Reformed Worship

500 years ago, On 31st October, a young monk challenged the status quo of the church by pinning his thoughts to the door of a church in Germany. He challenged the principles of the Roman Catholic church, in particular the practice of charging money for absolution of sins; paying for salvation.

The monk was Martin Luther, and his actions triggered what we now know as the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

500 years later and we are making the same mistakes again on, quite literally, an industrial scale. This time it is not salvation that is up for grabs for a price, but our worship; that feeling of connection with God, the ability to express our faith in creative ways, that artistic expression of eternal gratitude and recognition of who our maker is… is being sold to us.

We can purchase it for 79p a track or £9.99 for an album’s worth of blissful spiritual escapism. If we’re really desperate for a ‘worship fix’ (because of the hard week we’ve had, the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves, or just that we ‘need’ that warm fuzzy ‘worship’) we can pay out for a ticket for our favourite priests worship leaders’ concerts worship events.

In this environment, worship songs is not so much a bad description of a musical genre that shouldn’t exist as much as it has become a command: worship songs.

Musical expression, singing together, worshipping ‘in spirit and in truth’ are all fantastic and sacred acts in our individual and collective spiritual experience. But the industry that has developed around it is flawed.

To charge people to worship (in the narrowly defined way the industry has taught us to understand the very nature of that worship!) is surely wrong. To have transformed into a commodity material specifically created to facilitate worship experiences – and by definition turn those who purchase into consumers, albeit informed to a greater of lesser extent – is wrong.

Jesus had some very sturn words to say about those in his time who charged the public to worship; “you’ve turned the house of God into a den of thieves!” He threw them out. He removed their means of prohibiting people from worshipping unless they had the right currency, or the right album and the merchandise to go with it. He put an end to that system… and in the creation of this ‘worship industry’ we have merely reassembled the money-changers’ tables and sold CD’s and downloads from them instead.

What would worship look like in a re-reformation era? What would the Church’s gathered expression of worship sound like if we were free to express our worship indigenously in each local congregation instead of feeling coerced into replicating album after album? How different would our churches be if everyone brought to the table something of personal and vulnerable sacrifice instead of hiding behind bland, rehashed, boring lyrics accompanied by over produced backing tracks?

What if the record companies went the way of the indulgences salesmen of the past and worship was reclaimed, re-calibrated, refreshed and reformed. Just as the printing press was the new technology of the Protestant Reformation giving everyone the opportunity to read the Bible for themselves instead of relying on priests, what if we used the technology available to us – the internet, social media, live streaming apps – to distribute worship material across the globe for free?

It’s not about which mountain, it’s not about which record label or which singer, it’s not about the songs or the currency: A time is coming, and has now come when the true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth.



Limited Balance

“As worship leaders, how do you balance between allowing the spirit to lead, while maintaining a structure during a service?”

This tweet frustrated me.

The theology of worship implicit in this soundbite is thinly veiled; Spirit led worship is always spontaneous, chaotic and surprising. Spirit led worship is when we abandon the carefully prepared setlist and ad-lib, because the Spirit told us to, til our hearts have had their fill of the warm fuzzy confusion.

To imply that carefully prepared and planned worship cannot by definition be Spirit-led because it is essentially too planned and structured seems to be missing the point somewhat. The suggestion from such a theology is that the Holy Spirit is temperamental unpredictableness, totally unprepared, intent on causing chaos and happy to disregard any plans we may have spent time working on. However, this doesn’t sound like God the Holy Spirit I see working in the Bible; the God Spirit who, in Creation, brought order and structure out of shapeless chaos; the Spirit who, at Pentecost, systematically included and engaged everyone present in taking the message of Christ to the masses; the Spirit who empowers and partners with human beings to build the kingdom of God in any number of creative ways.

So, my response to the aforementioned tweet was “Does the Spirit not inspire the writing of songs, prayers and the order of service? Does he not partner with us?” and in terms of our worship being Spirit-led “He leads our worship long before the service starts and more than just the spontaneous bits we give him credit for!”

If we truly sit down and prayerfully plan our worship times, using material that has been inspired and crafted with the Spirit’s inspiration and guidance, and if we lead with sensitivity and a desire to see people encounter God together (whatever that may look like at any given occasion or setting) then the whole process is Spirit-led and therefore the outcome cannot be anything but Spirit-led.

Mr Cellophane

Mister Cellophane shoulda been my name, Mister Cellophane.
‘Cause you can look right through me, walk right by me
And never know I’m there…”

I love the film Chicago. There are some brilliant jazz songs in it and one day I’m sure I’ll get around to seeing the stage show. One of my favourite songs is sung by the character Amos. He’s the husband of Roxy, one of the leading characters, and he sort of just plods along through the story, faithfully standing by Roxy throughout the whole ordeal. But he’s left on the side-lines a lot. He’s ignored and pushed to the fringes by the main characters who continue their adventures and that leaves me feeling sorry for poor old Amos, who then launches into the song Mister Cellophane; nobody even notices him. It’s a sad part of the story.

Just recently however, I’ve seen this song in a totally different light.
I was leading worship at the church I’m part of in London a couple of weeks ago and the service seemed to go really well; the songs flowed well, the atmosphere was good, people were engaged with God in a big way – It was a good time in Church. A few days later in the office at church, one of the staff members came to find me –

“Jimmy, I just want to say that Sunday was brilliant. You led really well. It was great because it was like you were… Transparent!”

I was transparent? I was see through? I was hardly even there?!

And then it dawned on me: I had done my job right, because the duty of a worship lead is not to get recognition for singing well or playing well or picking the cool songs but to direct people’s attention to Jesus. The quicker the worship leader takes the attention off of themselves and fixes it upon Jesus the better. It’s all too easy for egos and self-awareness to get in the way of leading worship. Standing at the front of the church with people watching you and following your every move can be dangerous if your heart and motives are skewed. But to be in that position and help to enable the church to focus on their God and dissolve out of sight is a real privilege.

I was Mister Cellophane for all the right reasons and that someone had been kind enough to let me know that was a really privilege for me.

I had done my job well

Mister Cellophane
Shoulda been my name
Mister Cellophane
‘Cause you can look right through me
Walk right by me
And never know I’m there…

Growing Pains (Behind the song)

Arguably one of the most painfully honest songs I’ve ever written. A song about wrestling with Faith and Life and the so called ‘Dark night of the soul’.

This is not typical of the songs I usually write, or at least not the ones that are aired publicly. But it is one I couldn’t shift from my mind and so I thought I’d share it. But I also wanted to share something of why I wrote it. I hope this makes sense…

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about how worship and emotion relate. Much of our worship expression, both personal and corporate, seems to be laden with emotional attributes – whether it’s heart wrenching, soul searching songs that make you cry or euphoric, explosive, passionate celebrations and declarations of who God is and what he’s done and is doing. There’s nothing wrong with those aspects. There is a danger of emotional manipulation in certain settings, but that’s another discussion for another time.

This song emerged from the question: What happens when the feelings go? How do I express my faith when I’m not sure if God’s even listening? Why do I feel so disconnected but at the same time so unable to just let it go and walk away?

“There’s something drawing me I can’t ignore.”

This ‘something’ is life changing, it is turning and is going to turn your life upside-down. It’s going to wreck your comfortable life and rearrange everything. But the troubling part is that the God who is the initiator of this chaotic turmoil seems to have gone AWOL. He’s very quiet on the subject and has been for some time. Suddenly the emotional aspect of worship seems redundant, like sending flowers to someone who’s not answering the door.

You know somewhere in the back of your mind that he is still God and the faith you have left, to which you’re clinging by your fingertips, still wants to believe that he’s there and he’s still faithful (if a tad silent) and he’s still worthy of worship so you worship anyway… but it hurts.

At least it hurts for a while, and then it becomes numb.
Am I losing my faith?
Is the God I once trusted just a figment of my own imagination?
I can’t see him, feel him, sense him, hear him… did I make him up? Did I build my life and my identity around an ‘imaginary friend’?

But what if…

What if it’s not the death of your faith that is hurting, it’s the growth?
What if it’s not the destruction of your faith that is uncomfortable, it’s the development?
What if it’s growing pains.

The most uncomfortable analogy I could muster was that of a snake shedding its skin. It needs to grow and develop in order to survive, and in order to do that the snake needs to take off anything that hinders that growth. It cannot stay sheathed in old skin – skin that served its purpose for a period, but that needs to make way for more developed, more mature, more resilient, more defined, stronger, tougher, wiser skin. And that process, I imagine, is awkward, uncomfortable, vulnerable but ultimately healthy.

If you’re going through this horrible time too, then let me somewhat reassure you, we are not alone! So many of the Psalms wrestle with this, thousands of people have wreslted with this throughout history. High Profile ‘SuperChristians’ have struggled with God’s tendency to go quiet on us: Ecclesiastes is full of it, King David wrote Psalms about it, St John of the Cross called it the ‘Dark night of the soul’, Mother Theresa was constantly challenged by it – so we’re in good company.

Just because he’s not constantly reaffirming them audibly, the promises God made us about never leaving or forsaking us are still true and good.
Faith is more than that fuzzy feeling. ‘Lurking doubts unsettle but the faith they breed is real’.