Thinking Out Loud

July 15, 2018

Worship Planning is both Simple and Complex

I write a lot about the worship part of our church services because that is the area where I have served most frequently and consistently. If I had spent a lifetime serving in the church nursery, perhaps that would be the focus!

Years ago, when my wife was putting together worship sets, she encountered people who saw her work has very specialized and perhaps a bit mysterious. They viewed her adeptness at this with awe, often saying things like, “I don’t know how you do that each week;” or “I could never do that.”

The point is, at the basic level, they could do it. They could pick 5 songs and put together a worship set just as easily as anyone reading this could.

But in the modern worship environment, if you’re having to supply chord charts for band members, prepare presentation files for projection, deal with sound volunteers, and organize rehearsals; the job can get quite complex.

There are certain songs which just don’t follow other songs, usually for reasons of the pitch or key of each, but often for rhythmic or lyrical reasons. There are songs some churches don’t know and others that used far too frequently. A handful of popular ones today would go against the grain of the doctrinal position of certain churches.

Trying to be helpful to my wife, and as an occasional member of her team (I play keyboards, bass, incidental percussion and occasional guitar) I created the above document. It was a recognition of several things we were dealing with at the time.

First, it’s easy in rehearsals to under-communicate introductions and endings. Second, we sometimes feel instrumentalist on stage needs to be playing on every song, when in fact, the instrumentation would work better if some people took a song out to just sing. Third, it helped me personally visualize where some of the spoken readings fit into the larger set list, especially if I was only given a song set list, and the readings weren’t actually introduced until the actual service. Lastly, she was often run off her feet and I thought she’d appreciate the use of an organizing tool where churches didn’t have a budget for anything more sophisticated or personnel were still dependent on print resources.

Feel free to borrow it.

Yes, there is some complexity to all this, but again, if the demands are less complicated, this is something anyone can learn how to do.

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July 5, 2018

Theology for which we Don’t Have Songs

This post originally appeared under the title,

When We All Get to Heaven

Rapture art

If someone were to ask me if there are any paradigm shifts I’ve noticed in Christian perspectives on various issues, I would have to say that among my peers and those with whom I converse online, three things might quickly spring to mind:

  • A rethinking of the afterlife as ‘New Earth,’ rather than a ‘heaven’ that’s up there as opposed to down here. (For this, see the book Heaven by Randy Alcorn.)
  • A reconsideration of the ‘rapture theology’ that has dominated Evangelicalism for the past several decades. (See End Time Delusions by Steve Wohlberg.)
  • A re-assuming of our social justice responsibilities as opposed to placing the weight of our emphasis on doctrinal proclamation. (See Pursuing Justice by Ken Wytsma.)

However, the songs that we sing in our churches today — and by ‘our’ I mean those of us who have moved toward modern worship as opposed to gospel and classical hymns — do not reflect this change in thinking.

The hymns and gospel songs were consistent with things being preached in the pulpit and for many of us, these doctrines were ingrained through exposure to the music. Consider:

Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away

That’s rapture theology pure and simple. The hymn When We All Get to Heaven does talk about seeing Jesus and being in His presence, but implies that we are going to get to heaven, some place that’s out there.

Another example of a song under reconsideration, Onward Christian Soldiers talks about taking the cross to the world, but our crusade doesn’t appear to include demonstrating compassion or there being servant leaders among the soldiers. (Most people today agree that crusade is the wrong word; even the Billy Graham Association has dropped the term.)

I’m not opposed to those songs entirely; they shaped who I am today. It’s just that in today’s vertical worship environment, we don’t have songs that tell our story and describe more of the thinking that is currently being taught in our churches. Let me conclude with an illustration.

Last weekend we visited the anchor store in a large chain of musical instrument dealerships. I was telling the manager how my son, recently graduated in electrical engineering, has an interest in designing mixers, keyboards and especially synthesizers. I asked him if the store, when it hires people, is looking for product specialists or people who are good at sales.

He said basically that the product knowledge is a given. Nobody is going to apply who isn’t already a customer and very familiar with what’s in the store. So it’s the sales aptitude that they look for and develop in their staff.

Similarly, if I were asked to speak at a Christian songwriting conference, I wouldn’t talk about the basics of musical composition, I would, like the store manager, take that as a given. Instead, it’s a knowledge of the the lyrical foundation in the writing process that I would want to cultivate. I would want to encourage young Christian musicians to craft pieces that express where the church is today, the things that are central to us, and the things for which presently no songs exist.  

It’s not that vertical worship we have is inadequate in and of itself, but perhaps the whole vertical form is over emphasized to the point we no longer have songs of proclamation that fit our doctrine as it is constantly being amended (i.e. the parenthetic reference to crusade above.)

As we re-think certain Biblical interpretations, our music — or specifically our musicians — should be tracking with our different doctrinal emphases.


We found today’s graphic image along with a very thorough article at this website.

For an entirely unique view on this, here’s an old post I wrote about how a particular sect expresses their story in song.

July 3, 2018

Keeping Up With the Trends

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 4:12 pm

I noted on a recent link collection that in the new Hillsong Young and Free video, keyboards, digital controllers and synths dominate. If you listen to the feeds from North Point and Willow and other large churches, you’ve probably heard the presence of keyboards increase over the last two or so years.

Today I was in a magazine store, and was looking for a good keyboard magazine for my oldest son.

You guessed it.

All guitar magazines.

There’s a trend in music that the magazine industry hasn’t caught up with.

They’re just doing the same thing they’ve been doing for the past several decades…

As you know, I’ve been collecting analogies that can be instructional for those of us in the church. By this one today I don’t mean the type of instrumentation in our worship bands, but rather the larger situation whereby the world is changing and the church hasn’t noticed. Blissfully unaware we keep doing our thing and wondering why the world doesn’t find it as relevant as they once did.

I mean, you can certainly take the lesson literally if you want to.

But figuratively, we’re playing guitar while the world has switched to keyboards.

We need to always be aware where our methodologies and structures have fallen behind, and where we need to catch up.

June 29, 2018

The Stories are Real When It’s Someone You Know

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:33 am

Three stories.

First, I have been a longtime reader of Julie Anne and Warren and also of Dee and Deb. When I read the stories of spiritual abuse (not to mention mental, physical or sexual abuse) about which they (especially Julie Anne) are continually reporting, it’s easy to minimize the impact of those stories because they happened somewhere else to someone else.

But then this week I saw a “letter of dismissal” that some friends received.

I’m sure there are two sides to every story, but holding the letter in my own hands and reading it twice it occurred to me that (a) these types of stories are quite real, and (b) there are 100 better ways to phrase things than the way it was said in this letter.

The church in question didn’t use the term “letter of dismissal” but it was extremely dismissive. There was nothing redemptive in it at all. No, “We wish you God’s best in the next stage of your journey.”

What my brain was also processing as I read was, “Don’t get too concerned. These things happen all the time. You’re just seeing it close up right now.”

And then, perhaps God himself saying, “How would you like to be in my position? I have to see this sort of thing constantly.”

And last, a sense of, “Don’t be in a hurry to open your mail. You could be next.”

Second, I was throwing out old newspapers and found a story from April of this year in The Toronto Star about a Catholic Church whose current membership is being asked to contribute $500,000 as punitive damages that are part of a $2.6M settlement concerning a priest who abused one particular man when he was a student.

Imagine you’ve just started attending the Congregation of St. Basil and you’re told your church now faces this financial burden. The priest in question is deceased, but the jury felt that the church had participated in covering up the abuse. Perhaps it’s because I’ve driven by this church that it all seems to hit closer to home.

Cover up. That should sound familiar to readers here who follow the broader Evangelical scene. Time after time we’ve seen instances where it’s not the abuse that’s the big factor (as serious as that is) but the subsequent cover-ups that land churches in hot water. Which leads us to our next item.

Finally, Scot McKnight affirms this in a detailed analysis of this Spring’s soap opera involving Willow Creek. He maintains that the go-to response in cases like this is denial.

I have to say in all honesty, that would be me. I didn’t want to believe the charges in the Willow case were true, and I found myself angry with the accusers for instigating the accusations. Then, slowly, day after day after day, I found myself changing my position as more facts in the case came to light. (Truly, I’m still carrying a measure of disbelief.) He calls it “undoing forty years of trust.”

As McKnight points out, in so doing, the church only made it harder on themselves.

So what do these three stories tell us:

  1. There is a lot more going on behind-the-scenes in a local church office than any of us realize, and some of it quite unpleasant, and some of it is badly handled.
  2. Innocent people in church congregations bear the heartache when someone — perhaps someone not even living — has crossed a moral boundary. Covering things up only makes it worse.
  3. People like myself can find themselves in a place of denial when a respected leader has messed up. Such minds aren’t changed overnight; it can be an incremental process undoing preconceptions in the face of evidence.

 

June 4, 2018

The Fallible Pastor

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:20 am

That books like these ever existed is proof that the challenges faced by pastors and ministry workers are nothing new.

Pastors are people, too.

It seems obvious, but it’s not always the case that people really grasp the underlying principle: The humanity and fallibility of those we “set apart” as our shepherds. They are subject to all the temptations, frustrations, emotions, and disappointments that the rest of us face, with the added challenge of living out their lives in a fishbowl.

It’s a stressful, always-on-call-24/7 lifestyle.

And now, thanks to both mainstream media and social media, every time a pastor falls, it gets reported around the world. Nobody may have ever cared about the little neighborhood church in Nowheresville, Idaho before, but when word gets out that the youth pastor was caught at the Rest-Awhile Motel with one of the high school students, it becomes a trending hashtag.

And all of that impacts your pastor.

All those stories of moral failure denigrate the job.

Ever watched one of those funerals for a policeman who dies in the line of service? Representatives from forces across North America converge. A different city; a different state; but he or she is one of their own. They show support at those times; a loud chorus resonating, “We’re all one team.”

Pastors need someone to talk to. They’re reluctant to do this with parishioners because they are supposed to be strong for them. It’s unusual for a pastor to have someone in the congregation or on the board with whom they can be completely candid about a struggle they are facing. There are organizations which come alongside in tough times, and there is usually a denomination chain of command allowing a hurting minister to turn to his superiors in moments of crisis.

Not every pastor wants to ask.

There’s something about the job which either overtly, or subconsciously trains pastors to put on a brave face, or suffer in silence. From early days they are taught that sometimes their public position may not be the same as their private position.

All of this, bottled up inside with nowhere to go, inevitably leads to a breakdown.

Meanwhile, media continues to report on another failure of another clergy person. It’s like running a marathon where all of a sudden, the runner next to you runs into the ditch, and then the one on the other side simply collapses and drops. In the next mile, it seems like runners are dropping left and right. You can see the finish line in the distance, but the intellect is busy processing, asking, “What the heck is going on here?” And, “How long before I drop to my knees?”

At the beginning, I said that pastors are people. They are fallible. If you prick them, they will bleed. But the Apostle Paul reminds us that “love believes the best.” With no reason to proceed differently, we need to hold them in high esteem and not allow the stories on the evening news or on Twitter to have any bearing on our pastor.

What’s more, we need to come alongside them with support and encouragement.

We just don’t know what challenge or crisis they are facing, and due to the intricacies of their calling, they’re not always likely to tell us.

 

May 15, 2018

What if the Most Seeker-Friendly Thing is Having a Regular Service?

Filed under: Christianity, Church, evangelism — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:58 am

I’ve mentioned before that the problem in the North American capital-C Church is not that some churches are seeker-sensitive, but rather that some churches are seeker-hostile.

Still, as we switch to a greater postmodern context, is it possible that some of our best efforts to be welcoming are no longer necessary?

I’m currently reading Evangelism in a Skeptical World by Sam Chan. This book is literally overflowing with practical application for both churches and individuals. I thought I’d share this very short excerpt with you today (emphasis added).

At our church, we designate February as Friends Month. This is the month we design the church service to be especially accessible to our non-Christian friends. But what does a service like this look like? When we used to evangelize moderns, the strategy was to simplify the service and remove awkward moments from the service — the offering, the prayers and the announcements. The idea was to get to the Bible talk as soon as possible. The idea was also that the Bible talk would be what moves our non-Christian friends to a point of conversion. They would hear the truth of the gospel clearly presented, and they would understand that they had a simple choice: accept or reject the truth claims of the gospel.

But with postmoderns, we look at the whole service — not just the Bible talk — as evangelistic, because the whole service shows how Christianity works. When they see us take up an offering, they will see that we are generous with our money because Jesus himself generously gave himself up for us. They will see that we are content with our money because we trust God to provide. And they will see that the gospel has freed us from the hold that money has on us because God is our security. When they hear us pray, they will hear what a personal relationship with God sounds like. They will see that we have a God who is powerful enough to answer prayers but also personal enough to care about our little needs. They will hear that we love each other so much that we pray for each other in our churches. They will hear our cries for justice for the poor, oppressed and marginalized. And when they hear our announcements, they will hear that we take food to the sick, new mothers, orphans and people who have moved into our suburbs. They will hear that both young and old meet together in small groups. All the parts of the service show that we have a community of believers who are transformed by Christ and who restore our world by bringing Jesus’ love, mercy and justice.

p126

April 23, 2018

Sermon on the Screen

Yesterday was my first time watching a video sermon in a local church environment. In other words, not a multi-site church and one that normally doesn’t go this route.

True, we’ve been to Harvest Bible Chapel twice — over a decade ago — and missed the live sermon both times. When he was at Elgin we were at Rolling Meadows and when he was at Rolling Meadows we were at Elgin. Sigh!

It’s also true that for nearly 15 years now, we’ve tuned in regularly to North Point, Willow, Saddleback, Southeast, The Meeting House, Woodland Hills, and many others. We certainly know the experience of sitting at home and watching on the screen.

Finally, I’m also a huge fan of DVD curriculum. These are usually produced more like documentaries and can’t be compared to sermon delivery.

But this was the first time I was in a small-to-medium church environment, on a Sunday morning, watching a sermon with 70-80 other people for whom it was probably also a first at a weekend service.

I have to say this, I was a little detached. It might be because I was assisting in the music part of the service and was thinking about what we had just completed on stage, and the song which was remaining. But I also sat in the back row trying to gauge the attention reception the video was getting. People were polite, they were definitely tuned in. I don’t really know how engaged they were, but I’d love to ask to follow-up questions as to their opinions about the mode of delivery.

So here are some general observations:

Inasmuch as it depends on the preacher, the preacher needs to be a strong, dynamic communicator. They say there’s a difference between stage acting and acting for television in that stage acting is usually a bit more over-the-top. I would argue that in this case it might need to be the opposite. The speaker needs to be overflowing with his topic so that the message reaches people separated from its presentation by time and distance. In other words, the best homiletics.

Inasmuch as it depends on the technical crew, the sound needs to be highly present (not simply picking up room sound as happened here) and there needs to be a greater dependence on tighter shots (in this case the wide shot was the basic and the tighter medium close-up was the cutaway; it should have been the other way around) to create the effect of being there. Where a Biblical text is being followed, graphics indicating which verse we’re moving to is also helpful.

That said, it was a good effort. 24 hours later, I can still tell you the thrust of the message and the scripture passage used.

It should also be added this video was sent to churches whose pastors were attending the denomination’s regional conference, which means that on a practical level, if there were 75-100 pastors present from smaller churches, 75-100 churches did not need to arrange for a guest speaker, or the expense involved with booking one.

…There are to be sure other issues associated with this. One of the North Point churches posted this pro-video apologetic with Four Reasons Why Video Preaching Works in 2014. While searching for various articles opposed to the medium, I couldn’t help but notice that 3 of the top 4 Google results were from one particular Reformed website, yet there are multi-site megachurches in that tribe, though some have reverted back to full programming at the local church level.

Before hitting the button which sends this article to subscribers and the site itself, I realized we’ve also been 3 or 4 times to The Meeting House in theater locations. This means an extremely large screen which solves the problem of presence and also several times each year, the lead site pastors do the teaching themselves by design, so the congregation gets to know those people more fully. I think the fact I didn’t remember these visits when initially composing this is indicative that in those environments, the sermon-on-the-screen is a more secondary consideration.


Image: Screen in a screen — Andy Stanley uses a smaller screen for his teaching notes, while his image is projected to 7 or 8 other venues in Atlanta and on a delayed basis to affiliate churches across North America and around the world.

 

April 22, 2018

Married Couples Holding Hands in Church: No Big Deal, Right?

Church behaviorDifferent denominations have different ideas as to the appropriateness of what are sometimes called PDA — public displays of affection — in the context of Christian camps or youth group meetings. Any rules that might exist are usually put in place with the intention of applying them to teens and twenty-somethings. Some churches have very strict standards on this, while in others, you’re probably wondering why this topic is even here today.

Hand holding is a mark of commitment. If people want to know if it is true that the divorced usher on the east aisle is seeing the alto in the choir, walking in arm and arm should clear up that mystery in a hurry. In the context of gay relationships, in addition to being a gesture of affection, hand holding is really making the statement, ‘Yes, we are gay;’ and so doing this in church is a bold declaration of that situation.

But today I’m not looking at PDAs as physical signs of relational status updates nor am I as concerned with the puppy love in the youth group. I’m talking about couples who have been married for some time and have nothing they’re trying to broadcast by being affectionate.

A few years ago I attended three different church services on a single Sunday. I am always aware of men who put their arms around their wives during the service — and sometimes it’s the other way around — and there are times I do this myself. Whether the church in question has pews or chairs, I like to stretch out anyway, so whether there is an empty seat or it’s my wife sitting next to me, I am likely to do this, though I probably have my arm around her less than half the duration of the sermon.

On the other hand — pun intended — there are the couples who sit really close and the hug lasts the duration of the sermon. (Except in summer in one church I visit which has no air conditioning.) I always see this as a church service = movie date type of posture. I would hope that in worship we see ourselves as standing before God individually even though as we sing we are worshiping corporately. The worship time is our personal response to God, and not something I can do with my spouse. (A possible exception might be if the worship leader invites everyone to join hands and sing a classic like “We are One in the Spirit,” or “Father Make Us One.”) I would also like to believe that in an ideal world, during the sermon we are busy taking notes, or looking up passages in our Bibles or Bible apps, even when the words are on the screen.

I also believe that during the actual time of the service, our “arm around” is broadcasting more than we realize.

  • It says to everyone that we are happy and committed. (Oh, if only they could see the chaos just ten minutes before we left home!) So in that sense, we are modeling what we consider to be the normal husband/wife relationship. We’re saying that the church family is a place where we are free to express that. It might be the only time we’ve had all week to just sit together.
  • It possibly serves as a major distraction however to singles. It could be a jarring reminder that they are sitting alone; that they have no such relationship; no hand to hold. I’m not sure this is the intention, but with all the other things the church does which tends to cater to couples with 2.4 children, I’m not sure we need one more. (Especially the one where, at the end of the benediction, the couple shares a quick kiss.)
  • It does equate to something we might do at a concert, play or movie. In that sense, we are saying that we are observers; that we are the audience; when the worship environment should be one where we are participants.
  • It gives the aforementioned kids in the youth group unspoken permission to do the same, which when combined with the current trend toward low lighting levels in our modern auditoriums, should beg all kinds of other questions. Can teens with raging hormones get all turned on while the preacher is discussing righteousness and judgment? (It’s a rhetorical question.)

HandsSo while I realize the intentions and motivation in the first case may be pure enough, and while I hate to be The Grinch that ruined the only moment of affection you and the significant other had all week; the second, third and fourth points seem to suggest a more conservative approach. I’m not saying you won’t catch me next Sunday with my arm around my wife, but it’s good to occasionally stop and think our actions through.

What do you think?
Any stories to tell on this subject?

April 16, 2018

Missing Church

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:19 am

There have not been a lot of weekends in my life where I’ve missed church, in one form or another, altogether. It’s even more weird to think that yesterday this was also true for most of the people I know.

Unlike our friends in nearby Buffalo, we don’t get hit with a lot of church closings. We get Sundays when the weather seems to definitely impact attendance. It will have been a great week and then a weather system rolls in on Saturday night. Is God just testing the resolve of our pastors and church leaders?

Attendance sags on those occasions, volunteers don’t show up, and you can bet your bottom dollar (pun intended) that offerings are down. But we’re hearty and our cities, towns and villages all have snowploughs (the preferred spelling here) because, after all, this is Canada.

But consistently on Saturday night, church after church looked at the satellite imagery, looked at the forecast, and looked out the window and announced closings. Well all except for The Salvation Army. They’re an army after all, and it takes more than a few inches of freezing rain to shut down an army.

But some were reluctant. Like these guys, who I won’t name:

Apparently, not “forsaking the assembly” is sacrosanct; an eleventh commandment so to speak. So it was going to take an act of God for this church not to meet.

But in the end, they caved to the planetary conditions in their region and shut down like the rest of us.

Well, not all of us.

You see to this point, I’ve not told you the full story. To the best of our knowledge, based on websites and church Facebook pages, it was the Evangelical churches which cancelled services. In the Mainline churches, it was business as usual.

My son, who is currently helping out a Roman Catholic Church choir director in another city, weighed in with the news that his church, “only cancels if it’s snowing in the Vatican.” (For the record, Sunday in Rome was, as today will also be, 21°C or 70°F and partly cloudy.)

Now it’s true that many Anglican (Episcopal), Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, etc. churches operate on something closer to a parish system — meaning if you live in that parish you go to that local church — rather than having regional churches as do Evangelicals. It is also true that Evangelicals will drive greater distances because of the charisma of a particular speaker or the doctrinal distinctives of a particular tribe. (I have one contact in this area who drives, in good weather, about 90 minutes deep into Toronto for that particular reason.)

It’s also a fact of life in most of the Mainline churches that the pastor/rector/priest has a manse located next door to the church. Commute Time = 0.00 Minutes. So there’s no reason for him/her not to be there on time to open the building.

Despite all this, I still find it surprising that without exception all the Evangelical churches in my little corner of the world opted to shut down.

…The saving grace this morning was churches streaming live, or delayed sermon podcasts. I can’t emphasize enough how blessed we are to live in this age of technology where so many resources are available to us.

Television, the resource of an earlier generation, is less of a factor as local stations claim more time to sell advertising for programs highlighting the weekend in sports, or Sunday morning political round-tables. You might catch some programs, but without access to a dedicated Christian cable or satellite channel, you won’t see much.

Nonetheless, I still missed the interactions, the corporate worship, the corporate prayer and sitting in person under live teaching taking place in the same room. 

The forecast for next Sunday promises weather that is much more balmy.

 

 

 

April 3, 2018

Cruising the Liturgical Worship Continuum

A few years ago, Evangelicals starting using words like Advent and Lent and Lectio Divina. While some purists probably thought this was the proverbial “Road to Rome,” some of us were thankful that the Episcopals, Anglicans and Catholics didn’t have a copyright on the liturgical calendar.

However, at the same time as this is taking place there is another distressing trend at the other end of the worship continuum. Increasingly, worship leaders seem blissfully unaware that there are songs which are especially suited for Easter Sunday and more disturbingly, Good Friday, or the mandate that these days issue to them.

I attended a number of Good Friday services this year and got to witness this firsthand. The lack of focus was rather appalling, however, as I said, the standard has been eroding for at least the past decade, to the point where younger worship leaders and worship planners have never had an Evangelical Good Friday service properly modeled for them.

I covered this in two previous articles:

One of the services I attended included Hosanna, which is a song for Palm Sunday and comes packed with the mood you’re not trying to create on Good Friday. Ironically, of all the services we attended or watched online, it was a capital “L” Liberal denomination’s church that got it right. We sat in a room with only 22 attendees and although there was no sermon, I give them 100% for liturgy and 100% for music in terms of capturing the intent of a Good Friday service.

This is a rant I will never stop. I’m sorry, but… well, here’s what I tweeted a week ago, possibly in anticipation of the weekend which was to follow.

It’s not just Good Friday, either. Thanksgiving has slowly fallen off the worship leaders’ radar. I’m not saying we need to sing We Gather Together or Come, Ye Thankful People Come endlessly; I’ll take a modern worship expression of the same theme. But the people choosing our songs apparently live in a total vacuum when it comes to awareness of the seasons in question. (And yes, I know Thanksgiving isn’t part of the liturgical calendar.)

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