God of This City: Discovering God’s Heart for Our Cities

Do you wonder how Christians are supposed to respond to the city in all its glory and with all its problems?

Are you interested in seeing how our worship reflects our passion for the city?

Our church just began a three part series on God’s call to the city. The series is called “Lost and Found: Discovering the Mission of God in Our City.”

Lost and Found Bulletin Final

our current worship series

We are reflecting on how a church with 140 years of rich biblical teaching and cultural impact can continue to stay relevant to a changing city. The journey has left me with 3 questions all worshipers need to ask themselves:

  1. Do I understand God’s heart for the city?
  2. Does my heart and life reflect God’s heart for the city?
  3. If I/we have a heart for God and resonate with his heart for the city, how will this change my worship?

Understanding God’s Heart for the City

Simply put God loves the city. He made us to live in community. He placed Adam and Eve in a Garden, but Jesus is preparing us to live in His eternal City. God meets us in the city (he meets us in the suburbs and rural settings also, but this article is about the city).

This classic work by St. Augustine is an important read on our view of church, city and God

This classic work by St. Augustine is an important read on our view of church, city and God

In his classic book The City of God, St. Augustine makes the case that the Kingdom of God is at work in every human city. It’s in the city where God’s heart for the broken and downtrodden can be expressed most powerfully. In the city the church rises up against forces that bind individuals and families to proclaim forgiveness, freedom and justice.

In the city the contrast between light and dark are more profound and stark. Crime, poverty, injustice and oppression are most deeply experienced in the city. But also the ingenuity and creativity of man can be seen in architecture, cultural arts and enterprise—things only possible in large population centers. When the people of God live together in Gospel harmony and proclaim Gospel deliverance, cities are changed.

In the book of Jonah, God confronts Jonah’s jealousy and apathy toward Nineveh by saying, “Should I not have compassion on that great city?” Jesus looked upon Jerusalem and wept. He wept not only for the memories and symbolism of Zion as Israel’s hope, but also for the people. The apostle Paul’s ministry nearly always started in the center of the city.

Cities are strategic for reaching nations. Cities are where things happen AND where things don’t happen. Mankind continues to flock to the city because the city is the place of opportunity, progress and expansion. People are hopeful as they come to the city—but many find those hopes dashed.

Evangelists know that people are most open to the Gospel when going through a major transition (change of job, location or status) and it’s easy to become lost in the city. The city can open people’s hearts to God, but unfortunately the church’s involvement in the city can close their hearts to the church.

God made us to dwell in community – in relationship first with Himself, but also with mankind. The way Christians live together in the city reflects the heart and mission of God.

The band Bluetree, an Irish worship band born out of the troubles of Northern Ireland, was called to minister in Pattaya, Thailand—the world’s capital of sex trade. While ministering in the middle of a brothel, the band members were overcome with an understanding that God is God of This City. They wrote a song proclaiming these lyrics:

You’re the God of this city,
You’re the King of these people,
You’re the Lord of this nation, You are.
You’re the light of this darkness,
You’re the hope to the hopeless,
You’re the peace to the restless, You are.

If we understand the heart of God and the power of the Gospel to change lives, we can have a hope for our cities—no matter how dark and hopeless they might seem. God’s mission has always been a mission of restoration and redemption. He is redeeming lives, families and cultures. There is no city beyond the hope of this Gospel.

Hear Aaron Boyd tell the story behind this powerful song:

How Does My Life and Heart Reflect the Heart of God for the City?

In 1990 I spent three months in Calcutta, India. Among other things we went to pray for and encourage the church in their ministries. But that was tough work. Calcutta had 13 million people at the time and at least 1 million of them were living on the streets. People were literally everywhere you went. If you threw a piece of paper in the trash, it might be the wrapping for the roasted cashews you purchased the next day (this literally happened to me).

After about 4 weeks of living in the overwhelming stimuli of people, pollution and problems, I had a breakdown. I started to wonder if God could really do anything in this city. That’s when God started to show me the faces of people I had grown to like and love: people like Jahangir and several other friends. That’s when I realized God gives us a heart for the city by giving us a heart for people.

India3 India2India#1

A paradigm for diagnosing how we view the city

Harvie Conn was professor of urban ministry at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. (This site does some good thinking on Conn’s view of missions in the city). He reworked R. Richard Niebuhrs classic model of Christ and Culture for how Christians typically respond to the city. I think this taxonomy provides a helpful way to see how we respond to the opportunity and challenging of loving the city.

The four basic responses are: Christ against the City, Christ of the City, Christ above the City, and Christ transforming the City. 

Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 6.18.20 AM

This graphic first appeared in an article summarizing Conn’s 4 views of the city at resurgence.com

Christ against the city reflects an attitude that the city is evil and Christians need to protect themselves from the city. This results in a fortress mentality and a pessimistic outlook on the results of our ministry. We can provide handouts and rescue a few, but the city is on a downward slide toward hell and there is little we can do about it. This results in an antagonistic church.

Christ of the city, on the other hand, reduces the Kingdom of God to just one of many ways to release the oppressed in the city. The city is basically good and good Christians, in this view, should embrace and reflect the ethos of their cities—uncritically accepting the moral environment. This view ignores the clear contrast between the City of God and the City of Man – the eternal fight between good and evil that is clearly manifest in our cities. This results in an accommodating church.

Christ above the city sees the city as basically good, but doesn’t see a need to engage the brokenness of the city—largely ignoring the problems and becoming consumers of the city’s goods and services. These churches might do evangelism and have some charity volunteer work, but these Christians are not equipped to confront the systemic effects of sin—seeing faith as a personal, private matter. This results in a consumeristic church—a Christian ghetto.

Christ transforming the city sees the ultimate goal of history as a redeemed City of God. The Gospel brings healing to individuals and societies. Transformational Christians and churches seek to engage the city on every level (spiritually, socially and economically) for individuals, neighborhoods and communities. The power of the Gospel at work in believers becomes the hope for not only the church, but also the city. This produces a transformational church.

If I/we have a heart for God and resonate with his heart for the city, how will this change my/our worship?

This is where the rubber meets the road. Our view of the city (and the lost in general) effects how we plan worship and engage in our worship services.

If we have a Christ against the city mentality, our worship will be militaristic. We won’t care about the world around us, so our songs and liturgy will be increasingly irrelevant and largely meaningless to the lost. These believers don’t even think about the unbeliever in their midst because they don’t expect him to come.

If we have a Christ of the city approach we will embrace unwittingly the music and art of our culture, but there will be little understanding of the Lordship of Christ or the need for redemption. We will minimize the need to rehearse and proclaim the Gospel in our worship since we are merely mirrors of the city around us. These churches don’t see a difference between the believer and unbeliever, so their worship focuses on things we can all agree upon.

In a Christ above the city mindset our worship creates meaningful worship experiences for believers. We rehearse the gospel and acknowledge the sovereignty of God. We might dabble with taking our worship bands on the street because we know “they” need what we have, but we largely don’t know how to translate biblical truth to our culture. We enjoy going to the theater and art galleries, but see them as entertaining and having no place in worship. Our worship reinforces our Christian culture and values and is increasingly irrelevant to the very culture we enjoy. Very often this mindset produces an attractional ministry model where we expect the world to come to us and become like us.

Only in a Christ transforming the city worldview do we find worship that fully engages us in glorifying God while also embracing the needs of the city. This approach embraces the good and beautiful as gifts from God no matter the source. The distinction between secular and sacred is seen as a false dichotomy, while not minimizing the difference between the holy and profane.

Bluetree’s song is a powerful reminder of God’s authority and love for the city and our call to participate. Here it is:

What does this really look like?

Its not where a church is located that makes it a church for or against the city. The songs we sing and the instruments we use don’t necessarily indicate our heartbeat. Even our word choice and cultural awareness don’t necessarily reflect our missional approach.

Every Christian, church and city needs to wrestle to understand God’s heart, their own heart tendencies and pray for a heart that embraces and loves their city with the Gospel.

Ed Stetzer's book is helpful in understanding how to do ministry to a new generation

Ed Stetzer’s book is helpful in understanding how to do ministry to a new generation

A book that is helpful in thinking this through is Ed Stetzer’s Lost and FoundPastor Tim Keller has also written a number of articles that are helpful on this subject.

There is not a cookie-cutter approach to being a church for God and the city, but this is the heartbeat of God. May our lives and churches reflect his love for our cities.

Your turn to chime in. How do you see the church struggling to worship in light of God’s heart for the city?

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Heartistic Worship: The Role of Biblical Artistry in Worship

Rembrandt was a master at portraying biblical stories so we could see ourselves in them.

Rembrandt masterfully portrayed biblical stories so we could see ourselves in them.

Do you wonder about the role of art in worship?

Have you wrestled to understand the connection between art and the heart?

The Bible reveals many things about the connection between truth and beauty. (Here are some thoughts I shared in a previous article.) In this post, I’d like to briefly explore four implications and point you to some resources that take a deeper look at these subjects.

 Four Paths from Art to the Heart

  • 1.    Artful communication circumvents normal arguments and logic we use to avoid hard truths.

You could say that Jesus was the master communicator. Jesus understood all the audiences he addressed; from theologians to fishermen; from scholars to tax collectors and prostitutes. While he had no problem teaching didactically (look at the Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5-7), he normally taught through parables. He understood this powerful communicators axiom—stories are more likely to penetrate into our minds and hearts.

How-to-talkWhile in seminary, my preaching professors all emphasized how important it was to illustrate our theological points. In his book How to Talk So People Will Listen, Dr. Steve Brown developed a very helpful acrostic around the word TULIP. He teaches communicators to:

  • Be Therapeutic – address real life concerns and needs;
  • Be Unconventional – don’t be afraid to color outside the lines, but know your audience’s pain points;
  • Be Lucid – be clear and memorable;
  • Illustrate, illustrate, illustrate – enough said?
  • Be Passionate – don’t leave your study until you have a word from God.

One of the reasons churches use drama and videos and that pastors tell stories is to help listeners understand and remember the message. If you asked an average person about the sermon, they might remember a couple of points, but they will far more likely recount the good stories. Stories have an emotional impact.

You may think that’s great for these modern communicators, but did anyone else do that in the Bible? As a matter of fact, yes. Here are just a few examples:

  • Nathan the prophet when he confronted King David (2 Sam. 12)
  • Jeremiah and the potter’s wheel (Jer. 18)
  • Ezekiel often acted out his prophecies (e.g. acting out the siege (Ez. 4), valley of dry bones (Ez. 37)

2.    Art opens the back door of the heart


Michael Card is a master at writing songs that sneak into our hearts. This book is a place where he discusses creativity.

 I wish I could take credit for this, but Michael Card often shares this idea in his concerts: “art opens the back door of a person’s heart where sermons and lectures try to go through the front door.” He understands that songs, poems and paintings have a way of catching us off guard. Art helps us to see and hear things we don’t notice in our every day life.

By nature, artists are observant and enjoy passing their observations to others through art.

In worship this happens in many ways. Sometimes a beautiful solo causes us to consider the beauty of God. Architecture can cause us to revel in the majesty and greatness of God. Dance calls us to express joy and sorrow with all of who we are (I love how the Psalmist says “He turned my mourning into dancing.” Psalm 30:11) A picture or stained glass window can open a “window” for understanding truth in ways we’ve haven’t considered before.

Ken Gire poignantly reveals how art, nature and story find their way into our soul in his book Windows of the Soul.

3.    Art is by nature emotional and helps us access emotions that we don’t use daily

The really great musicals and movies help us laugh, cry, get angry and find hope—all within two hours. The authors, composers and producers understand that humans crave the opportunity to access their emotions, even though they might not say so.

Allender and Longman do an outstanding job exploring how emotions are shown in the Psalms and in real life

Allender and Longman do an outstanding job exploring how emotions are shown in the Psalms and in real life

God made us to be emotional beings. While emotions are fickle and can’t always be trusted, they are an important element in relationships and living. Through our emotions we can muster up courage in the face of fear, we can persevere in spite of exhaustion, and we can discover hope against all odds.

While we certainly don’t want to manipulate emotions (that’s where cults go awry), we do understand how art helps people feel more deeply. When married with strong biblical teaching this is a good thing. I love how Kevin Twit describes it: “Hymns are theology on fire.”

4. Art helps us say things to God and about God that we might otherwise avoid

I’m not very good at praising others. My nature is to focus on ways to improve and I take success for granted.

Scripture and biblical worship songs give me words and categories for thinking about God. They literally teach me how to praise God—even when I don’t feel like it.

Martin Luther is credited for leading a charge to put hymns into the vernacular language of his people. He knew that people would sing and memorize songs more easily than sermons. So he put his sermons into song and turned scripture into lyrics – think about “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” a retelling of Psalm 46 or “From the Depths of Woe” which conveys Psalm 130.

Here is Indelible Grace’s version of Psalm 130:


Let’s Create Art for the Glory of God

Scripture demonstrates many ways that art helps us worship, but we do want to avoid romanticizing art. In the 19th century many were led to see art as paramount. Even in the Renaissance that became true, a reason why some reformers went so far as to throw art out of the church.

As Christians we can’t abandon art. God spends entire chapters in Exodus and in Chronicles detailing how art should be created for worship. But all art is bound by culture and community. As believers lets create and use art for the glory of God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Resources to consider:

Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts – Philip Ryken

The Art of Worship – by Paxson Jeancake

For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts – ed. W. David O. Taylor

It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God – ed. Ned Bustard

It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God – ed. Ned Bustard


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Renewing the Soul: Finding Refreshment in the Daily Grind

Do you find the life of faith monotonous or uneventful? Do you find yourself asking with the psalmist, “How long, O Lord?”

Psalm 90 is ascribed to Moses, the Man of God. He understood monotony and seeking to find God in the daily grind. After growing up in the lap of luxury, benefiting from the best education available in Egypt, Moses spent 40 years as a shepherd. And then he had a few weeks or months of excitement as he led Israel in the Great Exodus followed by another 40 years of wandering. Now he was a shepherd of a faithless people.

Moses understood something about remaining faithful in the monotony of literally wandering in circles.

Moses wandered for 40 years before meeting God at the burning bush

Moses wandered for 40 years before meeting God at the burning bush

Of course Moses met with God face to face on a regular basis. We don’t know much about his 40 years shepherding sheep, but we do know that he saw God in a burning bush–that’s far from ordinary. He must have enjoyed sweet communion with his God while he wandered those pasturelands.

We know that Moses met God face to face on Mt. Sinai and enjoyed regular direct communication. The people of Israel relied on Moses to hear from God.

As Christians we now have the same direct access to God. I fear sometimes we act like Old Testament believers who relied on a priest or other leader to seek God for them. Jesus left us with the Holy Spirit so that we may now approach the Father’s throne of grace anytime, 24/7.

Meeting with God face-to-face is anything but monotonous and boring.

But what do we do when we’re worn out?

Tenth Avenue North expresses well the agony of the grind and the hope we find in redemption in their song Worn.

Psalm 90 provides 5 helpful tips.

5 Ways to Find Joy in the Daily Grind

1. Learn to number your days (v4, 12)

Moses starts the psalm acknowledging the eternal nature of God. For God “a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past or as a watch in the night.”

In light of that, Moses prays for a heart of wisdom to number his days. After all, what we count as toilsome and a burden are like a blink of an eye to God.

If we live each day and moment as if there may not be a tomorrow, we will find much more contentment and joy. Our sensitivity and expectations will increase.

I wrote recently on the benefits of looking for 15 minute life-changing increments. Life can become boring when we assume we have endless years and decades before us. But what joy if we look for God’s fingerprints in our everyday lives!

May God give us a greater vision of Jesus. I love this rendition of Fairest Lord Jesus from Passion:

2. Pray for mercy (v 13)

When we lose sight of God’s gracious involvement in our lives and history, we often complain and become bitter. Moses understood something about waiting for decades. He spent 40 years wondering if the Egyptians would find him and bring him to justice for killing a man. 40 years of wondering if his life would ever amount to anything. 40 years of doing the same thing day after day. 40 years is a long time to wait, but I know missionaries who recognize that the fruit of their labor may not be felt for 40 years.

The lament of “how long” is legitimate, but what we do with our lament defines our faith. If we allow bitterness to grow, our faith will rot and become essentially ineffective. If instead our lament turns to prayers for mercy, a desire for intimate fellowship with our maker, we will find gladness even while we wait.

I love the Desert Song from Hillsongs’ singer Brooke Fraser. She describes well the life of prayer in desert times and times of plenty.

3. Find satisfaction in God’s love (v 14)

Steve Jobs was a master at creating a sense of dissatisfaction so you would want his solution

Where do you find satisfaction? Living in the Internet Age has created a constant dissatisfaction–we’re constantly looking for the next thing. As a marketer I know that companies are trying to create a sense of dissatisfaction in your life so that you’ll be ready to take action and hopefully make a purchase (from them). There’s something wrong with this equation.

The Gospel message reveals the unrivaled good news that God loves us so much he sent Jesus to make a once-for-all sacrifice so we might be restored to our right status as God’s children and heirs. We have full access rights to God’s immediate presence at every moment. If you want to be in on the action, there is no better place than watching God at work.

When we have wandering eyes, eyes that stray from God’s love, we will find ourselves falling away from our first love. That’s Satan’s design. He doesn’t want us to remain content or to find satisfaction in God’s love. He constantly works to make us dissatisfied.

How do we combat this? Think deeply about and constantly delight in God’s love, as we share that love with others and watch God’s love transform those around us.

John Piper has famously said,

“God is most glorified in us when
we are most satisfied in Him.”

When we are satisfied in God, we will indeed bring him glory. The song The Stand calls us to “stand in awe of the One who gave it all.”

4. Be glad for affliction (v 15)

The apostle James said, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” James echoed what Moses knew: affliction deepens and purifies our faith.

I also think affliction makes us appreciate more the suffering and sacrifice Jesus endured on our behalf. I often rehearse the Gospel message and am reminded of the greatness of God’s love in contrast to my weak faith. My circumstances, that once seemed insurmountable, become endurable as I reflect on what Jesus endured for me. I can cling to hope as I know God will ultimately prevail just as he prevailed at Calvary.

I love Tim Hughes song Here I Am to Worship, especially the line “I’ll never know how much it cost to see my sin upon that cross.” His sacrifice frees us to worship.

5. Continue working as you pray for God to establish the work (v 17)

The apostle Paul exhorted believers to never grow weary in doing good so that we might one day see the harvest (Gal. 6:9). The psalmist acknowledges that unless the Lord builds the house our labor is in vain (Ps. 127).

Moses ends his prayer by asking God’s favor to rest on his people and to establish our work. We never give up, even when circumstances seem to show that God has abandoned us. Instead we keep working faithfully praying for God to use our efforts–whether we see the fruit or not. That requires faith.

Moses waited 40 years, but God’s faithful remnant waited 400 years between the words of the prophet Malachi and the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth. They faithfully studied and proclaimed God’s word for ten generations.

We have a hard time waiting 40 minutes in a doctor’s office, but may God teach us to patiently wait for His movement while we faithfully do his will.

How do you face the daily grind?

Psalm 90 offers a number of remedies for the daily grind. I hope some of these insights help you the next time you’re wondering, “How long?”

Tell me about how you find joy in the daily grind below. I’d love to hear from you.

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Divine Appointments: How 15 Minutes Could Change Your Life

Is your spiritual walk in a rut?

Are you looking for change in your life?

Do you feel stuck in a job or relationship that’s sucking the joy out of your existence?

You have 64 15-minute increments today. How will you use them?

You have 64 15-minute increments today. How will you use them?

Fifteen minutes could change all that.

And no, I’m not talking about that Geico commercial.

In a normal year we each get around 24,000 fifteen-minute increments in our waking hours. That’s a lot of time chunks.

My question: But how do we maximize all the fifteen-minute increments in our lives?

Fifteen minutes in the spotlight

It’s often quoted that everyone will get fifteen minutes in the spotlight. You never know when that’s going to happen, but sometimes it can radically accelerate your career (like for an actor or musician). Other times it can lead to public humiliation and demise (like for the leader caught cheating or embezzling).

I could provide some tips on how to be ready for your fifteen minutes of fame, but that’s not my point.

Fifteen minutes alone

If you’ve been around the church very long, you’ve heard pastors, teachers and leaders talk about the importance of a quiet time. Fifteen minutes alone with God in prayer and study can transform your perspective on life’s circumstances. In times like these, God will meet with us to instill confidence, peace, purpose and power.

Just as we need food and water for daily sustenance, our souls were made to receive spiritual food daily. There is no substitute for communing daily with God through devotions. Fifteen minutes is a good place to start.

But that’s still not what I mean by fifteen minutes, even though that’s very important.

Fifteen minutes at the gym

When I go to the gym, the personal trainers tell me that spending fifteen minutes intensely exercising daily can lead to major health improvements. Even taking a 15-minute walk during the day can be very helpful. But guess what? That’s not what I mean either!

Task management

The FlyLady helps make overwhelming tasks fun and seem more doable--in 15-minute increments

The FlyLady helps make overwhelming tasks fun and seem more doable–in 15-minute increments

I’ve also learned that breaking large tasks down into fifteen-minute chunks makes them seem less insurmountable and more achievable. Most of us can focus for fifteen minutes on one thing. The Fly Lady teaches people how do this with house cleaning, making a mundane task almost fun.


Communication researchers have learned the adult attention span is ten to fifteen minutes; after that we need some kind of change in visual or auditory stimulus.

Preachers, teachers and public speakers need to keep this in mind. I know some seminaries now teach pastors to prepare 15-minute messages. Personally, I feel that’s a bit light. Instead, good communicators need to introduce variety in their preaching to offset the tendency toward mental dozing.


Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott have a lot of great resources on time-based conversations, including this book on dinner time

Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott have a lot of great resources on time-based conversations, including this book on dinner time

Research shows that most parents spend far less than fifteen minutes in daily focused conversation with their children once they reach school age. Many men can go weeks without having meaningful conversations with their spouses or peers.

But none of these are the fifteen minutes I’m talking about. However, I encourage you to allow each one of these fifteen minutes perspectives to change the way you look at devotions, exercise, task management, communication or relationships.

Steven Curtis Chapman addressed this question in his song “Next Five Minutes”:

So, here’s how 15 minutes can change you life…


My seminary professor, Dr. Steve Brown

When I was first out of seminary, I was talking to my professor, Dr. Steve Brown, about finding a church to serve. He encouraged me by saying, “Phil, remain patient and do your work with excellence. You never know when 15 minutes will change your life.” I asked him what he meant and he explained that it only takes one conversation to change everything. It could be a job interview, a date, a lunch with a friend, a phone call or an encounter at the grocery store or cemetery.

I’ve been thinking about that for the last decade and I’ve seen how true that can be. We just need eyes to see and ears to hear when that 15 minutes is happening.

Pilots train for their 15 minutes of terror

Pilots train for their 15 minutes of terror

I think it’s much like the life of a pilot. Pilots describe their job as hundreds of hours of routine boredom and fifteen minutes of pure adrenaline producing terror. They train and prepare for those terror-filled moments, but diligently go about their daily task.

While most pilots prefer to avoid those terror-filled events entirely, the Christian is looking for those divine appointments–those times when God opens the door we seek; those times when God allows us to speak into someone else’s life and circumstances.

I remember soon after talking to Steve Brown, I was going through some emails in an account I rarely checked. I read an email that led to a fifteen-minute phone call that led to a career change.

I also remember going on a prayer retreat concerning an impending job change. We needed to find a new job in less than three months. While I was praying, I received a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. I ignored the call since I was praying (being so spiritual that I missed God’s voice coming over a cell phone). But I took a break fifteen minutes later (go with me here, it might have been longer) and listened to the message. That voicemail led to a fifteen-minute conversation that led to another career change.

I’m reminded of Acts 12 when Peter was released from prison in answer to the church’s prayers. The church didn’t really believe God would answer their prayer, so they didn’t have eyes to see God’s deliverance.

Recently, my mother-in-law was visiting her husband’s gravesite. While there she encountered a distraught young man who couldn’t find his father’s tombstone. As she helped him find it, she learned from his story that his father had died in his arms when he was only 11 years old and now it had been over year since he last visited the gravesite. Through that conversation she was able to bring hope, friendship and purpose to this young man. She blessed him by helping him clean his dad’s tombstone and sharing the flowers she had brought. That young man left having not only found his father, but with a new friend and a smile on his face.

Be on the lookout. You never know when the next fifteen minutes will change your life or someone else’s life through you. In the meantime, make the most of every fifteen minutes you have.

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Preparing for Worship: When Does Worship Really Start?

What time does your worship service start? That’s a typical question for church visitors. But for longtime members, this question might seem irrelevant.

See what time worship starts for this church. QUESTION: Do they really wait 48 hours until their first coffee break?

See what time worship starts for this church. QUESTION: Do they really wait 48 hours until their first coffee break?

At one level the answer is as simple as looking at a church’s bulletin or website. We could quibble over whether the service starts at the prelude, with the words of welcome or with a formal “call to worship.” But we can normally define a specific time when our worship service starts. For that matter, we typically also know when the worship service ends.

But that’s not my question.

My question is: When Does Worship REALLY Start?

Saving the discussion of lifestyle worship for another day, I’d like to discuss:

7 Times and Places Where We Prepare for Worship.
These thoughts could change the way you prepare for corporate worship.

#1: On Saturday night at home

In Jewish culture, the Sabbath is celebrated from sundown to sundown. Based on Christ’s resurrection, the Christian worship clock now has a sunrise orientation. But the Hebrew worship mindset can our worship preparation.

For example, I’ve learned that what I do and think about on Saturday night invades my mind and heart Sunday morning. Here are a few things I do on Saturday to prepare for Sunday:

  • I proactively avoid temptation and situations that invite heart idolatry.
  • I also prepare physically for worship. This means going to bed at a decent time, having my clothes ready and even preparing my gifts in advance. Note how the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians to have their gifts ready for his arrival (2 Cor. 8-9). For Old Testament sacrifices, families had to prepare their offerings in advance before making the trip to Jerusalem. You couldn’t decide to make a sacrifice at the last minute. The same is true for our worship.
  • Jesus told the disciples to deal with broken relationships before coming to worship (Mt. 5:24). As I prepare for worship, I desire to be in right fellowship with my brothers and sisters. Advice: take time to inspect your relationships and seek restoration wherever possible.
  • Cultivate an expectant mindset. Answering this question can alter your expectations and the priority you place on corporate worship: What would happen if Jesus walked into our church tomorrow?
  • Reading scripture and examining my heart also helps put me in a mindset of expectancy. One of the best ways I’ve found for doing that is through journaling.

IDEA: What if a church regularly studied the passage on which the pastor would preach, learned the songs that would be sung and prayed expectantly that God would show His power and grace?

#2: Through the watches of the night

Psalm 130:6 says: “My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning.

If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter or worked the night shift, you know what its like to wait for sunrise on a long night. Those living in places like Alaska understand this better than most when you endure the “endless nights.”

The watchman waits expectantly on the wall for morning to arrive.

The watchman waits expectantly on the wall for morning

The psalmist reminds us to expectantly await God’s merciful movement just like the watchman who waits for first light. Yes, the night holds much darkness, but morning is coming and with the morning comes our hope: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” (Lam. 3:22-23)

As I grow older, I find myself awaking in the middle of the night more frequently. Often God is giving me a chance to pray and think about things I don’t have time for during the day. On Saturday nights, he is giving me a chance to pray more specifically for worship.

My temptation is to watch Sports Center on ESPN instead. What is yours?

#3: When we rise on Sunday morning

Psalm 5:3 says “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.

If you were meeting with a famous person tomorrow, I imagine you would set your alarm clock extra early, lay out your clothes in advance, prepare a healthy breakfast and think about what you would say and do.

Why do we treat worship like its just another appointment on the calendar?

Granted. We are God’s children and so we can rightfully approach Him with a childlike playfulness and informality. But God is also our King, Lord and Commander in Chief. Even children are taught to approach leaders with respect and dignity. In our worship, I fear we often err toward being too formal or too informal.

Theologians call this transcendence versus immanence. God is “above us” vs. “God is with us.”

If you know your Bible, you recognize that both are true and these create a proper tension in our minds and hearts.


Church architecture reminds us of important biblical truths. In this case we see God as majestic, unchanging and a refuge.

I’m privileged to lead worship in a beautiful church with majestic stained glass windows and high ceilings that remind me of God’s transcendent power and glory. But our church is blessed with authentic people who love each other and care for our neighborhoold and world. Through those relationships, worship and life we understand that God is also “right here” with us.

I wrote this song based on Psalm 5:3 a few years ago: In the Morning

#4: On the car ride to church

What music do you play as you ride or walk to church?

What do you listen to while driving to church? Is it on purpose?

What do you listen to while driving to church? Is it on purpose?

I don’t just mean what radio station or musical playlist you play. What’s going through your head? What are you talking about with the family?

Pastors often joke about the fights we have during that proverbial car ride to church. But it’s not a laughing matter. Those fights really happen and they may be in your car. Sometimes that car ride can change a cheery morning into a drudgery—or worse.

Pray ahead of time about how to respond in that moment. Think about the source of those conflicts and how you can minimize those issues.

Perhaps you can proactively guide the conversation and help your family share in your enthusiasm for worship. Our family will often pray and sing worship songs on the drive.

Psalm 122:1 says,

            “I rejoiced with those who said to me,
            ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

Psalm 84 also calls us to reflect on the beauty and goodness of God’s house.

May our families rejoice at the thought of going to God’s house.

#5: In the church parking lot

I like to remind churches that worship begins for visitors in the parking lot. The way they experience your church will effect how they view God and His people. To this end, many churches have greeters stationed in the parking lot to not only help with traffic flow, but to also be a warm friendly face.

Worship is a communal activity. The way we help each other and especially those visiting our church will impact how we see God’s movement in our midst.

Steve Hawthorne provides helpful guidance on prayer walking in this book.

Steve Hawthorne provides helpful guidance on prayer walking in this book.

I’m a big advocate of prayer walks through our neighborhoods and cities. When we walk and pray God often shows us his heart for people and our community. Taking time to regularly prayer walk around the church and in the church will help build excitement for and awareness of God’s work in our corporate worship.

In fact, I wrote the song In This Place after many months of praying through the pews at Lake Oconee Presbyterian Church.

#6: In our fellowship

Before, during and after the worship service we have time to connect with our friends, family and those visiting our church. Its in these times we can often see God’s tangible ministry happening.

Counselors often talk about “being present” when they notice our tendency to let our minds wander to other places. Christians need to practice this ministry of presence in every conversation. You never know when God will use you to encourage someone, provide godly counsel, offer a prayer or just be a friend.

A mindset of expectancy attunes us to these opportunities that we might otherwise miss.

#7: During the prelude

Many churches have done away with the “prelude” because it feels like a showcase of talent. It can certainly become that, but that’s between the musician and God.

The true purpose of a prelude is to provide a place for people to prepare their minds and hearts for worship. Some like to do this in quiet prayer. Others enjoy connecting in conversation. Still others appreciate having thought-provoking quotes to stimulate their minds and hearts toward the day’s service. Some of us like all three. The point is to purposefully prepare for worship, even if its only during these last few minutes before the service formally starts.

So when does worship REALLY start?

As I hope you can see, it depends. I’ve attempted to provide some thoughts to help us rethink how we prepare for the start of worship. No one can consider all these things every week—it would become burdensome and make worship seem like a chore, not a grace.

I pray the Holy Spirit will take one or two of these ideas to change the way you prepare for worship this Sunday.

How do you prepare for worship? 

Please share your thoughts below…

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Praying the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father, Who Art in Heaven

What’s your prayer life like?

Do you primarily pray in arrows?


You know what I mean. It’s like Nehemiah before approaching the king for permission to return to Jerusalem to inspect the city (Neh. 1). He thought he would lose his job—or worse, his life—so he prays a quick prayer and submits to his destiny.

Or, is your prayer life mostly like approaching Santa at Christmas? “Dear Santa (I mean God), I know I haven’t been perfect, but I know you give good gifts and are merciful. So here’s what I could really use…”

Learning to pray from Jesus

When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray, I suspect they were looking for something different. If they were like me, they wanted a lesson on prayer methods and mechanics. Perhaps a lesson like, “Five things to say when praying for the sick.”

Instead, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for long and empty prayers. He said they would receive their reward before the prayer is finished – recognition for being so “spiritual.”

In contrast, Jesus modeled a prayer that is beautiful in its simplicity and intimacy. The prayer assumes relationship and quickly rises above the petty stuff we tend to pray about (you know the organ recital and fundraising prayer meeting—Aunt Sally’s kidneys and Jonny’s car wash).

Over the next several months I’m going to explore a few phrases from the Lord’s Prayer to help us pray more like Jesus—I should say I hope this helps me pray more like Him.

Our Father

These two words immediately confront our Western individualistic approach to spirituality.

First, it communicates that prayer is communal. We pray to a Triune God who lives in eternal community. We also pray as part of a community of faith—a community that spans many generations, many nations and many cultures. Prayer unites our hearts and minds. When you pray like Jesus, you find we all have similar needs and requests: daily bread, forgiveness, protection from temptation and so forth.

The second thing Jesus demonstrates is that prayer is intimate dialogue with our father, not a distant king, ruler or deity. Prayer, in other words, happens in family.

Fernando Ortega offers an amazing reminder of the Father’s love for us, a love that fuels our lives and prayers:

It’s a sad family where the children fear the father so much they won’t approach him freely. I know it pains my children to hear me say I’m too busy to play, cuddle or talk to them when they come to my office. God never does that. While he’s busier than a billion fathers, God always makes time for his children.

3 Implications of Praying As Part of God’s Family.

#1 – We can pray openly, honestly and without flowery speeches.

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their public prayer life since they only prayed when they could be seen. Public prayer not fueled by  private prayer  results in empty praise and little promise.

Family members have a freedom to communicate more openly and in shorthand. We don’t need to prepare longwinded speeches to get our points across.

#2 – We can say what’s on our minds

Our family status allows us to say what’s on our minds, even when it doesn’t come across right.

God can handle whatever we say or do. I remember Becky Pippert talking about a new Christian who wondered if God would mind if she smoked while studying the Bible. As much as it upsets some of our sensibilities, the answer is, “Of course not!”

A child has many privileges with her father. She can approach him most anytime and in any place without fear of rejection. Her father might be busy, but he’s not going to deny knowing her. God gives us immediate access so we can approach him without an appointment.

If we have constant access to God, we don’t have to say everything now. We can also come back later to correct, amend or append our prayers. How freeing!

#3 – There doesn’t have to be so much structure

While strong families will sometimes have family meetings and organized family devotions, they generally don’t need an agenda for meals, game night or vacations.

Young children especially understand that hanging out with dad is just something to enjoy. I remember my children sitting next to me while I read and they played. They wanted to be with me and would occasionally interrupt me to show me a picture or ask a question.

Only when I’m not spending enough time with my kids do they start demanding my attention when I am around. Then they will talk non-stop, ask a thousand questions in a minute and make a dozen requests. Many prayer meetings become like this. Someone organizes a list of prayer requests and then we start detailing our petitions to our Divine Patron.

I tend to think God prefers we approach him like the small child who crawls on his lap and promptly falls asleep.

Our Father’s Invitation to Pray

Are you tired and weary? “Come to me and rest,” says the Father. “We’ll have time for what’s on your mind later. Let’s just enjoy being together.”

Does that sound inviting? It does to me. I get so busy that most of my prayers come from a demanding and distracted spirit. Prayer is meant to come from an unhurried relationship with our all-knowing Father.

The song Father I Adore You reflects the simplicity of a child’s relationship with his father. The words are easy to remember.

Father I adore You
Lay my life before You
How I love You

While our Father is the creator and ruler, we approach him as children not as subjects. Our communication should be easy and natural. Certainly there’s a place for more formal language when we come to him as king, but Jesus breaks down the walls and says it’s okay to approach God as intimate children.

How does the image of sitting next to God in the family room change your vision of prayer?

Forgetting that this picture is only a metaphor, I would love to hear how this helps you pray more naturally and personally. Share your thoughts below…

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Called to Worship: God is a Missionary God

Do you wonder why some pastors say that God is a missionary God?

Are you confused when some people call America a Christian nation? Doesn’t Scripture talk about people from every nation being part of God’s family?

How do we reconcile this? What does it have to do with worship?

Let’s consider some scriptures together and see…

From Jerusalem to the Ends of the Earth

Simply said the book of Acts provided a corrective to common Jewish thinking that God was only the God of the Jews. Jesus uttered the Great Commission in Acts 1:8, showing an outline for the church to take the Gospel from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Later, in Acts 10, God makes it clear that the Gospel is for the Gentiles and not just for the Jews.

But God’s heart didn’t just turn to the Gentiles at the Ascension. His heart has always been for all the nations of the earth. In other words, God has always been a missionary God.


The Urbana missions conferences today draw many thousands of students from all over the world to learn about God’s heart for the world and find ways to respond

Let’s look at a few familiar passages to see God’s heart for all the world.

The Call of Abraham

In Genesis 12:1-3 we find God calling Abraham to follow him. God promises to make him into a great nation and to bless him. Then he says something surprising, “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The word “peoples” translates as nations, but it’s not to be confused with political nations. Instead it refers to ethnic groups, like tribes in Africa or North America. God is promising to bless all nations through Abraham.

The apostle Paul helps us see the significance of this verse in Galatians 3:8: “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”

When God called Abraham as the father of Israel and many nations, he wanted Israel to be a blessing to all the nations.

The Conquest of David

One of the first stories we hear in Sunday School concerns David and Goliath. In fact this story is told in many circles when people want to give hope to the little guy. But we often miss David’s heart when we tell this story. We know David went up against this champion with just a sling and five stones. Hear what David said before defeating Goliath with that single shot:

“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.” (1 Samuel 17:45-46)

Before this day David had hundreds of sleepless nights to contemplate God and his glory. He understood that the whole world needed to know his God. Now that he has a platform, he proclaims God’s glory for the world to hear and see.

A Man After God’s Own Heart

Scripture calls David a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). If God acknowledges that David knows something of his heart, then we should be able to glimpse God’s heart through David’s writings. And we find that the psalms are filled with references to God’s heart for all nations, all peoples.

I remember stumbling upon this reality while serving in Kenya on a 7-month study service program. I was a budding songwriter at the time, having only written a few songs at the time. I decided that I would set a psalm to song while I was there and teach it to my Kenyan brothers and sisters. The psalm I chose was Psalm 67. I selected it because its relatively short and it had a natural refrain. It was only upon later reflection that I saw how profound my choice had been (thank you Holy Spirit!). Here is the refrain:

“May the peoples praise you, O God. May all the peoples praise your name.”

While David was a master military leader who conquered tens of thousands of his enemies, he also prayed that God would be known and worshipped by people from every nation.

While I don’t have a recording of my original song, here’s one from the Scottish songwriter Ian White:

Another one of my favorite sources of psalm settings comes from the Sons of Korah out of Australia. Here is their setting of Psalm 67:

The Lion and the Nations

The prophet Daniel never faltered in his worship of God—even when threatened with a date with the lions. As a result of his faithfulness, we get a glimpse of God’s heart from the tongue of a Gentile king. King Darius wrote a message to all the “peoples, nations and men of every language throughout the land” (which was most of the known world at the time):

“I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.” (Dan. 6:26)

Jesus: Savior for All Nations

The Jews were looking for a political savior, but Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom. His ministry was primarily to the Jews (though he healed a Phoenician and ministered to a Samaritan woman, among others), but he commissioned his disciples to go into “all the world.” God’s salvation is for people of all nations.

Most of us reading this article would be considered Gentiles. Therefore, if it weren’t for God’s missionary heart we would never have heard the good news of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ. That’s something to be thankful for.

The End of the Story

Let’s fast forward to the end of the story. We know God started by expressing his desire to bless all the nations through Abraham. Revelation shows that He will ultimately accomplish this purpose.

In Revelation chapters 5 and 7, John paints a picture where men from every tribe, tongue and nation are bowing before the Lamb. They are all singing of God’s salvation.

The stories are streaming in from all over the globe today of God’s heart for all nations. In fact most of the church’s growth is happening in Asia, Africa and Latin America today.


Read stories from all over the world about God’s redemptive plan being worked out

If you want to read some stories of how the Gospel is moving to the ends of the earth today, I encourage you to read From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya by Ruth Tucker.

I love Paul Baloche’s simple chorus, “All the Earth Will Sing Your Praise.” It sums up the Gospel and the truth that we will one day sing the truth of God’s salvation with brothers and sisters from every nation on the earth. This arrangement by Travis Cottrell is wonderful:

How Does This Change My Worship?

Understanding that God is a missionary God has many implications for our lifestyle, but how does it impact our personal and corporate worship? Here are 3 closing thoughts:

1)   If God is the author of all cultures and loves all nations, we should spend time enjoying and appreciating the worship and arts coming from all over the world.

A great resource for appreciating this comes from the International Council of EthnoDoxologists (people who study culturally appropriate Christian worship).

2)   If we are going to one day worship with people from every nation, tribe and tongue, why not start tasting that now. If you live in America, you’ve probably heard it said that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. That’s not as true in major metropolitan areas, but many of us would benefit from regularly worshipping with people from other nations. It gives us a bigger picture of God. Find a church close by that has a different culture and join them for worship.

3)   Probably the most challenging aspect of multi-cultural worship is that it confronts our own cultural idols. Some cultures desire privacy, order and reverence while others prefer spontaneity, exuberance and community. God’s heart for the world causes us to confess our self-centered worship and embrace God’s delight in all worship that confesses Jesus as Lord.

Please share your story. How has God’s heart for all nations impacted your life story? 

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