Join our mailing list

Spiritual Preparation for Those Who Lead Worship

Those who lead worship must be people who have been born again by the Spirit of God, and therefore show forth some of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control.

Delivered at the “Reformed Worship in a Changing Culture” Conference, Orange Korean Christian Reformed Church, Fullerton, California
October 5, 2002
By Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., President, Calvin Theological Seminary

Adapted from Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. and Sue Anne Rozeboom, Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking about Christian Worship Today, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Dear Brothers and Sisters: how wonderful it is for me to be here with you for this exciting conference, and to meet so many good friends, old and new. Grace to you and peace. I’m honored by your invitation to be with you at this conference in which so many people of good will—the Korean Council of CRC’s, Home Missions, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and Calvin Theological Seminary—join hands and minds to prepare for worship and other forms of ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. Special thanks to Rev. Tong Park and Rev. Il Yong Kang for their gracious hospitality to us brothers and sisters from Michigan, and to my friend and brother, Rev. Christian Oh, who is translating for me this morning.

To all of you, grace and peace.

When you read or heard that my topic would be “Spiritual Preparation for those who Lead Worship,” perhaps you thought of our need for prayer. And, of course, those who lead worship do need to be people of persistent prayer. But that is not what I wish to speak about.

Perhaps you thought I might discuss Scripture, and how important it is for leaders of worship to be people of the Book. And, of course, it’s essential for leaders to love Scripture and to draw from its deep reserves of power when preparing to lead others toward God.

Perhaps you thought of prayer or of Scripture in the preparation of leaders, and those would have been excellent topics for me to discuss with you. But I have come here today to say something else. I have come here to say that those who lead worship must be people who have been born again by the Spirit of God, and therefore show forth some of the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control. The short way to put it is that to lead people toward God, who is our supreme good, we ourselves must show forth some of God’s goodness. We must love the things of the Spirit and show the fruit of the Spirit.

And here’s our first problem. The trouble with loving the things of the Spirit, as Robert C. Roberts once wrote, is that "the Holy Spirit isn't the only spirit around." The Holy Spirit is in competition with a lot of other spirits, and some of them look as if they come from God too. They look as if they might be life-giving spirits. They feel as if they might be comforting spirits. The spirit of personal ambition, for example, can look like holy zeal. The spirit of aesthetic pleasure can feel like adoration of God. The spirit of envy can sound like the hunger for social justice. What's more, these spirits show up not only on TV, but also in church, where they compete with God for our loyalty.

When we embrace them instead of God we commit idolatry, but perhaps unconsciously. That’s the danger: we may commit idolatry without knowing it, because those other spirits look so much like the Holy Spirit. So what we need, as Prof. Roberts points out (in The Strengths of a Christian)—what we need in order to lead others in worship is a particular gift of the Holy Spirit, namely, the ability to discern spirits—to identify them, to tell them apart, and to disentangle them from the Spirit of God.

At no time do we need this ability more urgently than when we think about the changes that have come upon Christian worship in North America within the last twenty-five years, and especially the package of changes often called "Contemporary Worship." Here is a movement that some praise as revival and others condemn as apostasy. From San Diego, California, to Bangor, Maine, the movement has renewed some congregations, and troubled or even split others. In fact, it has changed the way lots of Christians identify themselves—no longer first as "Methodist" or "Presbyterian," no longer first as "liberal" or "evangelical" or "fundamental." Nowadays, just as a couple of generations of Americans identify themselves according to the kind of music they listen to, so a number of Christians think of themselves primarily in terms of their style of worship. They attend Contemporary Worship, as proponents call it, or else "traditional worship," and they may make their choice with a good deal of passion. Or they may elect one of the forms of "blended worship" that combine classic hymns, contemporary Christian ballads, and popular gospel choruses, and feel that this choice, too, represents the compromise or settlement of a spirited debate.

To its advocates, Contemporary Worship represents the fresh breeze of the Spirit of God blowing through the Church. These Christians have chafed at worship that seems to them stale. Organ preludes, sedate sermons, contrived silences, formulaic responses, peculiar hymn texts—these and other features of so-called "traditional worship" have left them feeling "sore oppressed," to quote one of the hymns they would like to escape. They wonder, How did the worship of God get to be so boring? Why shouldn't we worship in the ways that we actually talk and sing? Why shouldn't we worship in a way that has a chance of connecting with seekers—including the seekers within our own families?

When given the opportunity to worship God in their popular idiom, the advocates of contemporary worship think as our ancestors did when they were handed a Bible translated into their own language: "At last! At last we are liberated to encounter God in our natural voice!"

But to more classically minded Christians, Contemporary Worship represents the blowing not of the Spirit of God, but the spirit of the age. When they attend their church's worship on Sunday morning and discover that their minister now acts like an emcee, or that the sanctuary has been darkened in order to spotlight a "Christian performing artist" whose mode of performance resembles that of a Las Vegas lounge singer, these Christians believe that their church has sold its soul. Worship seems less like the company of saints and martyrs than like a nightclub that forgot to close.

So they wonder, Why outfit the gospel in clothing that clashes with the gospel itself? Why stand for worldly entertainment, rather than against it? Why can't believers simply worship God without also trying to amuse the audience?

When given a chance to worship in a so-called "traditional" idiom, the opponents of Contemporary Worship think as our forebears did when they were handed a Bible translated into their own language: "At last! At last we have the prophets and apostles, who liberate us to encounter God aside from the tyranny of contemporary fashion!"

Present day worship practices have stimulated a good deal of argument among Christians, and rightly so. On the whole, worship deserves a good argument, since worship stands right at the intersection of the church and the world, or of "Christ and culture." In worship, as in all else, Christians want to know how to celebrate the gospel in such a way as to show its attraction, but also in such a way that it's still the gospel that gets celebrated, and not some cheaper grace of their own. And so we argue, and, regrettably, sometimes even quarrel: Can the gospel be conveyed today with habits and tunes that are more than three-hundred years old, or with JumboTron screens and PowerPoint presentations?

This intersection between "the church and the world" or "Christ and culture" is one where Christians have debated before, and the debate has never ceased. It has simply been passed down, one generation to the next, for as long as the Christian has existed. Whenever Christians have sought to preach, teach, worship, or witness in forms adapted from their immediate, local culture, their brothers and sisters in Christ have wondered whether the Church should be more circumspect. To ally with culture for the purposes of grace is to take the risk of corrupting the gospel—which is the very risk of the Incarnation itself.

In any case, disagreements arise, often sharp ones.

I should observe that the church, at least, has the possibility of arguing without quarreling. Not everybody else has the same possibility. Many contemporary disputes, such as those on university campuses, for example, arise among people whose contrary loyalties give them scant hope of resolving their dispute amiably, or even of setting its tone. The reason is that the disputants are skeptical of the human quest for truth, and of the role of honest argument in support of this quest. Moreover, apart from their common skepticism, they may also be committed to opposing philosophies of life, or, as it's often put these days, to "different core values." In fact, given their opposition to each other and their joint skepticism about the chances of resolving it, both parties may acknowledge up front that agreement is beyond their reach, that serious debate is a doubtful or even pointless exercise, and that the only plausible outcome of a tussle between them is that one will out-shout the other or out-maneuver the other.

Here Christians enjoy one of the fruits of the glorious liberty of the children of God: they may hope for serious discussion leading toward convergence, and perhaps even a degree of consensus. After all, given their doctrines of God and creation, Christians think there is such a thing as reality, "the way things are," and such a thing as truth, a reliable account of reality. As Christians, we also think that by disciplined study of God's revelation we can partly know the truth, and especially if we help correct each other's prejudices and self-deceptions with serious discussion.

Part of the truth that Christians jointly confess is a whole cluster of powerfully unifying realities. We believe in one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We have "one Lord, one faith, one baptism." We confess one holy catholic church, across the world and across time, and we are conscious of worshiping in the company of its saints and martyrs. We tell the same story of redemption, and jointly hope for its joyful ending. Moreover, Christians share a general view of the world and of our calling in it, namely, that the world has been created and redeemed by God, through Jesus Christ, and that those in union with Christ should "live for the praise of his glory" by "seeking first the kingdom of God."

How might this vocation be pursued? How might we seek first the kingdom of God? Of course, even at a general level, Christians answer this question in several ways, but one good, Biblical answer is that in response to God's grace we ought to lead lives distinguished by certain features of godliness or piety. We ought to make good works our "way of life" (Eph. 2:10) and good attitudes our "central business" (Jonathan Edwards). On this view a Christian's vocation largely consists in acquiring those "religious affections" or "holy practices" that fit people who belong to Jesus Christ.

To sketch such a life and its practices, the New Testament offers sections of "parenesis," or instructions for Godly living. These are glad invitations and exhortations for people who would follow Jesus. "Let your light shine." "Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good." "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable . . . if there is any excellence . . . think about these things." "Pursue righteousness." "Remind them to be gentle." "Bear with one another." "Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, and humility. Above all, clothe yourselves with love." "Be imitators of God." "Strive first for the kingdom." "Restore transgressors in a spirit of gentleness." "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ."

Toward the end of one particularly lovely burst of such exhortations, the apostle Paul turns directly to the topic that concerns us in this book, namely, how to find the confluence of wisdom and love as we help each other worship God:

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:15-17).

All this encouragement is for those who have been "raised with Christ," and whose faith therefore rests not only in the person of Christ, but also in his program of service and in the virtues that drive it. The person who trusts "Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord" therefore trusts that kindness is a form of strength, and humility a species of wisdom. He trusts in these things contrary to appearances and contrary to such worldly philosophers as Nietzsche. He trusts that obedience to God exalts a life instead of demeaning it, and that a glad habit of listening to others, and lifting up their interests, can excite in a Godly community a festival of goodwill and love.

In fact, the point of these guides for holy living is not first to tidy things up in our own spirits, as desirable as that may be. The guides for holy living are intended instead to enable a whole community to thrive. A community with "peace in its heart" has room there as well for the Christ who gave it, and for the neighbor who needs it. In a peaceable kingdom we can know some of the songs of the heart, and can sing them with common enthusiasm for Jesus Christ and for his project in the world.

Because of devotion to our common Lord, we may rejoice not only in our own salvation, but also in the salvation of neighbors—who might express their worship, prayer, or joy in a way we wouldn't choose. A community of such peace allows us to teach each other, and even to "admonish" one another, secure in the faith that our teaching and admonition happen "in Christ," which means inside a cradle of grace. In such an environment, straight talk will be tempered by grace, and grace will retain its core of truth. Given our common goal of making God's heart glad, of thickening union with Christ, and of taking on nourishment for the cause of serving justice and pursuing peace in the world, we needn't hurt each other or threaten each other. Not at all.

This goal can sound utopian, but, then, there it is in the New Testament. Paul spends a lot of time speaking of a healthy Christian community and what goes into it. It certainly seems that he thought treating each other with grace and truth is a normal part of Christian life. Paul looks at factions, fighting, resentment, name-calling, belittling and all the other features of church strife, and says, simply, "Put it away." Put it to death. Don't be that way. Instead, forbear each other, forgive one another, tell each other the truth in love, and, whatever you do—especially in the midst of your singing—give thanks to God in the name of Jesus Christ.

This will take small, medium, and large virtues in anyone who aspires to be even "a pretty good person," as Lewis Smedes describes such a person. We'll need humility, one of the most underestimated virtues in the world. Yet all it really requires is for one to be well-oriented to reality, namely, to remain teachable. We are to remain teachable, because no one person could possibly "know it all." We’ll need humility and we’ll also need candor, which is a kind of verbal straightforwardness. Candor is, in fact, is a type of justice because it prevents hidden agendas. The point is to face each other squarely so we know where each other stands. Only then can we deal with each other at the level of real concerns, rather than of hidden agendas.

I say we’ll need humility and candor. We'll also need hospitality, the gracious readiness to make room for others and their interests. This doesn't mean we simply relinquish our own identity. It means only that we look for ways in which our identity is actually enriched by accepting and welcoming others. I say we need humility, candor, and hospitality.

In addition, we’ll need forbearance: the willingness to put up with people who try our patience. I don’t mean that we would refuse to make moral or spiritual judgments, that we would be “tolerant” in the way that most Americans understand that term. They mean by it a kind of bland or neutral outlook when it comes to faith or morality. But that’s not what a Christian means by forbearance. In the Christian view, a forbearing person puts up with something he doesn’t want for the sake of something bigger that he does want. He puts up with a brother’s annoying tone of voice in order to maintain a spirit of unity. He puts up with a sister’s annoying choice of music in order to keep a spirit of peace. Forbearance means putting up with people who make you a little crazy in order to maintain unity in Christ.

"Over all these things," of course, we'll need to "put on love," which is a many-splendored garment, but which for present purposes may be defined as simple goodwill toward our neighbor, a desire to see him or her flourish as God intended.

But there's one more virtue we need to cultivate right along with all of these, and that is discernment, which is ingredient in prudence, which is ingredient in wisdom. Discernment, says Augustine, is in fact "love making a distinction between what helps it towards God and what might hinder it."

And here the person leading worship needs an extra serving of Godliness. What builds up the body of Christ and what tears it down? What is really important to insist upon as crucial to the health of the body, and what is more a matter of personal taste or cultural habit? These are hard questions, and the good answers to them will seldom be the easy ones. The good answers to such questions will be the wise answers.

And here, to go back to where we started—here is why the person who leads us to God will also have to be a person of prayer, a person of the Good Book. We get wisdom and her ingredients from each other, but ultimately only from God himself, and the way God has chosen to disclose his ways is typically through the wisdom a whole body derives from Scripture, prayer, and the nurture of the sacraments.

Remarkably, the virtues that make a community thrive represent a part of the image of God. Hospitality, patience, humility, and the rest of the virtues compose not the ambition of spiritual entrepreneurs, but the vocation of Godliness by people elected to follow it. Perhaps there are a number of ways to image God. One of them is to live in communal love. Because God is triune, the image of God is social as well as personal—a truth we can find not only in John 17, which appears to make the church the official biblical analogue of the Holy Trinity, but also in the "renewal of the image" passages in Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3.

There Paul writes to churches that are divided or in danger of division, and calls them to renew the image of God by such means as telling the truth, putting away their anger after a time, working hard in order to have something to give to those who have less, and adopting a tenderhearted attitude toward sinners. The idea is that to do these things is to be like God. To act like this is to act like God. More specifically, to act like this is to represent Jesus Christ, the pre-eminent image of God the Father (Col. 1:15, 2 Cor. 4:4). We image God by imaging Christ, and we do it by showing Godly knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Col. 3:10, Eph. 4:24). Parenesis is just a way of spelling out righteousness.

So for an ordinary Christian in an ordinary Christian community it should be an awesome thing to consider that every time she struggles to deal patiently with a way of worshiping that seems to her boring, or even obnoxious, she is imaging God. And she is both expressing and strengthening her union with Christ.

Considerations of this kind help us to see the "holy living" sections of Scripture in the same way as we see the church, namely, as a part of the gospel and not a mere addition to it. The reason is that these sections present us with the counsels of grace by the God of grace who knows how life flourishes in union with Christ and wishes to share the recipe.

God's commands orient us to covenant living and tell us how to make it sing. It's part of Karl Barth's enduring spiritual genius to see this truth and to insist upon it. God's command is "the form of the gospel" that invites "joyful participation" in good life with God and each other. God's call to compassion, for example, is itself compassionate. When we refuse God's commands, it's grace we are refusing. It's freedom we are refusing. We think we are refusing a bad death, but we are actually refusing the good death that leads to resurrection and life. "The good command of God," writes Otto Weber, comes to us not out of the blue, but "in Christ," "in the Lord Jesus," "by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ," "by the mercies of God."

So let the people who lead us in worship be people of prayer, and people of the Book. But let them also be people who have died and risen with Jesus Christ, and who therefore shine with resurrection light. Let them shine with the power and glory of God expressed in such homely virtues as patience, kindness, self-control, and taking interest in another person’s kind of music.

This is one way the Kingdom comes, and God’s will is done on earth as well as in heaven.