The Companion asked a handful of worship leaders and members of the Commission on Worship to share their thoughts on Covenant worship – how they plan, whether we should have a new hymnal, and how they see worship changing in the church.
What is the most important thing you consider as you plan worship each week?
Linda Mazzariello: How to lead people to Jesus. What can we do to help bring them to a place of awe and wonder for who God is? How can we inspire them to respond back to God in heartfelt praise, thanksgiving, and worship, ushering them into his presence and hopefully catching a glimpse of God’s glory?
Melissa L. Emerson: We constantly ask ourselves about the words we sing, “Is this what Scripture says? Do these words reflect who God is? Does this proclaim the story of God’s redemptive work? Will our congregants connect to the lyrics?”
Randall Wilkens: We start with Scripture—whether it’s the pastor’s chosen sermon text or the lectionary text, and then we select songs and other worship elements that respond to or enhance the text. Frequently we find the Scripture almost “plans” the worship service for us. It is much better to look at the Scripture first and let it inform worship than to plan worship and then select Scriptures that “fit” with our plans.
Julie Chamberlain: On a practical, planning-for-Sunday-morning level, I want to create an environment where people of all ages and backgrounds can lift up what is true about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and respond to that truth with spirit and emotion. There are no spectators in corporate worship. We’re all in. And we need each other.
When my dear friend who just experienced a miscarriage is lifting up empty hands as we sing, “You give and take away, you give and take away, my heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name,” I’m weeping right alongside her and declaring that with her. When someone is sitting in the back row of the sanctuary, feeling completely hopeless, the congregation can say for him, “Our hope is in you.” That has transforming power. So I look for ways in which we can participate together as the body, leading each other into God’s presence.
Sometimes we need to say something in a responsive reading rather than singing it. Or make it the prompt for our congregational prayer. So I work closely with the senior pastor to shape the overall arc of the service.
“We’re addressing the Covenant’s indigenous worship. Our churches are filled with gifted song-writers and musicians – and many worship pastors are excited to mentor and disciple them to cultivate their gifts. Let’s support our aspiring worship artists!”
Melissa L. Emerson, student at North Park Theological Seminary. She attends Immanuel Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago and serves on the Covenant’s Commission on Worship.
How do you see our approach to worship changing in the church today?
Melissa: Sadly, I think “worship wars” will always continue in the church, and resisting discreet self-centered worship needs to remain at the forefront of our minds. However, it has been incredible to see the Covenant really strive to incorporate our identity as a multicultural church into our worship. From Midwinter to CHIC to the many churches scattered across the globe, we are able to join with our brothers and sisters of different worship backgrounds in a new song with them. It’s incredible to see this keep growing.
Randall: For years the American church has been encouraged to divide congregations along generational lines, providing “traditional” services for senior adults, “contemporary” services for boomers (the generation that most vehemently demands them), and separate worship experiences for youth and children. But as we’ve catered to people’s preferences we’ve unwittingly created a self-centered consumer mentality instead of teaching the value of worshiping as an entire body of believers. We have not taught our worshipers how to respect the preferences of others above their own, as we are urged to do in Philippians 2:3-4.
I am becoming more and more convinced that congregations should all worship together in the same intergenerational service. This way older generations can pass the great hymnody of the church and expressions like organ and choir down to younger generations, while younger generations can encourage older folks with their energy and fresh, contemporary musical expressions. It takes charity, forbearance, and generosity, but the effort and commitment bears great fruit. Reliable studies have shown that youth who grow up in intergenerational worship environments are much less likely to leave church behind when they go off to college. Just one of many reasons to bring all the generations together in worship!
Josef Rasheed: The changes I have noticed over the years have been increased inclusion of adopted Covenanters, a willingness to include gospel music in the worship gatherings, and flexibility in the liturgy. I believe the partnership with modern technology, especially the use of video and live-streaming, have strengthened the connection in our worship.
“Sometimes we need to hear truth in a familiar, comforting package: a well-loved hymn in a stripped down, no frills arrangement. But sometimes the familiar packaging numbs us to the truth, and we need familiar words in a fresh musical setting in order to receive them anew.”
Julie Chamberlain, worship leader at Decorah (Iowa) Covenant Church.
“One thing I consider as I plan worship is ‘Who will be engaging in the worship event?’ That causes me to be more inclusive due to the cultural and ethnic elements as well as the various generations, gender, and traditions.”
Josef Rasheed, pastor of CrossRoads Covenant Church in DeSoto, Texas, and serves on the Covenant’s Commission on Worship.
Do you think there should be another Covenant hymnal?
Randall: Yes. A hymnal isn’t just a collection of songs but a defining statement of who we are theologically and culturally. There’s been a big cultural shift since the blue hymnal was produced as a vast number of our churches have now embraced contemporary and multicultural expressions. Many songs have become expressions of who we are as Covenanters that were not even written when the blue hymnal was produced, while many songs in that hymnal are no longer current expressions of who we are. And while the theological core of our denomination remains essentially the same, we risk losing this focus in our churches if it isn’t expressed in our collective songs.
Of course there are big challenges to producing a hymnal. In a time when many churches gather their songs from online media resources, a hymnal might seem old-fashioned. But a hymnal today can and should be an online resource too, and I am convinced that we need to produce a new hymnal to equip the current generation of ECC worshipers with songs that
specifically express who we are.
Chris Logan: Yes, but with a caveat. Our current hymnal is marginally useful at best. If we create a new hymnal, it needs to be fully digital, able to be updated more regularly, and perhaps even customizable for churches with printing needs. The challenge of being a multicultural church is that our corporate music life becomes so diverse that we don’t have space for all the music of every culture. A digital hymnal would solve this, as space would no longer be a concern, and it could be organized by topic, author, liturgical season, language, meter, key, and it could be searchable in a way that printed materials are not. It would be wonderful to have every song available in every key (something you can do digitally), making the music accessible to smaller congregations led by volunteer leaders in a new way.
I also think we would be wise to include string, brass, woodwind, and percussion parts to accompany at least the traditional hymns. The Celebration Hymnal is a phenomenal example of this, as each part sounds good with piano or organ accompaniment, as well as combined, even in the most random configurations.
Josef: Yes, because many of us have been adopted into the Covenant, yet the songs we hold dear to us—songs that reinforce the teachings of our parents and grandparents, that speak to the historic hand of God among us—are not included in the Covenant hymnals. This could signify partial adoption, as if to say, “You’re one of us only as you become more like us and less of yourselves.” Yet I am sure that is not intended.
Many songs by Covenant artists and musicians could be included to contemporize and promote Covenant theology. We sing many contemporary songs that are already accepted by the church. These types of songs could be included in a new hymnal to provide a unity to our worship that is contemporary and inclusive.
But I don’t believe a printed hymnal would be necessary. Because of the digital age and the cost of printing, as well as the current lack of knowledge about how to use a hymnal, a more modern format would work better—such as list of songs with a suggested lead sheet/chord sheet and maybe an accompanying track of some sort.
Linda: No, I don’t think there should be another Covenant hymnal. I don’t use the one we have.
“I think our approach to worship has been changing since the 1980s. Changes are happening in regard to music style, the participation level of the congregation, the lyrics of the songs and their relevance in today’s world, and the vast amount of resources available to us.”
Linda Mazzariello is the music worship leader at Marin Covenant Church in San Rafael, California.
“The biggest misconception is that worship is about me—what I get out of it, how much I like the music, how engaged I am by the preaching. Of course, we as individuals do benefit greatly in worship, but what we get should never be our primary motivation.”
Randall Wilkens is associate pastor of worship and the arts at Bethany Covenant Church in Mount Vernon, Washington, and serves on the Covenant’s Commission on Worship.
How has your own understanding of worship evolved over time?
Chris: For a long time I felt guilty for feeling called to worship ministry. It seemed selfish for a church to spend money and time on a pastor who “just” leads worship or on a building in which to gather. Don’t really spiritual people move to the inner city or go serve overseas? Or maybe it’s better to sell your stuff and give your money to the poor.
Eventually I realized that the answer to those questions is no. Gathering together as the church to worship God is not optional, nor is music a luxury. In fact, intentionally missional music is a necessity. What we sing together helps us form our individual and collective identities—we become what we sing. As the sent people of God, we sing songs of our identity as sent children of a creative God, of the mission, of the kingdom the mission is building.
Julie: One way my understanding of worship has evolved is in a growing appreciation for the “corporate” part of corporate worship. For a long time I had a “me and Jesus” perspective, regardless of whether worship was happening at home, in my car, or at church on Sunday morning. I would have probably described my ideal worship experience as happening in a darkened room with a bunch of people I didn’t know so I could focus on God and sing freely without feeling self-conscious.
There is, of course, a place for that. But when I think about the most powerful and meaningful worship experiences I’ve had in the last decade, they almost all involve moments in my local church. They were not “me and Jesus” moments. They were “me and the body of Christ” moments. When we commit ourselves to a local body of believers and enter into community with one another—rejoicing, mourning, working, praying, singing, playing, and growing alongside one another—our worship becomes a rich reflection of God’s glory.
“Why do we gather? To respond together to the mercy of God. That simple statement impacts the type of music I choose in both our modern and traditional-styled gatherings. It impacts the lighting or slide backgrounds I use because if we can’t respond together, we’re not holding up the vision.”
Chris Logan, director of worship and technology at First Covenant Church in Omaha, Nebraska.
How does your expression of worship affect or reflect your cultural identity?
Josef: As an African American, I believe that expressions such as joyful hand clapping, instantaneous song ad libs, intergenerational fellowships (that means hugging and often kisses on the cheek), exchanging prayers with and for one another, and so much more teach our children and remind us of the ancestral connection, character, and community of our people that is never to be denied.
I experienced this in the Congo as the music played and the people danced, shouted, and cheered. I didn’t understand the words, but I connected with the feeling so I danced too. I was no longer American. They were no longer African. Our expression said, we are God’s children, chosen to serve him together.
Linda: I hope our expression of worship reflects authenticity. I want people to come away feeling more in awe and impressed with God than with us or our church.
Our county has a low percentage of Christians, is mostly white, with mid- to upper-class professionals, and not a lot of college age or young adults. They are not steeped in Christian culture or music. People don’t come to church here as a cultural norm, they come because they are either authentic about their faith or God is wooing them to himself. I don’t want to mess with that. They just need authentic followers of Christ worshiping an authentic God.