Thinking Out Loud

January 10, 2018

Wednesday Link List

Not exactly Willow Tree, is it? A poster at Reddit described these three as his Grandma’s badass angel statues. (Left to right: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.)

This week’s list begins below, but we wanted to take a minute to provide you with some particular links — out of many that we looked at — for what was undoubtedly the Christian newsmaker of the week, Andy Savage.

The Iberian Lynx filling in for the semi-regular Wednesday List Lynx.

Now on to the balance of this week’s stories and opinion pieces.

That’s it for this week. Keep those cards and letters coming in folks; preferably by 6:00 PM on Monday. Speaking of the first day of the work week, the closing graphic is from Happy Monday at Clark Bunch’s blog.

 

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January 9, 2018

When Churches Become Self-Serving

Filed under: Christianity, Church, evangelism — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:49 am

Years ago I heard someone state, “Libraries aren’t made for the public, they’re made for librarians.” While some might object to that notion, there is a grain of truth, particularly in terms of the organization of the facilities, which often leaves those of us who haven’t memorized the Library of Congress classification system or the Dewey Decimal system asking for assistance.

Are churches any different?

Many times, especially around Labor Day Weekend in the U.S. or New Year’s Day, churches will get serious about appealing for volunteer help. And the pitch is always the same: Serve in our Sunday School; join our choir; lead one of our small groups. We’ve been there.

My wife and I visited a Presbyterian Church once and after the service ended, she was approached about joining the choir, without even an inclination as to whether or not she can sing. (She can and does.) There was no qualification if she considered herself a Christian, although I suppose visiting this church on a Sunday morning increased the odds.

More recently, a local Evangelical church wanted to replace traditional membership, with a form of covenant membership that would require one be involved in an area of service at the church in order to maintain that status. The problem is, many people in that church are involved with parachurch organizations based both in the community and nationally. They are already serving, just not within the confines of the congregation.

The problem is that this has no outward focus.

Furthermore, when we give, we’re subconsciously giving to ourselves. We are the beneficiaries of the programs the church offers. Our children attend the mid-week program and consume the resource materials and goldfish crackers. We show up Sunday night and consume the video material that’s part of an adult elective. We take notes during the preaching and sing with the worship team and consume what’s projected on the giant screen (and relayed to the baby/cry room; and later posted online.)

But at the first mention that some of our donations might be spent on projects in the broader community, or to a major overseas project, we bristle at the suggestion.

Surely, there are greater needs at home; and by home we mean within the church building. (“Lord, Bless me today and my spouse and our two children; us four, no more.”)

And then there’s the strange logic of the idea that we need to develop more inwardly in spiritual depth and discipleship before we’re ready and able to reach out to the broader community. This just in: It will never happen! We’ll never reach that point where we’ve got it all together and are now prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder and reach the world. We have to reach them not having it all together. They might actually like us better that way. They might be more inclined to want to join a family of the broken than a family of the perfect

…Are we missing something? Do our neighbors see us leave for church on the weekend and mentally follow us and ask themselves, ‘What goes on in that building?’ Indeed, what? Are we more like a community center or more like a secret society? (Especially given the current penchant for not having windows in our auditoriums.)

I think as we’re only days into a new year, we need to ask ourselves how much of our church activity, and how much of our church budget is completely self-serving.

To repeat, we need a greater outward focus.


Graphic: Sermon video (39 min.) from Vermon Pierre at Roosevelt Church, a Gospel Coalition Church in downtown Phoenix, based on this text:

NLT Mat. 20:25 But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. 26 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. 28 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

January 8, 2018

What is a Charismatic? Two Sets of Characteristics

A few years ago, I ran a post at Christianity 201 where the author Michael Patton gave seven reasons why he believes that the gifts of the Holy Spirit have not ceased to operate. This is known as the continualist position or continuism. The opposite is the cessationist position or cessationism.

Patton had blogged just the day before at Parchment and Pen about six characteristics he believes identifies Charismatic Christians. (He used a lower case ‘c’ but I have chosen to capitalize this where it refers to an admittedly diverse denomination, in the same way some are now arguing that Evangelical needs to be capitalized.) Update (12:30 PM EST): That article is now available at this link.

1. Unusual attention given to the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer

2. The tendency to seek and expect miraculous healings

3. The tendency to seek and expect God’s direct communication (dreams, visions, experiences, personal encounters, etc.)

4. Unusual attention given to the presence of demonic activity in the world

5. Very expressive worship

6. Belief in the continuation of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit

He spells out each of these, and then describes the entire spectrum of belief as to the gifts of the Spirit, ending up with this chart. (I do appreciate his calling both extremes as unorthodox; you can tell me that the tongues and interpretation aren’t for today, but don’t try to tell me they never happened!)

Belief Spectrum - Gifts of the Holy Spirit

At this point I would link, but unfortunately the website is no longer in service.

I think his analysis is good, though his terminology is a bit intense. Perhaps the charismatics I know are more conservative, or possibly he is envisioning charismatic believers in Africa or South America. I would rephrase his six points this way:

1. A distinct emphasis on the limitless power and work of the Holy Spirit in the world today

2. Expectant, faith-consumed prayer even in the face of great odds and obstacles

3. A belief that God speaks into the hearts and minds of his people through dreams, visions, circumstances and a ‘still small voice’

4. An acknowledgement that the Christian is always embroiled in spiritual warfare

5. Passionate worship

6. Belief in the continuation of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit

The problem with any doctrinal emphasis is that it always takes place at the expense of something else. So if you speak of an “unusual emphasis” on the Holy Spirit, or on demonic activity, are you doing so at the cost of not emphasizing the work of redemption on the cross, or the call to love our neighbors, or the priority of world missions? (Points 1 and 4) The Charismatics — albeit with a few exceptions — that I know haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water.

And if you believe that God is still in the business of impressing things on his people (Point 3) that doesn’t mean it is at the expense of not prioritizing the role of scripture. Most of the Charismatics I know have a good working knowledge of scripture.

I did leave one (Point 6) intact. Update: The original article with about 90 insightful comments is available at this link.

January 7, 2018

Worshiping a Generic ‘God’ vs. Worshiping Jesus

On Thursday we looked at the trend in vertical worship and how it has moved us away from songs of testimony and songs of proclamation. I ended with the question,

In your church, do you think there is thought given to the horizontal-vertical dichotomy? Or the distinction between “I” and “we”?

which produced a handful of responses both on and off the blog.

One of these was from Kaybee, a freelance writer herself, former missionary, longtime reader here, and personal friend of ours. (I hoped we could catch her between assignments so that she could flesh out her comment in greater detail but that will have to wait!) She wrote,

Not an answer to your question – but I have always felt it important to specify in hymns and songs just exactly which God we are worshiping. In our multicultural age/society, where multiples of ‘gods’ are worshiped, it’s quite conceivable for someone of another faith/religion to come into our church for the first time just as we are singing a song with no mention of the name of Jesus, only ‘God.’ Jesus may be implied, but that’s not sufficient for those who don’t know Him. They need to know that the song’s message applies to Jesus, the Saviour. They need to know it is Jesus we are worshiping, not just any god. Out of your list of 12 hymns/songs – so inspiring for those of us who know Him and love Him – if my calculations are correct, 9 do not explicitly mention Jesus’ name.

I had not given this much thought. What distinguishes the music at our gatherings from something that could be sung at a Unitarian service? (I’ve been to one; they did sing.)

My wife Ruth responded,

I agree to a certain extent, but as a “worship leader”, I have to embrace and acknowledge the whole personhood of the Trinity. Choosing songs that only speak of or to one of the three seems lacking. This is part of the challenge we face: touching on the multi-faceted nature of individually and corporately singing to and about an ineffable and complex God. No song is ever going to be theologically complete and no Sunday service is long enough, so it falls to the “worship leader” to choose wisely and lead well.

There’s merit in that, but I think Kaybee’s comment is addressing the times when perhaps none of the Godhead are being referenced. Besides the religious pluralism now present in Western society, why is that? I have one answer.

Where the traditional hymns had an advantage it was in the multiple verses. The more words written and then sung, the more specific the God being addressed, right?

Not always. Consider this song, pretending you just walked into the “Community Church” for the first time and as a unchurched person have no idea as to their theology and values:

O worship the King all-glorious above,
O gratefully sing his power and his love:
our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.

O tell of his might and sing of his grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.

Your bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
in you do we trust, nor find you to fail.
Your mercies, how tender, how firm to the end,
our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend!

O measureless Might, unchangeable Love,
whom angels delight to worship above!
Your ransomed creation, with glory ablaze,
in true adoration shall sing to your praise!

If we truly can abandon our Christian perspective for a moment, the God addressed is only clear in the context of other hymns sung at the service, and in the prayers, the scripture readings and also the sermon. By itself, it’s not entirely clear.

Even the classic How Great Thou Art is not initially clear:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul…

That second verse is immensely vague, don’t you think? But the piece is redeemed in the third verse,

And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

as well as the fourth.

Think about it. I think the best way to end this for today is to repeat Kaybee’s words one more time:

…In our multicultural age/society, where multiples of ‘gods’ are worshiped, it’s quite conceivable for someone of another faith/religion to come into our church for the first time just as we are singing a song with no mention of the name of Jesus, only ‘God.’ Jesus may be implied, but that’s not sufficient for those who don’t know Him. They need to know that the song’s message applies to Jesus, the Saviour… not just any god.


Somewhat related:

When we say we begin with God, we begin with our idea of God, and our idea of God is not God. Instead, we ought to begin with God’s idea of God, and God’s idea of God is Christ.

~E. Stanley Jones


Lyrics from Hymnary.org and Sharefaith.com. Never trust the results appearing on the Google landing page for any research you’re doing; in this case O Worship The King is attributed to Chris Tomlin. (And these computers want to drive your car.)


Homework:

Make a list of your twelve to twenty favorite all time hymns and then rank them in terms of

  • vertical or horizontal
  • “I” vs. “We”
  • specificity of God worshiped

January 6, 2018

The Steps to Decision

Two nights ago we were discussing the process by which people ‘cross the line of faith’ and identify as Christians. I looked all around for this graphic, including online, and discovered some people had improved on the one we posted in March, 2014.

Here’s what I wrote about this at the time,

A long time ago, in a galaxy rather close by, a new generation of Christians were as excited about the latest books as today’s host of internet bloggers. While we might think the universe didn’t exist until we were born, there was the same mix of academic writers as well as popular writers. One of the latter was Emory Griffin who wrote a paperback about evangelism called The Mind Changers, and in that book, he frequently quoted James F. Engel, who wrote the textbook Contemporary Christian Communications: Its Theory and Practice. I am privileged to own (somewhere in our house) a copy of both.

Engel dissected the conversion process as only a late 20th Century academic could, breaking it down piece-by-piece. But I’ve always kept a copy of this particular little chart handy, because it reminds me that making disciples (or what a previous generation called soul-winning) doesn’t happen overnight (though it can) but often involves the careful processing through of ideas and thoughts. Yes, some people encounter Jesus and the transformation can be instantaneous, but often it has to be reasoned through (or even emoted through; I don’t know if there’s a word for that) and it usually involves some other person whose gift is apologetics or just being there with love or perhaps some combination of the two.

Today, people still discuss whether or not salvation happens as a crisis experience (in a moment, in an instant) or whether it is a process experience (as C. S. Lewis defined so well in the train analogy in Mere Christianity) but if it’s a process, it might look something like Engel describes in the graphic.

I ended up repeating some of this material and going into greater detail, including a second graphic image, at this post at Christianity 201.

January 5, 2018

The Antidote to Church and Worship Overanalysis

So on Monday we talked about the danger of falling into what is, if not a critical spirit, perhaps a critique-ical spirit when it comes to things like the worship time and sermon time at your local church. We said we would come back and discuss some solutions. Here are some things we came up with:

Celebrate the good things taking place at your church.

Try to keep a focus on the strengths, rather than the weaknesses of the people in leadership. Rehearse those things in your mind and in conversation with family and friends. Remember some moments where your church really stepped up its game and made a difference.

Develop a positive, wholesome attitude toward things in general.

Here’s how two contemporary versions translate Philippians 4:8 —

Finally, brothers and sisters, fill your minds with beauty and truth. Meditate on whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy. (The Voice)  Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. (The Message)

Hang out with people new to your church, especially new believers.

What a breath of fresh air to spend your fellowship time at church with people who haven’t developed negative attitudes; people for whom everything is new, and fresh, and exciting. These people are the fresh blood which keeps the church functioning at its best. They may also have questions and answering those will keep your mind from going in other directions.

Make your comments as constructive suggestions.

The best way to do this is to ask questions. What if we did this differently? Or, What if we offered ______ an opportunity to take the lead on that segment of the service next week? Or, What if we had the youth group handle worship one week? While you don’t want to overdo this, it is less threatening than to make overt complaints and express overt dissatisfaction without offering anything as an alternative.

Visit another church.

You might just need a break. If you visit another church and find they’re doing everything perfectly, at least you’ll have a perspective or an authority to make suggestions. (Or maybe even a new church home.) Chances are however, that your church has some things it does better, and the other church has its own issues which, while different, are equally important to people there.

Put your name forward for a leadership position.

Six months of elders/deacons/board meetings might open your eyes as to why things are the way they are. You may find the issues are far more complicated than you realized. Don’t lose your idealism, but try to gain an understanding of how process works in a local church and how to bring about constructive improvement.

Avoid taking a leadership position.

Yes, I know. The opposite. It may be that you’re happier putting some distance between you and the things that tend to upset you. Perhaps changing diapers in the nursery or serving outside on the parking team would be more satisfying right now, both to you and the people who may have been caught in a rant or two.

Those are a few suggestions. Can you think of any we’ve missed?

January 4, 2018

Redemption Songs vs Modern Worship

Filed under: Christianity, Church, worship — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:01 am

One of the luxuries — and they are few these days — of having ownership in a Christian bookstore is that if there is a title you wish to examine, but not necessarily purchase, you can always bring it into the store as inventory. Such was the case with Redemption Songs, a words-only collection of 1,000 hymns published a century ago. Somewhere in the house we have a much thicker version which contains music, but I wanted to see how the book looked in its present form, given that it’s still in print. As far as the store is concerned, we do get (older) people asking if we can get their hands on resources like this so they might enjoy some memories.

Although I’ve written about this before, I was once again struck by the difference in the lyrics — not the vocabulary, which is superficial — between the songs congregations once sang and what the modern church is singing today. Mostly I was seeing:

  • songs of testimony; reflecting conversion and then an experience of God’s deepening presence
  • songs of proclamation; declaring the life and teachings of Christ and the history of the church moving into a new era; as well as the doctrinal underpinnings of faith

Today, this is referred to as horizontal worship — we are speaking these songs to one another — as opposed to the vertical worship which is directed to God. Don’t get me wrong, there were

  • songs of worship and adoration

but they were part of a healthy balance of faith expression through music.

I keep thinking the present (and the next) generation is getting shortchanged.

My wife has a rather generic description of many women’s Bible studies she has attended.  They read a passage and then the group discussion question is, “How does this make you feel.”

People go around the circle giving answers which are rather subjective, personal, and sometimes rather ridiculous. I know how those exercises in group discussion make her feel. It’s all about me.

That’s how I feel about these worship songs. A few decades back, writers warned of worship songs that could easily be about “my boyfriend” than about God. I think today’s writers are more cautious because of this, but we still get songs that reflect a rather shallow understanding of the basics of faith, or who God is.

Writers often produce articles and columns like this with little regard to saying something encouraging about the songs which have been popular in the modern worship era. Let’s look at a few:

  • Shout to the Lord – the verses are vertical and personal, but the chorus is reminiscent of the Psalms
  • Here I Am To Worship – the only modern worship song I am aware of which was an answer in the New York Times crossword puzzle, the song is vertical but speaks of incarnation and God’s attributes
  • In Christ Alone – more modern hymn than contemporary worship, the song is personal (“my hope” “my strength”) like Shout to the Lord, but it’s rich in doctrinal substance.
  • Majesty – The Jack Hayford classic chorus is, like the hymn O Worship the King, an invitation to join in worship
  • How Great is Our God – A song of declaration of God’s attributes. I’d place this one in the modern hymns category as well because of its content and structure, and it will probably endure equally well.
  • Open the Eyes of My Heart – The Paul Baloche chorus is personal and vertical, but contains allusion to scripture which helps it break out of subjectivity.
  • Good, Good Father – This one is more recent, but resonated with congregations around the world. It shows how vertical and declarative can be blended in a single song.
  • 10,000 Reasons – This very Psalm-like song has a vertical chorus but a more horizontal set of verses.
  • One Day – This is a remake of an old hymn and a rather good one at that. The verses tell the wider story arc of Christ’s incarnation and look forward to his return.
  • Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone) – Again, a remake of a horizontal song of testimony.
  • You are My King – A partial hymn remake of the classic Amazing Love, but also a declaration of personal conversion. Horizontal verse, vertical chorus.
  • Come, Now is the Time to Worship – An song of invocation which looks forward to Christ’s return. Horizontal, though vertical in an optional additional section.

In your church, do you think there is thought given to the horizontal-vertical dichotomy? Or the distinction between “I” and “we”?

I trust that, even as you’re reading this, there is a musician or two composing songs that are worthy of making a list of the best in the next five or ten years.


Redemption Songs may be ordered by vendors having a connection to HarperCollins. It comes from the UK, so allow 2-3 weeks.


Related:

January 3, 2018

Wednesday Link List

English to English translation of KJV text proves too difficult for current computer technology.

This is list #391. Nine more to go!

Wittenburg Door classic

January 2, 2018

“Dad, I’m gay”

Filed under: children, Christianity, Church, issues, parenting — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:37 am

What do you do when your son says, “I am gay?”  There’s a lot contained in that three word statement, certainly more than initially registers. A Christian friend experienced this several months ago and continues to wrestle with the implications. Recently, he asked to share this with readers here.


“Dad, I’m gay.”

When my son says “Dad, I am gay”, what he is saying is . . .

I had the courage to tell you something very important.

I have been trying to figure this all out for quite some time now.

I’m more likely to deal with depression than a straight child.

I’m more likely to have suicidal thoughts than a straight child.

I am more likely to be picked on or talked about than a straight child.

I would be arrested in certain parts of the world.

I would be put to death in certain parts of the world.

I’m not sure I will be accepted at church.

I’m not sure you will be accepted at church either depending on how you handle this.

Though I am your son, I am not just like you.

I am still your son, and in many ways, just like you.

I am still your child, but am not a child anymore.

I will want you to meet my boyfriend someday.

If I take a step of covenanting with a man to be faithful to him the rest of my life, many of your friends may tell you that you should not attend that celebration. My friends will not hesitate to be there for me.

You may not change your perspective on homosexuality, but I do expect you to be understanding of mine.

I want you to celebrate and have joy because of me, not merely tolerate me.

I know that you love Jesus and the Bible. I am also aware that you love me. You need to figure out what all that looks like.

January 1, 2018

Worship Analytics

You’re at a church service and one or more of the following happens:

  • You find yourself considering the theological underpinning of the opening prayer
  • You’re noticing all manner of technical things involving the worship music; everything from audio levels, to the competency of the musicians, to the song choices.
  • As the sermon progresses you find your brain, which should be absorbing the message, is more in the mode of critiquing the delivery, clarity, depth, application, etc.

Try as you may, you can’t stop analyzing everything that’s going on.

Maybe you know too much!

Here’s the question — because I already know some of you who are readers here do this — I want to ask: What percentage of people who are also among you in the congregation are also doing this?

I’d like to think in the case of music that the worship leaders (or people who actually do these things but are on a Sunday off) only number about 5% of the total congregation. Idealistic? Absolutely! Certainly the critical remarks you sometimes hear in the church lobby are based on significant numbers of people who have been treating the thing as though the pastor or worship team are contestants on a reality show.

But I might be wrong. Perhaps like Statler and Waldorf everyone has detached themselves from the prayer or worship or sermon and is filling in their scorecard.

That would be tragic, though some might argue a consequence of a consumer-focused church where the congregation is more of an audience.

I think there are ways to combat this mentality, but first, I want to hear from you how prevalent it might be.

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