Bettering Our Worship Without Battering Our Sheep

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry6 Comments

Sometimes, thinking long and hard about worship can get the better of us. It’s the typical case of the “young theologian” who discovers the truth for the first time only to wield its weight with such “intentionality” that she bludgeons everyone around her. We bit into the apple of “true, biblical worship” (whatever we mean by that), and it must be tasted, no swallowed immediately, by everyone around us. Maybe it was a conversation with an inspiring mentor. Maybe it was a book or favorite worship blogger. Maybe it was an inspiring, fiery, prophetic preacher that opened your droopy eyes to your doxological ills.

When we start getting serious about worship, engaging and applying the Bible, honoring its application by Christians throughout history, that moment can often be accompanied by a grave and deadly temptation–deadly for us and deadly for our churches. It’s one thing to apprehend the truth. It’s an entirely other thing to perceive when and how to apply it. Those who have done the hard work involved in apprehension often can fail to realize that they need to work equally hard at application. It is this latter idea that gets at the heart of what it means to be a pastor in your worship leading role. A prophet knows how to tell forth the truth. But a pastor knows how to lead people in it. Lord, have mercy. We need more worship pastors.

I was reminded of all this as I’ve been studying two lesser-known sixteenth century reformers, Martin Bucer and Thomas Cranmer. Both seemed to be wise in the skill of reform and change through patient, steady pastoring. Bucer and Cranmer were by no means softies. They were intense thinkers, often dogmatic and rigid in their personal convictions (Cranmer probably more so than most give him credit for). But they both seemed to have an extreme sensitivity to how those convictions got applied on the ground. In a moment in 1549, a watershed year for major worship reform in England, Bucer wrote back to people in his hometown of Strassburg about what he was witnessing there. Reformers like him could have been tempted to see what Cranmer was rolling out as compromised half-measures. “He’s a sell-out.” “Partial reform is no reform at all.” But both Bucer and Cranmer were better pastors than that. After outlining some of the old, bad practices that were preserved in Cranmer’s first wave of major worship reform, Bucer noted the pastoral impulse, saying,

They [the less-than-ideal worship practices] are only to be retained for a time, lest the people, not yet thoroughly instructed in Christ, should by too extensive innovations be frightened away from Christ’s religion, and that rather they may be won over.*

Bucer understood that sometimes half-measures are less a sign of limp-wristed compromise and more a sign of calculated yet tender pastoral care. A good pastor will be adept at both diagnosing their congregation’s malady and determining the receivable dosage toward the cure. Oh, how many times have I missed this in my ministry, shoving way-too-large pills down the throats of desperate sheep!

Let’s change the metaphor. Pastorally-motivated worship change is like a good detox program. Cold turkey isn’t survivable. Progression of the good and regression of the bad must be incrementally staged. Every last one of us, as worshipers, is an idolatrous addict in need of salvation through gospel borne soul rehab.

Folks like Bucer and Cranmer give us some much needed wisdom. Whatever your “thing” is about worship that you feel like your church really needs to get, be very wary of a spirit of frustrated urgency, for that spirit is the antithesis of the patient, non-anxious pastor. So let’s all be for the bettering of our worship, but in doing so may we not be battering our sheep.

*Martin Bucer, 1549, qtd. in Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven: Yale, 1996), 411.

6 Comments on “Bettering Our Worship Without Battering Our Sheep”

  1. Thanks so much for this reminder, Zac. Just finished the first year of a ministry in which I fell into this very problem and am now trying to deal with the fallout. By God's grace, the people here are amazingly patient and gracious, as are the pastors and elders. But I would love to know more from your own experience: If there have been times when you've gone too far too fast, how have you tried to remedy the situation? Back up a few steps and restart? Or just slow down the progress from that point and try to help people catch up?

    I so appreciate your blog–I've been reading for almost a year now. Thanks for putting your time and labor into it–I am always challenged and encouraged and helped.

  2. Hmmmm. Become the Jedi, Padawan, you have. So wise, he is. And turns phrases, he does.

    "Cold turkey isn't survivable. Progression of the good and regression of the bad must be incrementally staged. Every last one of us, as worshipers, is an idolatrous addict in need of salvation through gospel borne soul rehab."

    Wow. Darkness beware. I sheath my light saber and bow to you. Well done. Great post.

  3. As a Pastor of Music and Worship, I'm so glad that God allows for growth. If HE does, can't we???
    The Lord Jesus' task of building The Church ("a habitation of God through the Spirit" Eph. 2:22) isn't finished in a day but, one day, at His Day, it will be (Phil 1:6).

    Looking forward, but daily grateful for people like you who exhort and encourage me to faith-filled behavior.

    Jim Lowery

  4. Brad Strait wrote it for me. Exactly. But what you are doing and thinking and writing is important enough for me to take up some space here to "Ditto." Such good stuff Zac; and such exquisite word choices. Keep it up!

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