Friday, February 24, 2017

Too Much Bono in the Church? –– Part Two

Is it possible that one of the unintended consequences of spectacular worship is that it teaches us we cannot truly worship God without the lights, band, and sound system? For all the good it can offer, might our programs accidentally reinforce the belief that people can only fully encounter God in a rocking church? This is worth considering.
Instead of putting all our resources into providing “amazing worship experiences” every Sunday, what if we spent an equal amount of energy teaching people how to have eyes to see God all week long? Yes, God can be experienced powerfully as we sing at the top of our lungs, and I hope we keep doing that. But God can also be experienced in our conversation with the stressed-out cashier at Target, if we have eyes to see. And God can be found while cutting the lawn, riding the subway, giving our kids a bath, weeping with a broken-hearted friend, and taking that first glorious sip of coffee in the morning. The question is not, “Is God in all those moments?” God is fully everywhere, for it is in God we live, move, and have our being. The question is whether we have eyes to see.
Thus a gracious, holistic church will offer its community wise practices, clear teaching, and safe spaces in which to cultivate eyes to see and worship God every moment from the sanctuary to the soccer field to the dinner table. . .
Church communities are not consumers to be entertained or donors to be appeased. They are instead God’s deeply loved daughters and sons who need to be lovingly pastored. How can we make sure we are pastoring them well? Get clear about the question you ask that drives your worship choices. The question we ask will direct the outcome. If the driving (functional) question is, “How do we get the room pumped up in the first thirty minutes of the church service?” the answer will never be, “Corporate confession.” Or prayer for the world. Or silence. Or blessing our enemies. Or an extended reading from scripture. Or lament. Or lectio divina (reading scripture in order to pray). But if the question is, “How do we form each person into Christlikeness for the sake of the world?” then all of the above will be deeply necessary and healing. And such a gift to all who are on the treadmill of figuring out how to top last Sunday. I recommend that each ministry team try to name the question driving what you do. (Not the question you know you should be asking and answering, but the actual question framing your church and ministry.) Very little can change until this question changes.
A gracious, holistic church will offer its community wise practices, clear teaching, and safe spaces to discern the questions driving us and allow God to give birth to new, deeper, and more life-bringing questions.


Aaron Niequist is a worship leader, songwriter, and pastor. Currently, he curates a discipleship-focused, formational, ecumenical, practice-based community called “The Practice” at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.

Aaron Niequist, “Too Much Bono in the Church?” Liturgy 32, no. 1 (2017): 42-45.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Too Much Bono in the Church? –– Part One

About ten years ago, I wrote an article called “Everything I Know about Worship Leading I Learned from an Irish Rock Star,” in which I reflected on Bono as the model for modern-day worship leaders. View all notes Because of my background in large Evangelical churches (Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, Illinois), I lauded his ability to harness the energy of a stadium upward, affirmed his understand of the nature of praise, and was inspired by his relentless call to action on behalf of the poor. These were three characteristics of the kind of community we were trying to become, and U2 offered the ultimate example of worship in this kind of church.
But after seeing U2 last summer in Chicago, I no longer agree with what I wrote. . .
As I marveled at Bono’s ability to create such an epic worship experience, it occurred to me that this anthemic, euphoric, and cathartic euphoria is the perfect model for a traveling rock show but may be a potentially unhelpful model for weekly worship. And yet so many worship leaders––myself included––have been trying to emulate this mountaintop experience every Sunday morning for years, asking, “Did people lift their hands in the air? Did they sing loudly? Did they have a deeply authentic emotional experience?” These questions, learned from traveling rock stars, have come to define much of the current Christian worship culture.
Disney World is a wonderful place to visit but would be a strange place to live. An extravagant twelve-course meal is great for an anniversary celebration, but impossible to replicate every night. In the same way, I am becoming convinced that a rock concert worship event is wonderful in small doses but dangerous when it becomes normative.
Mountaintop experiences are not the entirety of the Christian life. And if our worship experience communicates that this is what everyone should be feeling all the time, we do a huge disservice to people who are currently in the valley or will be in the valley––which is everyone. There is a reason the Psalms include celebration, lament, anger, joy, dancing, and doubt. In fact, while over 30 percent of the Psalms are lament, looking at the top 100 contemporary (or “modern”) worship songs, you see that almost none are lament. As a result, our faith can get lopsided, and we do not always know how to engage the pain and heartbreak of life if we have only chosen the top songs or failed to use a range of Psalms.
Thankfully God does not just live on the mountaintop. . .  God does not always fix the issue but does something infinitely more profound: God weeps with us, inviting us to join the work of healing.
But to become aware of this, we cannot always be shouting from the triumphant peak. And a gracious, holistic church will offer its community wise practices, clear teaching, and safe spaces to learn how to embrace God in every emotional space from the summit to the valley.

Aaron Niequist is a worship leader, songwriter, and pastor. Currently, he curates a discipleship-focused, formational, ecumenical, practice-based community called “The Practice” at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.

Aaron Niequist, “Too Much Bono in the Church?” Liturgy 32, no. 1 (2017): 42-45.


Remember Dust –– Ash Wednesday, Year A –– 1 March 2017

Ash Wednesday with its reminder that we are made of dust, adam, and will once again become dust when we die means to set the stage for deepened faith so that together with the three admonitions––fast, pray, give alms––we will really know the profundity of God’s life in our lives.

Three basic religious practices are to be done “in secret.” Charitable giving, prayer and fasting are all assumed to be standard, normative acts of piety. Jesus wants to make sure they are done for the right reasons and not for social approval.

The repetition of “in secret” is an exaggerated way to stress that God is the real audience, the one to whom such acts are really directed. . .

Jesus came from a world in which just about everything happened in public, where persons were rarely alone, and where religious life centered around what groups and families did together. There was a prophetic tradition of “rend your hearts, not your garments,” but even this depended upon a set of group mourning practices. Hearts were hung on sleeves for all to see. What people did and said in public was what they meant in private, simply because most of the time “private” did not exist.

Within that very public world, Jesus stakes out space for it. Private prayer, in “your room”? . . . This would be seen by no one but God? What a weird idea! ––Lucy Bregman 

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

 In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, prayer, fasting and almsgiving are considered practices of the faith. In this pericope, Jesus describes deplorable and ideal ways in which one can engage in these practices. . . He describes how each has been done while the doers are calling attention to their activities to other people. He then counsels the appropriate strategy to avoid attracting attention and the praise of other people.

A word must also be said about the fact that two of the three examples of hypocrites are associated with synagogues. There is no doubt that this reference has served to reinforce contempt for Jews on the part of Christians. Thus, it is essential to call attention to the fact that the gospel setting is first-century Palestine and the narrative presents an account of a teaching of the Jewish Jesus to his Jewish contemporaries, all of whom were associated with synagogues. The application of the story for Christians is to those who would be known in the churches for their philanthropy or who call attention to their ascetic practices. –– Regina Boisclair 


Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

The [reading] opens. . . with the prophet's call to sound the shofar from Zion as warning of the impending darkness of day of the Lord's judgment. While this selection continues with the Lord's call to return, the reading ends without clear assurance. Although the selection eliminates the details of impending devastation (2:3–11), with the inclusion of 2:1–2, this reading retains an apocalyptic fervor (see Isaiah 13). –– Regina Boisclair

2 Corinthians 5:20b––6:10

Paul speaks of the. . . soteriological significance of the incarnation and death of Jesus—the sinless one who suffered so that through him sinners are enabled to enter a right relationship with God (5:21). Recognizing that his efforts work together with that of God, Paul begs his readers not to trivialize the beneficence they have received from God. –– Regina Boisclair


Lucy Bregman, professor of religion at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the author of several books including Beyond Silence and Denial: Death and Dying Reconsidered (WJK, 1999) and Preaching Death (Baylor Univ., 2011).

Regina Boisclair, a Roman Catholic biblical scholar, teaches at Alaska Pacific University, Anchorage, Alaska.

Homily Service 41, no. 2 (2007): 4-14.




Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Up on the Mountain –– Transfiguration, Year A –– 26 February 2017

Who is this rabbi? Many biblical parallels link Jesus and Moses and the prophet Elijah but the Transfiguration, in particular, with awesome white light and the voice from above points to a divine being.

Savior. Healer. Teacher. Friend. Social activist. Prophet. All are common ways of identifying who Jesus was. But how often do we hear Jesus referred to as a mystic? Let us define a mystic as one who. . . regularly engages in prayer and worship and who has experienced communion with God.

That Jesus was a mystic is implied in the Gospels. John's presentation of Jesus' discourses and his account of Jesus' ministry, passion and resurrection are filled with the language of mystical union, or oneness with God. Gospel narratives report how, after intense periods of healing and teaching, Jesus went off by himself to pray. . .  Nowhere is the suggestion that Jesus was a mystic stronger than in the story of the Transfiguration.

. . . The Transfiguration marks an occasion when he let others in on the experience. Why? Perhaps because Peter, James and John were his closest friends and confidantes. Or maybe because they needed encouragement. Or it could be that such an experience would give them authority after his death, as Peter reminds the early church in 2 Peter.

Signs and symbols of mystical experience are all here in Matthew, just as they are in Exodus: a high mountain, “his face shone like the sun” and a cloud. Still more spectacular in the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah are present, God speaks the same words spoken at Jesus' baptism (Matthew 3:17), with the addition of the words “Listen to him,” and there are credible witnesses to see and hear. –– Diane Stephens

Matthew 17:1-9

There are many biblical allusions in the passage to the theophany on Mount Sinai. First there is the setting itself—a mountain. Then there is the time notation, “after six days,” which may echo Exodus 24:8. Jesus' face “shone like the sun,” an echo of Moses' countenance after meeting God (Exodus 34:29). Jesus' garments also are transformed, becoming “dazzling white.” This may be an allusion to Psalm 104:1–2 and/or to the “white as snow” clothing of the Ancient One in Daniel 7:9. Moses is present on both mountains, as is the cloud. Matthew has changed Mark's name order (“Elijah with Moses”), so that the two Old Testament figures “Moses and Elijah” can more clearly represent the Law and the Prophets, whom Jesus fulfills. The heavenly voice speaks as at the baptism of Jesus, adding, “Listen to him.” –– Joseph McHugh

Exodus 24:12-18

When Moses met God on Mount Sinai. . . the loftiness of mountains and the power of fire characterized God's distance from lowly people. God could not be seen, but God could be heard and God's voice thundered from a burning mountain. –– John Paul Salay

2 Peter 1:16-21

The introduction to 2 Peter in the New American Bible observes: “2 Peter . . . appeals to tradition against the twin threat of doctrinal error and moral laxity, which appear to reflect an early stage of what later developed into full-blown gnosticism. Thus [the writer] forms a link between the apostolic period and the church of subsequent ages.” The mention of the Transfiguration is part of this appeal to tradition. –– Joseph McHugh


Diane Stephens Hogue, an elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), is a spiritual director, retreat leader, faculty member in the Credo program of the PCUSA, and affiliate faculty at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Joseph McHugh is a freelance writer who writes on scripture and other religious topics.

John Paul Salay is Loyola University’s Minister of Liturgy and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).


Homily Service 41, no. 1 (2007): 131-141.