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December 21, 2010

Guest Post from Rodney Calfee: The Grace of Autochthonous Worship

Recently, the comments and opinions on Philip Nation's "Advice to Worship Leaders" post ran the gamut. Some voiced their agreement, others their disapproval, and still others found their concordances and wrote their own discourse on the subject. This week, Rodney Calfee is daring to wade into the same waters. Here is his bio, straight from Rodney:

Rodney Calfee has been leading worship for 17 years in various settings and has been a worship pastor in Birmingham for the last 10 years. He thinks that makes him a know-it-all and is therefore very opinionated.

So, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, here are Rodney's thoughts on the matter. Please be nice to him.

Last Friday, Philip Nation wrote a guest post on this blog to which I would like to add a few thoughts. Let me first say that I am a Philip fan (we are very tight Facebook friends). I think he is doing great work and is likely a pretty cool guy (despite the company he keeps - by which, of course, I mean Ed). That being said...

Reading the post last week, I laughed, furled my brow, understood, and disagreed. I thought, "Good for Philip. We need to hear this." I also thought, "Philip has aged incredibly well. He looks great for 87." He made some excellent points, most of which were both right and wrong. "How so?" you might ask.

"Context," I'd reply. Points 1-5, 7, and 8 from his post should be considered contextually.

Worship is autochthonous, by which I mean it is native to the worshiper(s). In other words, people worship in a certain way because of who they are, where they are, what they've experienced, etc... Worship is simply our individual and/or collective response to God's initiating work in our lives. God acts. We respond - always in that order.

Therefore, worship should reflect the myriad of different manners in which God interacts with people. For instance, the worship of Job after losing literally everything ("the Lord gives and takes away" 1:20-21) is distinctly different from that of David at the dedication of the Temple (Psalm 30 - mourning to dancing) or the early church celebrating that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ (Acts 5:41). God acted among them differently. They responded accordingly telling the story of God's greatness in their worship.

As well, the story (read: worship) you hear from someone following Jesus in Portland, Oregon will likely be different than the story in Birmingham, Alabama, Chad, Africa, or Taipei, Taiwan. People are experiencing God in their own lives among their own people and telling their own stories in their own distinct ways; as a beatnik in a coffee shop, a good ol' boy in the fishin' boat, or a tribal dance (forgive the rather obvious generalities).

People worship within their particular contexts, inclusive of music.

I may celebrate from Birmingham what God is doing in Portland, Chad, or Taipei, but I do so from a unique perspective, not having lived the story or fully understood its native context. I will use different words and emphases due to my history, culture, and preferences.

With that said, worship leaders need to cultivate a missional approach to our roles in the worship gathering. We need to think like missionaries - think about context. How do we express the great stories of God through music in a way that makes sense to the gathered church and the lost in our midst and invites them to join the celebration?

When I lead, I prefer extreme dynamics. I prefer not to look people in the eye while I sing to God of His greatness. I prefer dim lighting - I would rather hear voices than see people. I take on the occasional improvisation and throw in a "la" now and then. My vocal range stretches higher than many men, and I find when I don't sing in the power part of my range, it is far less passionate and powerful, to which the congregation often responds with less passion. So, I often stretch it a bit, knowing some will struggle, but most will reach for it anyway (in my context). 4/4 time is part of my musical repertoire, but far from its totality. Four chords in 4/4 gets old because I appreciate the artistry of varying expressions of song style, timing, and chord structure. I have no sense of fashion, unfortunately, and sometimes I lead barefoot, otherwise cables can get caught in my flip-flops.

These are my preferences, and they work within my context (among my tribe). I would be crazy, however, to lead a room full of 65 and up traditional Baptists or an African village in a rousing medley of Crowder tunes with bare feet and a hole in my jeans. Such an effort would be a cultural stumbling block to the celebration of the Gospel in their lives. And they would likely be mean to me, which would hurt my feelings.

Worship leaders, know who you are trying to lead to worship Jesus. Understand how you communicate the Gospel proficiently in song such that it is understood in your particular context and leads people to worship. Stop arguing with Philip (or others) over preference. We need to hear the voices of those we are leading and learn from them - they want to be led to Jesus!

As for points 6 and 9, Philip is a genius. Worship leaders - develop a rich theology. The Bible reveals Jesus and points people to Him. You should be doing the same and using the Bible to do it. You don't need to preach a sermon, per se, but leadership involves, well, leading, not just singing. Plan your songs well. Understand and use them to communicate biblical truth. Stop singing songs simply because they sound cool regardless of what they actually say. If you lead people to sing certain words, know what they mean. And share it with the people. If you sing a song with some veiled reference to biblical ideas, explain it. You will connect people more deeply to the story of God and the truth of Scripture, which will drive them to worship Him with greater depth and clarity.

You are not there to warm up the room for the main show, the preaching, but to help people celebrate the greatness of God corporately. You lead them in understanding and expressing the truth of the Gospel and directing their affections toward Jesus. He is the center, not your song, your band, or your voice. You should do things well, but if you point to anything other than Jesus (inclusive of a band, a singer, or a preacher), it is idolatry.

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Guest Post from Rodney Calfee: The Grace of Autochthonous Worship