Thinking Out Loud

October 29, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Orange Curriculum Parody Poster

Our graphic image theme this week is parody. The upper one is a supplement to the Orange Curriculum, a weekend service Christian education experience for children. You can click on the image and then surf the rest of the web page to learn more.

A bumper harvest this week; get coffee first.

The rest of the week Paul Wilkinson offers you a daily choice between trick at Thinking Out Loud, or treat at Christianity 201.

What a Mug I Have of Coffee

June 20, 2012

Wednesday Link List

The fine print: By reading this link list I agree to actually click a few links and check out the stories, and not just scan the summaries and leave.

April 10, 2012

Fine Tuning Creativity and Relevance

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:12 am

Okay, so now we’re into day six of my being without my own PC, and I have a deeper understanding of why they call them personal computers.  I miss my bookmarks.  I miss my files.  I miss the annoying noise the fan makes.  Hopefully today it returns from sick bay, virus free.  So today we steal feature the writing of Australian Mark Sayers, author of The Trouble with Paris, and The Vertical Self who blogged this a few weeks back under the title The Art of Irrelevance


There are very few people who would disagree with the notion that the Church needs to embrace creativity. One of the great moves over the last ten to fifteen years in Christian culture has been an attempt to close the creativity gap between the Church and the wider culture. Thus a great deal of Church websites are now more pleasing on the eye, our brochures look slicker, Christian bands look cooler, our worship is more experiential, and there are conferences aplenty to serve those wishing to learn more about creative ministries.

Yet are these moves really about creativity? I am not so sure. So much of this movement to make Christians more creative is wrapped up in the quest to make Church more relevant. Which is a kind of short hand way of trying to say that we need to close the cultural gap between the Church and the wider society. That for the Christian faith in the West to remain relevant (note that word) we must be running at the same pace as secular culture when it comes trends and fashion. If we can achieve this, if our music, our images, our worship services look and sound like the wider culture, the doors of the Church will be broken down by the spiritually hungry.

This view assumes that secularism is not the main reason that the Church is marginalised in the West, rather we have gotten our aesthetic wrong. A problem easily remedied by simply mimicking the style and fashions of the wider culture. So our services begin to look like Australian Idol, our Christian indie bands look like secular indie bands, youth ministry websites look like secular websites trying to reach the youth market. In the midst of all of this Christians do get a chance exercise their creativity, through their musical or design based gifting, but is this the kind of creative endeavor that we as believers are really called to? Is this genuine creativity or mimicry?

When we see creativity as simply a tool to aid us in our quest to become relevant, we hungrily seek out those who have crossed over the cultural divide and who straddle the mysterious line between Christian and secular artists. For the last twenty-five years Christians have inquired about the faith status of Bono, now young believes ask similar ‘are they or aren’t they’ questions about The Temper Trap, Mumford and Sons, and Sufjan Stevens. These questions are rooted in the belief that by association with the social currency of celebrity the cultural gap can be further closed.

When we simply mimic the art of wider culture, we become something like gift shops at the art gallery, the real works are inside, and all we offer are mass produced prints and imitations.

I believe that we have to start again. I believe that the mission of the Church to the West will not be achieved by simply becoming cooler, or by mimicking the styles and tastes of the wider culture. Instead the church must understand what it truly means to create rather than to mimic. We only have to look to the past to see that this is possible, there is a whole cavalcade of creatives whose faith inspired them to be at the forefront of cultural creativity. We only have to listen to Handel, to look at a painting by Carrivagio, to walk through a building by Gaudi, or read Dostoyevsky to understand that for these great artists creativity was not about bridging a gap between the wider culture and the Church. Rather faith for these people was the foundation that enabled them to create sublime, incredible works of creativity which speak to us still today.

I believe that we need to return to a biblical understanding of our God given mandate as humans to create. We are created in God’s image, God is the creator of the world, the architect of the Himalayas, the Bird of Paradise and the Andromeda system. God speaks the world into being. We are called to be his ambassadors on earth, to act as he acts; so the ability to create, to imagine things and then to bring them into being is an essential part of our humanity. We are not called to simply mimic, God gives us the ability to create.

When God created humans in the garden he gave us the role of guardians or stewards of creation. When I hear steward I think of someone in a fluorescent vest ensuring that people do not run onto the pitch at sporting events. The Hebrew word used is Shomer, the english translation struggles to capture the true breadth of this word. A Shomer in Jewish thinking is someone who is chosen to look after and guard something of worth, and who is held accountable for their stewardship by a Rabbinical court. The role of the Shomer is not simply to be a passive guard but to cultivate the item in their care.

Thus as stewards we are called to partner with God in his great creative project, the redemption of a broken cosmos. God calls us to be a part of the creative process. Creativity is not a choice it is part of our mandate.

On the Cross we discover a vital element of God’s creative nature. One of the struggles of the artist is to hold together the awe inspiring and the transcendent elements of life, those moments which remind us of God’s glory, with the painful and broken elements of life. Christians tend to do okay at the first part, Christian bookstores are filled with prints of glorious mountain ranges, we love the transcendent apex of the worship song. But we tend to struggle with the broken elements of life, with integrating suffering, lament and loss into our creativity. On the Cross, God intervenes in history with such staggering alacrity and originality we can only marvel at his creativity. In one moment, God’s glory is revealed, Jesus takes sin upon his shoulders and defeats death and evil, yet at the same time, we are confronted with the image of a dying God, a man whose painful screams speak of his isolation from God. The crucifixion is one of those rare moments, where the transcendent and the immanent, the glorious and the earthly, the human and the divine are held together. It is the ultimate template for Christian creatives. Hold those extremes together and you will produce work that no longer is mimicry but which is truly creative.

~Mark Sayers

This article was originally published in Youth Vision Quarterly Magazine

Photo: Woodman Valley Chapel, Colorado Springs

October 13, 2011

Excellence is in the Details

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:49 am

I don’t drink coffee.

Maybe a few rare occasions.  A few sips out of my wife’s cup now and then.  It’s not a Mormon thing, I just have enough trouble sleeping and enough history of digestive issues that I can skip java.

But I respect the fact that some of you find worship services impossible without the fruit of the bean, in fact, The Meeting House in Toronto has cup holders in every seat, and they ain’t communion cup holders.

Still, I’m told some church coffee is fairly mediocre. I know that for sure because of the people who smuggle outside coffee into the auditorium, which up here in Canada means Tim Horton’s coffee cups are the evidence of dissatisfaction with the church’s own product.

So I gotta say I’m impressed with a church that claims theirs is the best coffee in town. Like Kingston’s Café Church which features their own “Trinity” blend of three different coffees. 

Not having been, I don’t know how they rate on worship and teaching, but while they may not have the hottest worship band in town or a celeb preacher, I’ll bet that seeking excellence runs through all that they do.

So…how’s the coffee at your church?

September 13, 2011

Greeters: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone

I can’t think of a worse way to begin a church visit than one we experienced recently.  The greeter at the door had a slimy hand that made me want to head for the nearest restroom, but we were late and I wanted to get a seat. The woman who was his co-greeter was equally dermatologically challenged.

“I think,” my wife said, “This all began with someone who they couldn’t fit into any other ministry position in a church, and so they said, ‘Why don’t you stand at the door and welcome people as they come in.’”

But that was then. The idea of a handshake is become increasingly archaic. My son’s generation does fist pumps. Certainly a tad more sanitary.

I suggested to my wife that we take a small ice pack in our pockets and then reach our hands out of pockets at the last minute.

“They’ll think you’re dead;” she replied.  She then suggested Vaseline, which you would then remove after the critical moment.

I thought if you did this sort of thing for a month, most church greeters are on a four week rotation and you’d eventually get them all to quit.

“You really should blog this sometime;” I said to her.

To which she shot back, “I already did.”

Dodge the Greeter

This week, my family went to visit a large Pentecostal church we used to attend (two of us did, anyway) long long ago in a galaxy far far away.

The more time I spend doing church at the Motel, the more I enter these services feeling like an “anthropologist from Mars.” But it all comes back to you.

It was much as we remembered it, with a few things we’d forgotten about. One of which, for me, was the greeters.

If you aren’t familiar with this particular ministry, greeters are people who stand just inside the main entry of the church building, for the purpose of shaking hands with those arriving, smiling, handing them whatever documents they’ll need and then turning their attention to the next through the door.

If you are a greeter, I’m sorry, but I only consider my visit to your church a success if I manage to avoid you altogether.

It’s a game I play. I’ve developed several strategies over time, which I’d like to share with you.

1. Choose a path that cuts exactly halfway between two greeters. This only works if they’re not working in tandem (married couples, for example) but if there’s room, each will assume the other is going to get you and, before they realize their mistake, you’re through.

2. Assume a facial expression of urgent concern and walk quickly, looking past and over the heads of the greeters. This creates the impression that you’re trying to find someone in particular right now and won’t brook any delay, and greeters will respect your personal crisis, whatever it is, and let you go.

3. Carry a load that requires both hands. For example, a child and a diaper bag, if you can be rummaging through the diaper bag for something as you slip past the greeters. This may backfire if you look like it’s something they may be able to help with, so use this one with caution.

4. Walk side by side with an accomplice and, just as you reach the critical threshold, turn to speak to your companion, heads close together. Try to look like you’re communicating something “in confidence and just for prayer”. This is also effective if you’re a parent and can look like you’re scolding the child walking beside you for having done something unspeakable just as the family was getting ready to leave for church, without actually humiliating your kid in the church lobby.

5. Skirt closely behind a stranger as they are being greeted. Timing is tight on this one, and if someone is standing in your path, you may be delayed long enough to find yourself face to face with the greeter, so plan your route.

So that’s me.

~Ruth Wilkinson

August 15, 2011

The Buzzword Effect

Google Labs has an online app. whereby you type in any given word or phrase, and in a split-second, it scans everything in the Google Books database and tells you, in graph form, the relative recurrence of that word or phrase in the last 200 or so years.

I decided to have some fun with some Evangelical buzzwords, starting with Evangelical itself; if your current window is not restored to full size, you’ll want to click that first…

Next, I tried the phrase, spiritual formation.

Next, just to get silly, I tried the phrase, seeker sensitive

Okay, that wasn’t very productive.  How about social justice?

Of course, there’s no guaranteeing that the particular phrase didn’t appear in an entirely different context.

The system also lets you compare two different words, and so, in keeping with what’s been on a lot of minds this year, I searched Heaven + Hell.

Words matter.  I’m sure some of you can find more meaningful uses for this application in ministry.  Here’s the link one more time.

June 29, 2011

Wednesday Link List

Wednesday list lynx

Christianity Today magazine has found that recent articles on worship resonate with people, and that’s reflected in the first two links this week:

  • People want services to be accessible, but D. H. Williams asks the question, ‘Are there limits to this strategy?’
  • Why did the church embrace the pop/rock style found in today’s modern worship, but not utilize jazz or big band in its day?  Lawrence Mumford looks at the diversity of worship styles.
  • And over at Relevant Magazine — which we’ll return to later here — Adam Wood reminds us that worship involves the participation of both leader and congregant.
  • Ever been stuck in a checkout line where the person in front of you seems to be buying out the whole store?  Pete Wilson was, and he was anxious to get on his way, until he suddenly saw the person ahead of him in a different perspective.
  • I understand a little of where John Shore is coming from.  He’s certainly sympathetic to people who are both gay and professing Christians. [Example]  But does he go too far in one direction?  The blogger known as The Son He Loves thinks so and calls him on it.
  • Castanea, a word meaning ‘Chestnut tree,’ is also the name of a tribal community living together in Chestnut Hill, Tenn, which serves in this USAToday story as an example of what is called The New Monasticism.
  • Dan Kimball writes about Francis Chan‘s Erasing Hell with words like these: “It comes from a heart that is broken about hell. The pages themselves almost weep it is so heartfelt written. I know that sounds kind of corny, but it is true. This is written from a broken heart on the topic and that makes all the difference.”
  • If you’ve got Adobe, here’s the link to the .pdf with the Committee on Bible Translation’s response to the Southern Baptist resolution regarding the updated NIV Bible translation.
  • Also lining up to take a shot at the new NIV — with the accompanying fifteen minutes of fame — is the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.  You can read the .pdf containing the CBT’s response to the CBMW. This best addresses the so-called ‘gender issues’ in the new translation, though it won’t satisfy people who already have their minds made up.
  • Discovered a new blog this week for our “If You Want Deep, We’ll Give You Deep” department.  Check out this treatment of the subject of atonement.  (Full title: …Without the Theoretical Nonsense.)
  • With two potential Mormon Republican presidential candidates, not to mention a Broadway play, here’s ten things you may or may not know about the faith of your LDS friends.
  • And speaking of cults, Darrell at Stuff Fundies Like thinks that the proponents of the kind of faith he blogs about are actually a bit of a contradiction.
  • There’s a Christian Game Development Conference.  Who knew?  But never underestimate the popularity of computer gaming.  By the way, for bonus points, visit their site and try to find clues as to where the conference is taking place.
  • Yet another CT piece; this one on how in their zeal to expand, multi-site churches with satellite campuses are now crossing state lines
  • A Pew Forum survey shows that Evangelical leaders are less concerned about Islam and more concerned about creeping secularism.
  • Jon Acuff has four reasons why people ditch church in the summer.  (Reasons not really good enough.)
  • Finally one more from Jon Acuff and his article on Christian satire for Relevant magazine, where we find today’s closing image:

December 7, 2010

The Schuller Family: For Greater Contrast, Skip a Generation

See info below re. these pictures

This blog has already been both a news source and sounding board for the continuing drama at the Crystal Cathedral that I am in two minds about this particular blog post.

However, Nicole Santacruz at the L.A. Times has written such a definitive article — even after it seems so much has already been written — that I cannot help but link to it here, and also respond to it.

The article begins not with the juxtaposition of Robert H. and Robert A., but skips a generation and looks at the contrast — and perhaps a few similarities — between Cathedral Founder Robert H. and grandson Bobby, who pastors The Gathering, just a few miles down the road.

The third-generation Schuller hopes to do what the landmark — and now bankrupt — Crystal Cathedral has apparently failed to: evolve with the times.

Bobby’s church, The Gathering, takes a low-key approach to worship. Sunday’s services aren’t in an opulent church. Young band members open the service, and it’s intimate — people don paper name tags and shake hands. All of these elements represent a “post-boomer” style of worship popular with 20- to 40-year-old Christians, said Richard Flory, a sociologist of religion at USC.

But the article goes beyond mere color commentary; here’s a take on the big glass church in Garden Grove:

“They are totally outdated,” Flory said. “They are so committed to a plot of land and a building, and they’ve got a problem.”

And this look at the annual “Glory of Christmas” pageant:

The Christmas production would begin to signify a culture of extravagance within the church: More than a dozen angels in white chiffon flew overhead, professional singers replaced volunteers, and live camels and donkeys took the stage.   (Emphasis added.)

And this interesting sidebar, a revelation about a production few of us had heard of:

[I]n 2005, Carol Schuller Milner, the third Schuller daughter, produced a multimillion-dollar pageant called “Creation,” which was poorly attended and never staged again.

Robert A.’s daughter provides some good insight:

“When you have a dynamic where faith, fame and family are all involved, it becomes difficult to prioritize faith,” she said. “Instead it becomes part of this mixture of family dynamics and fame dynamics.”

And the article also raises another issue, one being dealt with by multiplied numbers of churches:

“I think it’s true that any congregation has to figure out how its style of ministry affects more than one generation.” said Wes Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary for the Reformed Church in America, the denomination to which the Crystal Cathedral belongs. “You see evidence of that in Bobby’s service.”

Bobby, who’s now 29, gets the last word:

Bobby Schuller is an innovator like his grandfather, but the way he delivers his message of Christianity is drastically different. The stereotypical church, he said, is about a perfect building filled with perfect people, music and a perfect preacher.

“In other words, it’s not like life,” he said…

…Volunteers set up for the service each Sunday and take down the chairs and tables that afternoon. When the work is done, they all go out for pizza. More than 90% of church funds go toward social justice issues such as homelessness and domestic violence.

“Our goal is to make big Christians, not big churches,” he said.

There’s more to the L.A. Times article.   I’ve excerpted a few sections here only because many of you don’t take the time to click the link, but hoping you will, here is the story link again.

Recent coverage here of the Crystal Cathedral saga:

…and also…

  • Wednesday Link List from a few days ago, with the link to a very recent, unscheduled TV interview Robert A. did with 100 Huntley St.

About the photos:   I decided we needed a different kind of photo of the big glass temple, and in searching for an arial photo, came across this one from Google Earth that had been posted at the site Sacred Destinations, and decided to take a chance on the copyrighted photo as well.  (If it’s not there, I lost that battle!)   I got to visit the original Garden Grove Community Church in 1979, and then my wife and I did the larger facility in 1989.  There are additional photos and story at that website.

October 18, 2010

The Place for Christian Critique

If anything characterized the Christian publishing market during the first decade of this new century, it was the glut of books falling under the general category of ecclesiology.     Once the domain of pastors and seminary students, suddenly every Tom, Dick and Harriet was interested in church growth strategy, church planting, home church, organic church, postmodern ministry, et al.

And many of these books were very critical of church as we know it.   Some writers believed it was better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, but others, spared nothing to launch their complaint against the irrelevance of church in the previous century including even tearing down more recent models which were attempting to remedy that very situation.

Can you imagine an author walking into a publishers agent’s office today with a manuscript about church life?   It would be a hard sell with the titles already available.

So what of this particular genre?

I chose the word critique over the word criticism, because most writers self-justified their efforts that they weren’t trying to be “critical,” but were attempting to simply put the church under the microscope in light of contemporary culture and statistical surveys.    But some of the books left you more pessimistic than encouraged.

I also chose this topic in light of the discussion that began Saturday here (two posts back) on the place for Christian humor.   Humor is, in many ways, a form of critique, and the humorists and the critics have a lot in common.   It’s my opinion that we need both, and that overall, the discussions in various books published from 2000 – 2009 have been helpful for refocusing and re-visioning the role of the local church moving forward.

But I learned on the weekend that not everyone is going to agree.

I guess a fuller title for this would be, “The Place for Critique in Christian Writing;” since it’s not Christianity — the doctrine and theology — that’s being reconsidered.   Hopefully.   Although it’s often the doctrine and theology as we came to understand it, or as it was taught to us, or as it was impressed on us that can be the issue.

So here’s what I want you do:   Check out both Saturday’s post and the comments; and then answer the following question which is similar, but different.

What’s your take on books or online media — such as blogs — that are highly critical of traditional church?

And let’s add a question about the issue that was raised on the weekend.

What controls should exist regarding the possibility of new believers or even seekers stumbling over material that was meant for church veterans?

The difference is that here we’re looking at writers who aren’t trying to be funny, though maybe humor might have softened their blows!

August 24, 2010

Seeking the Symbolism: Our Visit to a Catholic Church

On Sunday, for the fourth or fifth time, we visited a small church which is a breakaway group from the local Roman Catholic church.    The split from Rome was, I believe, over the issue of the ordination of women priests, but I believe there were some other issues; many of which the congregants of this church have perhaps forgotten.   The service uses the same lectionary readings as other Catholic churches in Canada follow, but there are also some variations in other places.

The group averages between thirty and fifty people, and we return occasionally to offer encouragement; but also because, of the 37 churches and home churches I’ve visited in our area, they are the most friendly and the most welcoming.    (And their worship band is probably one of the best, also; especially considering their involvement in the liturgy.)

This time around we arrived late and were seated closer to the front and I found myself noticing things I would have missed before.   The symbols on the stole the pastor was wearing.    His kissing of the altar table at the beginning and end of the service.   A reference to the table containing water and wine, representing the humanity and divinity of Christ.

On a Sunday that many Christians worshiped in ‘neutral’ auditoriums devoid of icons and physical actions of worship (and in a few cases, equally devoid of depth or mystery) I couldn’t help but think that this is the extra dimension of worship some say they miss, and others say is going to make a comeback.  (Though possibly minus the kissing of objects, unless their origins are Greek Orthodox.)

Also, this is worship style where the emphasis is not on the sermon.  Although I’ve heard a couple of great messages in this church, my Evangelical friends would consider the one on Sunday to be sermon-lite.   So the other forms of the service matter more in this context.

After the service I grabbed a notebook and made four quick observations, written in the form of questions:

  1. What is taking place? In today’s mega-churches you wouldn’t necessarily catch all the things I caught sitting just a few feet away.   And there were others I missed, forgot, or haven’t listed here.  Are people as trained today to have the same attention to detail as when some of these forms were instituted?
  2. What is the significance of what is taking place? The wine and water on the table were explained.   Other things are perhaps already known to this congregation.   But what of the people who miss the memo?  Or visitors like us?   Perhaps the reason some people don’t connect with the more liturgical churches is that nobody has explained the backstory behind the ‘sacred actions’ of worship.
  3. How much of this registers with people? To what extent do people connect the dots between the physical actions of the priest or pastor and their person worship taking place among those gathered?   I suppose much of this hinges on whether or not the leader is there on behalf of the people or if he is modeling a pattern of worship for them to follow in the hearts.  How do their acts of worship on the platform, stage or chancel become my acts of worship?
  4. What difference does that make? How does this permeate the next 167 hours of my week until we meet again next Sunday?   For example, how does a consideration of Christ’s combined humanity and divinity infuse my thoughts of what it means to be a Christ-follower throughout the week?  Is there a practical application?  This is where the discussion of ‘relevance’ meets formal liturgy.

But I think you could apply all of this to Evangelical and Charismatic churches as well:

  1. What’s taking place?
  2. Why?  Why do this?  Why those particular songs or prayers?
  3. Is the answer to #2 obvious to the congregation?
  4. How does this service make a difference in peoples’ lives?
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