The Big Picture

One criterion to apply to worship in any congregation, regardless of the liturgical style it embraces, is that of historical remembrance and proclamation: Does worship proclaim the whole sweep of divine activity past, present, and future? Does worship induct participants into a cosmology in which God is at work faithfully in continuity with past divine action? Does worship convey a sense of hope for the future grounded in God’s faithful action in the past? For comfortable North American worshipers and worship leaders today, the great temptation is to slip into expressions of petition, thanksgiving, and proclamation that are nearly exclusively focused on the present moment. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of lives and churches that are content with the status quo. Our songs, prayers, and sermons emphasize God’s immediate goodness and even the vitality of our intimate experience of God. For us to experience the riches of fully biblical worship, our prayer, praise, and proclamation should be carried out as if we stand before a cosmic time line of God’s actions, fully aware of divine faithfulness from the creation of the world to its full re-creation in Christ. It is this vast and specific awareness that grounds our hope when days are difficult and that leads us beyond the immediate concerns of our little egocentric worlds.

—John D. Witvliet, “The Former Prophets and the Practice of Christian Worship” in Worship Seeking Understanding, 36

Job Description for Pastoral Musicians

• Frame songs as acts of joyful, life-giving resistance to idolatry. Teach us that songs are an antidote to exploitation and depersonalization.

• Learn to study the Scripture texts in, around, and under the songs you love.

• Do not become so attached to subversion for its own sake that you fail to recognize genuine, covenantal, Christ-shaped forms of subversion. Cultivate the radical theological imagination needed for that discernment.

• Teach us by example what it means to sing as gift and gifting—each song a gift, each singing of a song a gift, each song a witness to gift and giving, each singer a gift in the giving.

• Devote attention to songs that convey the weightiness and hope of hesed, God’s tenacious, covenantal solidarity and loving-kindness.

• Rescue chestnuts from the dustbin of sentimentality. Resist kitsch.

• Pay attention to context—the unique context of each Scripture text, the unique context in which each song was born, the unique context in which it will be sung today.

• Choose not only songs that express what a community already experiences but also songs that will stretch a community toward ever deeper obedience to God, ever more vivid ways of imagining God’s covenantal love and fidelity.

—John Witvliet, “Foreword,” in Walter A. Brueggemann, A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing (Kindle Locations 76-95)

Failed Song

. . . the habit so many communities have . . . of taking world-upending, astonishment-inducing texts and then rendering them with music that is utterly conventional and ultimately sentimental.

—John Witvliet, “Foreword,” in Walter A. Brueggemann, A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing (Kindle Locations 93-94)

Guarding the The Church’s Song

Be vigilant to fight the commodification of the church’s song. Resist anything that blunts the fullness of the Christian gospel. Do not squelch the dimly burning wicks of voices at the margins whose songs may not otherwise be heard. Resist cultural imperialism. Embrace ways of creating, curating, receiving, and singing songs that demonstrate the shalom of God’s way in the world.

—John Witvliet, “Foreword,” in Walter A. Brueggemann, A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing (Kindle Locations 99-102)

The Stewardship of Worship Leading (2)

As worship leaders . . . we also have the holy task of being stewards of God’s Word. Our choices of Scripture and themes for worship represent a degree of control over people’s spiritual diets, over how they feed on the bread of life.

—John Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding, 282