As a pastor of a two and a half year church plant, my responsibilities include the happy task of crafting a “hymnal” for our church—that is, establishing a list of around fifty or sixty songs that become our congregation’s corporate prayer and musical worship language. Rather than inheriting an already existing repertoire of songs, and then tweaking it from there, we have the opportunity to simply start from scratch. In this process, we would be foolish to not use the Psalter as our template, not only by singing the Psalms, but also by making sure every genre and worship-emotion represented in the Psalter is also represented in our “hymnal.”
During the past couple of months, I have been working with one of our music leaders to catalogue all of our existing songs into categories (e.g., praise and adoration, confession, petition, celebration, assurance, etc.), so that as we continue to build our list of corporate songs, we might focus our attention on categories that seem to be lacking. And one such lacking category was “songs of lament.” I know for a fact that our church is not alone in this current state of affairs, and I have no doubt that the present drought of lamentation in congregational singing is symptomatic of our culture’s general fear of grief. We think it undignified. The joy of the Lord, we are told (explicitly or implicitly through what is missing in our preaching and congregational songs), is incompatible with sorrow, cries of anguish, and complaints to God. But this is untrue, and we should not believe the lie that says songs of lamentation and heart-broken confession and cries of sorrow are irreverent in corporate worship. God doesn’t seem to think they are. The same God who inspired the Psalter (his hymnal!) to include lyrics like, “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!” (Psalm 100:1-2) also inspired words like, “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away.” (Psalm 31:9-10)
As I reflected on this strange state of affairs in modern American Christianity—and the way it starkly contrasts the Scriptures, and most of Church history—I couldn’t help but think of the variegated forms of suffering represented in the small church I pastor. I have wept with and for members who have experienced:
- The injustice of sexual abuse
- Chronic physical illness
- Ongoing, seemingly never-ceasing struggles with infertility
- The sudden death of close family and friends
- Joyless, contentious marriages
- Serious health problems with children
- Besetting sins that will not go away
And the list could go on. As their pastor, one of my responsibilities for these members is to teach them how to worship in seasons of extreme grief and suffering. Notice, I did not say “how to worship in spite of seasons of extreme grief and suffering.” The difference is important. It’s the difference between true worship and sentimentality. When my sister in Christ and her husband come to the corporate gathering after a weekend of literally hemorrhaging in the physical and emotional pain of miscarrying her baby, the last thing either of them need is a glib, chipper “nothing-can-get-me-down” song, which all but trivializes her suffering and chalks it up to “looking at the glass as half full.” She doesn’t merely have a “perspective problem.” She is down. She is starving. She needs to be reminded of a grand, sovereign, sturdy God who can handle her bitter cries of anguish—the kind that rumble from deep inside her guts, producing unintelligible groaning that only God the Holy Spirit can translate into worship.
But should this happen in the corporate gathering?
Yes, and here are three reasons.
The Psalms Include Holy Spirit-Inspired Corporate Songs of Lament
I’ve already touched on this briefly above, so I won’t belabor the point. But let me simply remind you that every one of the Psalms you find in your Bible was inspired to be singable on the corporate level. Of course, these Psalms can and should be prayed individually, but none of them are off-limits for praying corporately through song. If God has seen fit to make sure lamentations represent a significant portion of the Psalter, we should find the utter absence of lamentation in our modern song rotations disturbing.
This Is How We Weep With Those Who Weep
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul beautifully describes the organic and symbiotic relationship between members of the Body of Christ. He essentially debunks the notion that any member of the body is expendable. You can’t declare independence from any other member of the body; when one member is neglected, abandoned, or hurt, the whole body is neglected, abandoned, or hurt. “If one member suffers,” Paul says, “all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12:26) The fact is, we have members in our congregations who are suffering. According to Paul’s logic, then, we are all suffering. This is what it means to “bear on another’s burdens.” When God supernaturally “knits us together in love,” he ties our nerve endings together; we feel the pain of our brothers and sisters. When we hear of a member’s child who’s been sexually abused, we feel the wind get knocked out of us. When another month goes by, and still, a couple in our congregation hasn’t conceived, we feel our hearts sink into our stomachs with disappointment.
Therefore, if such suffering occasions the lamentation of our brothers and sisters, it’s entirely appropriate for us to lament corporately. I may not have suffered the loss of a child, but according to Paul, when one member has suffered the loss of a child, we—as a congregation—have experienced a great loss. We are brought into their struggle, so their suffering becomes our suffering, and their lamentation becomes our lamentation.
We Need to Learn How to Grieve Well
For better or for worse, our congregational songs teach theology. Our regular corporate songs cause theology to seep into us in a way that cannot be quantified. Since lamentation should be informed and governed by right theology, one of the ways our members will learn how to grieve well is by having it modeled and scripted for them in theologically sound songs of lament. Obedience to the command to “rejoice in the Lord always” looks different from season to season. Picture the young mom of a newborn baby, holding her child and singing It Is Well With My Soul. That’s her rejoicing “when peace, like a river, attendeth her way.” But what about when a young mom, through sobs and tears, sings It Is Well With My Soul after she miscarries? That’s her rejoicing “when sorrows, like sea billows, roll.” And much of the Christian life is simply preparation for suffering. Even if some members don’t personally need a language of worshipful lamentation at this very moment, they will eventually. I want for my members to be prepared to know what to pray and how to process their grief when they are blindsided with unimaginable grief.
Make no mistake, there is a uniquely Christian way to suffer. A Christian’s suffering is no less painful by virtue of his Christianity, but there is a difference between a Christian’s lamentation and a non-Christian’s lamentation. We do not grieve as those without hope. When we cry “how long, O Lord?” we have been assured by God himself that the answer—whatever else it may be—is not “forever.” A Christian’s grief never leads to absolute despair because a Christian’s suffering is never meaningless—there is no such thing as an affliction that doesn’t prepare for us an “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
If a Christian lamentation is nothing else, it is a longing gaze heavenward—it is a grief and discontentment for the present death and destruction the Adam’s sin occasioned, and it is the expectation for what God promised: that our eyes will be wiped of our tears and our broken hearts will be bound up. Christian lamentation is the shameless acknowledgement that things are not as they should be, and things are not as they will be. Through the eyes of faith—which are red and wet tired with grief—we look forward to a reality that our eyes of flesh insist is a wish dream: “We will feast in the house of Zion! We will sing with our hearts restored. ‘He has done great things,’ we will say together! We will feast, and weep no more,” “when these trials give way to glory, as we draw our final breath, we will cross that great horizon, clouds behind and life secure. And the calm will be the better for the storms that we endure.” It was with all of this in mind that I wrote O Lord, How Long?
O Lord, How Long? (Lyrics)
O Lord, how long will the wicked exult?
O Lord, how long will they prosper and boast?
When the pain of the innocent
Serves the lusts of evil men,
How long, how long?
O Lord, how long must we live in agony?
Our bodies ache, do you see our suffering?
Do you hear us when we cry,
When our day has turned to night?
How long, how long?
O Lord, how long must we go on childless?
O Lord, how long must we drown in grief for death?
If you give and take away,
Can’t our sons and daughters stay?
How long, how long?
O Lord, how long must we wrestle with our sin?
Disordered loves that we don’t want and we resent
When temptation wins again
And our spirits grieve within
How long, how long?
Oh Lord, how long till our faith is turned to sight,
Til you kneel down to wipe the tears off from our eyes?
When our loving Father says,
“Well done. Now, enter rest,”
When the sun is God the Son
And his blood-bought Bride will come,
When the Spirit brings us up
And we’re swallowed by Triune love
How long, how long?
Recently, the members of Emmaus Church, Kansas City met for an evening of prayer during which time we confessed several specific, corporate sins. We did so with the eager anticipation for God to reform our hearts to reflect his gospel more clearly, which is something we should continually long for in our lives. With our move to North KC just days away, it is healthy for us to keep these confessions and petitions on our lips as we look to Jesus to continue to build his church. And even if you aren’t a member of Emmaus, these confessions may serve you well: it pleases God when we acknowledge our neediness for him in prayer, and in confession, that’s just what we do.
“Father God, this evening we come to you with heavy hearts, convicted of many things, and we thank you now for the opportunity to confess and repent of them as one body, to be unified with one heart and mind.
Prayerlessness – Father, this prayer is in and of itself an act of repentance, for we confess our prayerlessness as a church. Often, Father, we have shown an over-reliance on our abilities and our talents and our planning. We confess that, for all the signs of faithfulness and health that this congregation truly does exhibit, we have not always been marked as a people who fervently seek you for help. We ask that you would make us aware of our weakness and dependence on you and your Holy Spirit—make us desperate for you, Holy Spirit, not just to satisfy our own joy, but to empower us to do anything worth mentioning. Lord, you have instructed us in your Word that “unless the Lord builds a house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” (Ps. 127:1) Cause us to be convinced of this, LORD, for we know that if we truly believe only you can build your church, we would be quicker to beg for your help and your direction, and our planning would be born out of deep and desperate prayer.
Pride – And Father, this prayerlessness also communicates a much deeper sin, which is Pride. Our pride manifests itself in a number of forms, and in addition to prayerlessness, we also confess that pride rears its ugly head in our midst when we refuse to confess our sin to one another. We confess, God, that we value others’ perception of us far too highly; we are so committed to the image of virtue and respectability and faithfulness we want to project for others that we fail to do the virtuous, respectable, and faithful act of confession. In this, we needlessly deprive ourselves of one of your gifts of grace, we confess that pride is the cooperate behind such self-destruction. Our pride also manifests itself, Lord, in our tireless comparing of others. This act of comparing ourselves with others betrays our small view of you, God, for it is impossible to fear you while simultaneously fearing man, and the refusal to fear you over man is due to nothing less than an inaccurately small view of you.
Disunity – Father, we also confess the ways in which this fear of man destroys our church body uniquely. For when we compare ourselves with each other in a vicious circle of competition, we reduce our fellow brothers and sisters for shameful gain. Either they become objects of our judgment to occasion our boasting when we tear them down to elevate ourselves, or we make ourselves objects of self-condemnation when we consider our accomplishments sub-par to theirs. In both of these cases, Lord, we fail to love and cherish your body as a body. May we not resent the gifts you have given others and withheld from us, for you have given gifts to bless and build the church, and may we not boast of the gifts you have given us and withheld from others, for you have given gifts to bless and build the church. May we celebrate our brothers and sisters’ accomplishments as our own, and grieve over our brothers’ and sisters’ sorrows as our own. Protect us, Lord, from a disunity by means of creating silos and unrelated spheres. We confess, Lord, that often we have contented ourselves with calling a brother and sister a “brother and sister” without taking the time to extend a gracious hand of invitation and friendship. Forgive us for this sectarianism, which should not even be named in your church.
Bitterness – And Father, we confess that our disunity finds even darker expressions in the form of bitterness and forgiveness. We harbor grudges and insist on inflicting the punishment of emotive and relational shunning of those we profess to be in “community” with. Lord, please forbid such bitterness to continue in our midst. Remind us of the embarrassing amount of grace and forgiveness you have lavished upon us, and continue to lavish upon us even now, so that we can show even a fraction of such grace and forgiveness to one another.
Inhospitality – Lord, we are thus also reminded of our corporate sin of inhospitality. We confess, Lord, that we are quick to justify our inhospitality with empty excuses. Lord, you have shown so much hospitality to us by opening your arms and bringing us into your home, not just as guests, but as children! But Father, we confess that such a posture of invitation and hospitality is not always a mark of this body—either towards other members, or towards visitors and guests. Holy Spirit, please convict and guide us in this area where necessary; may we reflect the kind of hospitality and generosity that is befitting of a congregation that boasts of boasting in nothing but the gospel.
Lack of evangelistic zeal – Lastly, Lord, we are here reminded of our lack of evangelistic zeal. Many of us are content with meditating on the riches of your gospel, and reveling in the riches of your gospel with one another, but we don’t insist on sharing the riches of your gospel to the lost. We confess that the lostness of our neighbors doesn’t cause us to ache with grief. Animate us, Lord, to be an evangelistic people; may the prospect of hell for our neighbors be so intensely horrifying to us that their state of ignorance regarding your gospel becomes intolerable. Cause us to see people no longer according to the flesh, but give us eyes instead to see the tragedy of unbelief. May we be totally discontented to remain silent about your gospel; give us occasion to share the good news of what you have done in Christ with those who do not cling to him in faith, and give us a boldness to do this with passion and earnestness. May we be marked by urgency where there once was negligence. And Father, remind us that the ability to even be this honest with all of our sins and failures is nothing short of extreme grace: we have liberty to confess our sins because we are your children, purchased by the costly blood of Jesus, and we are now free to be brutally honest with our sin because, quite literally, we have nothing to lose. Therefore, we ask, Holy Spirit, that even as you convict us of our sins, you do so as our kind and gentle Comforter, bearing witness with our spirit that we truly are children of God.”
“Jesus saved me.”
“God is with you.”
“You must be born again.”
“God loves you.”
“Jesus died on the cross for your sins.”
These sentences contain massive truths. When we read them, they leave us simultaneously giving an affirmative “yes!” (or maybe just a nod) – while wishing, somehow, for someone to say it in a different way. Not because we think that particular truth is lame or going out-of-style, but actually because of the opposite. We want to see these truths for what they really are. We know each truth is glorious and pregnant with gospel-centered implications for our lives. But its massiveness is getting seemingly downsized; its clarity, clouded… by familiarity.
C.S. Lewis wrote about this idea, saying that the familiarity of many Christian truths often robs them of their “real potency.” This is why Lewis wrote fantasy stories – because he wanted to cast common ideas of Christianity in an unfamiliar light, thus sneaking past, what he called, the “watchful dragons” of the mind.
These same watchful dragons often paralyze us from seeing glorious, gospel-soaked truths about Jesus Christ. But sometimes God, in His sovereign kindness, grants us with blind-raising moments, allowing us to gaze into His character with a fresh light. Sometimes God sneaks past even the most watchful of dragons, bringing to our hearts and minds a fresh platter of the savory truth of Himself.
This happened to me – one evening a few weeks ago.
I had heard about the doctrine of union with Christ for years. I could have pointed you to John 15 to talk about how we are one with Christ. I could have likely even told you that Jesus wraps us up within Himself – so much so that when God sees us, He sees the perfect obedience of Christ. But that night something changed.
I often lift up to God a sleepy prayer, as I open the Scriptures in the morning: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). Friends, he hears our sleepy prayers.
One excerpt I read that night was by Michael Reeves. As he puts it, Christ looks at His Church and says, “All that I am I give to you. All that I have I share with you. And so gives to her the status of royalty and all that is his. And she turns to him and says: All that I am I give to you. All that I have I share with you. And so the poor sinner shares with King Jesus all her sin, all her death, all her damnation.”
ALL that He is! For ALL that we are! How incredible that the God of the universe would unite Himself with a wretch like me – a union through which everything Christ has done is given to me. And the Father looks at me now – right now, and sees all that Christ has done as credited to me. I’m no longer His enemy, but the apple of his eye, because I’m in Christ!
This truth went from commonplace to captivating, from familiar to fascinating. Old truth felt like new truth. That night I wasn’t reaching for coffee, but reaching for words. Words to describe to newfound beauty of my Jesus.
Below are a few words I wrote that night.
My, my, my, what can I say,
My protons got rearranged today,
I’m grasping for words, and gasping for air,
How kind of Him to answer my prayer
That He would open my eyes to behold Christ more,
And more and more and more and more,
He has raised the blinds for me to see,
The amazing truth – in He is me.
These two words now so clearly summarize,
My comfort, my confidence, my position, my prize.
IN CHRIST! Wow! The joy is hard to contain,
That in Him, future realities are true today.
A personal relationship, is what they always said,
I guess the repetition made me dead,
To the matchless, marvelous, mystery,
The simple truth – in He is me
But at last! This simple truth, I’m coming to know,
Holy Spirit – 1, watchful dragons – 0,
It seems that all I can do now is sing!
About this new facet in the diamond of our beautiful king,
How can it be, that Christ with me,
United together since eternity,
Literally giddy as I read,
The glorious truth – in He is me.
My prayer for us, Church, is that God would so kindly grace us with 10,000 blind-raising moments in our lives, pulling back the curtain of familiarity and showing us more and more of His beauty found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And Christian, I pray that you would see, too –
that in He is you.
Matt Neidig is a first-year pastoral resident at Emmaus from Round Rock, TX. He graduated from Baylor University and is pursuing his MDiv at Midwestern Seminary, hoping to pastor a local church in the future.
If a man were to come to me today and tell me he was being called to be a church planter, I would want him to affirm that. First, I’d ask him to share with me the story of his salvation and church planting call. Second, I’d ask who in his life affirms that call, particularly giving consideration to his wife’s thoughts. Third, I’d investigate his life and ministerial experiences along with his theological and pastoral training. Fourth, I’d encourage him to begin a church planter assessment process with a recommended denomination or organization.
The problem is that I did not follow this pattern of recommendation myself. Sure, I can articulate my salvation and a call to plant a church. I can give a list of people, including my wife, who affirm those callings. I even had a pretty solid resume of ministerial, life, and training experience. But I never went through assessment, and I’m two years into our second church plant.
Our first plant was a success. Sure, there are dozens of things I would have changed about how I planted it and what we did. My journals are full of those lists. But it was a great success. We saw hundreds of people saved, we grew well, we planted two other Missouri churches from it (both still growing and thriving), and we planted many international churches in India and West Africa. Four years into that plant we followed a strong and undeniable call to move to Kansas City and plant another church. Along with this calling came a position at Midwestern Seminary to help train and equip church planters. We are now two years into this second church plant and are seeing nearly 200 in worship each week, dozens of lives completely flipped upside-down by the gospel, men trained to be pastors through our residency, and a third year ahead of us that our pastors believe is going to be unbelievable through God’s grace.
Still, I had never been assessed as a church planter. Why would I at this point? What would an assessment team tell me two years in to my second “successful” church plant? If by some chance they said, “Sorry, we don’t think you are called to be a church planter,” would I just quit my church? Of course not. So why go through assessment now?
The answer is simple: to learn. This is why I began the process of a church planting assessment in the fall of 2016. I wanted to learn. I can’t lie, monetary benefits of being a North American Mission Board (NAMB) church plant are extremely beneficial as well, but I also began another assessment process (A29) that doesn’t offer any financial benefit. Why? Because I want to learn.
There is something freeing when you humble yourself and place yourself before a group of people to say, “We see this area that needs worked on.” In December 2016 I completed my NAMB Church Planting Assessment. There were aspects about the whole process, especially the pre-assessment paper work, that were incredibly mundane to me, considering the experience of planting that I already had. However, it was also one of the best experiences I’ve ever walked through. My wife and I left the assessment weekend feeling challenged, encouraged, and loved. We left that weekend with glaring deficiencies being pointed out to us by the Spirit and by others that we need to prayerfully address. We left that weekend with hopes and dreams planted in our hearts and bursting forth in life that we had not yet imagined. We left that weekend being strengthened in our marriage, in our calling (specifically to Kansas City and Emmaus Church), and in our giftings. It was a great experience.
Perhaps you are not someone who is considering church planting. Perhaps you aren’t even someone who is considering pastoral ministry of any kind. You may be called to be a school teacher, a postal worker, a stay at home mom, or work in real-estate. How does this apply to you? Keep learning. Humble yourself, place yourself under those who are wiser, more experienced, and even simply a peer, and give them permission to teach you, to point out areas that need strengthened, and to encourage you in areas you are flourishing. Be a humble, lifelong learner.
If you are someone who is considering pastoral ministry, or specifically church planting, my advice would be the same, humble yourself. Place yourself under the elders of a gospel-loving church to examine you, teach you, and walk with you. Seek their affirmation of our calling. Then, depending upon your desired ministerial setting, consider education and assessment of some sorts for further development.
I am praying for you as we each seek to be lifelong, humble learners.
Joshua Hedger is the Pastor of Preaching & Vision at Emmaus Church. He is married to Tish, and they have an adopted teen daughter and a biological toddler son. Joshua has served in several other ministry roles including Director of Church Planting at Midwestern Seminary, planting another church, a youth pastor and as a missionary in West Africa.
Listen to the sermon from last Sunday on iTunes or on our website.
As I passed by each store, I saw white teeth smiling at me in frozen cheer from every window advertisement and I felt tired. I felt like I didn’t have it me. My heart and the world felt wretched and desperate with sin, and I could feel myself recoil from the happy product of Christmas.
In the Holy Spirit’s compassion and faithfulness, I heard a voice whisper, “Christmas is for you. Christmas is for the weary. The hope of Christmas is for the wretched and the desperate.”
The Bible tells us that Zechariah had doubted the Lord’s promises and was struck temporarily mute as a result. When the Lord restored his voice he broke out into prophesy about his son, John, the one who would prepare the way for the one who was bringing salvation.
“. . . because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Christ the Redeemer was born to save the wretched and the desperate, the thief and the liar.
His birth dawned like a sunrise over a darkened world. He is the sunrise that pierced the darkness of the shadow of death.
This is Christmas. Do not let your doubt or weariness temporarily mute your worship.
Christmas is for you, weary Christian.
It’s for the parts of us that still feel the chill of the shadow of death.
May Christmas be our sacred reminder of God’s tender mercy that sent his Son from on high to give light to all who sit in darkness. Christ has come and his mercies rise with the sun each day to guide our blistered feet into the way of peace.
May each day’s sunrise remind you of the coming day when,
“No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need not light, lamp, or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
And may it remind you of the coming day when,
“The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down, nor your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended.”
So don’t wander to the false fluorescents of our cultures happy Christmas product.
You are craving the Life that is the light of men.
Turn your face to the light that shines in the darkness, for the darkness has not overcome Him.
Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free
From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee
Lyrics Robert Robinson
Tish is one of the counselors at Emmaus Counseling. She is married to Joshua and they have 2 children. Having grown up in a broken family, with addict parents, and an unstable home-life, Tish has experienced pain both of her own decisions and from the decisions of others. She has experienced the life-giving wholeness that comes through a combination of hope in Jesus and high-quality clinical counseling. It is her desire to help others find wholeness as well.