This month: 181 - Online Church
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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D.J. Bulls

Husband to Meghan, father to Mackenzie…loves baseball, the Texas Rangers, and Alabama Crimson Tide Football. Bulls has 17 years of ministry experience in churches large and small with emphasis in worship, music, and communication. A frequent arranger for colleges, universities, churches, and worship groups, his arrangements are sung by churches in all fifty states and all over the world. He has studied at Abilene Christian University (B.A.), the University of North Texas (Choral Conducting), the UT- Arlington (M.M.), and my PhD work is at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Church Music, Hymnology). D.J. is currently a composer, contributor, and music committee member, and on the Executive Committee for the Timeless Psalter & Commentary Project. He was recently appointed as the Chairman of the Timeless Hymnal Project, who will produce a new Psalter Hymnal in the next few years, an incredibly worthy and important project for the Church. He leads worship at events across the U.S. each year, coaching worship leaders and church leaders in the areas of worship leading, new music, and congregational change. As you can see, his research specialties include hymnody, congregational singing, and Restoration Hymnody. Current Work D.J. has been the worship, music, and communications minister for Riverside Church of Christ in Coppell, TX since mid 2015. He is also the Founder/Artistic Director/Conductor of the MidCities Chamber Singers, a semi-professional choral ensemble in DFW, now in their second season -

“Music is the universal language of mankind.” ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Who hears music, feels his solitude peopled at once.” ― Robert Browning

“Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.” ― Maria von Trapp

“Music… will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For hundreds of years, philosophers, musicians, and educators have debated whether or not music is a language. I lean on the side of those who agree that it is a language. I’d like to take that one step further though. That is to say, congregational singing, done a cappella (which only means “in the style of the chapel”), without the accompaniment of instruments, has the power to create community, form and transform the heart and mind, and transport a person completely into a spiritual dimension unlike any other.

We all have those musical moments in our lives that we’ll never forget. I remember the first time I sang at summer camp in the piney woods of East Texas with 200 other folks under the stars. We sang the immortal hymn of George Stebbins and James Edmeston, Savior, Breathe an Evening Blessing. I remember the first time I heard a large crowd sing the four-part polyphonic song, The Greatest Commands, based on the words of I John 4. Or the sound of 5000 people singing The Lord Bless You and Keep You. Maybe you have those moments in your life too, those thin places, where the distance between you and God is so small and music or singing is what took you there. We all have moments like this.

lucky for me, I’m a part of this wacky tribe, this tradition of a cappella Churches of Christ and have been for all my life. I have a long list of places where the singing of the community of God’s people has helped to take me to those thin places where Earth and Heaven meet.

Churches of Christ have long been known as a singing people. Many times, I’ve been asked where I go to church, or what church I serve, and when the inquisitor hears me say the words “Church of Christ” they are quick to respond with something akin to “Oh, y’all are the people who don’t have music.” And like fingernails on an aged chalkboard, my mind fights its urges to apply the right hand of fellowship to their left cheek of righteousness, because that’s JUST NOT TRUE. We have music. Beautiful music…and it’s something I cherish and wish I could do something about or change the minds and perspectives of people who view our tradition as the one “without music.”

That misunderstanding about our tradition bothers me greatly. And I think those of us in Churches of Christ are to blame for that misunderstanding. For far too long, the answer to “why” our tradition, by in large, hasn’t employed instruments in worship, has been a wrong one, or, perhaps better said, a misinformed one.

We’ve been known for far too long for what we AREN’T and what we DON’T DO, then for who we ARE and the beauty of what we do.

Allow me to unpack this just a bit.

I have long heard people reference the “five acts of worship” that are found in the New Testament as a guiding principle of sorts for “why we do what we do” with regard to worship in Churches of Christ. Preaching, Praying, Communion, Contribution, Singing…Granted, there are lots of flaws in reducing worship to merely five boxes to check off, and not to mention the more important perspective of what this says regarding who the “actors and players” are when the community comes together to worship. But, I digress. Five acts. We’ve stayed away from this kind of language, but these are essentially our sacraments. These are things that sit at the center of what the church does when it comes together to worship. A sacrament is something that is an outward visible expression of an inner spiritual reality. You notice, perhaps that this word looks a lot like the word sacred. I think that’s appropriate. But maybe singing is sacred not for the same reasons you may have always thought.

My friend Darryl Tippens has written a lot about singing as sacrament. And I think he’s spot on when he says that even though we may not use the word “Sacrament” there is something holy that happens within us, even those who may not categorize themselves as singers, that forms us, that shapes us.

This is the bigger point, in my mind, of passages like Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, not so much that they restrict or don’t restrict the use of instruments. Instead, they draw us together as a community of believers and form us increasingly into the image of Christ. Karl Barth said that “Singing is the highest form of human expression…We can and must say quite confidently that the community which does not sing is not the community.” This is the heart of congregational singing.

I am at least a fifth generation Campbellite on both my mother and father’s sides. I have a great grandfather and great great grandfather who served as elders for, and as song leaders for the great Restoration Movement Preacher and Hymn-Writer, Tillit S. Teddlie during his years in East Texas.

Our roots are deep in Churches of Christ. You could say it comes natural to me to love and appreciate our heritage of a cappella congregational song. But, my reasons for loving it, becoming an advocate for it are largely not based in the historical or traditionalist perspective that are held my so many in our movement. Some have arrived at singing being sacramental because it’s what they’ve always known or that they interpret scripture to say that this is the only way it must be done. I have arrived at this sacramental perspective because of largely experiential and aesthetic reasons.

Each and every time God’s people come together and sing, there is the strong possibility of something deeply spiritual and formative taking place. That alone is more than enough reason for us to sing. Singing does not always need to be the happy, clappy, joyous emotion that some think is required in worship. Singing can also be a place for deep grief, sorrow, and doubt to be manifested. Singing with these emotions of lament allow us an incredibly meaningful vehicle with which to talk to God, but also to each other.

But there’s also this cyclical occurrence that occurs in the beautiful simplicity of human voices coming together in song. As human beings, we’re drawn to beautiful things. Artwork, nature, words, their beauty endears them to us. It’s the same with song. The beauty of the God-given instrument, the human voice, almost without thought or effort, physiologically enjoining hundreds of muscles to create a sound, is just another example of the creativity of our God, the Greatest Creator the world has ever known. When we join our voices together, the created in praise of the creator, a thin place becomes a reality. And this beauty, from the creator to the created and then, humbly offered back to the creator again, regardless of your vocal prowess or the talent level of your alto or tenor, is holy ground. Something TRULY beautiful…this is why we sing. This is why I sing.

Yes, there’s plenty of evidence we can extract from New Testament context that talks about singing. But that alone is not what drives me to want to sing or what drives me to sing in praise of my creator and for the building up of my fellow “createds.” Here’s another passage you may have never thought about.

Jesus, when meeting with his disciples and sharing in the last supper during Passover, was in the middle of what had to be an emotionally volatile situation. Not eating and drinking with them again, someone being told that they’d betray Jesus, the thought of Jesus dying and leaving the ministry he had inaugurated with this different kind of Kingdom with this group of misfit disciples, everyone must have been on edge.

There’s a little verse at the end of Matthew 26 that never gets included when anyone reads this text around the sacrament of partaking in communion. And I think that’s an utter travesty because it offers unparalleled insight into the beauty of song and its function in the Christian community.

At one of the most poignant moments in the narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry, death, and resurrection, after they’d eaten, Matthew says this…

30 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”

That’s right. At this moment in time, at this thin place that Jesus & his disciples experienced when emotions were running at their highest, what did they do? They took the time to sing. What I would give to have been in that room in that moment and to know what they sang, how they sang it, and how that impacted their lives.

If Jesus thought it was important enough to sing at this moment, there’s nothing in the world that should keep us from singing today…for who He is, for what He’s done, and because it’s a beautiful expression of that inner transformation that takes place inside the heart and lives of those who follow Jesus. It’s utterly beautiful. It’s absolutely sacred. Singing is a sacrament. And it’s a sacrament that has changed my life. Won’t you allow yourself the opportunity to let it change yours too?

Darryl Tippens, “That’s Why We Sing,” Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2006.

Darryl Tippens, “Singing as Sacrament,”

As a part of this month’s focus on the Holy Spirit, I’m working on a couple different opportunities for dialogue and conversation about our hymnological and musical experience in Churches of Christ with regard to the subject of and person o f the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Godhead, the Trinity.

If you would be so kind, take a moment and fill out this short poll so we can have some information from you to help us as we anticipate this conversation.


I am still amazed at little, seemingly hidden verses that strike me from time to time. In recent years, it seems to always happen at Christmas. Last night was no different.

Our congregation travels to a local rehabilitation and nursing facility every other Wednesday night to sing and fellowship with a special group of residents. Last night was our final visit for 2017. So, we sang through the entire Christmas, er, I mean, “Special Themes” section of our hymnal. True, there are several important Christmas hymns and carols noticeably absent from this particular compilation (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, Sing We Now of Christmas, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, just to name a few).

We came to It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. And we started in, just like we’d sung it time and time again. But we came to the third verse, and there it was, and it hit me right between the eyes.

I must make a note here before going into that lyric: We in Churches of Christ have missed the boat on a LOT of the rich, broader Christian hymnody of Advent and Christmas. Not only that, but we’ve bred a culture of singing that skips stanzas. So many of our hymns and songs were constructed to tell a story…especially, this is the case in so many of these Christmas carols and songs…they tell of the full narrative, of the prophets foretelling the coming of Messiah, of Mary’s encounter with the angels, of the manger, and of the upside-down-ness of Jesus’ coming and our waiting for his second advent, his return…living in that in-between. We’d do well to sing all of these stanzas, and to broaden our choices to include hymns and carols with a rich heritage, while also looking to include new hymns such as Matt Boswell’s Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery which tell the Christ story in with a wonderful new tune and rich text. Listen to the original here, then you can buy the a cappella version here. You can also read the comments of my friend and professor, Dr. Scott Aniol about omitting Christmas stanzas in a recent Baptist Press article here.


I digress…
So often, these Christmas hymns include a story of how our world is doing anything but living in the reality of God’s world-changing love, as shown through Jesus. I’ve written before about hymns like O Come, O Come Emmanuel and O Holy Night and how they sing into just how we are to live out that love in the here and now. So often, these ignored stanzas speak of the sadness of war and the lack of love for brother and sister humankind…

This verse is no different. Consider these lyrics.
Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876)

3 Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not
(Some hymnals use the original, “and man, at war with man hears not”)
the love song which they bring.
O hush the noise and cease your strife,
and hear the angels sing.

Considering this hymn was written over 140 years ago, the commentary on the warring between humankind and the plea with us to cease our strife is all the more powerful, and all the more relevant for us today.

And it sets up the closing stanza, now more important than ever to sing in light of stanza 3.

4 For lo, the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years,
Shall come the time foretold.
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

In our living and loving, may we send back heavenward, and to our brothers and sisters, the “song the angels sang.”

And may we sing these hymns and the rich stories they offer in their entirety…and may we be changed because of it.

Christmas, 2015, I wrote this post amidst a sea of unrest, politically and otherwise.  In light of tragic events in our country and around the world, I find myself reflecting on it again this holiday season.

There has been a lot of swirling conversation going on around me, both physically and virtually, about what has gone on in the world around us…Syria, San Bernardino, Orlando, Jerry Falwell, Trump, Sexual Scandal In Hollywood and on Capitol Hill, Abuse of all kinds, terrorism…and on and on.  This mounting and culmination of all these events and occurrences…like you, I’ve had enough and I needed a moment to just sit, be, listen and be quiet…in the quiet, I was overcome by the lyrics of one of the world’s most beloved Christmas Carols…and I had to write a bit about it. A Carol of Adolphe Adam and Placide Cappeau, originally called Cantique de Noel, or “Oh Holy Night.”

From the beginning, he was destined to follow his father in the family business (vinification and cooperage); but after an accident, he turned to the life of an academic. The accident occurred when he was eight years old, while “playing” with his friend Brignon. The young Brignon was handling a gun and shot Cappeau in the hand. This led to the young Cappeau having to undergo an amputation of his hand. Thanks to the financial support from  Brignon who supplied half of tuition,  Cappeau was able to attend a town school and was accepted into the Collège Royal d’Avignon. While there, in spite of his disability, he was awarded the first prize in drawing in 1825.

After studying in Nîmes, where he received a baccalauréat littéraire (A level in literature), he studied law in Paris and was awarded a license to practice law in 1831.

Following in his father’s footsteps, to an extent, he became a merchant of wines and spirits. However, his focus in life was literature.

He is quoted as saying he wrote the poem “Minuit Chrétien” (O Holy Night) in a stagecoach on his way to Paris, between Mâcon and Dijon. Despite Adolphe Adam calling his tune “la Marseillaise religieuse” (The religious Marseillaise),  Cappeau held often outspoken socialist and anti-clerical (secular) views. (

The third verse of “Oh Holy Night” speaks of a world in which those who claim to follow Jesus are living out he calls all of his followers to in this subversive Gospel…

That Gospel is deeply rooted in Love of God and Love of Others…and so many claim the first part of that Call…the part about loving God.  But the back half…well, I’m afraid some have given Christ a bad name in how we’ve lived that out in recent days, weeks and months…that love of “others” is not one we can or should place provisions or privileges on…it’s an unconditional love for all of our brothers and sisters…



“Truly He taught us
to love one another;
His law is Love
and His gospel is Peace;
Chains shall he break,
for the slave is our brother,
And in his name
all oppression shall cease,
Sweet hymns of joy
in grateful Chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise
his Holy name!”



May we help bring this verse to a reality…may Life on earth come increasingly as it is in Heaven.
Come, Lord Jesus!

As the anticipation, the “Watching and waiting, looking above” continues, we move (backward) to the first verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  Perhaps, this is the most poignant of this hymns litany of verses, with its begging and pleading for Messiah to come…little did they know just what that Messiah would look like.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee,
O, Israel.

O-Come-EmmanuelAs I stated in my last entry, each verse gives us a glimpse into a different prophecy, a different Name identified in scripture.  “Emmanuel” meaning “God is With Us” (or even better translated “God is With us Now”, we know well from the prophecy of Isaiah which is reiterated in Matthew & Luke’s account of the birth narrative. (Is. 7:14, Mt 1:23)

Musically speaking, this hymn and namely this opening verse and its significance is inextricably tied to its role in the great “O” Antiphons.  Hymnologist J.R. Watson provides a context for the antiphons included on the second page after the hymn in the most recent printing of the United Methodist Hymnal: “The antiphons, sometimes called the ‘O antiphons’ or ‘The Great O’s’, were designated to concentrate the mind on the coming Christmas, enriching the meaning of the Incarnation with a complex series of references from the Old and New Testaments.”

Each antiphon begins as follows:

O Sapentia (Wisdom)
O Adonai
 (Hebrew word for God)
O Radix Jesse
 (stem or root of Jesse)
O Clavis David
 (key of David)
O Oriens
O Rex genitium
 (King of the Gentiles)
O Emmanuel

If one were to look at the first letter of the second word of these titles, each with verses translated by John Mason Neale in various hymnals of our time, you’d find an acrostic, SARCORE.  When spelled backwards, and this is where the interesting-ness continues, you get “ero cras,” which in the Latin means “I will be present tomorrow.” Every one of the Latin titles anticipating the coming Messiah, Jesus are from the Old Testament except “Emmanuel,” which is found both in Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23, as mentioned above. Matthew quotes Isaiah virtually verbatim—“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel”—with the exception that Matthew adds the phrase: “which being interpreted is, God with us.”

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee,
O, Israel.

I love the longing in the words of this prayer…like Israel amidst it’s waiting for liberation…like those in the 400-year period of silence, waiting for Messiah to come…we too are longing, waiting to be ransomed out of this earthly captivity.  So we wait…but we rejoice, because, like the writer who penned the “rejoice” chorus, we know how the story ends.  Messiah did come…and will come again. In the meantime, “Maranatha…Lord, come quickly…and thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

Come, Emmanuel!

No sooner had the Thanksgiving dressing been put away to become a late-afternoon football snack than the Christmas decor began to make its grand entrance from almost a year’s worth of being stored away!

Isn’t this story so true in many of our homes?  Seems like some folks
have been ready to unleash Burl Ives, Ray Conniff, Mitch Miller and Jose Feliciano since mid-August…but alas, we can hold them off no longer.  For the season of anticipating Christmas is finally here…the Advent of Christ is upon us according to the Christian Calendar.

Maybe it is the weather of the last few days (both at home and in Chicago), but I’ve been thinking about the lyrics of one of my favorite Christmas hymns which guides us through the advent story so well…and does so with such a potent lyrical connection for us today that I really can’t wait to start singing it.

The words find their origins as early as the mid-late 12th century and were translated (or believed to be translated) by John Mason Neale around 1851.

The music finds its origin in the Libera Me, from the funeral mass of the Catholic Mass.  It was called Veni Emmanuel as early as the late 15th century when it was paired with the ancient text by a group of Fransiscan Nuns.  It’s scriptural connection, throughout each verse we know and those left out of modern hymnody is obvious.  We see Isaiah 7:14 “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. The Rod of Jesse refers to Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse;” Jesse was, of course, the father of David, second king of Israel. Day-Spring comes from Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, in Luke 1:78: “The dayspring from on high has visited us.” “Thou Key of David” is in Isaiah 22:22: “The key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder,” which in turn refers to Isaiah 9:6: “The government shall be upon His shoulder.”  I’ll explore each other verse throughout this Advent season…

However, in light of the world’s recent events, terror and tragedy, and tragedy in the loss of family and friends in my own life in recent weeks, I find myself praying this prayer from one of the latter verses of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Indeed…come, Emmanuel.  Bring light & hope into our gloomy darkness!

soli deo gloria

D.J. Bulls is the Worship & Communication Minister at Riverside Church in Coppell, TX. He is a graduate of Abilene Christian University, the University of Texas, and currently a Doctoral Student in Church Music & Hymnody. He is husband to Meghan and father to Mackenzie…He loves baseball, the Texas Rangers, and Alabama Crimson Tide Football. He teaches music, leads worship, and gets to be a conductor for a wonderful semi-professional choral ensemble in the DFW MidCities called the MidCities Chamber SingersHe composes and arranges music, is on the executive team for the Timeless Psalter project and leads worship all over the country through Bulls’ Pen Music and Fearless4You Music.