When John Raised the Bar

I’m amazed by John Wesley.

But not for the normal things.  Not for his character, commitment to Christ, preaching ability, or anything like that.  I’m amazed that he wrote down what he expected his congregation to sound like.

Back in the day (late 18th century England), you only probably had a few books in your house.  Unless you were rich.  Most of those books stayed in your house.  Because of the cost of printing, books were priceless and even regarded as heirlooms.

Only 2 books ever left your house: your family Bible and a family hymnal (if you were lucky enough to own one).  They only left on Sunday.  They were precious to you.  In the front of your Bible was a family list or a rough genealogy.  If you belonged to one of Wesley’s churches, you’d find another list inside front cover of your hymnal – a list of directives.

These weren’t optional.

These weren’t a suggestion.

This is how John Wesley saw worship.


Imagine what it would be like to worship in Wesley’s church.  Give this some thought.  I mean, how gutsy is this?  Because you and I live in an era of passing worship fads, we might be tempted to believe that Wesley is slightly out of date.  But I’m not so sure.

A few questions:

  1. Do any of the above points rub you wrong?  Care to share why?
  2. Do any illicit an inaudible “amen” from you?  Why?
  3. Would you add anything?

Mr. Wesley, I’m sending a high-five your way.  Thanks for raising the bar, brother.


The Creative Church

John Newton

John Newton was a pastor’s pastor.

He preached. He mentored. He wrote.

For sixteen years (1764-1780), Newton served as the curate of Olney parish. Olney (pronounced “all-knee.” ) was a rural area of only 2000 people. The congregation was poor and largely uneducated, most making their living as laborers in the lace industry.

William Cowper – a young man plagued with frequent bouts of depression – moved to Olney in 1767. Once a candidate for a finance career in London (a position arranged through the influence of a domineering and loveless father) Cowper’s life was marked with loneliness and pain. Despite his reclusive and emotionally devastating story, Cowper’s years in Olney were the happiest and most stable of his otherwise tragic life.

Newton (who, like Cowper lost his mother when he was 6 years old) seemed to love Cowper out of a bottomless empathy and compassion. They would walk together, write frequently, and share their thoughts about their church. Throughout their friendship, Newton was a trusted confidant, loving friend, and an incredible pastor.

Cowper wrote of Newton: “A sincerer or more affectionate friend, no man ever had.”

Picking up on Cowper’s poetic gift, Newton asked his young friend to consider the idea of collaborating on a hymnal together. The hymns were to be used especially in their small church.

The result: Olney Hymns. 348 hymns (incidentally, with no musical arrangement) including Amazing Grace, and There is a Fountain. Newton wrote over 200. Cowper wrote 68.

Here’s the point: for a church to truly create, it must be alive. Put another way: When God is moving in the life of a local church, that church will then be free to express itself in a tangible way.

For worship leaders: In the preface of the hymnal, Newton wrote: “they should be hymns – not odes, if designed for public worship, and for plain people.” That’s pretty good criteria. If you’re asking your church to engage in worship that doesn’t resonate with who they are, then you’re simply not serving them. Don’t ask them to fake it.

For pastors: Newton engaged Cowper with a great deal of intentionality. The Olney Hymns project was Newton’s way of developing Cowper’s melancholy and reflective personality.

Describing his reason for creating a hymnal (he was a busy pastor after all) Newton wrote in preface:

“…A desire of promoting the faith and comfort of sincere christians, though the principal, was not the only motive to this undertaking. It was likewise intended as a monument, to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship.”

Engage the melancholy. Actively love the down-spirited. Mentor the broken. Above all: Make sure you’ve got the time. That sounds incredibly Christlike, yes?


If you’re interested, read the original preface to Olney Hymns here.

Honesty in the Pew: Come, Thou Fount

Robert Robinson

Robert Robinson was a drunk.

Then a pastor.

And he was good at both.

Born in 1735, Robert Robinson is best known for writing “Come Thou Fount.” His father died when he was eight years old. He grandfather disowned him for the sum of ten shillings and sixpence (about a week’s wages at that time). At age 14, he was sent to live with his uncle in London where he ended up as barber’s apprentice.

With no father to guide him, Robinson’s life took a turn for the worse. Like the prodigal son, Robinson had a few questionable friends, a little spending money, and plenty of opportunities.

At age 17, Robinson and his group of friends planned to attend a meeting hosted by the fiery yet pastoral preacher George Whitefield (think “Billy Graham meets Mark Driscoll”). The plan was simple: “scoff at the poor, deluded Methodists.” He was every preacher’s nightmare – a professional heckler.

But in the curious providence of God, Whitefield’s words haunted Robinson.

For 3 years.

In 1755 at the age of 20, Robinson gave his life to Christ. Two years later, he gave his church the following words:

…Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love
Take my heart, O take and seal it
Seal it for thy courts above.

Sadly, his words were personally prophetic.

An often-told (yet slightly apocryphal) story goes that toward the end his life, Robinson was riding in a stagecoach when he noticed a woman sitting opposite him, deeply engrossing in a hymn book. He listened as she hummed a tune to herself. At one point, she turned to him as asked his opinion about the hymn. Robinson burst into tears and said:

I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I have them, to enjoy that feelings I had then.”

Robinson’s gift to us was his honesty.

For pastors: It’s important to remember that Robinson wrote the words for “Come Thou Fount” just prior to accepting a call as a pastor. Imagine yourself in his shoes: Standing before your congregation and boldly opening your skeleton closet. Admitting all your secret doubts and fears in front of the people who you hope to lead. Frightening, yes? But few things speak louder of a leader’s love for his people than his honesty before them.

For worship leaders: It takes honesty and transparency to connect with words like “prone to wander, Lord I feel it – prone to leave the God I love.” But too often, we rush people into God’s presence – skipping over the impulses of confession and repentance. By the time you ask them to sing: “here’s my heart, Lord take and seal it” very few people actually mean it. Most people end up only half-connecting, feeling like something important is missing.

Intentionally leave time (if only 30 secs or a minute) for honesty to emerge naturally.

Show them how to be quiet. And be quiet well.

The Discipline of Solitude: Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

Joachim Neander

Joachim Neander was German. And he was good at it.

Industrious – Seriously minded – Gifted.

He was born in Breman (as in the musicians) in 1650. His father, a Latin teacher, died with Neander was 16. Unable to afford to go away for a respectable education, he stayed at home, enrolling at the local bible school.

At first, he didn’t take to it. He actually led a pretty wild life until one day his faith was rocked by a stirring sermon from Theodor Undereyk – a relatively unknown preacher.

When he was 21, he moved to Heidelburg where he became a tutor at the University. Heidleburg was an awakening for Neander. Surrounded by a larger city, and one of the oldest and most respected universities in Europe (founded in 1386), Neander’s horizons were expanded and his faith was given wings. This season of Neander’s life laid the foundation for prolific few years which were to follow.

After only three years at Heidleburg, Neander moved to Dusseldorf to continue his education and prepare for pastoral ministry. Still only 27 years old, he served as a tutor at a Latin school in town.

In between classes, Neander would take long walks in the valley near the Dussel River. Alone in the rolling hills and removed from the hectic pace of scholastic life, Neander felt his soul restored and his imagination stirred. He would sing – often singing and adapting Psalms into tunes that would fit his mood:

Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so woundrously reigneth
shelters thee under His wings yea, so gently sustaineth,
hast thou not seen,
how all thy longings have been,
granted in what He ordaineth?

Here’s the point:

We can fake worship any time we feel like it. Throw a key-change in here or there – dim the lights – squint our eyes – lift our hands and we’re there. Or are we?

One of the strangest realities for worship leaders, pastors, and artists in the church (at least for me) is to neglect the private adoration of God. We simply haven’t cultivated the discipline of intentionally leaving space in our calendar – allowing us to “ponder anew.” If you’re not a worshiper of God in private, you’re not called to lead His church.

Neander died when he was 30, serving only 1 year as a pastor in his hometown Breman. But not without leaving his mark – writing over 60 hymns in the short span of 5 years. Ironically, the famous “Neander-thal” skeleton (literally, “Neander’s valley” in German) got its name from the valley where Neander contemplated the beauty of God’s creation.

Neader's Valley, Dusseldorf, Germany

Desperation Brings Clarity: Rock of Ages

Augustus Toplady was definitely one of those guys.

Augustus Toplady (note the smirk)

You know the kind: on their way to their systematic theology class, six 800-page books under one arm, ready to recant the five points of Calvinism with anyone who would listen – and in theology-incensed 18th-century Britain, plenty of people did.

John Wesley – arguably one of the foremost theologians in England during the late 1700’s – was the object of Toplady’s argumentative fury. Toward the beginning of their relationship, Toplady and Wesley were actually quite good friends. But because of Toplady’s insistence on his particularly narrow brand of Calvinism, his relationship with Wesley became increasingly bitter and distant, resulting in Wesley making this bout-ending remark to a close friend in a letter:

John Wesley

Mr. Augustus Toplady I know well. But I do not fight with chimney-sweepers. He is too dirty a writer for me to meddle with. I should only foul my fingers. I read his title-page, and troubled myself no farther.”

That’s English gentility for you.

Here’s the interesting thing: in the midst of all the arguing, writing, pamphleteering, and preaching, Toplady found a few seconds of give the English language one of its most beloved hymns, Rock of Ages.

The story goes that while he was traveling in between preaching engagements, (and likely on the run from those who would ruin him), Toplady was caught in a life-threatening storm. Finding a limestone boulder along the road, he decided to wait out the storm in one of the crags. While he caught his breath, Toplady pulled out whatever paper he had and began to write:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
save from wrath and make me pure.

So – what to do with all of this?

Desperation often brings clarity. That’s how most of the Psalms were written – out of a spirit of desperation. Do yourself a favor – forget about the inconsequential pieces of minutiae that invite controversy. Spend your time developing a faith that learns to find God in the moments that matter.

It Came Upon a Third Verse Clear

Spoiler alert: this may well indeed wreck your caroling experience. But it might help it – in the long run.

It’s always bothered me that “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” never mentions sin, Jesus, the cross, or redemption. A little background:

The original verses (there are a total of 5) were penned by Edmund Hamilton Sears (1820-1876). A graduate of Harvard Divinity school, Sears served as a Unitarian minister throughout Massachusetts. While orthodox in his confession, his most renowned hymn has always left me a little dry.

This criticism isn’t new. The British carol scholar Erik Routley wrote that “in its original form, the hymn is little more than an ethical song, extolling the worth and splendour of peace among men.”

Don’t get me wrong: Not every Christmas carol needs to recant the theological veracity of Romans in metered poetry, but it seems like a missed opportunity. Christmas is a time for clarity. But not the militant, wave-a-flag-in-your-face kind of clarity. Not the kind that gets unreasonably offended when a well-intentioned grocery clerk wishes you “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” It’s a soft claritya steady clarity. The kind of clarity that uses the front door, and knocks gently – but firmly.

In light of that, I humbly submit my addition:

A painful cross awaits this child
who now in a manger sleeps
For all who know the stain of sin
and dwell in darkness deep
Look now, our God has made a way
His perfect salvation to bring
Redemption’s plan provides our peace
And lifts our souls to sing.

(Thanks Eddie – can I call you Eddie? – for allowing me to impose. Incidentally, I’m looking forward to chatting it up some day.)

A Winter Tree

Christmas Hymn for Communion

Mike is the worship director at our church.  He’s a natural jazz musician with a flare for stubble, odd musical phrasing, and the constant presence of 7th-chords.  No v-neck.  No skinny jeans (thank God), and no extra effort to be hip.  He’s probably most at home behind the piano in somebody else’s jazz trio in the corner of someone else’s club.  He’s also the kind of guy who will spend a whole day scouring old hymnals looking for hidden treasures.  He’s a little odd like that.  And it’s awesome.

But one of the things I really appreciate about Mike as a worship leader is his commitment to honoring past traditions (particularly rich texts) while engaging the current life of our church.  This morning, he and I had to opportunity to lead our church in the following song – sung during communion.  Neither of us had ever heard of it prior to this week.  If you hunt long enough, you can find a video somewhere.  But for now, enjoy the text:

Gathered round Your table on this holy eve,
Viewing Bethlehem’s stable we rejoice and grieve;
Joy to see You lying in Your manger bed,
Weep to see You dying in our sinful stead.

Prince of Glory, gracing Heav’n ere time began,
Now for us embracing death as Son of Man;
By Your birth so lowly, by Your love so true,
By Your cross most holy, Lord, we worship You.

Bethlehem’s Incarnation, Calvary’s bitter cross,
Wrought for us salvation by Your pain and loss;
Now we fall before You in this holy place,
Prostrate we adore You, for Your gift of grace.

With profoundest wonder we Your body take–
Laid in manger yonder, broken for our sake:
Hushed in adoration we approach the cup–
Bethlehem’s pure oblation freely offered up.

Christmas Babe so tender, Lamb who bore our blame,
How shall sinners render praises due Your name?
Do Your own good pleasure in the lives we bring;
In Your ransomed treasure reign forever King.

Thanks, Mike for the early Christmas gift.  I appreciate you, man!

Early Winter Sun (taken at Bode Lakes, Streamwood, IL)