The Answer is No

“… do you see what they are doing—the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.” (Ez. 8:6)


This is the supernatural invitation the prophet Ezekiel receives, six years into Israel’s expulsion from their homeland and captivity in Babylon. And it continues in ever more gruesome fashion as the Lord leads him through a series of shocking exposures to her people’s sins. In a masterstroke of imagery, every step through the Temple structure and toward the Holy of Holies uncovers a deeper level of spiritual treason. Drawing nearer to God’s holiness provides no refining measure to their actions. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Verse 17 brings us to the point of the vision, where Ezekiel is asked to consider: “Is it a trivial matter for the people of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here?”

The answer, of course, is no.

Trivial? Not in the least.

Worship of other gods is the central element of Israel’s fall and disgrace. Everything else stems from it. Violence. Injustice. Cruelty toward the impoverished. Bribery. Sexual sin. Debauchery.

Because when the center is lost, all manner of distortion follows.

Israel’s failings were many but her presenting, foundational problem was a worship problem. Not just a sacred acts worship problem but the underpinnings of trust and belief that allowed her to traverse the line of the first commandment so easily and often. At the very deepest level, her loyalties and affections became an item for sale or transfer, dependent on the whims and desires of her leadership and people. Her identity as God’s alone was traded for a pauper’s wage, and for a time, took on the image of decay, judgment, and death.

The tragedy is breathtaking.

God set them up to flourish, to be His standard bearers among the nations. He planned them as both the place of His dwelling and the poster child for godly living, until such a day when His presence would flow to all who believe and sin be cast down by the prophesied seed of Abraham. Yet, here they are, bowing to the sun and sprawling animal figures on the walls of the Temple. And soon, Ezekiel is told, a literally merciless bill will come due on their choices.

The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. He is also the God who cannot—and will not—be mocked.

Most of us are not voicing allegiance to foreign gods and lying prostrate before idols made of precious metals. I would wager it would be difficult if not impossible to find a North American church building emblazoned with artwork actually intended to direct our eyes from Christ.

But neither did Israel start where they ended up. The history of the matter is one of subtlety and sequence before it turns brazen and irredeemable.

So there is likely a measure of reflection and caution here for us as well. For, who has God’s favor, blessing, and plan in this age? His presence? His commission, that all nations might seek and respond to His grace and call? The very extension of His hand into a world of pain and lack of every kind?

Us. You. Me. The Church.

Worship is the primary, lifestyle response that shows we are His and on His mission together. Not just the sacred acts, but the everyday. Our deepest convictions and loyalties, surfacing in words, choices, and actions. Neglect it and even our very best efforts fall short. Keep it at the center and we have a shot at walking and leading in grace, in a world needing exactly that.

A pastor friend of mine often says that, despite her failings, the Church is still the hope of the world. He’s absolutely right. And Ezekiel reminds us how far we can drift if we do not exercise care at the very core of our being.

Take Us There With You

Man in musical art concept
“Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.
For the Lord Most High is awesome, the great King over all the earth.” (Psalm 47:1-2)
Wayne Stewart, Worship Pastor Christ Community Church—Ames, IA

One of the most eye-opening moments for me in leading worship came when (apparently) my eyes weren’t open.

After services one Sunday a man I greatly respect encouraged me to think about my platform leadership posture. He shared that my habit of closing my eyes during much of the songs might come off as distant, disconnected from the congregation. I, of course, took this to heart and immediately set about finding ways to improve in light of his gentle prompt.


I sulked. I fought him in my mind and, yeah, I won those debates. Handily. But, while keeping his advice at a distance, I couldn’t shake a certain something he’d said:

“Wayne, obviously you are connecting deeply with the Lord as you lead. I just wish you’d take us there along with you.”

That one landed. And it’s helped me think more clearly about being a leader of gathered worship ever since. While the heart of the matter in worship is always, well, the heart, what we do in front of people can be of help or hindrance, and quite often without us even knowing it.

For better or worse, we are on a literal platform most of the time when leading others in gathered worship. Not surprisingly, some basic rules apply to the people and presentation dynamics of such a thing. Let me offer up two broader principles (among many, I am sure) and one action step as we seek to grow into better worship leaders and avoid repeating my own “eyes wide closed” moment.


Principle 1: Be Yourself but Remember Your Role

Consistently inhabiting the list of top issues in worship teaching, conferences, and blogs is authenticity. While important, leading with authenticity can be a slippery slope to manage. Here’s the thing that keeps us heading in the right direction, and it’s a bit of an “unsolvable” tension:

We must be ourselves… but we are called to be ourselves as we serve others. (1 Peter 4:10)

That sweet spot is where your life and faith come across as honest while at the same time extending yourself to the needs and vibe of the congregation.

Given your own individual tendencies, here are two questions to ponder:

1) What does my most natural body posture, facial expression, and countenance call people to? And is this (______________) what I actually want to call them to?

2) Does what I am doing invite them to engage and linger, or simply move on to the next thing in the service?

Be encouraged. These are usually the 5% adjustments that yield great benefits.

Got that mastered? Excellent, let’s move onto…


Principle 2: Match the Moment

Human beings desire congruency. So, a decent link is required between what we are all engaged in and how our bodies and faces (as leaders) represent that moment in time. Think of it like plot holes or factual inconsistencies in a novel. The bigger the gap, the more people check out, disconnect. In some way they think this isn’t real.

That makes me super sad. The greatest reality of all, flattened and greyed due to unintended messaging. Rest assured, the finished work of Christ and the indwelling of His Spirit are what gain us access to the Father and the vibrant interactions He intends for us as local congregations. Still, we need to be sure what we are doing up front is actually helpful.

Songs of proclamation call for a certain sense of assuredness. A physical presence that falls in on itself or looks down tends to offset that purpose. Adoration, reflection, and repentance have their own material and musical context. Lament is hard to lead without some measure of angst, either quieted or released.

We’re not trying to be actors. We’re just trying to keep things aligned for people so they can engage to as great an extent as possible.

You get the idea.

Which leads us to our next-step


The Tape Tells The Truth…


Ughhh. I get it, I get it. Nobody likes to view themselves on-screen, but there really is no other way to get at this. Unless of course you are brave enough to have someone else watch and then critique you personally. Since I am betting most of us would rather walk over hot coals, let’s cue up the services and take a look. But here’s what I want you to do: turn the sound off completely. For the moment we are not interested at all whether you can actually sing or play an instrument. Watch the service order (and the lyric cues if present) to get a sense of whether or not your demeanor is truthful to you and also a good match for the moment.



Our gatherings are taking their cues (in some measure) from us. Are we signaling to them warm, honest invitation? Indifference? Boredom? Frustration? Reverence? Anticipation? Humility? Celebration?

Thanks to my friend’s gentle reminder that he really wanted to worship alongside me, I hope to be getting a little better at this along the way.

You can, too.

Now, go watch some video. And be yourself but remember your role. Oh yeah, and match the moment. Now, go watch some video.


For Reflection:

What are some general statements that stuck out to you from the article? Ones you resonated with? Something you had a question or concern about?

Which of the two principles presents the greatest challenge for you? How so?

Can you think of a time when someone’s upfront leadership in church made you want to engage or connect? What might have been helpful?

What about a moment where an upfront leader did something that made it harder for you, or maybe led to a bit of a disconnect?

If you did the video exercise, what did you learn or observe? Some things to try moving forward?

Suggested other readings on this topic: Chapter 21 from Worship Matters (Kauflin, Crossway 2008); Pgs 142-144 from Heart of the Artist (Noland, Zondervan 1999)

Of Canals and Reservoirs

Modern urban wastewater treatment plant.

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

 Mk. 1:35-39

This passage is, I am certain, pretty well-worn territory for folks who have been following Christ for a while, with principles that all sit fairly near the surface.

We note Jesus’ rhythm of prayer and ministry, pulling away and then engaging, only to pull away again in order to re-engage in life and service. We see a clarity of mind and purpose that comes out of this set-aside time. And we see a courage to go against the flow (in this case the disciples’ presumption of what needed to happen next) when directed by the Father.

All great components of a Spirit-led, on-mission, life-defining kind of life.

This last week I had someone place in front of me an image that relates to this text and was very encouraging for me. I really hope it will be for you, as well.

Essentially, it’s the contrast between a canal and a reservoir, and it was roughly based on a quote from the 11th Century French Abbot, Bernard of Clairvoux.

Think about it for a second. Form a picture in your head of the two—canal and reservoir. Got it? Okay.

Here’s what challenged me.

The canal is an especially useful resource for waterborne transportation and commerce. It does a great job of keeping things moving, all the time. In that sense it’s very productive, very active. The downside of the canal is this: it doesn’t have to be completely full in order to do a minimum amount of work. Sure, if you’re talking about moving tankers and barges through, then you’ll need to get the water level pretty high. But in theory, the canal could function at a very basic level at less than capacity for a long, long time.

The question to ask, though, is this: is this the very best way for the canal to be effective, to do its work? And, if the canal is always outflowing with a lesser amount of water than its capacity, what chance does it ever hold of taking on the really big rigs?

So let’s consider the reservoir, instead.

A reservoir, simply put, doesn’t do any “work” until it is overflowing. Only then will the nearby land drink in its abundance, or surplus. There is a necessary function of filling—to the brim—before a single drop bends over the top and then outward.

So, was Jesus living more of a reservoir kind of life than a canal kind of life? That’s probably debatable, depending on how you think of the image and its fitness to Biblical spiritual realities. And like most attempts at illustrating this kind of thing, it probably fails if we feel like the two ideas have to be in direct opposition to one another.

All I know is that in other places in the Gospels, He seems pretty committed to the kind of rhythm illustrated in the Mark 1 passage, whatever you might call it.

In Luke 12, it’s noted that Jesus spent the entire night alone in prayer before choosing the Twelve the next morning. Luke 9 pairs “Once when Jesus was praying in private and His disciples were with Him…” with the world-changing acknowledgment that He was indeed Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, only moments later. The transfiguration (Luke 9:29) happens during a time of set-aside prayer. And lastly, that wonderful-awful night in the Garden is a series of moments of deep connection with the Father, even as anguish and sorrow weighs Jesus’ soul down in anticipation of the next day’s horrors to come.

I think the idea of being a reservoir is not that easy to put into practice. I find myself far too inclined toward quick and constant action, as opposed to the discipline of waiting, looking to be filled, and then hopefully doing some good out of that abundance.

While every metaphor fails at some point to capture the depth and mystery of life in Christ, I did find myself thinking and praying more this last week about the idea of leaning more “reservoir” than “canal.”

What do you think? And what are the ways your reservoir gets to the top, in Christ?




Fear and Hope

“The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.” (Ps. 147:11)

Love the juxtaposition of “fear” and hope here. If the meaning of the word fear was really how we commonly think of it, the next line would make no sense at all. No one would place their hope in someone they didn’t want to be around and thought was going to destroy them.
Biblical fear doesn’t cause us to recoil, dread, and stay at a distance. Instead, it calls us near, in awe-filled awareness of God’s holiness and the great privilege it is to know and trust Him through Christ.

See also: Prov. 14:26-27; 15:33; 16:6; 22:4

Shared Glory?

[reading time 2:00]

One of the NT passages that is so compelling and interesting to me is the sequence of statements and claims that Jesus makes in John Chapters 8-10. The drama of the storyline is so gripping. The very strong reactions of the Jewish leadership make sense in light of what Jesus is actually proclaiming about Himself, the world, and His mission and purposes. One place I read today is a show-stopper for sure.

John 10:31-33

“…his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me? We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

A few thoughts.

Surely there are mixed motives here, but the good side of what the Jewish leaders are trying to protect, is God’s good Name. They see Jesus’ claims to divinity, any share of “god-ness”, as a detraction from the glory of the One who revealed Himself as uniquely God to their ancestors, so many years ago.

What they struggled to grasp, and maybe reasonably so, was that this glory of YHWH (the pre-existent One) could be shared, co-exercised within the Trinity, without any dilution of it at all. In fact, the fuller expression of this glory was now being revealed, in the fulness of time, through the Son and the Spirit.

Revolutionary, yes. Revelatory, absolutely.

So, what’s our application to a bigger worship?

Pretty straightforward, actually. We worship Jesus because He is fully God. That worship should increasingly look like everything, all the time because He, as God, is fully and uniquely deserving of…it all. Paul gets at this idea in the very first paragraphs of his letter to the Church in Colossae.

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” Col. 1:15-16

Everything. All the time. We like to talk about this in terms of words, choices, and actions. All laid before Christ as an offering. All for His divine glory, shared—mysteriously but fully—among Father, Son, and Spirit.

The Jewish leaders in John 10 seemed to miss this. We’ve been given the gracious opportunity to respond differently.

Let’s go bigger.


Bigger 3.0 Available Now

Bigger cover jpgPhew. It’s done.

The rewrites, more rewrites, feedback, and edits are done.

Begun last October, this version of Bigger is an attempt to paint a broader conversation around the topic of worship than just what happens on Sundays, placing it more into the category of ongoing, whole-life spiritual formation.

We just finished up another four week group and it was so encouraging to hear the take-aways at the end and the new thinking that had formed among us about what this thing called worship might really be all about.

If you are interested, you can check out some chapter excerpts under the menu at the top of this page as well as get the book at:

**CCAmes Family, please contact me directly for copies as we get wholesale pricing for them.

Praying that this helps foster a good conversation and grows something bigger among us.

The God Who Speaks

“They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” Mk. 1:21-22

The God who speaks continues to do so in His incarnate form. It’s a necessary, intrinsic extension of His nature. Jesus’ speaking about the Kingdom follows the trajectory from creation, covenants and prophecy that will eventually culminate in the wonder of the finished work of Scripture.

People marveled “at His teaching” and so should we. But, it’s not just that Jesus always had the better argument; it is also amazing that God engages in the argument with us at all.

Thank You, Lord, that it is this way. That You don’t make us grope in the darkness on our own.

The Lake: A Parable

Young boy jumping into lake

(reading time: 2mins)

One day a certain man stumbled upon a hidden lake in the wilderness. This lake was stunningly beautiful, crystal clear from its calm surface all the way to the bottom, some twenty feet below. Tall fir trees lined the water’s edge, offering up shady spots to rest on its soft white, sandy beaches. Standing on a rock outcropping above and admiring the discovery greatly, he thought to himself, “This is the perfect place for people to come and enjoy time together, away from their busy lives. I will get it ready for them and then they will come from all over the world to experience its beauty and refreshment.”

So, the man got busy. He started building a dock with a diving board. He set up a rope swing from one of the biggest branches in one of the biggest fir trees overhanging the water. “This will be perfect”, he said to himself. It was hard work and very warm out, but he wouldn’t stop working until he was finished.

Early the next day, the man got up to start his work again. To his surprise another man had discovered this very special place, and was busy building things as well. All the way on the other side of the lake, this newcomer was working on a water park and a marina for jet-skis.

The first man decided this would simply not do. “Lakes like this were meant for quiet enjoyment”, he muttered. So, he built a bigger dock and another rope swing. The second man saw what the first was doing and built a bigger water slide and another marina. “Lakes like this were meant for fun and celebration,” he grumbled.

Every day, the men came to the lake and built more docks, slides, and marinas. Every day they walked away, certain that their work at the lake was the very best way to help people enjoy its beauty.

Many years had gone by, and the men had built their docks and slides on every available inch of the shoreline. With no more room to build on, and convinced that each other’s efforts were ruining the lake, they both went to court to stop anyone from using the other man’s amenities.

The Judge simply told them both to get in the water.

The men refused this order, so the Judge declared the entire area to be a nature sanctuary, its waters and shores off-limits to people from that day forward.

In the end, no one ever came and actually got into the lake, to enjoy its gentle, inviting waves, and shady beaches. Not people from far away. Not people from close by. Not even the men themselves.

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