Kevin Adams on Framing Words for Missional Worship
Worship can change lives when people understand what they are doing and why. Carefully chosen words help frame classic worship elements so gathered congregants are sent out to embody God’s grace, mercy, and peace.
Kevin Adams is the senior pastor of Granite Springs Church in Lincoln, California, and author of 150: Finding Your Story in the Psalms. He helps shape conversations and teaching sessions with and for a new generation of church planters and mission-oriented leaders. Ten years ago, Deborah J. Kapp wrote Worship Frames: How We Shape and Interpret Our Experience of God. Now Kevin Adams is exploring what this idea means for his missional context. In this edited conversation, he talks about Framing Worship for Mission, a book he’s writing to help churches design worship that flows purposefully in their particular contexts.
What do you mean by the phrase “worship frames”?
Think of visiting an art gallery and seeing a wide variety of art treasures. Often the frame itself makes you notice different features of the artwork’s beauty. The best frames have a substance (wood, metal, fabric) or thickness (thin, medium, thick) appropriate to the work or setting. At our church and in this book, we use the term “worship frames” for the words and phrases that orient people to what we are doing in worship and why. Frames help people see the beauty in the worship elements that Christians have practiced since the Church began.
Other helpful metaphors for these transitional phrases are mortar between the building blocks of a service, tendons that connect the bones of the service, or “in between words.”
Why are you writing a book about worship frames?
Worship leaders, wise pastors and church planters want to develop worship voices expressive of their own congregation, neighborhood, and culture. I want to nudge worship leaders and budding worship design teams toward a missional expression and application of timeless worship principles and methods—because the best worship voices are rooted in and informed by centuries of best practices. That’s why we encourage congregants new and old to deeply know and value the treasures of Christian faith expressed in worship practices through the centuries, and around the world.
Framing Worship for Mission is written in a spirit similar to Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C. S. Lewis and Letters to a Young Calvinist, by James K. A. Smith. The first half is a series of letters I write in response to a young worship leader’s request for guidance in leading worship with a multicultural team of novices. The second half is a short compendium of sample worship frames. These introduce regular elements, such as the call to worship, Lord’s Prayer, Eucharist; occasional elements, such as baptism; and seasons of the liturgical year.
What kinds of churches or people benefit from worship frames?
My sense is the worship words work in all contexts and situations. Both established and new churches are always explaining (framing) what’s going on in a way that folks “get it." I think all worship leaders should be able to frame historic worship elements—whether in college ministries, established churches, or church plants. I remember a seminarian who was assigned to write creative worship frames. This person said, “I grew up in the church. How come I never knew what these worship elements were for?”
Here in California, we have a lot of what urban missiologist Gary V. Nelson calls “borderlanders.” These are unchurched or de-churched people who seek authenticity and relevance in their lives. They often describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Often that means they are spiritually curious or interested, but they have picked from a smorgasbord of spiritual practices rather than associated with any specific “religion.”
Borderlanders generally reject objective truth but are drawn to narrative. Pithy worship frames can narrate how and why Christians do (or have done) something in worship. A worship leader might frame passing the peace as: “In the third century, before Eastern Orthodox Christians passed the peace, a deacon would call out, ‘Is there anyone keeping aught against his fellow?’ Friends, passing the peace is a way to live out the Bible’s practical wisdom. As the apostle John asked, how can you love God, whom you have not seen, when you do not love your brothers and sisters, whom you have seen?”
Can you share a worship frame example about a practice that many churches no longer follow?
Here’s how you could frame the worship practice of confessing our sins and receiving God’s assurance of pardon: “When we confess our sins, we are not groveling in guilt, but dealing with it. In the next few moments, in what we call ‘Confession and Assurance,’ we honestly face the ways we’ve contributed to the mess of the world. And we hear God’s good news of forgiveness.”
Now, imagine if you did this in a multicultural church, with a couple worship team members speaking these words together, alternating between English, Pashto, and Dari, or English and Spanish. That frame would help the entire congregation see the amazing treasure of confession and forgiveness.
You mentioned that some worship frames are thicker than others. How so?
A winsome one or two jargon-free sentences is usually best to orient worshipers, whether they are skeptics, novices, or spiritually self-assured. Yet, sometimes, infrequently, a thicker frame with more words is just the thing.
One of our newest team members, who double-majored in English and philosophy, captured our attention with a thick frame for confession that touched something we all experience: “In his book Being and Nothingness, John Paul Sartre imagines one of us looking through a keyhole. He can see people and their idiosyncrasies in unwatched and unguarded moments. It feels delicious because they are unaware he is watching. Few things feel as powerful or satisfying as being the unwatched watcher.
“But suddenly he hears a noise and realizes someone is watching him. Someone is seeing the delight he’s experienced in being an unviewed viewer, and he feels a kind of nakedness. He is overrun with shame.
“We work hard to market ourselves. On social media and in routine conversation, we work hard to tell and shape our own stories. We work on image management. We can’t bear for someone to have complete access to what we think and do and how we live.
“Unless it’s God. Today we remember again that God knows us, and, by the miracle of his grace, loves us. Let’s confess our sins and hear his assurance.”
How do you hope people will use your book?
The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship helped me envision this book and get feedback from a wide range of denominational and geographic settings. They’re helping me find a publisher. The book covers practical worship topics faced weekly in congregations of every denomination, ethnic background, congregation size, and neighborhood context. Its warm, practical, relational advice applies to leaders from any experience or tradition. We hope it will inspire and encourage worship leaders to engage attendees by framing the timeless worship ordo [classic liturgy] so congregants see its inherent, winsome, contagious mission.
It could be used to train theological students, both novice and veteran worship leaders, church leadership boards, and youth teams in wise practices of mission-shaped worship. Individuals could read it devotionally or to understand and explain worship elements in new ways.
Read Worship Frames: How We Shape and Interpret Our Experience of God by Deborah J. Kapp.
Kevin Adams recommends reading Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren and Tim Keller’s 2001 essay “Evangelistic Worship.”