Thinking Out Loud

July 19, 2016

A Caution to Seniors in the Church

…and Those on the Cusp of Becoming One

seniorsSo I’m sitting at my computer compiling tomorrow’s link list and I see this article and I’m thinking, ‘This is gold! How do make absolutely sure people read this?” Then I remember I still haven’t posted anything this morning.

This is by Thom Rainer. That’s right, the LifeWay guy. Me and LifeWay are not usually on the same page, I know. Still, you should click through (on the title below) and read this at source because you really want to read the comments as well.

Oh… before you think you really should forward this to somebody else, you might want to remember that if you’re not already there, you soon will be!

Five Things I Pray I Will Not Do as a Senior Adult in the Church

I received my first AARP material in the mail six years ago.

I turned 61 years old two days ago. One of my sons says I am fossilized.

I am a senior adult.

Have I noticed any differences in my life at this age? Certainly. I move more slowly. My idea of a mini-marathon is running to the kitchen from the family room. I see things differently. I don’t know if I am wiser, but I certainly have different perspectives.

And I have to admit I view church life differently. In fact, I sometimes scare myself with my rigid attitude. I need to write these words quickly lest I become too comfortable or too complacent.

I have five specific prayers. They are for me. They are for my attitude about my church. They are reminders I will need to review constantly.

  1. I pray I will not feel entitled because I am a key financial supporter in the church. This attitude means I consider the money my money rather than God’s money. That means I am giving with a begrudging heart.
  2. I pray I will not say “I’ve done my time” in the church. Ministry through the local church is not doing your time, like serving a prison sentence. It is an outpouring of joy and thanksgiving to God. I love those churches where senior adults are the most represented among the nursery workers. I need to be among them.
  3. I pray I will not be more enthused about recreational trips than ministry and service. There is nothing wrong about me getting on a bus and going to Branson, Missouri, or Gatlinburg, Tennessee. But there is something wrong when that is my dominant involvement in ministry in the church.
  4. I pray I will not be more concerned about my preferences than serving others. I’ve already blown it on this one. I did not like the volume of the music in the service at my church a few weeks ago. I complained about it to my wife. And then I was reminded of all the young people in the church that Sunday worshipping and praising God during the music. I was more concerned about my preference than seeing others worship God.
  5. I pray I will not have a critical spirit. I attended a business meeting of a large church some time ago. The total attendance at the meeting represented fewer than five percent of the worship attendance. One of the men who recognized me approached me before the meeting, “We come together at these business meetings to keep the pastor straight,” he told me. In reality, they came together to criticize the pastor and staff. I pray I will not become a perpetual critic. I don’t want to grow old and cranky; I want to grow old and more sanctified.

Now that I am a senior adult in my own right, I need to make certain I am not a stumbling block or a hindrance to health and growth in my church. I pray my attitude will be like that of Caleb:

“Here I am today, 85 years old . . . Now give me the hill country the Lord promised me on that day . . . Perhaps the Lord will be with me and I will drive them out as the Lord promised” (Joshua14:10-12, HCSB).

May the Lord grant me wisdom and service all the days of my life, including my senior years.

Let me hear from you. I bet I will.


Related: From 2014, here’s a look at the ideal, the multi-generational church.

July 12, 2016

Retro Reviewing: Pagan by Frank Viola and George Barna

Filed under: books, Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:15 am

In 2008, books about ecclesiology were selling briskly. Bloggers were consuming and recommending books about the church and church planting at rates never before seen, and the market included both clergy and laity, with the latter group feeling empowered to take an interest in a subject previously left to the professionals. (Historically in North America, while you might need theological degrees to be the pastor of a church, the work of planting includes colorful stories involving all types of people.)

paganPagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices was an important book during this time. The Tyndale House-distributed title with the bright red cover was presumably an update of a previous edition in 2002. According to what I wrote at the time, George Barna’s contribution was added for the revised edition. I have to assume that included much of the research; up to 25% of each page contains exhaustive footnotes. Those notes give the book an academic air, but in the end, especially re-reading this today as I’ve been doing, you realize that some of what is being offered up is based in opinion; specifically a preference for less-institutional, more organic worship setting, specifically the house church type of gathering. The book seems to want to call for a more radical paradigm shift than is realistically possible across the entire spectrum of churches.

In 2008, the market was ripe for a book like this. It was a time for deconstruction, and many were re-inventing the wheel. The terms emergent church and emerging church were on everyone’s lips, as was the idea of being missional, but this book doesn’t necessarily go there, since many emergent forms consisted of a blended worship which continued to incorporate the very traditional elements the book decries as rooted in medieval Catholicism, academia and even forms from other religions.

Where the book shines however is in terms of giving us an historical understanding of why we do the things we do.  The use of church buildings. The sermon form. The robes and vestments. The clergy. The paid church staff. The Choir. Our expression of Baptism and Communion. Christian Education.

In 2016, as I’ve gone through it again, I believe the book continues to speak into our tendency to do church as it has always been done. Reading it eight years later provides a different lens however; many models were considered and not those churches which were implemented succeeded. Rather, the book inspired church planters to take a salad bar approach, to pick and choose which elements they wished to refine or delete altogether. 

However, this time around, I also got more of the sense of walking in on a heated argument; a reminder that there are two sides in a debate, the other being traditionalists. It could be argued that we came through this micro-period in church history and not much changed. Or, it could equally be argued that in 2016 we have a much greater variety of churches doing very different types of things, and giving expression to their worship in unique ways. 

For the latter group, the book Pagan may have been a big part of that.

 

July 8, 2016

Engineering and Denominations

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:29 am

Christian DenominationsHaving an engineer in the family is a whole new experience. Kid One graduated a few years back in Electrical Engineering (he’s technically an EIT right now), but Kid Two, Mrs. W. and I are more of an artsy bunch. So the learning curve has been steep.

Wikipedia lists several branches:

  • Chemical (including sub-disciplines of Molecular, Bio-molecular, Materials, Process and Corrosion)
  • Civil (including Environmental, Geo-technical, Structural, Mining, Transport and Water Resources)
  • Electrical (including Computer, Electronic, Optical and Power; the latter possibly including Nuclear, which was offered at his campus)
  • Mechanical (including Acoustical, Manufacturing, Thermal, Sports, Vehicle, Power Plant and Energy)
  • Software (Computer Aided, Cryptographic, Teletraffic and Web)
  • Systems (an interdisciplinary field)
  • Interdisciplinary (Aerospace, Agricultural, Applied, Biological, Biomedical, Building Services, Energy, Railway, Industrial, Mechatronics, Management, Military, Nano-engineering, Nuclear, Petroleum, Textile)

I love a good analogy, and if you read today’s title or you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know exactly where I’m going with this: The similarity between the branches or disciplines of engineering and the various denominations which exist in Christianity.

I’m tempted to try to create a similar list as the one above, complete with some sub-sections in brackets to break down the finer points of each, but I think readers here are familiar enough with the range of churches which exist.

So here’s the lead-up to the question…

…I think that my eldest son would agree that the branches of engineering have a few things in common. Probably the overarching methodology (whatever is the practical equivalent of the scientific method) is the same in all. I’m sure they also take some of the same electives, including engineering ethics. I’m sure that the various branches cooperate with each other on major projects.

But he would also argue that the branches are also very different. He knows a little of Civil Engineering from his project in Haiti, and might have a rudimentary understanding of Chemical Engineering; but his school also offered Automotive Engineering, and I doubt he feels qualified to even begin designing a car or truck.

The question is: Do the various branches of Christianity have more in common than they have in differences?

In terms of a creed or statement of faith, you would probably say yes.

In terms of the portability of membership, the way people change churches these days also implies more commonality.

So perhaps, as with so many analogies, this one doesn’t line up perfectly.

But just as it would be impossible for my Electrical Engineering son to practice Chemical Engineering, it would be very difficult for me as an Evangelical to understand all things Episcopal. It is very much another world.

But I’m thankful the analogy doesn’t work. I’m glad that we do hold more things in common than the things we don’t.

We have Jesus, his resurrection, our atonement, God’s word, the Holy Spirit, the expectation of Christ’s return, the promise of eternal life.


Just so we’re clear, Wikipedia didn’t list all those engineering branches in a copy-and-paste-able form, so I had to type all those big words by myself.


A year ago at Christianity 201, we looked at a different way of expressing our core beliefs. Check out Knowing What You Believe.

July 5, 2016

The “A New Broom Sweeps Clean” Church Staffing Policy

This first ran here three years ago, but on the weekend I was reminded that this crazy policy still exists in some denominations…

Darlene Kirk smiled at the greeter at the church’s west doors, but with a 3-month old in one hand and a bag of diapers in another, taking a church bulletin was physically impossible, so she simply walked by. Fortunately, her husband Tom had taken the other three children when he left early for the worship team sound check.

Arriving at the nursery check-in station she met Cynthia, who was in her small group.

“Have you heard?” asked Cynthia; and then without waiting for a reply, continued, “The entire church staff has resigned. Everybody including the janitor.”

Darlene just stared at her, then finally got out the words, “There are 14 people on full-time staff here.”

“It’s a policy;” continued Cynthia, “from before we all started coming here. When the senior pastor resigns the other staff are expected to tender their resignations. It’s supposed to be a courtesy thing, but the new pastor has the option to accept or reject their letters, and the new minister has chosen to accept all their resignations.”

Darlene was non-plussed. “You mean Melissa’s not the Children’s Director?”

“No. And Derek is not the youth pastor, and Maggie is no longer the secretary.”

“So who is going to do those jobs?”

“Right now, it’s up to the new pastor, but he’s not from here, so I don’t know how he’s going to do that before he gets here.”

“This is just wrong.”

“Apparently it’s church policy and it’s a fairly common thing in churches.”

Church StaffingCommon or not, I have to agree with Darlene. This is just wrong.  Under whatever conditions it was instituted, it seems to reflect another time, another place, another set of conditions.

It also describes a world in which the pastor is all-powerful, all-authoritative. A world where the pastor is a God.

To go along with this, a pastor has to be determined to miss out on what God might have for his own personal, professional and spiritual development; the benefits that come when, over a lifetime, you get to interact with people from a broad range of backgrounds and interests.

It is, if anything, the first step to denying the uniqueness of the town or city in which you are called/sent to minister. It’s an attempt to plug in a ministry module — in this case, the man himself and those who think and act like him — into what is believed to be a “one size fits all” ministry situation.

It turns local church ministry into a revival roadshow where the traveling carnival team pulls into town not for a few weeks of meetings, but for several years. Stories of men who bring their own secretary with them are not unheard of, but given the interaction that a church administrative assistant has with the congregation; it becomes difficult to do this in a location that is completely foreign.

It disrupts the lives and stability of people like Darlene who are trusting Melissa, the Children’s pastor for the oversight and care of her four children, including that 3-month newborn. It changes the dynamic for her husband Tom, a respected worship leader who has been given much latitude by the present Music Director that allows him a freedom in worship that the congregation recognizes and embraces.

It’s also an admission by the incoming pastor that maybe there are people out there with whom he can’t work; with whom he can’t get along.

Or it may be a giant power play.

It shatters the careers of eight of the 14 people in Darlene’s church who are in full-time vocational ministry and moved to this community to further their calling in visitation, discipleship, music, youth (2), Christian education, seniors ministry and urban outreach; all of whom must now circulate resumés and prepare to re-settle, one of whom just arrived six months ago from the other side of the country.

No exceptions. No compassion. No face-to-face meetings with the people just dismissed.

This is standard operating procedure in many U.S. denominations and at least one in Canada. It’s a policy that needs to be repented of.

Darlene opened the door to let Cynthia in.

“Good timing, Cynth; the kids are all settled down.”

“You sounded like it was important.”

“Yeah,” Darlene continued; “We’ve decided to leave Central Church.”

“Is it because of the staff thing?” quizzed Cynthia.

“Yes and no. I can get to know new people, and I’m sure they’ll be qualified; but it bothers us that a system exists that allows this to happen; that everybody accepts that this is how it’s done. Tom found about a fairly new church about five miles further that’s desperate for some help in their music department, and the kids will fit in right away because they use the same curriculum and they know some of the kids from school.  I’m sorry….”

“No, it’s not your fault. We’ve been wondering about all this ourselves…  Maybe we’ll come to visit on Tom’s first Sunday leading the worship.”

 

June 27, 2016

Host Church Syndrome

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:12 am

Outreach events

Host Church Syndrome is what happens when a local church decides to do a major event that is open to people from other churches in the community, but in the end, the majority of attendees are from the congregation which sponsored the event.

In our years living in this town we have seen this play out over and over again. Yes, the evidence is anecdotal, but there’s no denying it; some people simply won’t attend an event in another church in town. We’re the exception, but then the enterprise for which I work is interdenominational in nature, and therefore equips us with a different mindset on these things.

What made the event we attended more interesting was that the church in question had sought to open their event up to a wider demographic — including non-Christians — by holding it in a community hall. We ourselves — who attend different churches — were actively involved in helping promote this to the broader Christian community.

On the other hand, the event was a benefit for a charity, and the head of that charity had been a speaker at the church recently; so their people were more than motivated to support the fundraising event.

So about 80% of the people were from the one church. Nice that they supported it. Sad that the event didn’t have further reach.

Why is this?

Do our own events keep us too busy? Do we look on the other churches in town with suspicion? Do we not get disappointing with it’s our turn to promote something really big only to find the people showing up are just our own congregation?


People really wrestle with this. Here’s a comment on a forum for Christian moms where someone asked if it was okay to attend a Bible study at another Church:

I wish more people and churches would feel free to interact with each other.The building you attend is not the church. The church is the people of God. We should support the local church body, obviously our tithes should go to our “home” church body so they can grow and do God’s Work and our time and service benefits our “home” church body but “breaking bread” and “fellowshiping” with other church bodies should not be looked down upon. I know we are often made to feel we are somehow being disloyal to “the church” if we find something we need in a another part of the body of Christ but part of Christ’s plea in the garden was – “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17.21-22).

The Church as a whole needs to learn to work together, support and encourage one another, and loose the us/them mentality that is so prevalent. We are all Christian and Christ’s prayer was that our unity would speak volumes to the World. Just imagine if every church body were willing to pool resources and work together to build the Kingdom instead of holding on to “their” resources to build their buildings. Those churches who had great teachers but little money could be helped by those who have great resources but little time. Those who have strong leaders could help struggling smaller churches grow and train leaders. If we would all be willing to look beyond the walls of our local or “home” church building a lot more could be accomplished for the LORD.

 

June 19, 2016

What’s going on with modern worship?

This weekend on the blog we’re introducing Australia’s Luke Goddard who along with his wife Peta, writes at From Frightened to Father (he explained the title to me). The article here appeared on his blog in April, but as a bonus, in addition for permission to reproduce the one below, he wrote an article just for us which appeared yesterday at Christianity 201.

This is a fairly lengthy piece for some of you, so as an alternative, some of the same material is covered on Luke’s podcast, Filtered Radio. (15 minutes) To leave a comment direct on Luke’s blog, click this link.

Ever since the 1970’s, Christian rock has had a large audience through praise bands in front of churches and in record stores (yes, physical record shops with actual music in them) through Maranatha! Music in California. Here is their history from their own website:

“Maranatha! Music was founded in 1971 by Chuck Smith Sr. of Calvary Chapel, to promote the “Jesus Music” his young hippie followers were writing and singing up and down the California coast. In the early years, Maranatha! Music started signing artists because of their passionate profession of faith through music. These songs became the influential calling card of the worship music genre of that time; they belong to the Maranatha! song catalogue today. Back then, the songs considered unsuitable for the ‘traditional church’ were still being sung by millions of young people around the world.  Pastor Chuck Smith, Chuck Fromm and Tommy Coomes were among the leaders of Maranatha! who were serving the church at that time.  The mission these faithful men began continues today: It is still the song of faith that leads people into the presence of God.” (Maranatha! Music, 2016).

baptism

May 5, 1973: Hundreds of Calvary Chapel members line Corona del Mar beach for baptism ceremony.

With this movement of musicians filling churches with hippie hair, ripped jeans, big beards and hip, melodic, catchy rootsy tunes (much like todays scene…) it gave Christianity something “alternative” to hang its hat on with music. Something wholly original, organic, birthed out of revival and centred on Jesus Christ. However, as this movement progressed, praise bands became more “mainstream” in churches, replacing hymn books and congregational singing led by a conductor to a band-led church experience with worship leaders being born out of this movement.

The 1980’s – Some good, some not so good…

In the 1980’s when the “self-esteem” reformation hit (which I touch on here), the music became part of a much larger “engineered” sound that was “planned” to be a part of moving an atmosphere into a particular direction. Since churches became larger, and the people attending became more broad in age, musical taste and preferences, the service had to accommodate this if it wanted to keep them in their seats. So they polled the world, and guess what? The world hates hymns! In fact, the world loves rock music! So soft rock became the weapon of choice for megachurches around the globe, and these growing churches appeared healthy (aesthetically), so smaller churches across America and Europe and Australia began mimicking every successful large churches’ praise band style, making it infiltrate even the most resistive traditional church. The tidal wave approaching was too big to hide from, so rock-music-infused praise bands got their way. They became very, very common. The problem is, this was a fad. Not the praise band, but the style. It had to change. So ever since the Calvary Chapel Jesus People praise music has maintained its rock roots, but simply undergone various degrees of changes in sound to catch up to the world. Right now (like, today in fact) Electronic Dance Music is the norm. Blending electronic drums with heavy synth, washy guitar, minimalistic dance beats and even programmed loops that contain sound effects, hits, pops of music or samples are all the norm amongst 13 year old and over-directed youth bands, and arena style churches. This style has gained traction existentially through the Hillsong Young and Free. This band catapulted the use of straight out trance synth, pulsing beats and using stabby samples into music, forming a catchy, melodic, dance-infused power trance feel, whilst somehow pretending to maintain that their music is Christian in theology and truth. Anything could be further from the truth. Here is a sample of one of their more recent efforts that has a huge following on radio:

I lived
Heart on a wire
Hand in the fire for so long
But You’ve shown me better
A new kind of love
It’s ever the one I want

I’m lifting you higher, higher
There’s nothing that I’d rather do
A sweet elevation of praises
There’s no one I love more than You

I never knew a love like this before
The kind of life that I cannot find on my own
I’ve seen the world but I have never been so sure
That I want Your heart
God, I just want to be where You are
Where You are
I just want to be where You are

Your love, like nothing I’ve seen
My wildest of dreams don’t come close
Life never no better than living like this
I cannot resist You Lord

I’m lifting you higher, higher
There’s nothing that I’d rather do
A sweet elevation of praises
There’s no one I love more than You

I never knew a love like this before
The kind of life that I cannot find on my own
I’ve seen the world but I have never been so sure
That I want Your heart
God, I just want to be where You are
Where You are
I just want to be where You are
Where You are
I just want to be where You are

And after all this time with You by my side
I can’t imagine what it’d be like on my own
I’ve made up my heart, this love is all I’ve got
And You’re the only one I know worth living for

A sweet elevation of praises
There’s no one I love more than You

I never knew a love like this before
The kind of life that I cannot find on my own
I’ve seen the world but I have never been so sure
That I want Your heart
God I just want to be where You are
Where You are
I just want to be where You are
Where You are
I just want to be where You are
Where You are
I just want to be where You are

Peeling back the layers is all it takes to have a good hard look at the overall theology of a movement or band, and like with Jesus Culture’s fixation on super sentimental love songs to God that are purely based on experiences, feelings and romanticized lyrics about our Holy God, Y&F manages to do the same thing but with a different musical style altogether. It’s the same infiltrating heresy of sappy love songs to God, but wrapped in different beats for clothing. The truth remains the same – the bands that have sprung from churches that preach complete heresy most of the time end up singing heresy in almost all of their songs, bar the odd one or two that remain orthodox. It’s hooking youth, young adults and parents into a wider, bigger, vaster movement called the “New Apostolic Reformation,” as well as mega-church purpose-driven philosophy which is absolutely contrary to God’s written word. And it has to stop!

So, back to rock as a sound… The rock scene took over praise music for the praise songs at the beginning of the praise band era in the early 1980’s, and songs were categorized quickly into “fast” and “slow” songs, which led to the traditional “2 fast songs/2 slow” etc. technique we now have today. Rock riffs began to make up the base recognition of a Christian song, instead o the lyrical content, and the way the song made the congregation “feel” began to swamp the use of songs. Instead of songs that were well written and musically beautiful, songs were written to create a particular mood for the service. So, loud punchy songs were used for the introduction to church, then music slowed down on cue for “worship” time after this. The music shift from singing a numbered hymn in a book of 4 or so verses, interconnected with a strong chorus sung in unison disappeared once “singing in the spirit” became a real thing. This technique was largely developed in Vineyard church through the Toronto Airport Vineyard Fellowship, that was the catalyst for the Toronto Blessing, which I speak of at large in my podcast. The sound developed from the “soaking” practices there, where one loses themselves in God’s presence and empties their minds, only to bathe in the music and feel washes of God’s love. This is an eastern meditation-linked musical technique, achievable with anyone anywhere with the right instrument, though, and has been proven to be a mind control technique in many studies. The simple fact is that with emotional and musical manipulation you can get people to believe anything, even wrong doctrine, if you sound sincere and emotional enough at that time. The fixation on modern bands to a persistent latch onto heavy synth drones, invoking emotions during preaching using music, and tactics that lead to using music as a prop in part of a larger production – the church service – has led to a cardboard cut out style of music that every modern worship band ended up trying to emulate. It affected preaching, teaching, service length, evangelism and even discernment in the church. Its all linked to watering the gospel down, and a ploy to destroy the overall power of the gospel. Instead of focusing on Christ, the gospel, the cross, God’s nature and what He’s done for us as sinners, songs are now written to show our devotion, make us feel happy (Planetshaker’s This Is Our Time highlights this tenfold) and steer our attention to how much we can do for God in our face-crunching work to please God with our dedication. This discusses how it got to that point.

What happened to theology?

Early church songs used to be God-honoring colorful palettes of sound biblical doctrine that exalted the cross, Christ, God’s holiness and other characteristics, focused on salvation of the sinner, and were easy to sing in a group. Since the early 1990’s contemporary Christian music in church has been rock focused (in music style). Guitar was introduced – even the worship leader used it to lead from (as I have done). Electric riffs became a high point in a song. Worship leaders were wearing what most rock acts were for that era. Congregations singing certain catchy lines together became the norm. In the late 1990’s Hillsong’s sound developed into a standard, setting the stage for what was to come for a good 9 years. I followed their music and played every major song from their albums from 2002 onward in many churches and ministry trips to other congregations. Their worship style became mainstream. The building riffs, the drums leaping into staggered fills to build to a chorus, the delayed, layered guitar with massive reverb. It all became “church music,” and it was good. It was seemingly harmless to have different instruments introduced over time. Entire YouTube tutorials are out there on how to achieve a “worship guitar sound” (and I have a pedal-board that achieves this if I want it). For a while it became an effortless success. But something happened right after Hillsong’s worship director changed. When Darlene Zschech left the ministry of Hillsong as senior worship director in 2010, the theology, sound and direction of Hillsong took a turn when it was handed to Joel Houston, son of Hillsong Sydney’s senior pastor Brian Houston. The theology disappeared from their music. It was subtle, in that there were always a few doctrinally sound songs on each album that followed, but by and large some theologically rich songs such as “God He Reigns,” “Mighty To Save,” At The Cross,” and “Worthy Is The Lamb.” These songs, that now sound quite dated, did contain some great theology and truths about God that are indeed found in scripture. But along the way somewhere the great writing & composition of Darlene got lost and each worship leader from Hillsong got the chance to flex their creative muscle and, well, a significant portion of Hillsong’s tracks became void of deep scripture-rooted theology. For example, “Children of the Light” from 2012’s Cornerstone album has a chorus of:

Set alight to follow
In the shadow of Your Name
The world is Yours and I know
Everything will find its place
Under Your Name

and the bridge is rather bizarre and jumbled in thought:

Children of the light
Blazing through the night
Taking back what the devil had stolen

Calling on Your Name
Breaking every chain
Jesus everlasting freedom

Running through the wild
Dancing in the fire
Taking back what the devil had stolen

Calling on Your Name
Breaking every chain
Jesus everlasting freedom

This kind of messy theology that’s vague, romantic and “cool” sounds great in a modern song structure… but doesn’t work well as a God-honoring song that will turn people to a resurrected Saviour: Jesus Christ. It certainly whips up a storm, but the heart of it is shallow and empty, like a foil wrapper that looks like a chocolate that is found to be nothing but a prank.

DSCN8793

This kind of writing by and large continues to plague modern music, from Hillsong’s extension band “Young and Free” to United’s youth albums, to Planetshakers and many younger generation bands. Everything seems very well engineered and edgy-sounding, yet somehow the reverence, awe and wonder of the God of the universe and His redeeming Holy Son appear absent. Large mega-church bands seem to have a penchant for selling large volumes of music, yet a deep neglect for the true heart of worship – pointing people to their risen King with deeply scriptural words that point people to Him in song as they sing together. The entire premise is to make music so exciting sounding, so emotional, so irresistible that there is no escape – some kind of emotion is evoked, but the truth is that a deeply satisfying, truly awe inspiring experience of worship can be found in a tiny church in a country town that only has two musicians, an old building and some committed Christians who fear God attending. The phrase that everything traditional is the “frozen chosen,” is a lie, and I have discovered this since leaving the Pentecostal scene and opening up my eyes to what God is truly doing in the hearts of men and women and children in other denominations that hold to Christ as their Saviour. The division that insulting traditional or creedal churches has produced is easily spotted when a team from a Pentecostal youth ministry comes invited to a traditional church to preach, and the young person gets up and rants on about how little their congregation is doing, how old everything is and how they have to change everything they do otherwise they’ll die a slow death. This is simply not the case! Good theology in song, even if it’s played in a modern context – is still a rock of a foundation for the church, and boosts the spirits of the congregation because it solidifies their belief that the scriptures are inerrant, that God is sovereign, that salvation is of the Lord, and that there is only One God and One Holy Trinity. This cannot be done with washy, romantic lyrics that flatter God and elevate man – this actually stunts true worship and a true understanding of our Lord Jesus Christ and His relationship to us.

Atmosphere. A god?

There’s a well documented story on how Elevation Churches’ staff told a disabled boy that he could not continue to worship with the congregation because he was “a distraction.” It highlighted, publicly, a major flaw in the modern evangelical belief of a worship service, and that is that it is about “feeling good” when a certain atmosphere is present. That atmosphere is one of fun, laughter, carefree, jubilation, reflection, silence, listening and quiet contemplation. This is all achievable in a controlled environment, but not in a random one. If I brought my 4 children to Elevation’s worship service they’d make noise. Not much, but enough to grab my attention if they wanted it. I would look at them, open my eyes, attend to their needs, tell them off, take them to the loo, look around, ponder, then shut my eyes again. At Elevation. That is because their worship style is modern – and by that I mean studio recording, arena stage, concert quality modern. It leaves no room for congregational singing. It’s a show. It’s filled with loud guitar, loud drums, loud PA, loud voices, loud leaders, loud devotion. But what about those who cannot sing in the key they’re in? They just stand by and watch the show. What about those who make noise and cannot focus on the songs? Well, they miss out on the atmosphere too. What about those who are disabled and maybe have a degenerative muscle condition that has forced them to drool and wear a bib and groan during speaking? Well, they’re part of the “atmosphere ruining crowd.” These people aren’t young, hip, with it, focused and driven… so they cannot be part of the service. Not in the same room as the band that’s for sure. Is this separatist? Yes. Is it wrong? Yes! Many people have attended church for millennia who have all kinds of issues with their bodies or minds, only to stay and hear the preaching and be saved, prayed for, ministered to, sung next to and encouraged. This is Christian welcoming and hospitality. This is what heaven is like – non-favoritist. Christians are to seek the good of their brothers and sisters, and build each other up in their Holy Faith, which has been delivered once for all the saints! When making noises during a service has become a reason to be booted out, then something’s wrong with the high view of corporate modern worship over the dignity of individuals made in God’s image who have come with their parents to listen to the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, lets get real here. I’m a worship leader & musician myself. I have been since I was 20. I started in youth group in Adelaide before I even had a girlfriend, and most certainly didn’t take in the brevity of what I was meant to be doing – pointing people to a crucified, risen Saviour who died for all mankind’s sins. Whilst learning how to worship lead in the Charismatic church, I had to learn from other worship leaders who would visit church how to do this well. I simply went by how they viewed the worship leader role, and what they concluded was a successful worship style/set/show for that congregation. It was usually information from the largest churches at the time e.g. Hillsong, Saddleback and Willow Creek, and the Contemporary Christian Music scene sound being translated into church as rocking as it could be without being irreverent. I only had charismatic, mega church worship leaders to learn from. Not accompanying musicians that served to back a congregation singing together, but rock stars who had their own albums who played electric guitar, drums, sang or played piano and led worship from any of these instruments. I only knew this model. So I learned about raising my hands. I learned about smiling politely the entire time so that the congregation were also smiling with me, mirroring my emotion. I learned about hearing from the Holy Spirit during a particularly quiet moment, or a moment building up to a crescendo from nothing, and riding it out. I learned how to play between songs and make them “flow” together well so that there were no “dead spots” in between the music (because that would kill the “atmosphere.”) I even learned how to lead a team like a business man leads a company using similar tactics and applying them to Christian men and women under me. The problem was that everything was a tactic to manipulate the congregation. Literally lead them into feeling certain ways at certain times, using certain sounds. Pad-esque sounds on guitar for quiet moments, overdrive and reverb for building choruses, yelling things into the mic that are positive when a moment builds & quietening down when things seemed to peter off. These are “leading” tactics I used to get what mood I wanted whenever possible. And they’re repeatable. And can be used anywhere to create a sense of expectancy, even if the preacher/teacher/speaker being introduced for the evening is heretical or downright blasé with handling God’s word. There is a real sense that a worship leader can create an environment that’s harmful to the people he’s meant to be leading in song, if he’s not careful at all. And this has happened many times. How many of us cringe when a band starts playing a hard rock line when a youth ministry leader hops up on stage to preach? It’s like introducing a WWF wrestler, only worse because it’s Christ’s holy church… and the preacher is meant to be above reproach, humble, able to teach etc….

worship1

Church only looks like this… apparently

It’s a matter of telling the congregation to, “raise your hands… let go of your thoughts and drift off into mysticism…. don’t worry about anyone else around you… just go crazy… sit… stand… do whatever you want right now to worship the Lord…” And this could be used to get the reaction because the music matches that atmosphere. However, when you have 4 children, a wife, a job, a family, a car loan, a study assignment due… a schedule to keep… that “drifty” atmosphere can be snapped out of at any moment because of someone needing the toilet, a baby nappy change required or simply having to discipline someone for being too loud. This tactic only works in the right situation. It rarely works when responsibility, wandering thoughts and seeing through the light show occurs. There is only one audience that this works for – people who are on their own or a couple…

I’m saying all of this because there are better ways to do things than “what everyone else that’s a big church is doing.” Most modern churches have a formula and strategy for lighting, sound design, sets, props, target audience and feelings & comfort of the seeker. This is only valid if the point is to glorify Christ in it. There is no room in the church for excessively expensive sound design if it’s purely to entertain the sinner so that he feels more comfortable, because unless that church also couples it with preaching repentance from sin and forgiveness in Jesus Christ through His shed blood, then it’s absolutely money wasted, week after week, item after item. That’s simply an engineered attempt at pleasing the masses so that they’ll think Christianity is “relevant” for the sake of being relevant. No other. I’ve seen good examples of this, and bad, and everything in between as a Christian. Many pastors would balk at the idea of simply having a modern building and style of service purely for the comfort of sinners… the goal has to be that once people are there that they ultimately hear about our resurrected King who was crucified and rose again on the third day according to the scriptures. That’s always the goal of a pastor and a church – to preach Christ and Him crucified. This modern style of atmospheric worship can almost be pinned down to a few movements and people, but by and large it has been pop culture and charismatics that changed the landscape of worship for this last 4 decades. This quote from Matthew Sigler of Seedbed sums up how these are linked:

    “Many forget (or don’t know) that “contemporary” worship was inextricably linked to the Charismatic Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. This connection forged a musical style that was rooted in a particular understanding of the Spirit in worship. Specifically, the singing of praise and worship songs was understood sacramentally. God was uniquely encountered, by the Spirit, in congregational singing.

Several important aspects of this theology of congregational song are worth highlighting. First, a premium was placed on intimacy with Jesus in congregational singing. This emphasis was largely due to the influence of John Wimber and the Vineyard movement of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Though he was not the first to say so, Wimber emphasized that the Church needed to sing songs “to God” and not “about God.” Lyrically, this was manifest in the frequent use of the personal pronoun, “I.” Just scan through the catalogue of songs published by Vineyard Music during the 1980’s and see how many of them emphasize the importance of the individual engaging the second Person of the Trinity in the lyrics. While the intimacy motif wasn’t new in the Church, it was an important development in what would become known as “contemporary worship.”

So what’s the alternative? Well, it’s simply to cut out the excessive stuff that’s been plaguing the modern worship scene for so long. The lack of use of well thought out theology in songs, the lack of real depth to lyrics, the absence of Christ and Him crucified being the focal point of worship, and to utilize a wide variety of sounds instead of electronic dance music alone, followed by slow synth ridden layered Coldplay knock-offs. Hopping onto Bandcamp and searching for bands that contain “worship” as their tag quickly reveals a wonderfully colorful texture of a variety of peculiar, interesting, unique and barrier breaking music that will satisfy that longing for another way out of the same sounding stuff. Granted, there’s some weird stuff too… but some gems are hidden there for our eyes and ears. The sound of modern worship has begun to copy the world, and that alone is a poor footing to begin a movement from. We need solid writing again, reverence for the scriptures in song, attributes of God brought into our singing, and more songs that congregations can wholly sing together. Instead of 20 people standing around watching three people play their favorite songs each week in their comfortable keys, lets have that many people singing every line together of a modern hymn and bring back thoughtful, prayerful and decisively Christian music again. The church is begging for it!

June 16, 2016

The Storefront Church

Storefront Churches

He was looking for something else, but either the map on the internet was wrong, or the other church had moved. So he went into the storefront church.

The people were extremely pleased to have a visitor, and turned on the charm. They gave him a free book by one of their faith’s key authors, and took his name and email address. They followed up and he ended up going back for successive visits.

The he in the story is my son. He had enough Bible knowledge and spiritual discernment that the church, while having its own unique flavor, passed his religious smell test. Ultimately however, he moved on.

o-o-o-o

I’m always mystified at how certain churches survive. Springing up in strip malls, industrial complexes, and in the downtown core; these places of worship must attract enough people to 4 or 5 weekend services to pay a monthly rent plus utilities, and yet somehow many continue for multiple years.

There are usually reasons why their adherents have chosen not to associate with larger, established churches, but to speculate as to four or five key factors would be to miss forty or fifty others. There’s almost always something quirky or distinctive about their doctrine, but as in the above example, it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker.

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It’s important to remember that the aforementioned established churches didn’t start at the megachurch level. Trace their history, if they have one, and you find storefront types of beginnings.

A passion for world missions (Christian & Missionary Alliance). A concern for the poor and underprivileged (Salvation Army). A unique movement of the Holy Spirit (Assemblies of God).

Or today, many churches are springing up around ethnic diversity. In major cities you can find large clusters of people speaking any given language, but in secondary and tertiary markets, you’d be looking at strip mall type of fellowship.

Some people feel that in North America, the ethnic church simply is the hot church-planting story for the present time. But it’s a complex one, as the second generation, born and raised here, don’t always speak the parent’s language. So you have worship services in the native tongue, and others offered in English. You have kids that have ditched the language, but are always under the umbrella of the culture.

o-o-o-o

This week I ran into someone else who had chosen a downtown storefront place of worship. He had left a major denomination and was seeking something else.

And I think the s-word is key and deserves one more: People are searching. Their hunt doesn’t necessarily lead to the congregation with the largest parking lot, but increasingly, I think something in the small(er) church environment will resonate with them.

No church library? No child care? No comfy seats and air conditioning? I don’t think they really care. Those amenities are not in their line of sight.

o-o-o-o

Which may suggest something else. It might mean people are really looking for the house church or what is often termed simple church experience.  Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name… and they’re always glad you came.

There is something about the interactive and informal nature of certain types of gatherings that appeal to a wide demographic swath right now.

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They say in music and art that every period is a reaction to the period it follows. My generation was raised on highly programmatic church environments. When I did a church plant a few years back in a Youth for Christ drop-in center, it was like a breath of fresh air.

Our advertising caption was, “Ever wanted to raise your hand in church to ask a question?  Now you can!”

For my wife, doing a church plant in a condemned motel for the people who lived there and didn’t have cars to get them anyplace else; the experience she had totally wrecked her for status quo churches. She has a hard time now dealing with business-as-usual worship services, following an order of service that was written in 1940.

So when I wonder, “Who is attracted to storefront churches?” I really don’t have to look any further than the other side of the bed. And when I ask myself, “What would draw someone to attend a service with just a small handful of others?” I already know the answer.

May 30, 2016

Can You Be Spontaneous and Liturgical at the Same Time?

Filed under: Christianity, Church, theology — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:45 am

liturgy 1

Okay, let’s get the title question out of the way quickly: The answer is ‘no.’ To adopt a liturgical form is by definition to do away with spontaneity completely. Why pose the question?

If you were a fly on the wall at our house last night, the discussion was about the churches that would call themselves “spirit-led” vs. the ones which follow a more “scripted” worship order at weekend services. There are advantages to both of course. Many — dare I say most? — Evangelical churches lack the richness and depth one finds in an Episcopalian or Anglican setting. But when it comes to prayer, particularly if the prayer is for you and some need you are facing, you want someone who doesn’t need to read a prayer out of book.1

In many Evangelical environments, every word that is spoken is not written out ahead of time.2 This produces a tendency to “wing it.” On the other hand, those same Evangelicals often enter a liturgical environment and find it too sterile. Let’s face it, you can tell when someone who is reading something is just reading it.

On the other hand, we have Millennials reporting to be preferring a more traditional worship environment. Does this do away with extemporaneous praying? Eliminate the pastor being led to introduce a new direction into the sermon? Or is the desired outcome more a blend of what we have now, and what we had 100 years ago? 3

Cruising the interwebs, we found a piece by J.C. Holsinger at the Assemblies of God website. It’s too long to post in its entirety here but I hope some of you will click through. (Click the title below.) I like the way — from the perspective of his denomination — this article bridges the divide.

Pentecostal liturgy?

…When the Assemblies of God was formed, the founders deliberately avoided using the words sacrament and liturgy. In fact, the founders carefully called the ceremonies of the church ordinances to avoid any sacramental connection. Hence rather than sacramentalism which the word liturgy historically brings with it, Pentecostals more accurately have ordinances and ceremonies. However, these ceremonies are important in educating and binding the generations of Christians together. Therefore, continuity and carefulness in performing these ceremonies should be practiced.

I attended a wedding recently where the pastor opened the ceremony with a prayer: “As we hear these young people repeat their vows, may those of us who are married be reminded of the same vows we once took. Lord, help us to reaffirm our vows to You and to each other.” When he finished the prayer I almost shouted “Amen” because that is one of the most valuable purposes of ceremony–to educate and reaffirm important truths held in common, not just to provide a private or personal experience.

Modern society attempts either to personalize or individualize everything… A common question is, ‘What does that mean to you?” The implication is that your experience and other people’s experiences are equally valid…

Can such tendencies to personalize and individualize everything ultimately destroy the purposes and continuity of ceremonies in a society?

Consider God’s command that Joshua require the leaders of the 12 Tribes to take a stone from the Jordan River to create a memorial. What if each of the 12 leaders or the 12 Tribes themselves had said, “We want to personalize our part of the ceremony.” Or, “I would rather bring a log,” or “I’ll pick up a pretty shell from the river that is special and meaningful to me.” Instead, they heightened the meaning with all the leaders repeating exactly the same ceremony. This made it possible for the next generation to ask, “What mean you by these stones?” and to be educated about God and their responsibilities to His purposes.

Repetition and consistency of common procedures heighten the meaning and importance of ceremony…

For example, if a respected Christian couple brings their child for dedication and the minister says, “I know you are good Christians, so I am not going to ask you whether you will bring up your child in church,” does that not destroy the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to prick the hearts of all parents present as to whether they are carrying out their vows?

Do we as church leaders affirm the importance of godly homes if at a Pentecostal church wedding the bridesmaids and bride come down the aisle more appropriately dressed for a nightclub than a church? Or music is sung at a Pentecostal church wedding that has sexual overtones more in keeping with a cabaret?

What about our ceremonies for the ordinance of water baptism? Is the meaning of “being buried with Christ and resurrected with Him” lost if we allow silly comments about the coldness of the water or ask, “Are you scared?”

Ceremonies need not be formal or stiff, of course. Given our church’s history and theology, ceremonies can be relaxed and natural. However, is it not easy to cross the fine line between relaxed and natural and instead produce silliness that destroys the basic teaching purposes of the ceremony? …

Also interesting was information about an academic book releasing in 2017 by Mark Cartledge and A. J. Swoboda, Scripting Pentecost. You can read about that at this link.

Your comments are welcome. We’ll return to this topic soon!


1 There are always exceptions to everything and one is a book that is a favorite among Pentecostals and Charismatics, Prayers that Avail Much which uses what would be termed Spirit-filled language, but consists entirely of pre-formatted prayers which can be used in a variety of life situations.

2 For a look at a brief period where something resembling liturgy overlapped Evangelical history, check out the Responsive Readings section of old hymnbooks.

3 For one approach to creating liturgy in a more current culture, check out my brief 2011 review of Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne et al.

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 20, 2016

Sermon Format Brings Diminishing Returns

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:30 am

 Found this at Thom Schultz’s blog Holy Soup. It’s actually an introduction to a 36-minute podcast which I hope you’ll consider checking out.

After many years in the pulpit, Steve Simms gave up preaching. He turned the floor over to his congregation. And he’s never looked back.

Every Sunday at Berry Street Worship Center in Nashville, Tennessee, the faithful gather to hear and share personally what God is doing in their lives. It’s unscripted, and often surprising. Simms says, “Every Sunday we say we’ve never seen anything like that.” And that’s the way he–and his congregation–like it.

The people of Berry Street follow the advice in 1 Corinthians 14:26: “Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, another language, or an interpretation.”

Simms said, “I’ve seen people grow spiritually far more rapidly in this style than when I was preaching.”

In fact, back in his preaching days, Simms polled his congregants with general recall questions about his sermon content. “Not one person could answer the questions,” he said.

And, the old one-way communication model is a primary reason today’s people are staying away from church, according to research.

In today’s Holy Soup podcast with Steve Simms, he explains how he conducts his participatory Sunday services. And he offers troubleshooting tips for some common worries about this style of message-bringing, including how to handle long-winded individuals, theological impurity, and shy members…

Simms has discovered what others, in other fields, are finding: the monolog lecture method has diminishing returns.

Listen to the entire podcast at Holy Soup or at SoundCloud.

 

May 18, 2016

Wednesday Link List

Too Much ApologeticsBefore we begin, a reminder that Saturday we did a Weekend Link List. A big one. With links… The graphic at right was sourced in a 2013 blog post at Barenuckle Bible.

It’s been a long time since we caught up with our friends at Mainline Memorial Church in the comic For Heaven’s Sake by Mike Morgan, so we’re going for doubles:

For Heaven's Sake - Thorn in the Flesh - 4 25 2016


For Heaven's Sake - Spoke in Tongues - 5 14 2016

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