Worship That Helps Us Die Well

I said it at the Calvin Symposium a few months ago, and I’ll say it again. And nobody’s paying me to say this. It’s just true. John Witvliet is the Kevin Bacon of the worship world. It seems that every significant worship insight can be traced back, by a maximum of six degrees, to Dr. Witvliet. Instead of sweeping this reality under the rug, I’ll just go ahead and name it and claim it right at the beginning of this post: I got this idea from him. The final chapter of Witvliet’s book, Worship Seeking Understanding, teaches us “How Common Worship Forms Us for Our Encounter with Death.” There he makes the case that worship helps us see that “Christianity is nothing if not a way of thinking about death” (p. 291).

The Worship Pastor as Mortician

This got me thinking about a fitting and helpful (even if slightly morbid) metaphor for how we are to see the pastoral aspects of our worship leadership blossom. A worship pastor is nothing short of a “mortician.” Though some of us might think a mortician’s vocation to be odd and unbecoming, good theology teaches us that it’s quite a noble calling. God, in breathing life into humanity (Gen 1-2), conferred dignity not only on our souls but on our bodies. The physical world was “good,” and humanity (complete with our physicality) was declared “very good.” Couple this reality with a theology of the Resurrection—that God will create a new heavens and a new earth filled with the souls of the saints united to our resurrected bodies—and you have a quite noble picture of God’s perspective on our physical bodies, both before and after death. The job of a mortician is to prepare a person’s body for burial. In light of all that we just mentioned, the best morticians recognize the sacred privilege of handling and caring for the body of someone who is, in the meantime, absent from flesh and present with the Lord.

I believe it’s very appropriate to call a worship pastor a “mortician,” precisely because one of our sacred tasks is to help prepare the Church—the Body of Christ—for death…and beyond.

Counter-Cultural Liturgies

Not long ago, I read an emergency physician’s lamentation about the way our elderly die now versus the way they died in “the old days.” With painful specificity, he compares the dignified death of yesteryear—at home, in their own bed, near their loved ones with the comforting familiarity of sights, smells, and sounds—with the dehumanized prolonging of death we now know all too well today—in a sterile hospital room, hooked up to machines that offer us “life support.” The article made my stomach turn and my heart ache.

If we analyze this through the helpful language of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, we recognize that we’ve developed “cultural liturgies” which have successfully habituated us into fearing death—from the health food industry to the medical field. The Christian vision of the Kingdom knows no such fear, for in Christ’s resurrection, death has lost its sting…it no longer has the final word (1 Cor 15:55). On the ground and in our flesh, death will always be a scary thing for every last one of us, but it loses its sting because the poison of its apocalyptic dread has been drained from its biochemistry. Resurrection on the other side is signed, sealed, and delivered through the power of Christ by the work of the Spirit.  

Christianity, especially in corporate worship, uniquely offers this “counter liturgy” to our culture’s thanatophobia. So how do we actualize this call for worship pastors to be morticians? Ultimately, it comes down to how we hold “the End” before the people of God in our worship services.

Four Ways to be Morticians in Worship

1. Singing, praying, and proclaiming death
Perhaps it seems a little dark to tell God’s people, “You’re all going to die,” but this is precisely what we’re called to do in winsome, tender, and pastoral ways. It comes not so much in direct statements but in the language of our spoken and sung prayers. I will sometimes begin our worship services by telling the gathered Church, “We come this morning to remember that death doesn’t have the last word. We come to celebrate the resurrection that is ours in Jesus Christ.” And if it seems too steep to think of including death in our sung vocabulary, we need to remember divinely inspired worship songs like this one:

For he knows how we are formed,
    he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass,
     they flourish like a flower of the field.
The wind blows over it and it is gone,
    and its place remembers it no more.
(Psalm 103:14-16)

As I write this, I am a week away from our Good Friday service, and I am confronted yet again by this forgotten verse of Bernard’s “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”:

Be Thou my Consolation, my shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfolds Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.

2. Multicultural expression and stylistic diversity 
I’ve been recently working my way through Sandra Van Opstal’s wonderful new book, The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World, and I am challenged by her biblical vision of hospitality, solidarity, and mutuality associated with the issues confronting the twenty-first century global church. I am reminded in such moments that on the other side of death is a unified world, where every tribe, tongue, and nation is gathered around the throne of the Lamb in unceasing worship. This eschatological vision—our eternal future—is something we can help our people prepare for now in small ways by pressing outward the stylistic and cultural boundaries we often draw in our local contexts. Good morticians believe in preparing the Body of Christ for her glorious future in this way.

3. Partying at the table.
Growing up, Communion always felt like a funeral. It was a time to be somber, reflective, introspective, and confessional. And the Scriptures testify that this is one side of the Eucharistic coin. The other side is festal, raucous, and party-like. It is a foretaste of the Banquet to come (Rev 19). If we are taking seriously our call to prepare the Body of Christ for what is on the other side of death, then we will seek ways to make the Table a place where we can “see” the future together. Perhaps it means that the songs and music we select to accompany the celebration of the Lord’s Supper are at times more joyous. Perhaps the tone and inflection of our prayers and Scripture readings are raised up an affective notch or two.

4. Space for suffering
The recent swell of engaging the church’s forgotten voice of lamentation (e.g., Psalm 13) is a healthy wave for morticians to ride. When a Christian learns to lament now, she is more ready to confront her death as a Christian in the future. Death is something to mourn. It is not right. Present lamentation strengthens the muscles of grief to withstand the weight of our future death. We must find ways of letting lamentation be heard in our services. The right spot for my local church tends to be during our times of confession, where we extrapolate beyond our personal sins and offenses to the ways we contribute to the corrupt systems of the world that perpetuate injustice. It’s helpful to view injustice as starting not “out there” but “in here.” Confession and lamentation can go hand in hand.

Before every last worship leader is a question: Will we be intentional about helping our people prepare to die well? This question crystallizes a central truth about what it means to make disciples in the age between the “already” and the “not yet.” Morticians, let’s get to it. We have a Body to prepare.

(Shameless postscript: I’ve expanded on these thoughts in my forthcoming book, The Worship Pastor, due to be available from Zondervan on October 11, 2016.)

Zac Hicks (D.Min. candidate, Knox Theological Seminary) is Canon for Worship & Liturgy at Cathedral Church of the Advent (Birmingham, AL), blogger at zachicks.com, and author of The Worship Pastor (Zondervan, 2016). He grew up in Hawaii, studied music in Los Angeles, trained in Philosophy and Biblical Studies at Denver Seminary, and his current doctoral work is in the theology and worship of the English Reformation. Zac's passions include exploring the intersection of old and new in worship and thinking through the pastoral dimensions of worship leading. He is a songwriter, having recorded seven albums to date. Zac has been married for over fifteen years to his wife, Abby, and they have four children—Joel, Jesse, Brody, and Bronwyn.