Category Archives: Worship

To e- or not to e-, that is the question

Tim Challies recently posted a series of articles on a topic dear to my heart that are well worth reading. I share his enthusiasm for books that he shared in ‘5 Reasons Books Are Better Than E-Books’\1/. I’m also with him on ‘5 Reasons E-Books Are Better Than Books’\2/. Yes, e-books do have some advantages, but they are still outweighed by the books’ advantages. Like Tim, I just can’t imagine having to move house. It would be three times worse for me than for him. One mitigating factor is that I tend to buy reference materials as e-books in preference to books, especially when they are considerably cheaper. Then I feel guilty when I make little use of them. Are e-books making me more covetous?

But it’s not just sufficient to pit the arguments against each other and take your pick. There is a need to think through the consequences, which Tim points out well in ‘Books & E-Books, Media & Messages’.\3/ I agree wholeheartedly that convenience is not sufficient reason to abandon the book in favour of the e-Book. The medium has a definite impact on the message. E-media appear less permanent (Tim’s point about permanence notwithstanding), and paradoxically I suspect we give more credence to online, e-sources without sufficient critical appraisal. It’s similar to the appeal to “it was on television” as the ultimate “proof” of a fact. We can certainly read books uncritically, but the e-medium somehow seems to reduce our ability or willingness to engage critically with the content. McLuhan and Postman are definitely worth considering in this whole area. And Nicholas Carr is also onto something important in The Shallows\4/, which I’m planning to read later in the year.

When we come to read our e-Bibles we are going to run into some problems. I just can’t study with an e-Bible because you can’t see enough of the text at once (not even on my 24 inch monitor), or mark it up the way you need to make the study worthwhile. I certainly value tools like Logos, especially to check my rusty Greek and Hebrew, but they are just that: tools, not replacements for the text.

I think we’ve already run into a similar problem in churches that rely on song projection instead of hymn books. Sung praise is becoming more like karaoke than sacred worship. The medium has made the shift possible, and the reason is most likely convenience. The congregation may sing more loudly because they no longer have their faces buried in a book, but I find I’ve forgotten the previous line or two very quickly after singing them, whereas with a hymn book I can understand better what I am singing, and comprehend the meaning much more easily. I can’t think I’m alone in that, advancing age and declining memory notwithstanding. What will be the impact of preaching to a congregation who only have an e-Bible? Shorter sermons that engage the text less critically?

It’s not just the ‘E’s in our food* we need to be concerned about, it’s the ‘e-‘s in our reading that will have a serious impact on our intellectual and spiritual understanding. Since Christians are people of The Book, this should be a serious concern to us. Convenience is not enough to switch to e-Bibles, just as pragmatism is never enough to make informed and safe moral judgments. I’m going to need more convincing before I make e-reading my staple biblical intake. Tim’s articles have confirmed that for me. Moderation and small doses will certainly be my practice for the forseeable future.



1. Tim Challies, ‘5 Reasons Books Are Better Than E-Book’,, 17 Aug 2010, (accessed 7 Sep 2010)

2. ——, ‘5 Reasons E-Books Are Better Than Books’,, 18 Aug 2010, (accessed 7 Sep 2010)

3. ——, ‘Books & E-Books, Media & Messages’,, 20 Aug 2010, (accessed 7 Sep 2010)

4. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010). Carr blogs at Rough Type,



* Approved European food additives all have an ‘E’ prefixed to the universal reference number.

The priority of the Word in worship

Alec Motyer points up the priority of the Word in worship in a footnote to Psalm 122:

The NIV reverses the order of lines in verse 4b. ‘According to statute’ should come first, followed (more properly) by ‘to give thanks to the name’. The word of God must always be the primary reality, even in the place of worship. Worship concentrates on what the Lord has done, prompting thanksgiving, and keeps his name, the truth he has revealed about himself, right in the foreground.\1/

Just Alec. Just right!



Alec Motyer, Journey: Psalms for Pilgrim People (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009) 45, n. 12.

Improving Worship

Don Whitney has some helpful comments on improving worship in his three articles “Ten Ways to Improve Your church’s Worship Service“, “Ten More Ways to Improve Your Church’s Worship Service” and “A Third Ten Ways to Improve Your Church’s Worship Service“. What he has to say is certainly not “novel”, but a good deal of it is extremely challenging. It is easy to become complacent and routine in worship. We could all do with challenges to our worship lest is becomes substandard, and even fails to be true worship.

I was particularly in sympathy with his comments on taking care with the use of technology in worship. I’ve been in a few services over the years which ground to a halt while the technology caught up. But while I’m wary of including too much technology in worship, there certainly are positive benefits I would not wish to lose, like recording sermons and making them available on the Internet.

As someone who has had various responsibilities for the sung worship of the congregation I appreciated greatly what he had to say about that. There were also a few surprises for me in the things that he focussed on.

These are three articles that are worth reading and re-reading periodically.


HT: Colin Adams (Unashamed Workman)

The screen, the page, and the Book

I found Sven Birkets’s essay on Resisting the Kindle in The Atlantic (2 Mar 2009) a useful reflection on page-to-screen transfer. I, too, am uneasy. But as I read the essay, it struck me that many of the things he says have implications for Christian worship as well.

He makes a compelling point about the the loss of context by using such technology. And when we take context down to the immediate context of any part of a work the loss of context become much more apparent.

Birkets’s story about the Blackberry search for a line of poetry reminded me of a similar circumstance several years ago. I was walking with a group of friends after evening worship when someone mentioned a verse of Scripture, but couldn’t remember the exact wording or reference. One of the group immediately whipped out an electronic Bible he had just bought, and tried to find the verse. Much to his annoyance, I was able to turn it up in a pocket Bible well before he could locate it.

My friend was simply locating information in an amorphous mass, however sacred. As I recall, I had a rough location in terms of the book concerned through knowledge of the text, and a memory of a position on the page. These two pieces of immediate contextual information enabled rapid discovery. There is no such thing as position on the page with electronic text. Even a large monitor still leaves a tiny window on the text (I find 24 inches still not enough). But a physical book enables much more of the immediate context of a work to be visible.

That’s why I’m not entirely convinced about projecting the words of hymns for church services. Each verse becomes disconnected with those preceding and following. Singing from a book gives the overall context of the stanza in the hymn, and enables the worshipper to interact with the hymn as a whole, rather than verse by verse or line by line, however the hymn is projected. Not even a Kindle hymn book would convert me. I have the same concerns about both ways of displaying text, when access trumps content.

Kindle may not be the Devil’s calling card, but we ought not to embrace it unthinkingly with evangelical zeal. All technology has implications and consequences. All things may be lawful, but not all things are helpful. Projecting a song’s words for a karaoke session is probably useful, though I have no experience of it. But Christian worship is not like karaoke, and projection of hymn words can make it seem little more. It takes more than a reminder of the words to make for effective worship.

Birkets also talks about the loss of historical reality to the author that is likely to take place if we become Kindlized (well, a horrible condition deserves a horrible word to describe it). Christian worship is grounded in the historical reality of God’s salvation. Dare we use means that erode historical connections?

Guidelines for worship

I came across these wise words this afternoon:

— Guidelines for worship —
Be thoughtful, be reverent, be friendly,
For we meet together as the house of God.
Before the service speak to the Lord.
During the service let the Lord speak to you.
After the service speak to one another.

They are from the Reformed Baptist Church, Inverness, but they are applicable to every church that gathers together as the house of God.

The pursuit of God

In this month’s Banner of Truth Magazine, Sinclair Ferguson explains the balance we need in our lives between the pursuit of godliness and the pursuit of God. He says:

When we are concerned about spiritual experience, there is always a danger that the pursuit of it will become a thing on its own, set loose from its anchor and moorings in the glory of God himself. When that happens we may indeed become more interested in our personal godliness than in God. While the Puritans were deeply concerned about personal experience, they were convinced that it flows from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, from the love of God the Father, and from fellowship or communion with the Holy Spirit. They were God-centred in this sense, not experience-centred. Their vision was always upwards to the glory of God. (“The Puritans: Can they Teach us Anything Today?”, Banner of Truth Magazine 543 (Dec 2008): 10. Online: part 1, part 2)

It reminded me of a recent conversation I had in similar vein about the balance between attendance to public worship and personal experience or that worship. I was of the opinion that balance was not to be achieved by being right in the middle, but that we needed to be on the side that embraced regular attendance at the public worship of one’s own local congregation, however it was styled, rather than the side of seeking an ‘exalted experience’ of God. My friend considered experience more important, since he considered the greater danger was in dry and perfunctory worship.

I know that it is equally possible to go to excess in either experiential worship, or in a legalistic doctrinal emphasis that is devoid of the Spirit. But it does make all the difference where one stands, on which foundation one is depending.

The foundation of experience is insufficient to bear the weight of the tension that is involved in becoming godly without losing sight of the Triune God. There is a serious danger that God will become little more than a buddy or best mate should we anchor on the side of experience. However intimate our relationship with God, he must never be reduced that that level. Is it not less likely that ‘depth’ of experience will result in greater intimacy with God?

The Word of God gives a sure and solid foundation, and that is where we ought to moor ourselves. Worship that starts from the Word of God, as it is read, sung, prayed and preached, is the best foundation. That Word is God’s sure revelation of himself. Attending to preaching that glorifies God and magnifies Christ is the vital thing, however ‘poor’ it may otherwise be.

‘Poor’ worship, I have found, usually to be a euphemism for singing in a style other than contemporary, popular music that mirrors the world. It usually takes no account of prayer, Scripture reading, and preaching. What thought is given to preaching invariably concentrates on style and delivery, rather than subject. It may be termed dry, irrelevant, or even boring. I wonder if such characterisations are not more of a commentary on ourselves when we say such things. Do we fail to appreciate the majestic God who is the subject of the sermon? (I speak of honest, biblical, God-centred, Christ-exalting preaching.)

Is it not that we have been anchored too long in experience? We do not come prepared, expecting to worship God corporately through the whole of the service, but come unprepared, merely expecting a personal experience that will pick up us, and hopefully set us up for another week. We come as takers, not givers. We do not receive what we want because we expect entirely the wrong thing. We expect to enjoy the worship, that is, we expect to enjoy ourselves. And if we feel we enjoy ourselves then we will perhaps give God the credit, when we ought to come to give God the glory, and enjoy him.

I, for one, want to anchor on the side of God’s glory, and avail of the ordinary means that he has appointed for my godliness. Those means may be unspectacular, but I trust in his hands they will be glorious and glorifying.

Good reasons to sing Psalms, and good Psalms to sing

Tonight I came across Joe Tyrpak’s article “Why Should We Sing the Psalms?” at Church Works Media. He’s subtitled it his Psalm-Writing Testimony, and relates how he came to write modern English Psalm paraphrases. So far he’s posted one composition, Psalm 1, which I rather liked. Joe’s approach is to write with a well-known tune in mind, which makes his paraphrases “plug and play”. He’s also concerned to include the whole psalm, rather than a bit, which is how many modern worship songs approach psalms. I’m certainly looking forward to more like the first one.

An entertaining service?

Commenting on the inherent entertainment bias of television in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman asserts

The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether. (p. 87)

He supports his assertion by examining the ABC program broadcast on 20 November 1983 following the controversial movie The Day After. It was billed as a serious discussion of the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, but Postman explains that it was merely entertainment dressed up as serious discussion. He concludes,

At the end, one could only applaud those performances, which is what a good television program always aims to achieve; that is to say, applause, not reflection. (p.91)

Living lives immersed in the modern television culture we cannot escape the effects of this pervasive entertainment bias. If we expect the same of a Christian worship service, God help us. And God help the pastor who seeks to conduct it in television style.

Tellingly, Postman later gives two examples of Roman Catholic priests who have sought to connect with their audiences, for so it seemed to Postman they were, rather than congregations. Greg Sakowicz summed up his approach by saying, “You don’t have to be boring in order to be holy.” (p. 93). Pointedly, Postman concluded of John J O’Connor that he “apparently believes you don’t have to be holy at all.” (p. 93)

Protestant pastors are not immune from the urge to compete with the televisual. But, given the nature of the beast, there is grave danger, for the pastor preaches not for applause but for application. Christian worship is far from a performance, and reflection is an important component in it.

And yet, the medium can be used sensitively if used carefully, as Postman himself mentions, though such programmes will make “bad television”. It strikes me that the difference is illustrated by comparing something like the BBC programme Songs of Praise on British television, and a webcast of a full traditional church service where the predominant shot is of the pulpit, with perhaps shots of the choir when they sing introits and anthems. Watching at least one such webcast each week (as well as attending my local church, I hasten to add) I have noticed how as a family we feel very much part of the congregation as we sing, recite the creed and participate in the responsive reading. However, on the rare occasions I watch Songs of Praise it always seems more entertainment as various people are interviewed, and we are subjected to gratuitous scenery or roving shots of the congregation during the singing of hymns, and have the inevitable performance of celebrity solo/group songs, many completely sub-Christian in content. Very entertaining, but hardly praise or worship.

Heartened as I am by the realisation that the technology may be used in a beneficial way, there is also a very real danger that we may attempt to make our worship services too much like television, making enjoyment the principal goal and measure of success. Perhaps many services have already become enjoyable entertainment–happy hours, rather than holy ones.

Postman concludes his chapter with a series of short descriptions illustrating of the impact of Show Business on the wider culture. He concludes,

What all of this means is that our culture has moved toward a new way of conducting its business, especially its important business. (pp. 97-98)

His insights and conclusions are surely applicable to the Church of the Living God. May we be vigilant as we conduct our important business with a holy God, that it may not be Show Business. May we not be concerned with showmanship but stewardship, “the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1Tim 1:4).

Wesley’s concern was

‘Tis all my business here below
To cry: ‘Behold the Lamb!”

That is a long way from Show Business. It is most certainly a challenge to conduct The King’s Business in the Age of Show Business.

Imago Christi

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman writes,

Think of Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter or Billy Graham, or even Albert Einstein, and what will come to your mind is an image, a picture of a face, most likely a face on a television screen (in Einstein’s case, a photograph of a face). Of words, almost nothing will come to mind. This is the difference between thinking in a word-centered culture and thinking in an image-centered culture.
Ch 4. The Typographic Mind, p 61

Postman is right, and twenty years on it is increasingly more so.

It occurred to me that Jesus Christ could be added to the list. For most people he is now a Hollywood figure along with Moses/Charlton Heston. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has done nothing to change that perception, for, as I understand it, Christ’s teaching played little or no part in the movie, which was largely image-centred, and graphically so.

Worshippers of the living God are forbidden to make images for worship. This is the second Word of God, for what are commonly known as the Ten Commandments are in fact the Ten Words in Hebrew. Our modern experience as outlined by the Apostle Paul shows the problem with image-centred culture. God’s command took Israel out of a worship structure which was image-centred. Nor was Egypt alone in having a well-developed image-centred worship culture, Canaan, too, had such a culture. Ancient pagan worship in general had a great element of spectacle as images were carried and mythological events reenacted in elaborate ritual drama. Such image-centred worship was specifically forbidden by God, and we would be wise if we still adhered to the prohibition.

Word-centred worship will make demands on our lifestyle, ethics and morality. Worship where the central focus is on the Word of God will have a content that may be articulated, and that must be applied to the whole of life.

If our worship becomes image-centred then it will tend toward experience. Content will become unimportant and application non-existent. Postman et al. may have uncovered this aspect of culture, but I suspect God knew the human tendency, since he had created men and women and knew how they ticked.

We deviate from word-centred worship at our peril. Image-centred worship tends to exclude the engagement of the mind as the spiritual/emotional experience becomes dominant. Word-centred worship, on the other hand, engages mind and spirit. Paul’s advice on speaking in tongue, perhaps, has some relevance here. He wished to pray with both spirit and mind (1 Cor 14:15). Word-centred worship does not exclude emotional experience, but subjects emotion to the mind, and God’s objective teaching about how worship ought to be conducted.

Postman’s observations have much wider ramifications than he could ever have imagined.

Believing praise (Psalm 106:12)

Christians are a singing people because they are a believing people:

Then they believed his word;
They sang his praise (Psalm 106:12)

A professional singer may be able to sing oratorios with technical perfection without believing a word that is sung. But such singing is not praise. Praise can only be produced by believers.

That is not to decry effort on the part of believers to sing well, tunefully, accurately, and according to the music. John Wesley’s advice to those who would week to sing his hymns is surely appropriate. How can we praise God “according to his excellent greatness” (Ps 150:2) if we do not seek to do it with excellence ourselves? Sloppy praise is a contradiction in terms.

But true praise is never a performance, nor simply emotion and feelings. It is an expression of belief, not feeling. It therefore must have content, expressed coherently and with meaning. Christians do not chant meaningless mantras interminably; they sing Almighty God’s praises.

Such an awesome task demands that we consider carefully and creatively how we may express the inexpressible. To resort to meaningless mumbo jumbo is not an option—it is not worthy of the one whose glory we seek to express in our praises. What kind of a response is it to mumble meaninglessly when he has spoken clearly and meaningfully?

And yet believing praise will not be dispassionate and devoid of emotion or feeling. Psalm 106 takes the Exodus as its focal point for meditation. Who could say the song of Moses and the people of Israel in Ex 15 was devoid of emotion or feeling?

Praise involves a delicate balance and blend of excellence in word and music, and heartfelt expression of godly emotion and feeling. No wonder the psalmists prays that the word of his mount and the meditation of his heart may be acceptable in God’s sight (Ps 19:14).