Should We Sing? 4 Perspectives for Regathered Churches

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When our church regathers, should we sing?

This is the “million-dollar question”–one I’ve been asked often over the past 10 days. And, though I wish I had the perfect answer, I don’t. In the oh-so-wise words of Mike Harland, “I have no idea.”

Like many topics related to COVID-19, the unique and diverging perspectives are mind-boggling. Some say, “Don’t sing! It’s not safe!” Others counter, “Christians must sing!”

Here’s what I do know: Church leaders are charged to make wise, well-informed, prayerful decisions under the guidance of the Holy Spirit for their unique, particular church contexts. To assist leaders with this decision, here are four diverse, well-written perspectives related to congregational singing in regathered churches.
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Singing, the Church, and COVID-19: A Caution for Moving Forward in our Current Pandemic
by Heather Nelson

Key Quote: “For now, it is not safe to sing together.” — Heather Nelson

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Risk of Infection Is No Reason to Stop Singing
by Scott Aniol

Key Quote: “Scripture is … clear that when we gather, we should be singing (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19).” — Scott Aniol

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Before You Panic: Thoughts on Congregational Singing and Choirs in Light of the Pandemic 
by Robert Pendergraft

Key Quote: “Is it wise for us to return to worship with congregational singing and gather our choirs for rehearsals at this point? Baptist polity allows us to arrive at different conclusions. It does not, however, excuse us from wrestling with the issue.” — Robert Pendergraft

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Is Congregational Singing Dangerous?
by Ken Boer

Key Quote: “I can’t tell you exactly what you should do in your congregation. Each church is different, and the number of cases in your county, the size of your church, and the number of vulnerable people in your pews will affect how you begin to regather.”– Ken Boer

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Churches across the United States will proceed differently. Regardless of our decision, let us do so with the gracious and loving posture encouraged by Ken Boer:

“As we move forward, let’s ask God for wisdom. And let’s offer grace to those who make different decisions than we do. For some in areas with few cases, a rousing song of praise might be the perfect way to come together. For others who are mourning losses and protecting vulnerable members, humming or praying silently to music might be the best option.

In all things, let’s remember: Love does not insist on its own way, but seeks the good of others (1 Cor. 13:5, Gal. 5:13–14).”

 

How to Worship Online

How are church members supposed to worship online?

Worship is something we do. It’s active. We participate.

Watching movies and tv shows online is different. It’s passive. We just sit and watch. We don’t really do anything.

For online worship to have its greatest impact, we should find ways to participate.

Here are some ideas to help.

Prepare. Take time to prepare the space where you and your household will gather for worship. Set up plenty of chairs. Make sure everyone has clear sightlines. Ensure the audio level is set.

Focus. Give your undivided attention to the online service—just as you try to do in a normal church worship gathering. (Don’t surf Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Don’t use the time to make your shopping list. Use the bathroom before the service starts.) Be present.

Read. Bring your Bible, whether you use a print or digital version. When the Scriptures are read, read and follow along, just as you would if you were gathered at church.

Write/Draw. Staying focused during a 30-minute live sermon is difficult. Being attentive while you watch online will be even harder. Find ways to engage physically, even during the sermon. Take notes. Children can even draw pictures about the Scripture passage and the sermon. Be creative!

Sing. When the hymns and worship songs are sung, join in. If your household isn’t used to singing together, this may be a bit awkward at first, but use it as an opportunity to practice something our families ought to be doing anyway.

Pray. Silently echo the prayers offered online by your pastor and leaders. Pray a prayer as a household before the service starts. Pray again after the service ends.

Move. Worship is more engaging when we use the bodies God has given us. Don’t be afraid to engage in the biblical actions of physical worship. Clap, raise your hands, stand up, sit down, bow down…or dance! Whatever it takes to stay engaged! No one will see you anyway.

Play. This is one occasion where anyone can play an instrument. If you (or one of your children) always wanted to play in the worship band, now’s your chance! Join in!

Give. Giving tithes and offerings is an important act of worship…even when we can’t pass the offering plate. If your church has online giving, give prior to, during, or following the worship livestream. If your church isn’t set up for online giving yet, write a check and walk it to the mailbox after the service is over.

Debrief. After the service is over, take a few minutes to discuss the service. What did God reveal to each household member through the service? What are some adjustments can you make for the next online worship experience to make it more meaningful?

Worshiping online will be very different—that’s for sure! By finding ways to participate, the gathering will be a closer approximation to our in-person gatherings.

Let’s worship—not just watch another TV show online.

Sing…Even If You’re “Tone Deaf”

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I’ve been in worship ministry long enough to hear nearly every excuse:

          “If God wanted me to sing, he would have given me a better voice.”

          “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket!”

          “The worship leader and choir sound so good! Why mess them up?”

          “I’m tone deaf!”

I’ll be the first to admit that some have more aesthetically pleasing voices than others. Worship leaders across America can “out-sing” me any day!

But that doesn’t matter. Worship is not a competition. (If worship services were American Idol or The Voice, most of us would have been voted off long ago.) There isn’t an imaginary dividing line separating singers from non-singers in worship. Worshipers sing. Period.

Why? Because the option not to sing isn’t offered to us in Scripture. There are at least 50 commands in the Bible for us to sing, and singing is referenced hundreds of times. And there are never any stipulations. We don’t read, “Come, let us sing and shout,” as long as you have the most magnificent voice. Or, “sing to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” as long as the person to whom you’re singing isn’t a better vocalist than you. Or, “Sing a new song,” as long as you aren’t “tone deaf.”

Let’s be honest: Your tone-deaf voice singing praise to Jesus is infinitely more beautiful than your silence.

One of my favorite singers at my former church (we’ll call her Susie) was not a “good” singer. She sang the right notes only occasionally, when—quite by accident—the melody intersected her own unique vocal path. And, yet, I loved to hear Susie sing gustily to Jesus! Her obedience to the commands of Scripture outweighed her fear, vulnerability, and lack of vocal confidence. Her singing encouraged others to sing—even if they weren’t “the best” either.

Be like Susie. Sing…even if you’re “tone deaf.”

Why We Sing (Part 1)

In our last article, we were reminded that worship includes both divine revelation and human response. I suggested that if a church has any hope of experiencing worship renewal, it must prioritize the faithful communication of God’s story through his Word. But churches must also provide opportunities for congregations to respond to God’s revelation. We explored prayer as one type of response, and today we’ll consider another: singing.

Singing has always been a vital part of Christian worship, just as it was for our Jewish forebears. Scripture includes at least 50 commands to sing and an additional 400 references to singing. We have both biblical precedent and biblical commands. Still, some of us may wonder, “Why? Why does God instruct us to sing in worship?”

While there are many valid answers to this question, here are four reasons to consider. 

Singing engages the head and the heart. Christians have long debated the importance of intellect versus emotion. But, in reality, both are indispensable facets of the Christian life, because both profoundly shape and influence our devotion to Jesus. Singing is crucial because it simultaneously stimulates both sides of our brains—conveying content while at the same time stirring our emotions. In fact, because singing releases our bodies’ natural endorphins, lifting our voices in song acts as a natural anti-depressant. When we sing, we learn, but we also feel better.

Singing helps us remember. God’s people in the Bible were forgetful. We are, too. Graciously, God created a form of communication—indeed, an art form—that is more memorable than plain speech or written text. From the “ABC’s” to “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know,” what we sing, we remember.

We sing to engage physically. Singing involves our bodies—our mouths, diaphragms, lungs, and so much more, all working together in harmony to produce God-glorifying sounds. If we add standing, clapping, swaying to the beat, raising our hands, or even holding a hymnal, we are employing our bodies and stimulating our senses. Worship was never intended to be merely absorbed by observing and spectating. We are physical creatures, and we learn best and internalize most fully when we engage in physical activity. Singing provides just such an occasion.

Singing is communal. Singing is one of the few worship elements where we all engage together in the same activity. We have been adopted by God, and by virtue of our salvation through Christ, we are now part of the same family. We need, therefore, to do things together as an expression and picture of our unity.

Next week, we’ll consider additional reasons singing is such an indispensable part of Christian worship, followed by some practical ways to strengthen our corporate song.

 

Keys to Worship Renewal, Part 3: Strengthening Corporate Prayer

In Part 2, we were reminded that the foundation of worship renewal is an unwavering dependence upon God’s word. By filling our services with Scripture, we provide frequent opportunities for our congregations to encounter God.

But divine revelation always compels human response. If we want our worship gatherings to increase our congregation’s love and devotion to Christ, we should provide regular occasions for them to respond to his revelation. Scripture reveals many types of response, but I will concentrate on the two most common in our worship gatherings. In this article we’ll look at prayer, and next week we’ll consider singing.

Most of us share concern about our times of corporate prayer. We are instructed to pray without ceasing and that our churches should be houses of prayer, but we sense that something is awry. We don’t pray enough, and when we do pray, our prayers often lack substance and scope. We also have become increasingly dependent upon those on the platform praying for us, rather than embracing prayer as a work of the people. If we truly desire worship renewal, we must strive to increase the quantity, quality, and congregational participation of our corporate prayers.

Consider these six practical suggestions to strengthen and diversify your congregation’s corporate prayer life.

“Pray with me…no, really.” When a pastor or lay leader begins a prayer by saying, “Pray with me,” or “Let us pray,” actually pray along, silently echoing the prayer in your mind—adopting it as your own. On the other hand, if you are the one leading in corporate prayer, strive to make your prayers suitable for the entire body. You are praying on their behalf. Your prayers are their prayers.

Prepare to lead in prayer. Many Baptists believe prayer should be totally spontaneous. Though preachers prepare for sermons; Sunday school teachers study their lessons; and choirs rehearse worship music, prayers are said to lack authenticity and guidance from the Holy Spirit when they are prepared in advance. We are wise to remember that the same Spirit who guides the language of our spontaneous prayers may also guide our thoughts as we prepare in advance.

Pray Scripture. The best sourcebook to strengthen the quality of our church’s prayer life is the Bible. By infusing our prayers with the language of Scripture, we will increase their depth and breadth. The Lord’s Prayer, numerous psalms, and a myriad of scriptural prayers are obviously attractive options, but other verses and passages also may be adapted into prayers. Allowing the Bible to shape our corporate prayer language will do wonders to increase the quality of our corporate prayer life.

Pray together. For most Baptists, rote, memorized, and read prayers are not the norm. And that’s okay! I believe, however, there can be beauty in the body of Christ sometimes praying together in unison—much like we do hymns and worship songs. “The Lord’s Prayer” is a great starting point, but consider utilizing your worship bulletins and screens to show other prayers—especially scriptural prayers—to facilitate your church praying together in unity.

Sing your prayers. Many hymns and worship songs are sung prayers. “Just as I Am,” for example, is a prayer of confession. “Holy, Holy, Holy” is a prayer of adoration. “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is a prayer of invocation. The list goes on and on. Drawing our congregation’s attention to this reality and allowing these sung prayers to shape and form our corporate response can serve to deepen our congregational prayer life.

Consider creative prayer actions and postures. Bowing your head and closing your eyes, while customary and appropriate, is not the only suitable posture for prayer. Raise your hands and eyes toward heaven as you offer prayers of adoration. Lift your open palms as a sign of dependence and need as you offer your supplications. Kneel in contrition as you confess. You may even consider directing your congregation to keep their eyes open periodically to provide visual cues ofwhat to pray for during gathered worship. (Children especially love this idea!) This is the key: we are physical creatures, so employing action and posture gives us a bodily, kinesthetic connection to our prayers.

Our hope for worship renewal rests, in large part, on emphasizing corporate prayer. Let us commit, therefore, to increasing the quality, quantity, and congregational participation of our corporate prayer life. Then, just as Baptists are known as a “people of the Book,” we also may be celebrated as a people of prayer.

Is God’s Love Reckless?

Cory Asbury’s “Reckless Love” has already been branded “a bonafide worship sensation.” Released by Bethel Music on January 27, the song rapidly climbed the Billboard Christian Music charts before settling into the top spot on March 1—four short weeks after its release. As of April 18, 2018, it remains in the top spot.[1]

The song has much to like. I appreciate its depiction of God’s overwhelming and never-ending love, as well as its references to The Lost Sheep and the Father’s astonishing love for the Prodigal. It even has a catchy, lilting melody. For these reasons, and others, “Reckless Love” has been called “one of the best songs ever!” Another Facebook user wrote that it “may very well be the best song in the universe.”

But not all the buzz is positive. “Reckless Love” has been at the center of controversy. At the heart of the debate is whether “reckless” is an appropriate way to describe God (or His love). The question presented to me from fellow worship pastors is this: “Should I use ‘Reckless Love’ in my church’s worship?”

So, while I respect the diverse opinions on this song, here is mine…

To be honest, when I first read the song’s title, I winced. But, I really wasn’t sure why. So, I started my research to determine the cause of my reaction. I began by looking up the word’s definition:

reckless (adj.): without thinking or caring about the consequences of an action.

Synonyms include “rash, careless, thoughtless, heedless, unheeding, hasty, overhasty, and impetuous.”

Is this an accurate picture of God? Well, obviously not. God’s omniscience, by definition, means he knows all things: past, present, and future. God knew (and knows) precisely the consequences of his actions. He never acts rashly, carelessly, or thoughtlessly. Rather, he acts with a full and complete understanding of all that has been and ever will be. We need not enter the Arminianism vs. Calvinism dispute to fully affirm God’s foreknowledge.

So, at first glance, maybe my wince was justified. But, I wanted to be fair. I realize some words are defined in one sense but used in common vernacular in a different manner. So, how is the word “reckless” used in every-day language?

I completed an internet word search and read the word “reckless” hundreds of times in context. Here are four examples: 

“John is a wild and reckless young man.”

“North Korea has continued its reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

“Lucy spends her money recklessly.”

“James was a reckless soldier of fortune.”

Biblical use of the word “reckless” carries the same negative connotation. In Judges 9:4, “Abimelech hired worthless and reckless men.” In Psalm 141:4, David prays that God would “not let [his] heart turn to any evil thing or wickedly perform reckless acts with men who commit sin.” In Ephesians 5:18, Paul admonishes the church at Ephesus to not “get drunk with wine, which [leads to] reckless actions.”

To be honest, I couldn’t find any occasions where the word “reckless” was used in a positive sense. Each time, it was used as a disparaging remark.

In his defense, Cory Asbury proposes an alternate meaning. He explains, “When I use the phrase ‘the reckless love of God’ I’m not saying that God Himself is reckless. I am, however, saying that the way he loves, is in so many regards, quite so.”

But, I don’t think we are afforded the right to detach God from his actions. We can’t say, on one hand, “God loves recklessly,” and then counter by saying, “but God isn’t reckless.” That’s illogical. God reveals and displays himself by what he does; his actions are an outpouring of who He is. He can’t act in a manner contrary to his character. God is love. God is not reckless. God cannot, therefore, love recklessly.

Second, Asbury tries to define “reckless” in a way that conflicts with dictionaries and every-day usage. He attempts to use it in a positive sense, when it not used positively by definition or in common, every-day vernacular. At the very least, then, the use of the word is confusing. It suggests that God loves us so much that he acted in a careless or thoughtless manner. But quite the opposite is true: God loves us so much that he acts in full awareness and understanding of the pain he would endure in order to secure our redemption.

Asbury continues, “What I mean is this: He is utterly unconcerned with the consequences of His actions with regards to His own safety, comfort, and well-being…”

But, again, this is not the biblical picture. God was fully aware of the suffering his Son would endure (Isaiah 53). And, Jesus—God in flesh—was mindful and concerned about the price he would pay for our redemption. In anguish, his sweat was like drops of blood as he prayed “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me…” In fact, Jesus was certainly aware that he was the Suffering Servant described in Isaiah 53, particularly in light of the way he showed the two men on the road to Emmaus “the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27) Plus, he predicted his death and suffering to the disciples on numerous occasions.

Jesus also grasped the bigger picture; he saw the “joy that lay before him.” So, “he endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). He knew the humiliation of the cross was not the conclusion, but, rather, that his resurrection from the grave would pave the way for all in Christ to be resurrected.

This is hardly reckless. It is the most thoughtful act in history.

Asbury further defends his use of the word “reckless.” He explains that “[God] doesn’t wonder what He’ll gain or lose by putting Himself out there. He simply gives Himself away on the off-chance that one of us might look back to Him and offer ourselves in return.”

This defense, rather than lessening my concerns, raises more red flags. The word “off-chance” means “hoping that something may be possible, although it is not likely.” Here Asbury hints at a God who is unaware of the future. It presents God as a benevolent, loving Creator that offered his Son’s life but who really had no idea whether anyone would accept the gift.

One Facebook user challenged Asbury in this regard, writing, “God knows exactly what will happen, [and] he knows it will be good.”

Corey responded, “Sounds like Calvinism to me!”

With all due respect, Corey, God knowing the future, and knowing that it will be good, is not Calvinism. It’s biblical, orthodox Christianity.

So, in conclusion, though I’m sure Cory Asbury had strong intentions, to call God’s love “reckless” is, in my opinion…reckless.

God’s love is purposeful. It is persistent. It is even relentless. But, it is not reckless.

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Because I was asked, I wanted to do my best to offer a reasoned response with my thoughts on the subject. But I tread lightly. My aim is not to criticize those who believe differently. I will not fault a person, or worship leader, or a church for electing to listen to or sing the song. But, because I don’t think the word reckless is an accurate term to describe God (or his love), I would not use the song “Reckless Love.”

[1] The top spot was surrendered briefly to “I Can Only Imagine” due to the popularity of the movie with the same title.

Keys to Worship Renewal (Part 2): Worship and the Word

Whenever we Baptists set out to revitalize our times of worship, we are tempted to begin by addressing musical style. Often, we do so with little consideration of worship’s content.

The heart of Christianity is its message—not its style. The crux of our faith is hearing and responding to the story of the triune God of the universe. Style is, at best, a secondary issue. Style doesn’t transform hearts. The message of Jesus does. If we truly desire worship renewal, we first should solidify the subject matter of our times of worship.

Naturally, the Bible is where humanity most fully encounters the story of the Christian faith. Paul explained in his second letter to Timothy that Scripture is God-breathed and valuable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, training, and equipping. If we desire for Christ to renew our worship gatherings, we must provide regular and consistent opportunities for Him to speak to our congregations through this Word.

I’d like to offer some practical suggestions to ensure we are providing these occasions.

Preach the Word. According to a recent Gallup poll, the No. 1 reason Americans attend church is to hear “sermons that teach about Scripture.”[1] This is good news since Baptists have some of the finest preachers in the world. But we must be sure our sermons showcase the Word of God. Because, if we aren’t careful, even Baptist sermons can stray. We can take secondary topics and make them primary. We can make interesting stories, soapboxes, (and even political rants) the main event. Stories and soapboxes have their place, but they must be subservient to—and point us to—the Word of God.

Apply the Word. In the same Gallup Poll, the No. 2 reason Americans attend worship services is to hear “sermons relevant to life.”[2] A sermon ought to do more than merely describe a biblical text; it should explain how to apply the text in daily life. It should exhort the hearers to action (1 Tim. 4:13). We don’t preach merely to relay information; we want our people to be transformed into more faithful disciples and witnesses of Jesus Christ. We want our congregations to be both hearers and to doers of the word (James 1:22).

Read the Word. We Baptists celebrate our high view of Scripture. We call ourselves “people of the Book.” But, apart from our preaching, how evident is our commitment to God’s word? We are instructed to “devote [ourselves] to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). But how devoted are we? How much public reading of the Bible did we hear at our churches this past Sunday? Let us display our commitment to Scripture not only by our preaching and teaching, but also by our devotion to the public reading of Scripture.

Fill your services with the Word. Greet worshipers as they arrive with a verse or passage of Scripture in your bulletin or on your screen. Feature Scripture on banners or in artwork. Draw attention to the biblical references and allusions in hymns and worship songs. Make explicit connections between worship elements and the sermon text. Fill your prayers with words from Scripture. The opportunities to infuse your service with Scripture are endless.

Be Jesus-centered. Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of Scripture. All Scripture in some way leads to Jesus, is about Jesus, or points to Jesus (Luke 24:27, John 5:39). Jesus, therefore, must also be the epicenter of our times of worship. Our sermons should feature Jesus; our prayers should feature Jesus; and our hymns and worship songs should feature Jesus.

Be gospel-saturated. If Jesus is emphasized in our times of worship, we will necessarily concentrate on the gospel—the heart of Jesus’ story. C.H. Spurgeon is reported to have described his approach in this regard: “I take my text and make a bee-line for the cross.” We ought to treat our worship gatherings similarly. They should be drenched with the gospel as we continually remind our people about the good news of Jesus Christ

Worship renewal can occur in diverse stylistic contexts, ranging from traditional to contemporary (and every style in between). But we have absolutely no hope of revitalization apart from a clear and deliberate focus on God’s story as revealed in His holy word.

As Tennessee Baptists, let us be known as “people of the Book”—especially in our times of worship.

 

[1] http://news.gallup.com/poll/208529/sermon-content-appeals-churchgoers.aspx

[2] Ibid.

Keys to Worship Renewal (Part 1): What Is Worship? and How Is It Renewed?

Christians love to talk about worship. And, if we’re honest, our conversations usually focus on stylistic issues—especially musical style. Traditional or contemporary? Choir or worship team? Pipe organ or electric guitar? Sometimes we even use these discussions to cast blame on musical style for plateaued, declining, or dying churches.

If we begin our worship chats on the topic of style, however, we are starting in the wrong place. Altering worship style is not a “magical pill” guaranteed to bring about worship renewal. Though style is important, and while some churches may need to consider stylistic changes, we should first address some more fundamental issues.

We can begin by answering two basic questions: What is worship? and How is it renewed? Then, over the next four weeks, we’ll explore some specific standards and practical examples to help us strengthen our corporate worship practices.

Let’s start in the beginning—literally. God created us to worship. Everyone worships.[1] We aren’t offered the choice of whether or not to worship. We merely choose what (or whom) we worship.

To worship, in this most basic sense, is to find ultimate pleasure and delight in something or someone. Whatever gives us our greatest satisfaction—whatever we value, love, and are most devoted to—is what we worship. As Jesus explained, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21).

We were designed to find our ultimate satisfaction in God. He is the most complete and satisfying being. To seek absolute pleasure in anything else will always leave us unsatisfied. As Augustine expressed so poignantly, “Our heart is restless until it rests in You.”[2]

Or, we can think of it another way. We are wired for worship, but our wires have been crossed. In our sinful, fallen state, our “default mode” is to seek things or people for ultimate fulfillment: money, family members, drugs, or our professions, for example. We, like the Romans, have worshiped and served something created instead of the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).

Mercifully, however, when we are saved, we are rewired for true worship. Christ gives us a new heart and transforms our natural, world-centered worship inclinations and empowers us to seek first the kingdom of God. Through Christ, our worship is renewed.

When Christ redeems us, we begin the sanctifying, progressive journey toward finding our complete satisfaction in Him. At times, however, we are still “prone to wander.” Though we have tasted God’s goodness, we—at times—are tempted to return to the idolatry and spiritual slavery from which we’ve come. For this reason, our worship must be continually renewed. It must be formed and re-formed, shaped and reshaped.

Worship practices are the means God uses to form and deepen our affections and devotion to Him. When we hear the Word of God proclaimed, our faith and trust in Him is strengthened. When we lift our voices in fervent praise, our hearts are drawn nearer to the Father. When we bow in humble adoration or celebrate with hands upraised, God is forming within us a deeper, more steadfast faith.

Here’s a question for us all to ponder: Are our worship gatherings increasing our congregation’s love for, satisfaction in, and devotion to Christ? And, as a follow-up: How can we strengthen our worship services so they more successfully deepen our congregation’s love for Jesus?

Over the next four weeks, let’s explore some answers to these questions as we think through principles and practical ideas to help boost the effectiveness of our worship gatherings.

 

[1] Best, Harold. Unceasing Worship. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

[2] Augustine of Hippo. Confessions (Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5).