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DISCOVER THE MYSTERY OF FAITH
HOW WORSHIP SHAPES BELIEVING
By GLENN PACKIAM
David C. CookCopyright © 2013 Glenn Packiam
All rights reserved.
A PAUPER'S MEAL
The table was sparse, with only a green knitted circle for a place mat. On it was a porcelain dish bearing the words Do this in remembrance of Me. A large dinner roll sat safely within its borders. A ceramic cup held the grape juice off to the side. As I stood at this table, remembering not to rest my arms on it lest I spill more grape juice, I looked into the faces of the men and women I had come to know as my congregation.
We had just finished sitting in silence, allowing the Spirit to bring to mind the broken places in our hearts. We had then prayed a prayer of confession. On that Sunday, it may have been an adaptation of Psalm 51. Or it may have been the prayer of confession from the Book of Common Prayer. We had just looked at each other in the eyes and announced, as priests in Christ, that God has forgiven our sins in Jesus's name.
Now, as I stood at the table, about to recite the words that have been said of the bread and the cup countless times over the centuries, it hit me:
I've never really stopped leading worship; I've just changed where I stand. My earliest memories of worship music are from early Saturday mornings. My dad, whose conversion to Christ had been radical and beautiful, was convinced that the best way to be a priest to his family was to blast the latest Hosanna! cassette from our living room before the rooster crowed. We lived in the suburbs, so there was no rooster to compete with, but were one to appear, he would have been beaten to the punch. As if the music itself wasn't loud enough, my father chose to sing along with it, adding a little Eastern vocal slide in the gaps of the melody, rendering the song atonal at best. My sister and I had no chance to sleep in.
I took piano lessons as a boy, and I dreaded them. My disciplined and responsible sister, three years older, mastered the scales and required exam pieces with gusto. I hated practicing, and the teacher frequently rapped my knuckles with a ruler for poor form on the keyboard. Most piano students in Malaysia learned piano from the Associate Board of the Royal School of Music based in London—which is a fancy way of saying that we spent half the year practicing two exam pieces and scales to perform for an examiner who flew in from England, and the other half of the year memorizing theory trivia to pass the theory exam. Royal Pain in the You-Know-What would have been a better name for it.
But I had good teachers who, despite the rulers-on-knuckles bit, worked hard to get me to practice. I did well enough to pass but found no joy in it. (Does a child find joy in anything that requires work?) I wanted to quit music.
Then, when I was ten, my family moved from Malaysia to Portland, Oregon, where my parents went to Bible school. It was there that I became transfixed by "worship music" in a church service. We joined a church with a strong emphasis on worship, led by skilled musicians who paid attention to the Spirit's work. I'm sure all that played a part in my budding love affair with worship music.
But there was also Steve. Steve was a good-looking youth leader in his twenties who was single and highly eligible. Every girl in youth group had a crush on him. You knew because every time he preached, the altar (in a nondenominational church, that's what you call the front of the church by the stage) would be flooded. By girls. Crying. All hoping Steve would pray for them.
But Steve's aura went beyond his winsome smile, tan skin, and frosted mullet tips; he could sing! Oftentimes he would get up on the keyboard and belt out a "spontaneous song" that made all the girls spontaneously weep.
As a nerdy kid who was the only foreign student in the whole middle school, I adored Steve. If I could be like Steve, I would be cool! The girls would like me! I wouldn't just be a kid from Malaysia.
Years later, when I found myself standing on the stage of a large arena with thousands of teenagers, leading "worship" as part of the Desperation Band, I must have subconsciously felt that I had realized that goal. I was now Steve (I never thought this, but I know I felt something like this). Until a group of pimply-faced teenage girls approached me after the session. I bent down from the edge of the stage, confident that they were going to ask for an autograph—or at least for prayer. They asked, instead, what was wrong. I was confused. What was wrong? Nothing! I'm a rock demigod. What could be wrong?
"What do you mean?" I said.
"Well, your face on the JumboTron looked so terrified. We thought you were afraid, so we started praying for you."
I am not Steve.
* * *
We moved back to Malaysia right after my eighth-grade year, and though I had just been finding my way with friends in Portland, my three years in America gave me near-celebrity status with my peers in Malaysia. This newfound popularity came at the right time for my confidence. When you're a teenager, confidence plus influence equals leadership. So leadership was granted to me.
I welcomed it but wasn't sure that I was cut out for worship leadership. Nevertheless, at the urging of one of the other teen leaders, I agreed to lead worship for a junior-high youth service a month or so away. Nearly every night leading up to the scheduled service, I lay my head on my pillow and dreamed up new song lists, fitting together different songs in different keys and tempos.
The day came. I led worship and loved it. And I never looked back. Eventually, I began leading worship for our youth group and spent many a Saturday "training" our worship teams in both the theology and practice of leading worship. My friends and I even formed a little team that went out to nearby small towns to do weekend worship workshops and mini-conferences. We were young, and there was a purity to what we were doing, an innocent love for God's presence and a desire to see others experience God in a powerful way.
I left for college right before I turned eighteen. Going back to America felt exciting, but going alone was frightful. I'll never forget my first chapel at Oral Roberts University. I was sitting in the balcony, singing along, and was overcome by the sense of God's presence. The worship team was wonderful, and I wanted in. A few auditions and several weeks later, I was part of the team. It was through our involvement in ORU Music Ministries that Jon Egan, Jared Anderson, and I—among many other talented people—got to know and trust each other. Those years are full of memories of long worship services, extended "ministry times," and meaningful conversations about what God might call us to do and be. It would be years later that Jon and Jared and I would find ourselves part of New Life Church, forming the Desperation Band.
* * *
When Gary emailed me, he sounded like he was looking for a fight. But there was something undeniably true about what he had written. He had been to church that morning and wanted me to know that he had heard the name of Jesus only twice, the Trinity referenced not at all, and a slew of worship songs addressed to a generic "You" that could just as easily have been applied to Simba, the Lion King.
I wrote back to him explaining that this was just poetry. Worship songs were merely artful expressions of a deeply held faith, a faith that was rich and robust, a faith articulated in all the doctrinally correct ways. He sent me a link to an article in USA Today—or some paper like it—citing a survey that indicated most American evangelicals had no idea what they really believed about Jesus, the incarnation, or the Trinity, nor were they sure that any of it mattered. Running out of rebuttals, I managed some feeble argument in response.
The next email contained, as I remember it, only a Latin phrase: lex orandi, lex credendi. I asked, in a slightly irritated way, what it meant. He told me to Google it. So I did. And I was plunged into a world that I had already been moving toward.
The phrase lex orandi, lex credendi means, quite literally, "The rule of prayer is the rule of faith." Maybe a better way to think of it is, "The way you pray and worship becomes the way you believe."
This sounds simple enough, but stop for a moment and think about it. If you're anything like me, you've spent most of your life thinking of prayer and worship as an expression of the faith that is in our hearts. There is certainly something true about that. Our prayers and our worship do, indeed, reflect the faith in our hearts. It is an overflow of it. But in another sense—perhaps a larger sense—prayer and worship form our faith. Worship doesn't just reflect our faith; it is what shapes our faith.
The Latin phrase is an old phrase the Church has passed on through the centuries. My ecclesiastical ancestors knew something I didn't know (and this wouldn't be the last time I came to that realization). Worship—how we pray and sing corporately as the gathered people of God—shapes believing.
But if this is true—and I started to believe that it was—then I had a problem.
I thought about the gnawing feeling I had had every time I stepped onto a stage at a large event to "lead worship." I felt a certain tacit hypocrisy in our claim that we were there to lift up Jesus, when there we stood on an elevated stage, with multicolored lights aimed at us and cameras magnifying our faces on giant screens. Really? Were we really there to lift up Jesus? Then why was I self-consciously thinking about how I dressed or how I moved onstage, with or without a guitar in my hands? Of course, our deepest intentions were pure. We wanted desperately for people to experience God's presence. It wasn't our fault that event organizers wanted to hype things up or script a worship experience.
I am honored to call some incredible worship leaders and songwriters my friends. I know how tormented they feel about the stages on which they sometimes find themselves. You see, a funny thing happened to worship music on its way to the radio charts. But that is a tale for another book, and for another author (like Michael Gungor in his book, The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse).
What I felt was bigger than the tension between the sometimes-greasy underbelly of the industry and the many good people who work within it with pure and noble aims. I began to think there was something deeply wrong with the way we led people into worship. I know. This is a massive claim, and I didn't want to believe it at first. In fact, I hadn't even realized it until my Latin-phrase-emailing "friend" ripped the veil from my eyes.
You see, when I met Gary, he described himself as a "recovering atheist." He had, in fact, been one of the poster dads in our church—an ORU alumnus, a New Life small-group leader, and a veteran short-term missions-trip leader. But in 2006, his faith fell apart.
Collapsed, as he puts it. He wasn't just wrestling with doubt; he became a full-blown atheist, and an obnoxious one at that.
In the years that followed, his understanding of the Christian tradition was rebuilt. By retreading some very old paths, Gary began to discover a rich Christian faith, one shaped by ancient practices of worship—old prayers and prayer books, the practice of the sacraments, and more. He began to read the church fathers and learn about the wider world of Christianity. To return to pop-Evangelicalism felt, to him, like going from fine cuisine to fast food: it could fill your belly, but it was sorely lacking in both taste and nutrients.
Good, rich, Christ-centered worship is a feast. This kind of worship is a bounty of beauty and truth, with layers of flavor, textures of taste. Each course builds on the previous one, elevating the dining experience from a functional necessity to an odyssey of ecstasy. (This may seem like hyperbole, but for anyone who has eaten a multicourse gourmet meal, thoughtfully prepared and artfully crafted, you know what I mean!)
This rich worship feast is what transformed Gary's approach to faith. The more I got to know him, the more I understood where he was coming from and why what seemed like a thoughtlessly strung-together worship set list and a service assembled like a variety show bothered him. The truth is not quite as harsh. We weren't thoughtless. We had a theme in mind, and lots of planning went into each Sunday. But when you compare what we were doing with how the great liturgists and theologians of church history put together their "order of worship," it's very easy to see how it looked like we were playing around in the kitchen and calling it dinner.
The more I thought about our worship services and how the way we worship really does shape the way we believe, the more I wondered, Dear God, what have we been feeding them? A few years later a wise older friend answered my rhetorical question:
"Glenn, we've been giving them a pauper's meal."
I was finally beginning to see.
Perhaps part of the reason the Church is malnourished and our faith is anemic is because our worship services have become a theological Happy Meal.
* * *
Jon Egan, Jared Anderson, and I formed the Desperation Band in the summer of 2002. Our church, under David Perkins's leadership, launched a youth conference that summer, with hopes that it would become a prayer and missions movement. We were the worship team for the conference and, we hoped, for the movement. By God's grace, over the years Desperation has become a movement of sorts, calling young people to seek God sacrificially and to serve Him faithfully.
I had already made the decision to step out of the Desperation Band before I met Gary. I say that to be clear: I didn't step out of our moderately influential modern worship rock band because I didn't believe in it anymore. I did, and I do. Jon and Jared wrestled with many of the same questions I did—questions that arose from being in too many surreal settings on the road, too many hyped-up environments that could be confused with the genuine and mystical sense of God's presence. I am proud to call the Desperation Band my brothers. They—Jon with the band, and Jared in his solo career—continue to lead people in refining and renewing their understanding of corporate worship in ways that are parallel to the path I've been on. I stepped out of the Desperation Band in 2008 largely because I felt that the long-term trajectory of my life lay in pastoral ministry and not in an itinerant ministry. I am a teacher. And I was getting frustrated with trying to fit mini-sermons in between songs, trying to keep an often adolescent crowd from mistaking emotional sensationalism for the genuine manifest presence of God.
But it was more than that. It wasn't just the people or the context of the events. It was me. I became increasingly aware of how tainted things could become because of my own ego. I liked being on stage. I liked when people knew my songs. It was becoming harder to tell the difference between the rush of an adrenaline high—from the crowds and the music and the soaring refrains—and the wind of the Holy Spirit. I needed to get off the train. At least for a bit. When Gary and I started emailing a year later, it felt like God was giving me language for my holy discontent. Granted, it was in Latin, but it was language nonetheless!
The way we worship becomes the way we believe. I was starting to believe it.
I soon discovered that there is another phrase that completes the saying: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. The way you worship and pray shapes the way you believe, which in turn shapes the way you live. So, if I was starting to believe it, something about my life had to change.
* * *
More than my faith was at stake. As I stepped into a pastoral role in the fall of 2009, leading a new Sunday-night service at New Life Church, I began to meet young people whose stories were not all that different from Gary's. Sure, they may not have experienced the full collapse of their faith, but some felt enough doubt that it had left them shaky. In the '90s, our church went through the same evangelical love affair with certitude that so many other churches did. We knew the "facts" about God and life. It could all be proved. Christians were logical, and our truth was obvious. Everyone else was just dumb or degenerate or both. Everything about our "faith" could be neatly packaged and sold. And thousands bought into it.
Until they didn't. Until they realized that a God you can explain is a God you can contain. And a God you can contain can't be worshipped. So, if we are going to undo this mess, our practice of worship may just be the place to start. There is a way to pray and worship that reflects the mystery of our faith, a way that, in truth, shapes our faith to be more aware of its own mystery. I want to enter that mystery. I want to partake of that feast. And I invite you to join me in it.
You see, I haven't stopped leading worship. I've just changed where I stand.
Excerpted from DISCOVER THE MYSTERY OF FAITH by GLENN PACKIAM. Copyright © 2013 Glenn Packiam. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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