Rest for the Souls of PCA Worship Leaders
By Benjamin Morris
Liturgy Collective

Photo courtesy of Liturgy Collective.

What is good worship? What, for that matter, is ideal worship, or even just acceptable worship? Since the days of Abraham, believers have sought to faithfully bear witness to the character, deeds, and goodness of their God: even Jesus’ own disciples struggled at times to speak about him, with some only finding the right language once they touched the wounds in his side.

The question is ancient: how can the church proclaim a message that is true and timeless while making that timelessness attractive to each new age? So too are the questions that have followed: what elements make worship services hospitable, accessible, and reverent? How, too, can those who preach and teach that message come together to find fellowship, encouragement, and support? 

Recently, the Liturgy Collective — an informal association of pastors, worship leaders, and music directors from across Reformed denominations — has sought to engage those questions through a conference based at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Nashville. Now in its second year, the 2022 gathering was held in mid-October. With a combination of worship services, plenary discussions, and individual presentations, speakers sought both to reclaim time-honored forms of worship for modern hearts, and to address the ongoing challenges that contemporary congregations face.

Origins and Intents

Though the 2021 conference focused on the imagination, the theme of this year’s conference was “Rest for Your Souls.” The intent, organizer Tim Nicholson said, was not just to create a “General Assembly for worship directors,” which he laments has never existed, but to provide respite for all those for whom Sundays (with rare exception) are days of labor, not of rest. Too often churches do not fully appreciate how pastors and musicians must follow different rhythms of preparation, work, and recovery, and as a result of offering their time and talents as living sacrifices, do not enjoy the blessings of the Sabbath in the same way as their flock, if indeed at all. 

To feed those who at times go hungry themselves, the conference thus sought to pursue three main strands of emphasis: rest (prayer and meditation), connection (fellowship), and growth (discipleship and inspiration). Tying these strands together were three corporate worship services whose sermons and hymns each explored a component of Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Such thoughtful curation was evident: the opening hymn, for instance, James MacMillan’s instrumental piece Memento, called us to attention without requiring any exertion, opening our hearts to the sanctuary in soothing tranquility.

The intent, organizer Tim Nicholson said, was to provide respite for all those for whom Sundays are days of labor, not of rest.

Among the assembled, such ministering was gratefully received, but other needs were also present. Asked what they sought at the conference, one couple in ministry in rural Georgia lamented that not only were they leading services fifty weeks out of the year, but as they were the only church within thirty miles, “all our relationships are digital.” Remedy for their isolation, even just the chance to “talk shop,” was paramount. 

Another team had come in search of new musical styles in worship, new sounds to reach their largely unchurched community in Colorado. Their parishioners out West did not resonate with certain musical traditions that can typify services in the PCA, so they had come to Nashville to find new settings and ideas to try out back home. A third group from Virginia, curious about new movements within the denomination specifically and the church generally, had come simply to learn what was happening outside their own congregation — rarely, if ever, able to explore on their own time.

Psaltery, Silence, and Diversity

Exhaustion, isolation, frustration: over and over again, presenters spoke directly to the spiritual needs of attendees, reassuring them of the validity of their need and offering new means of comfort, encouragement, and rest. Alongside this counsel, however, other themes emerged, themes that served less as comfort than as challenge. Though they were never intended as foundational pillars for the conference, they arose often enough that they took on this role: the themes of psaltery, silence, and diversity. 

First, numerous presenters addressed the role of the Psalms in contemporary worship, arguing not just for a re-centering of the Psalter in our services but in some cases its re-imagining. During one early panel, songwriter Sandra McCracken, who has set several Psalms to new music — some of which were sung during the corporate worship — noted that nearly a third of Scripture consists of poetry in some form, with God inviting us to read, sing, and recite His own words back to him. To ignore this invitation, she suggested, is to miss out on entering into His own heart. 

Similarly, in a later session, Trevor Laurence argued passionately for the re-inclusion of the 41 Psalms of imprecation in our services, not to ask for the destruction of our enemies, but because they “give us language to bring our anger and rage at a fallen world into God’s presence.” Yet such fallenness can be and is being reversed, Laurence argued, through the narrative of the church as partners in “a project of a holy God creating a holy place for His holy presence to dwell with His people whom He is making holy, most completely now through the person and work of Christ.” 

The second major theme, explored both in the corporate worship services and in the panels, was silence: too often, pastors and musicians strive to avoid “empty” moments in a service, preferring instead to march straight from hymn to confession to prayer. Yet such an approach neglects the many instances of recorded silences in the Bible — consider, for instance, the selah of the Psalms, a mandatory pause in a recitation. In such cases, these silences are not elisions but fermatas: moments of heightened attention, of expectant longing for the development and the resolution that is to come. 

Exhaustion, isolation, frustration: over and over again, presenters spoke directly to the spiritual needs of attendees, reassuring them of the validity of their need and offering new means of comfort, encouragement, and rest.

What do we gain by rushing through our worship? Spiritual indigestion certainly, as when we consume anything too fast, failing to savor the richness of a reading or a hymn, or preventing it from completing its work. But what as well do we lose? Certain forms of rest cannot be achieved without silence: it detracts nothing, and we must ask instead what in fact it creates. Worship leaders must not be afraid of those quiet moments after a reading while someone returns to their seat, or as the band pages over to the next song. As W. David O. Taylor argued, the goal of silence “is not the absence of sound, but the creation of attentive presence.”

The third major theme, subject of much discussion in the PCA in recent years, concerned the incorporation of diverse musical styles and traditions in worship. Presentations from Carl Ellis, Jr., and Jeremy Simpson powerfully highlighted the rich resources that the church of color offers not just to the traditionally white church, but to the church universal. Simpson’s claim in particular that spirituals from the Black tradition are as much a part of American history as they are Black history – and therefore should never be segregated musically or racially — resonated deeply with the assembled, as his own rendition of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” during corporate worship proved. Playing a fiery, uplifting version on solo piano, Simpson’s hymn was the first time that attendees’ bodies leapt into worship alongside their minds, as nearly every one of the “frozen chosen” began to thaw.

Unresolved Tensions

Amid these themes, however, certain tensions remain. In one early session, Kevin Twit of Indelible Grace asked how artists (in this case, primarily musicians) can serve the church and glorify God without the church being tempted to glorify those artists in the meanwhile. The risk may be low, but the risk remains real: in our modern culture of celebrity — literary, musical, scholarly — how do we tune our hearts not to the gifts of the moment, those works that temporarily capture our attention, but to the Giver of those gifts, and how can artists put their talents to work in such a way that humbly acknowledges their origin and gives the appropriate thanks? 

This question, too, is ancient, but bears increased relevance in an age where clicks and likes drive public opinion — even ecclesial opinion — of an artist more than ever before, and can make or break their career. In this context, rather than feature a headliner concert that participates in the glorification of artistic celebrity, future conferences may benefit from an approach that heeds their own lessons: a series of practitioner’s workshops, for instance, focusing on the teachable aspects of artistic craft and their use in liturgical contexts, may help to minimize this risk.

What is good worship? There is no easy answer, but in our gatherings as the body of Christ we must continually strive towards those moments where we glimpse the eternal, where we draw near to the gates of glory, and glory spills out of those gates to renew us within and without. Insofar as heaven continues to break into earth, awe and thanksgiving must remain central aspects of our response — but amid the many joyful noises we make, let us not neglect those quieter postures of the heart by which heaven speaks directly to us, as the Lord did so tenderly to Elijah in 1 Kings. For there, in the whisper of the eternal, we may well find both the deepest refreshment and the greatest mystery of all.

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