring agency upward. And so the Holy Spirit reminds us that God is powerful and empowering to us. And it's Paul saying to the Philippians, "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength." So I can be in prison cells, where he was in Philippi, or he can abound because the Holy Spirit is God's powerful and empowering presence.

And then thirdly and finally, the Holy Spirit is God's sacramental presence. And what I mean by that is that the Holy Spirit is how God is always filling ordinary things with his grace and with his glory. This is why Christians use oil to anoint the sick, water for baptism, bread and wine for communion. It's to remind us that God is always filling ordinary things with his grace and with his glory. And so ordinary people come to sing ordinary songs and pray ordinary prayers, and yet God fills us with his grace and his glory.

Becky Snippe: 

What a wonderful way to end our time together here, Glenn. Thank you so much for joining us on this podcast. It was great speaking with you.

Glenn Packiam: 

Thank you so much, Becky.

Host: 

Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu, to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.

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