reviewed by Karl DahlfredAre worship and mission doomed to be in never-ending competition for the time and resources of the church? Must we choose between looking inward and looking outward? In “Worship and Mission After Christendom”, Alan and Eleanor Kreider give a resounding “NO”, pointing readers to a third way of looking at the relationship between worship and mission in light of the demise of Christendom in the West.
Raised on the mission field in Asia, Alan and Eleanor Kreider served as Mennonite missionary teachers in England for thirty years before returning to the United States, where they continue their work teaching, speaking and writing about issues of worship, church history, and peace making. In “Worship and Mission After Christendom”, the Kreiders bring together the results of their studies in these areas, together with personal experience to present an alternative vision of the relationship between worship and mission.
In recent decades, evangelical Christians have talked a lot about the “worship wars” happening in their churches. The debate is usually between so-called “traditional” worship songs (i.e. hymns) versus more contemporary music. In most places the dust has settled, but I think that arguing about musical style misses the point.
Style matters but the real battle lies elsewhere.
No matter whether our church has traditional or contemporary music, every worshipper is tempted to judge the value of the songs based on how much they like the music, not on the content of the lyrics. I myself face this struggle. There are some contemporary worship songs that I really enjoy musically even though the words are not much to write home about. So, should we use such songs in worship? Musical style has a big role in creating a certain feeling or atmosphere, but the lyrical content must always take precedence in choosing worship songs. Writing in the 16th century, John Calvin had this to say about the issue:
A fellow missionary recently sent me the lyrics of the song “So Send I You” which for many years had been hailed as the greatest missionary hymn of the twentieth century. I read through the lyrics and knew that something wasn’t right. The song goes like this:
SO SEND I YOU
So send I you to labor unrewarded, To serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown, To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing, So send I you to toil for me alone.
In a number of Thai churches I have noticed that the type of worship songs selected fall into three general categories: 1) “I offer you my life” 2) “Pour out your Spirit” and, 3) “I want to be close to you”. This emphasis is hardly unique to Thailand as much of modern worship songs here are heavily influenced from the West. These type of songs have a time and place yet it seems that in some churches, these are almost the only type of songs that are played. As we sing the same basic things over and over again, I have begun to wonder, “Where is Christ? Where is the cross?”. It seems to be a glaring oversight to not have songs about Christ and his finished work on the cross as a mainstay of Christian worship. When I come into the weekly worship meeting, the first thing that my heart wants to sing is usually not “I offer my life to you” or “You are my every desire.” Why is that? Is it because I am not spiritual enough? Yes, in fact, that is exactly the reason. If I am honest to myself, my motivations are usually mixed and Christ is not my every desire. When songs come up that require me to sing lyrics like “You are all that I want”, I will often go silent or sing very quietly, praying in my heart, “Oh LORD, make me desire nothing but you. This song is not me. Change my heart God, and increase my love for you.” If I sing songs that say more than is really true, then I feel like I am lying to God and everyone around me.
This morning my wife Sun had a good chat with one of the neighbor ladies and as they talked about this, that, and the other thing, somehow my wife ended up lending her a Christian book. Like my wife, this neighbor is also a young mom with a little boy. One of the things that this mom likes to do at home during the day is read. The book that my wife lent her is called “Songs from the Heart”, the life story of a Thai traditional drama performer and musician who became a Christian, and eventually a well-respected pastor in Central Thailand. Also significantly, Pastor Song San used his excellent musical abilities to compose many original Thai Christian hymns, using traditional Thai, Chinese, and Cambodian tunes. Unfortunately, these traditional hymns are not used much anymore in Thai churches but they are a wonderful example of the Christian message being expressed using indigenous music and lyrics, rather than merely being translated from English.Personal testimonies are not the Gospel but many Thai Christians say that hearing testimonies of people whose lives God changed were significant in their coming to faith. God can and does use all sorts of means to pique people’s interest enough that they want to hear the Gospel. Things like personal testimonies, Biblical principles for parenting, practical helps, or the love of the Christian community are distinct from the Gospel message itself, but they are wonderful results of the Gospel that adorn
The is a lot of talk in modern evangelical churches about the Holy Spirit and not all of it is helpful. It is not uncommon for people to talk or sing things like, "Let the fire of Holy Spirit fall on us" or "Come Holy Spirit, revive us again" or other similar things. I was in a church meeting the other day, and the pastor had written (in Thai) on a handout, "This is the age of the Holy Spirit. We all are living in this age. The Spirit is ready to move in the lives of Christians if only we give the Spirit the opportunity to work in our lives."I want to ask, what exactly does it mean for the Holy Spirit to move in people's lives? What does it look like to have the fire of the Holy Spirit fall on someone? And isn't it our Sovereign God who takes the initiative in our sanctification, changing our hearts to respond and be transformed? Is the Holy Spirit really sitting around, wringing his hands, waiting for us to ask Him to fall on us? I am hard pressed to find any Biblical reference to needing to call the Holy Spirit to fall on us again and again or to light us (or the land) on fire, as it were. Sure, it happened at Pentecost but that was a rather unique event that was initiated by God, not the apostles. From that point in history, believers are henceforth indwelt with the Holy Spirit from conversion onwards (Eph. 1:13-14).
Why is it that so many people like to worship on high places? This morning, a friend and I hiked up a steep mountain at the end of a peninsula in Prajuab province, Thailand. At the top, there was a glorious view of the surrounding area - ocean to the east, coast to the north and south, and distant mountains to the West in the direction of Burma. But on top of the mountain, there was also a small shrine to the Buddha’s footprint with accompanying Buddha images. Throughout Thailand, there are lots of shrines and yellow Buddhist prayer flags on the tops of hills and mountains. Every time I see them, I can’t help but think of the high places in the Old Testament that the Israelites worshipped on. When the Israelites worshipped on these high places, it was usually idolatrous worship in violation of the First Commandment (and probably the Second Commandment as well).