This blog sketches a history of the worship encounter, the song of faith and radical service, featuring rewrites of old hymns that were written during the junctures in church history that are highlighted in the narrative. (As with all the songs on this site, the recordings are at varying levels of production, some being simple demos.)
Have you ever noticed that, when people came into the presence of God in the worship accounts of the bible, God invariably responded by turning their hearts totally and utterly upside down, then sending them out to make a difference in his world?
In some cases, they were commissioned to broadcast the message of the gospel to people who were in need of good news. In other situations they were singled out to prepare for influential positions of leadership. Some were given laser-focused prophetic words to speak into specific situations. Not to mention those that were deployed as activists to deliver people from unbearable oppression and, in the process, putting an end to the awful injustices that were clouding these peoples’ perceptions of God and preventing them from worshiping him freely.
In this post, I am going to lay a foundation in the scriptures, then take you on a journey through church history, to look at the relationship between the worship encounter, the song of faith and radical service. An encounter in the presence of God will inevitably result in some kind of commission to service, potentially radical service.
Let’s start with Moses. As a worshiper he wrote the very first worship song in the bible, aptly known as the Song of Moses. Talk about a hit! His song is also the last song mentioned in the bible, sung forever in eternity. When God met with Moses at the burning bush, he sent him to Pharaoh to protest the Jews’ horrendous and unjust conditions and to emancipate them to pursue their inheritance. In Moses’ life, worship, mission, the supernatural and justice were inextricably intertwined.
When Joshua met God this side of the Jordan, he had a similar experience to Moses. He, too, was told to take off his shoes in surrender. With the fear of God beating in his chest, he was given a strategy to destroy Jericho. Once again, a worship experience resulted in action – and the removal of a daunting obstacle that would have prevented God’s people from walking into their destiny
When Elijah heard God speaking at the entrance of the cave in a gentle whisper, he was sent out on a bunch of holy errands.
When Isaiah saw the Lord “high and lifted up”, he heard God asking for volunteers and had no option but to raise his hand and say: “Holy Lord, I’m available. Please send me.”
When David was tending to his father’s sheep, penning an anthology of heartfelt and gutsy worship songs, a prophet was sent to communicate God’s call on his life.
When the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples, and they fell down in awe and worship, he issued them a “great commission”, sending them out to disciple the nations.
This pattern continues throughout the New Testament. There is no question about it, worship and mission are interlinked. The bible does not provide for a worship offering that is primarily for the benefit of the worshiper. Worship has always been for God, and, as such, it has a way of setting off a spiritual “domino effect“ as it is impossible to come face to face with God without him responding. And, when he responds, things happen.
Let’s trace this biblical precedent through some important seasons in church history, through the lens of some of the songwriters that have contributed notably to the lexicon of worship, picking up at the end of the Dark Ages ...
The Bohemian Brethren
Jan Hus, the pioneer of the pre-reformation Bohemian Brethren, was impacted by the writings of John Wycliffe, who translated the bible into English so that every believer in England could participate in the priesthood. Hus took Wycliffe’s logic one-step further and campaigned for all believers to be able to participate in communal worship in their own language. The Bohemians published the first-ever hymnal of original compositions in the vernacular. But, in the process, their leader was targeted by the institution that he protested, and burned at the stake.
We are where we are today in worship because courageous men like John Wycliffe and Jan Hus pursued God in a way that was extraordinary for their time, resulting in them being given provocative but benevolent kingdom assignments that had long term ramifications. To put it another way, contemporary worship has its roots in a prophetic ministry culture that knew, intimately, the merging of the pursuit of God, radical service and activism.
Martin Luther, the father of the reformation, was not only a theological pioneer but he, too, was a worshiper. He followed the example of the Bohemian Brethren and wrote songs for corporate worship, first translating the Bohemian’s hymns into German, and then writing songs himself, including the ever-popular ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’.
His experience with God not only triggered a spiritual revolution and a catalytic church planting movement, but it also resulted in him being sent out by God as a kingdom activist, protesting materialism and feudalism, championing the cause for education, and so on. Similar stories can be told about his peers – Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, the Huguenots, the Swiss Brethren, the Anabaptists and the Pietists. Not surprisingly, the movement that they birthed, that believed that individuals could have a relationship with God, that consequently resulted in an army of evangelists and activists being released into society-at-large, was called Protestant-ism.
He Came To Be My Brother (Dan Koch's Rewrite Of A Martin Luther Hymn)
The Puritans fled England to escape the persecution they were experiencing as a result of their protestations. Yet, they were worshipers, and it was their impassioned pursuit of God that activated their radicalism, and they took their “impassioned” worship songs with them wherever they dispersed, spreading their music all around the world
Isaac Watts was one of the movement’s standout writers. He, himself, grew up in a spiritually radical household, with his dad being in prison for much of his upbringing for acting out his convictions. Once again, one of the great contributors toward the song of faith had a spiritual experience where worship, mission and activism were interwoven.
He Is Our Refuge (Neil DeGraide's Rewrite Of An Isaac Watts Hymn)
The First Great Awakening
At the time of the first great awakening, a move of God began in a small town in mid- European Moravia amongst the descendents of the Bohemian Brethren.
They experienced dynamic visitations of God, and were persecuted by the institutional church as a result. Their meetings were often invaded and many were imprisoned. The story is told of them bursting into spontaneous renditions of “A mighty fortress” during these break-ins: “though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo it; we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.”
When Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf gave them refuge on his estate, they began the famous one hundred year prayer meeting that spawned the Moravian missionary movement that saw churches being planted all around the world. By now we are seeing the inevitability of the pattern: the pursuit of God predictability results in worshipers being sent out as trailblazers in radical service.
The Evangelical Revival
John and Charles Wesley were converted through their exposure to the worship of the Moravians. Therefore, their diligence in translating the Moravian hymns, but it wasn’t long before they started writing their own. It is rumored that the first ever bible passage Charles read was Psalm 40. “He has put a new song in my mouth; many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord.” Quite uncanny for a man whose life was marked by the juxtaposition of musical worship and mission.
Like their predecessors, the Wesleys’ encounters with God thrust them out into the world. They traveled the length and breadth of England on horseback as relentless evangelists. But they were also compelled by God to get involved in the transformation the society-at-large. They protested the English medical services only being affordable to the rich, and introduced natural remedies as an alternative for the poor. They protested corruption, the liquor traffic and poor wages. They campaigned for community services and changes in housing. They ministered to all classes in a class-ridden age, and expected their followers to do the same. John was a lifelong opponent of slavery, writing a book against the practice twenty years before it was ended.
John Newton came to Christ during a terrifying storm on the open sea as a slave boat captain. Right then and there he was called out of the slave trade and into the ministry. As someone whose heart had been miraculously transformed, he wrote prolifically and tenderly for corporate worship, partnering with ministry colleague, William Cowper, to compile “Olney Hymns”, a collection of songs written out of the overflow of their local church life. They had met powerfully with God and were compelled to keep their community alive in their communal worship experience. Yet their pursuit of God also kept their hearts alive to the issues of their day, and both men served tirelessly as “compassionate” activists for the abolition of slavery – tag-teaming with John Wesley in providing spiritual support for William Wilberforce, who led the crusade for slavery’s downfall.
We Knew Not What We Did (Neil DeGraide's Rewrite Of A John Newton Hymn)
God Moves In A Mysterious Way (Matt Papa's Rewrite Of A William Cowper Hymn)
The Second Great Awakening
Then there was James Montgomery, who was born into a Moravian family on the mission field in the West Indies. As such, he carried the unique Moravian DNA of worship, intercession and mission, and wrote hundreds of hymns. He, too, experienced the commissioning of God in worship, being sent out into the media industry as the editor of an influential newspaper, using his platform to campaign against the injustices of his day and to champion foreign missions and bible distribution. He lived in the time of the second great awakening, which was known for its converts being mobilized to make a difference in mainstream society.
The Third Great Awakening
Fanny Crosby had a dynamic encounter with the Lord Jesus at an early age - in the time of the third great awakening, when spiritual vivacity, evangelism and social justice were increasingly and beautifully intermeshed.
Blinded shortly after birth, Fanny lobbied Congress in support of education for the blind, and made history as the first woman to speak in the United States Senate. More than anything else, she was passionate about the development of inner city rescue missions. She chose to live in the most needy areas of New York and devoted herself to helping immigrants and the urban poor, and giving and raising money for urban causes. Her hymn, “Rescue the Perishing" became the theme song of the movement.
The Salvation Army
The Salvation Army pioneered the contemporary worship of their day, replacing the church organ with “hipster” brass-band arrangements. Once again, their experiences in the presence of God resulted in them becoming dual “evangelists” and “social justice activists”. They evangelized on the streets with fervor, but they also fed the poor, rescued young women from prostitution, lobbied for a raise in the age of consent and provided refuge for the illegitimate children of prostitutes. They also protested toxicity in the matchmaking industry and started their own eco-friendly factories, paying their employees twice as much as their competitors. We still see the long tail of their spiritual fervor today as the Salvation Army continues to be a major force is caring for the poor.
The Welsh / Azusa Street Revivals
The back-to-back revivals in Wales and Los Angeles in the early nineteen-hundreds reflected this God-pattern yet again. Intense outpourings of the Holy Spirit ignited the biggest ever “sending out” in the history of the church. From Wales, “spiritually ebullient couriers” were sent to Korea, India and East Africa. Within the first two years of the Azusa Street phenomenon, missionaries had been sent out to over fifty nations. The manifestation of the glory of God is never the end of the story. It always generates a spiritually empowered chain of events.
We are living in a crucial time in history, a time of great need in our world, but also a time of great need in the church. Christianity is being shaped by the consumer culture in which we live. With each passing year, worship is becoming more and more of a product for our benefit, and the idea of a transforming encounter in the presence of God, where he could speak to us and radically change our life-trajectory, is being lost.
Therefore this historical overview and this reminder about our heritage!
Hopefully this presentation is a seed well planted. Hopefully, it stirs a new hunger in you. Hopefully you are able to engage with God in the future with a greater sense of anticipation about how he might respond, what he might say, and what he might have you do!
O GOD OF THE BOUNDLESS MERCY
Written by Aaron Keyes (ASCAP), Stuart Townend (PRS), Chris Spring (PRS), Paul Oakley (PRS)
© 2015 Common Hymnal Publishing (ASCAP), Simply Hymns Music Publishing (ASCAP) (admin by CapitolCMGPublishing.com). CCLI 7028245.
O God of boundless mercy, now we come
Bringing our sacrifice of praise
To him who left his heavenly father's throne
To show the world your saving grace
Lord, in the light of overwhelming love
What can I give, what offering?
Lord of the harvest, here I am, send me
O God of burning presence, brand my heart
As with your saints through history
Who from encounter with your Spirit heard
“Whom shall I send to go for me?”
Changed by the power of unrelenting grace
Boldly they preached the savior's name
Lord as you sent them, here I am, send me
O living breath of Jesus, breathe on us
Power to do the works of heaven
To break oppression with a zealous love
Bringing the light of goodness in
Bread for the hungry, justice for the poor
Giving them hope and dignity
Lord of the helpless, here I am, send me
So, church of God, arise, his story tell
Boldly advance his victory
With word and power that shake the gates of hell
Setting the suff’ring captive free
Till every tongue confess his glorious name
His kingdom come, and never end
Lord of the nations, here I am, send me
STREETS OF THE CITY
Written by Stuart Townend (PRS)
© 2014 Common Hymnal Publishing (ASCAP), Townend Music (ASCAP) (admin by CapitolCMGPublishing.com). CCLI 7027587.
Lord, we stand in the shallows of all you have given
Grateful for mercy yet hungry for more
For the power of grace to go out from this place
To the ends of the earth
We have praised you with passion and worshipped in wonder
Thrilled by your Spirit and fed by your word
Now to fully delight in the riches of Christ
We must go to the world
For you live in the streets of the city
You stand with the weak and the needy
You walk with homeless and hungry and poor
And your hands are the hands I am lifting
Your voice is the life I am living
Your love longs to meet them, but how will they know
Unless I am willing to go?
Lord, where are you hungry and where are you thirsty
Naked, imprisoned, with no one to care?
To give of our best to the poor and oppressed
Is to give back to you
So cause us to see with the eyes of the savior
Give us a heart that will love as you love
Courageous compassion in words and in action
Brings hope to the world