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Success in Worship is Linked with the Spiritual Life of the Worshiper

An interview with Pastor José Caballero, a pastor of the First Hispanic Baptist Church of Huntington Park, CA.

This conversation was conducted by Jaime Lázaro in Spanish and translated to English. Read it in Spanish here.

José “Pepe” Caballero, a native of Bolivia, is the pastor of the First Hispanic Baptist Church of Huntington Park, a congregation that is affiliated with the Convention of Hispanic Baptist Churches.

“Pepe,” as he is affectionately known in Southern California, is also the most influential Christian journalist in that part of the country, and a tireless promoter of the unity of the Christian churches in Los Angeles.

But, let us put aside the full range of activities that Caballero has undertaken and completed in his daily walk to focus on his perspective as a pastor regarding worship.

This was a special situation, as the church he pastors is known to be “conservative,” not only for its theology, but also because of its expression of worship through hymns.

In our friendly dialogue, a few statements stood out:

• Pepe Caballero identifies with the idea that singing hymns, where one reads lyrics and sheet music, individualizes or isolates individuals and does not allow them to connect with each other. But, if that is the way it has been done in the past, would you say that worship culture has transformed into a collective experience?

• Starting from the premise that many people imagine God as an old man with a beard, we asked if this is how Latinos view God as well. Pepe said that because of the circumstances of struggle and survival, there is no place for a quiet old man. For immigrants, God must be someone alive and powerful. Is it that Latinos follow a different God than more privileged cultures?

• The success of worship is directly linked to the spiritual life of the worshiper and the pastor. I ask; does God manifest himself effectively to people who do not know the spiritual life of their leaders?

Here is the interview:

Does this congregation emphasize the time of worship?
Mostly, but we are beginning to motivate. We are taking the first steps.

Is it because this church uses styles that are not very contemporary?
Yes. It is customary to use the classic, evangelical hymnals. People here are even used to using a large binder with sheet music. Obviously, this results in a very formal way of singing, very enslaved to reading, because you have to move from one line to the other, according to what the sheet music tells you. That makes you focus all of your attention on the page. It is the classic form of a traditional Baptist Church.

But in turn, it is those songs that touch their hearts and lives, right?
Exactly, this is the greatest treasure that surpasses modern composition, because it is based heavily on Bible verses; each song is a message. They are very powerful in that way. The problem is that formality, mechanical singing and reading the music do not give full freedom to express yourself. Your gaze is fixed; your face is lost in a large book, not giving you the time to look at who is guiding you. I have been to other churches where we used the combination of old classic hymns with more modern music, without the need to read, and there have been beautiful expressions.

Is it that singing hymns, where one reads lyrics and sheet music, individualizes or isolates individuals and does not allow them to connect with each other?
Yes, that is the clear explanation. But if we use the projector screen with lyrics that everyone can see, eliminating the sheet music, there may be more freedom to be connected. The other interesting thing I’ve found is that many people know the hymns by heart; however, they open the hymnal and stare at the lyrics. I have done some tests. For example, I told the choir that they would sing looking at me and I have seen beauty arise from this. A singer who couldn’t fathom the idea of a Baptist church that still used hymnals recently visited us. After the meeting, he told me he had been so impressed with how we sang the hymns. The lyrics are powerful and biblical, and if sung with a little thought devoted to God, it is spiritually powerful.

Since the same songs have been sung for years and years, do you feel that you run the risk of worshiping automatically?
Yes, it becomes mechanical if you are not attentive to your experience in the Spirit. It can become cold too, because you’re doing it mechanically. How can you get people to appreciate the collective experience while they hold a hymnal in front of their faces? I have also done something else that is beautiful, where in the middle of the preaching, I started to sing a hymn a capella. Everyone holds on tight to that hymn; that is spiritual.

So you have discovered a new way to worship without the limitations of being distracted by a book…
Yes, exactly. I think the use of the projector helps with understanding the complex content of hymns and other songs.

Regarding the use of individually read books, is the necessary attention used equivalent to everyone using an iPad?
Yes, it would be the same. It enslaves you. You do not realize, but you're stuck to it.

Are there churches that still have this style of worship?
Not too many. But the “conservative” churches still have this style. There is a very well-known church in Long Beach that is very much alive; when they sing they do it with a very strong spiritual experience.

How do they perceive the presence of God as they worship in this style: is it a God who is hearing and receiving worship, or is it a God that is in all of us and among all of those who worship him?
I think there is a personal dialogue of each person, because they have embodied the lyrics. Then, each person is experiencing those lyrics that are “theirs”. There is one tradition I have followed, especially during Bible studies when it is a not such a formal meeting; I ask people what their favorite hymns are. There are many who respond 189, 132, etc., because these hymns fill their hearts. There is a personal relationship with the Lord, but it’s an experience with the content of those lyrics, because they speak of victory, Christian maturity, Christ’s exaltation, the Holy Spirit, experiences, disappointments, and brokenness. It’s an interesting range. What I notice in this regard is that they are living the lyrics individually.

Is it difficult to generate a collective experience?
Of course; you have to do so without cutting off the joy they have, but rather by perfecting it.

How does this congregation view God? As a father? As an old man with a beard?
In our Hispanic population, given the circumstances of struggle and survival, I think that there is no place for a quiet old man. God must be powerful for everyone, because as an immigrant, you come here and you struggle. It’s like someone gets you “into the ring.” You must arrive ready, because if not, you do not eat and you have nothing.

Is that why the “white” church, which has everything, is more passive than the Latino church that needs God on a daily basis?
Yes. The church is powerful when it is pursued. It should not be so, but this has been seen in the history of Christianity when it was persecuted, restricted, eliminated or harassed. When I am asked what kind of God this church follows, for me, it is a God that is alive, because we never stop receiving prayer requests for those in need. The God to whom we pray must be powerful. That, for me, is of extraordinary wealth. The God we are praying to has to be very strong.

Is worship important in this congregation as it is in other churches?
No. That is why there is some dichotomy. I’m not criticizing, but when you have a depth of biblical consideration in the hymns, you wonder, “Why is there so much haggling about appearing spiritual when you are singing?” The truth is that the rest of your life has to be powerfully full of the Holy Spirit of God, whether you are buying, selling, walking, waving, or working. Our lives have to be identical to the life of worship that we express when we are at the altar.

Is that what you teach here?
Well, that is what is stressed. People getting to know the Word requires no special motivation and gives a lovely sense of stability, although there is always curiosity for wonderful and motivational meetings. A good foundation of stability has always been based on the relationship with the Lord as the Bible says.

Many Latin churches sing with a more contemporary style. Sometimes the lyrics are repetitive, almost romantic, but the style of congregations like yours has lyrics that contain more theological content. Do you think the latter is equivalent and has the same effect?
I would say there is more guarantee of success in the content that can give you a song in a time of worship. I am always attentive to the variety of situations that are occurring. There are charismatic neo-Pentecostal churches that worship for half an hour prior to the message. I have seen this in Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, my own country of Bolivia and the United States. The defining characteristics are much diversity, great harmonies and content in traditional churches such as Baptists, Nazarenes, and in Pentecostal Churches that use their intelligence to know which songs are in line with good preparation. You can be worshiping for an hour and you do not realize it, because it is a well-run, genuine exercise. There is another very common variant, which is that the individual directing the time of worship is God’s “handyman.” I mention this because of the disasters that are happening. The band or worship leaders of a church know their role and should prepare a good spiritual environment so that when the pastor comes with the message, the results are extraordinary. However, it has become a very nice mechanical element, very attractive, and very motivating; the musicians are not ministered by the pastoral program, and vice versa. The pastor is hopeful that they will prepare the spiritual atmosphere, and he is not even in the room. He comes in when they have finished their last song. In addition, this group does not stay to hear the message. I think we must work hard with the group, because as musical ministers, they must manage their homes correctly, live in holiness, have an intimate relationship with God, and live full of the Holy Spirit.

Do you think we should consider the emotions felt during this time to be important?
Yes, they are vital. I believe that God frequently uses our emotions; he does many things to change our mentalities.

Sometimes I see that musical notes and lyrics are intentionally used to raise the level of emotions and spirituality. How can we determine what is correct, considering it is such a fine line?
I have had the chance to be the leader of the time of worship with hymns, and have learned the secrets of what God wants to accomplish with people. The moment you become the “protagonist” who brings people to tears, laughter, joy, etc, Jesus has lost. You must be a conductive thread of the Holy Spirit of God in a way that creates a connection that allows God to work. Conductors come with a type of experience and immediate feelings, so they sometimes make mistakes and try to make everyone laugh because they see that some people are sad. However, this can be a mechanism of motivation or manipulation that is very superficial and does not serve God, because it is not “fragrant.” For me, the most successful experience in which God rejoices is when you see the audience sing a lyric like “Renew me Lord Jesus, I don’t want to continue to be the same,” you do not have to do anything to get the congregation to sing with you. If you prayed properly and your previous days as a worshiper were appropriate before the Lord, you are only an instrument; by seeing your faithfulness as you come to the pulpit, the Holy Spirit is already touching the public.

Are you saying that the “success” of collective worship in a church is directly linked to the spiritual life of the worshiper and the pastor?
Yes, it is critical, because if they are instruments of God, he does what he needs to do. But if they are only in a position of compliance and credit themselves as the factor of excitement and mood, what God wants is not produced, even if there are manifestations or strong movements.

Do you think there are more people coming to receive than to give in the time of worship?
I’ve seen congregations, including my own, in which people already know that they are coming to worship the Almighty God, so they come with a willingness to do something for him. But when people come casually, to “plug in” to a spiritualized state, that is a problem. In an average church there will always be 20-30 percent of people that come in pieces and need the Lord to piece them back together.

In the end, what matters is that they are coming, right?
Yes, because they have a shelter, a place where they find their brothers in faith. They are not people who are going to point fingers; they have pure hearts. That’s the beauty of the congregation of Christ, because he does not say, “You are dirty again.” He does not put you on trial. He says: “It’s great that you made it!” Then he will repair you with his power while you consecrate to recognize and join him. This is what the congregation should learn in a few months. There’s a need for people 15 to 50 years to understand this.

Do you think we limit worship to only occur within the temple?
The miracle of transformation is achieved because it is a normal Christian life to be worshiping within the service and be in the same conditions outside of the church. Has it ever happened to you that when you wake up there is a worship song on your mind? Then you just come as a worshiper to the service where the congregation meets in order to worship together. The normal Christian life is the one that you are living in your daily life. The Christian life is not what we live in the temple. Coming together to the temple is an opportunity to spend time together, because otherwise, we are worshipers of God at all times, and it is in the church that we do something glorious together.

I’ve seen some churches that (perhaps accidentally) put excessive interest and work into the time of worship, and send the message that this is the actual time of worship.
I think there is a dysfunction that comes from not reviewing what “worship in spirit and in truth” truly means. Because the Word doesn’t say worship should only be done during services in the sanctuary. The doctrine of Jesus is very clear: be watchful at all times, and be ready to be guided by the Holy Spirit at all times. Jesus says, “He will take from me and will do it all the days of your life.” He is not saying, “When you come to the altar or mountain, then we can speak.” It was extraordinary in special circumstances when God called Abraham or Moses somewhere; he did it at the top of a mountain. God spoke of a permanent relationship. When we say, “it is falling, it is falling...” what do we mean by that? We mean that the Holy Spirit is just coming here. Doctrinally, we know that if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, living in holiness, purity, and in constant communion, we are with him and the Spirit forever.

Does he come down or do we realize he has always been here when we worship?
The Bible says that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groans. This means that it tells the Father, “This man is trying to tell you this.” Some churches put little emphasis on the Spirit of God exerting a powerful supernatural work. They are even afraid to say, “Fill me with your Holy Spirit,” because they think it will get out of control and make them appear ridiculous. In contrast, in other practices, we tell the Holy Spirit of God how to come and do certain things. It’s a bit of the dichotomy we are living in the Church of this time and since the 70s. The lack of good biblical doctrine preparation in the pastorate in the United States has created a generation of ministers that depend on “successes” that are seen in the media with great crowds. Since these “successful” individuals have had an impact, you buy their videos and books and yearn to live the same way. Unfortunately, the result is unpleasant. Ministers depend on what these characters say in their expressions, including using theology. We are given a “chewed” version of these “successes,” which we eat up. The merit of the minister and servant of Christ, who has been called for the ministry, is that he by his own dedication eats the original bite, lives the experience of what the Bible is saying and the Holy Spirit of God shines. The Apostle Paul has been very upfront and warned not to “marry” anyone. Please analyze it in spirit.

But, it is also the result of the influence of consumer culture...
Because success is amplified, right?

Yes... and that makes us seek quick and practical outcomes that benefit us as pastors.
The characters that can handle that know your weakness, so they prepare their presentations with an extraordinary garment. That’s not Christ; they are simply copying success, with lights and platforms.

Do you think that our machista culture prevents men from softening their hearts and drawing closer to the Lord?
In a genuine relationship with the Lord there is no impediment, but it can bring serious setbacks and mistakes. This sexism prevents individuals from expressing full sweetness towards their wives regarding their love and spiritual expression.

Do you think that in worship, a pastor can transmit his machismo to the congregation?
Yes, I’ve been in counseling dealing with some of these cases. There are repeated cases where the wife suffered harsh treatment from a sexist man in her home, and she comes to the pastor to tell him she can’t take it anymore. The pastor listens to the story of verbal and physical abuse and feels frustration at not being able to say anything because he does not want to make anyone look bad, especially if the man is in a position of leadership. If the pastor is sexist, he will stick up for and will defend the man. He will say: “Sister, you must understand that you have to submit to your husband,” defending the man’s behavior.

Regarding worship, do you think that one’s heart changes or God’s heart changes when it is done genuinely?
To think that the heart of God will ever change is like a joke [he laughs]. Maybe he will take pity on a person. I think a proper attitude moves the heart of God, but that sounds like a cliché. What will change is perhaps God’s attitude or attention. If the worshiper knows Christ, it’s guaranteed that God will be served. If I cry for voluntary or involuntary circumstances, I will absolutely be changed; I will overcome situations I have been chasing and feel sure that the blessing of God will stay with me, because I will not make the same mistake again.

Who is the biggest winner when we worship, God or us?
I believe that God is the greatest benefiter. Rick Warren, author of A Purpose Driven Life, explains that God has a purpose for your life, because we have not created the originality of intent for God to react.

Then, is God benefited because one does his will?
Yes, in that sense.

But in our physical realm, humans are the biggest winner, right?
In the blessings and results, yes. But despite how great the Kingdom of Heaven is, God rejoices because his original idea—had it not been for the fall—had always been the glory of human beings exalting him voluntarily. Stories of experience and vision in relation to the Kingdom of Heaven are always marking the lives of people who are worshiping. He is that essence that makes you live a life or worship. God’s purpose is fulfilled and that is wonderful. I am super blessed because I was created to be a worshiper. It is more complicated, but I am convinced and even enjoy it because everything that God does prospers in us; it implicitly benefits us, but what he made with joy, cheer, and happiness is accomplished.