September 13, 2013
Friday Five: Glenn Packiam
More is happening during corporate worship ... than you think.
Glenn Packiam is a the lead pastor of new life DOWNTOWN, an extension of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he serves on the Executive Team.
He is the author of several books, including LUCKY: How the Kingdom Comes to Unlikely People and Secondhand Jesus. His latest is Discover the Mystery of Faith. Glenn also recently released an accompanying worship album.
Glenn was one of the founding leaders and songwriters for the Desperation Band and has written a few well-loved worship songs like "Your Name" and "My Savior Lives." Glenn is a Doctoral student at Durham University (UK) in Theology and Ministry.
Your new book, Discover The Mystery of Faith asks a rhetorical question: What if the way we worship isn't only an expression of our faith, but is what shapes our faith? We don't often view our worship this way, do we?
No, we don't. We tend to focus on the "upward" movement of worship, seeing it as our response to God. While it certainly includes an element of that, corporate worship is also where our faith is formed. It is in congregational worship that our knowledge of God is shaped, consciously and subconsciously. In this way, congregational worship is not just an expressive practice; it's a formative practice.
You're part of a growing movement within evangelicalism that is mining the ancient creeds and liturgies for worship today. What led you to this place?
I've always been fascinated by historical theology and the Church's story. But I think in the past I had put too much weight on "contextualizing" worship for our culture. I dismissed any comparisons between modern worship and ancient liturgies as just someone pining for the old days. After all, it’s just a matter of taste, right? Music style—worship “style”—is simply a cultural language that must be adapted to each context.
Or so I thought. Thinking of worship style as a “cultural language” is thinking of corporate worship in only its upward, “expressive” mode. When we recognize that corporate worship has a downward, “formative” mode, we recognize we are not simply dealing with a “cultural language” but a “cultural liturgy.” (I owe this nomenclature to Jamie Smith at Calvin College.) Rock music, for example, may be a cultural language; but a rock concert is a cultural liturgy. And liturgies are designed to aim our whole being—or, as Smith would say, our “loves”—at a particular vision.
Realizing that congregational worship has a formative dimension changed the way I thought about the historic liturgies. These were not simply old “modes” of expression; these were brilliantly designed practices for formation. I began to use my “vacation Sundays” to visit other churches that still used historic liturgies. I visited an Anglican church, a Presbyterian church that does a “traditional service”, and an Eastern Orthodox Church. I met with both the Anglican priest and the Orthodox priest to learn more about why things were structured as they are.
The most significant thing I learned was that the liturgists assumed that everything in the liturgy speaks. The visuals and the verbals, the practices and the sequence—all of it worked together to tell the same story. And the story that it told was the Gospel. These services were not crafted with the production values of an entertainment culture in mind; these liturgies were designed by theologians who wanted to make Christ the center and the Gospel the story.
I think we could learn from that.
You're both a songwriter and a pastor. How does your creative side affect your preaching and leading?
A good sermon is, in many ways, like a good song. It has to have a solid hook that sums up the theme, something that will stick in their hearts and heads long after it's over. It needs to have good verses that develop that theme and build up to it. There is a cadence to preaching that is also quite a bit like worship leading. Oftentimes as a worship leader, I wouldn't know how many times we'd sing a chorus, or when we'd go to the bridge until the "live" moment. Preaching has that same feel for me. Sometimes riffing on an idea unexpectedly, letting the intensity build with a cadence of parallel thoughts and phrases, become the best moment of the sermon!
But I think the thing I've learned most about leadership from songwriting comes from the experiences I've had co-writing. In a co-writing session, you’ve got to check your ego at the door. You’ve got to work together to make the song the best it can be, regardless of who’s contributing more. Each person comes prepared, but holds their ideas loosely. And there’s a knowledge up front that credit is going to be shared evenly. We work in an environment that cultivates collaborative leadership. The lessons from co-writing apply as we work together on sermons, projects, events, and services. And it’s not because one person couldn’t have done it alone; it’s because we believe that we are better together.
And how does pastoring impact your songwriting?
We encourage our worship leaders and songwriters to see themselves as ministers first, and as musicians second. You have to walk with people through the seasons of life and let songs flow out of that journey.
As the lead pastor of our downtown “parish”, I am experiencing it in a much deeper way. Standing in an ER room with a friend whose father suddenly died, weeping with a dear friend in a waiting room after his wife was tragically killed in a car accident, preparing couples for marriage, baptizing new believers, dedicating babies—these are the moments that I get front row seats to. I am a witness to people’s lives, and to God at work in their lives.
When I think of these people coming together to sing on a Sunday morning, I tremble. What words could we give them to sing? Do our songs gloss over their pain? Is our praise a costly sacrifice or cheap adrenaline rush? This is why I’ve been challenged to re-set the words from liturgical prayers to music. Many of the prayers from our old prayer books were written to speak to the seasons of life; they give voice to our joy, hope and grief. I have the sense that men like Calvin and Cranmer were not writing only as theologians but as pastors.
Colorado Springs has endured much tumult in the last few years, (scandal, tragedy, natural disaster). How has this impacted the Church and it's voice in the community?
I suppose to get a true answer, we’d need to ask someone in the community but outside the Church! My sense is that the Church in our city has bonded through the vulnerability of the past few years. It is clear that none of our congregations are immune to pride, sin, or tragedy. To recall a Eucharistic image, it is through brokenness that our lives are shared. My hope is that the Church in our city is recalling its identity as “one loaf of bread”, broken and given for the sake of our city. The tangible signs of this are the ways that different churches are engaging the needs of city. The focus seems to have shifted from attempts at national influence to an embodiment of local faithfulness. All of that, I think, is a good thing.