Thinking Out Loud

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!

April 20, 2015

The Trinitarian Connection

Filed under: Christianity, theology — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:57 am

You don’t actually find the word ‘trinity’ in scripture, which means that you won’t find it in many Bible dictionaries. But that doesn’t mean that the doctrine, the idea, the concept is not presented clearly. The problem is that “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” is easy when you’re singing a worship song, but when you try to explain it, you begin to understand the mystery of God.

Also, some people use “God” to refer to “God the Father;” which confuses things. The solution is found in the term “Godhead,” but to some people, that conjures up some weird image more suited to science fiction.

Today, I want to just look at the actual scripture verses which reinforce the doctrine; though if you do a search, you’ll see we’ve covered this here before. Having all these verses in one place will, at the very least, be helpful to me if no-one else!

Matthew 3: 16, 17 NIV

16As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Matthew 28: 19 NLT

19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

John 15: 26 ESV

[Jesus speaking] 26“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.

Acts 2: 33 NIRV

33 Jesus has been given a place of honor at the right hand of God. He has received the Holy Spirit from the Father. This is what God had promised. It is Jesus who has poured out what you now see and hear.

II Cor. 13: 14 The Message

14The amazing grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, the extravagant love of God, the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit, be with all of you.

Ephesians 2: 17 – 18  TNIV

17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

I Thess. 1: 2-5a  CEV

2We thank God for you and always mention you in our prayers. Each time we pray, 3we tell God our Father about your faith and loving work and about your firm hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4My dear friends, God loves you, and we know he has chosen you to be his people. 5When we told you the good news, it was with the power and assurance that come from the Holy Spirit, and not simply with words…

I Peter 1: 1 – 2  NIV (UK)

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,  To God’s elect, strangers in the world … 2 who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood:  Grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Also included in this list is the passage at I Cor. 12: 4-6, because of the pattern: Spirit, Lord, God at the end of each phrase.

The passage from Acts was on a poster in my bedroom when I was younger.   In the Living Bible, it read, simply, “The Father gave the authority to the Son to send the Holy Spirit.”

You might also find these posts helpful:

Finally, this is a good place to insert this diagram, which our pastor coincidentally used on Sunday.

trinity_diagram.jpg

April 16, 2015

Going Off Course

Filed under: cults — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:30 am

img 041615Yesterday I was looking at a bit of the history of the Children of God cult, also known as The Family. I’m not including a link here because parts of the story simply are not edifying. Like many Made-in-America cults (and some in Western Europe) the thing that is often highlighted is a very liberal view of appropriate sexual behavior.

Sometimes these organizations begin around the distinctive doctrines of a very small-c, charismatic leader. But other times there is a drift away from Christian orthodoxy that happens bit by bit, year over year. (It’s also possible for an organization that has drifted to have a reformation and return to orthodoxy, as happened with the core membership of The Worldwide Church of God.)

Here’s an analogy. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. If I decide to visit my neighbor across the road and two houses down, and I line myself up from my front door to his front door, and I am in fact 5% off, I will still make it to his door. Five percent isn’t much when you’re only taking about a hundred steps. But if I am a rocket scientist, aiming toward the Moon, and I am out even 1% on my calculations, I could easily be wrong as to where the Moon is going to be on the day I need to begin orbit.

So it could be argued that some organizations move, over time, into false cult status. The adjective false before cult was common in previous generations because, by definition, any separated group could be considered a cult; today the word has shifted and the false — plus the implications of wrong teaching, authoritarian leaders, separation from society, etc. — is assumed. Did they start out 1% or 5% off course or did something happen that bent the straight line they were on? It’s interesting that a tendency, disposition or inclination is called a “bent.”

Christian bloggers and watchdog ministries are very quick to point out the perceived error of everyone else (but themselves) but we don’t have many mechanisms in The Church that would be considered preventative. You don’t know someone is sick until they exhibit symptoms, but maybe we should have a ‘blood test’ that would tell us if someone is going off the rails.

However, it can also be argued that bank tellers know how to recognize authentic currency not by looking at counterfeit bills, but carefully studying real ones. Spending time immersed in the weekend teaching and mid-week Bible studies connected to mainstream Christian churches is sufficient to keep us all on the right path.

May 2, 2014

Glenn Beck @ Liberty U.: Another Perspective

Much has already been written about the decision by Liberty University, the institution founded by Baptist Jerry Falwell, to invite Mormon talk-show host Glenn Beck to be the speaker at its April 25th Convocation. The thrice-weekly events are described as the “largest weekly student gathering in North America” (I think I’ve got that verbatim) and include top Christian authors and pastors, but sometimes civic leaders as well.

You can watch the entire lecture here.

The hinge on which all the discussion turns is whether or not Mormonism can be considered a branch of Christianity, a marginal group, or an outright false cult. Most Evangelicals would place the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) outside the Christian camp.

James Duncan of the blog Pajama Pages goes to great lengths to demonstrate the central doctrinal differences, and also documents that the University, clearly knowing they had a potential tempest ready to boil, informed students that they would receive a $10 fine if they failed to attend, something that university apparently has the power to do.

Liberty-University-ConvocationI am in agreement with what Duncan is reporting, but want to point out that I was recently told by a University representative1 that in order to keep its accreditation, Liberty could not continue to have “Chapel” three times a week, so they came up with “Convocation,” a slightly different use of the term than the one with which some of us are familiar. The concept is that a variety of speakers are introduced thereby avoiding any backlash that the meetings constitute a campus church service.

Had Beck stuck to political analysis common to outside speakers, we wouldn’t be having this discussion; but instead he went a different route, presenting a faith message that was sermon-like in style.

Had the university presented a number of Convocations as part of a series on comparative religion, we wouldn’t be discussing this either, but that wasn’t the case, there was both tacit and overt endorsement, especially by making the lecture more than mandatory.

My greater concern is that this was one of the final Convocations of the year; it’s Beck’s Christian college graduation-styled speech that will stick with students.

I am sure that with Beck’s busy schedule, getting a speaker of his caliber was probably considered a coup by the administration, and perhaps the pivotal end-of-April date was all that was available. But for me, the sermon seemed somewhat lacking and perhaps even a bit awkward. There was Beck, reminding the audience occasionally that he comes from a different denomination, but trying to affirm is Evangelical compatibility through his belief in the atoning work of Christ on the cross.

But he spoke of the Grand Councils, Mormon terminology, and used other words which meant one thing to LDS followers but would be heard differently in Falwell’s Baptist backyard.

Despite the passion and skilled rhetoric, the message just rang hollow.

Were I a student there, I think I would have said, “Who do I make the $10 check out to?”


1 Liberty recruiter with a display at a spring event.

February 17, 2014

A New Standard Theology Textbook?

While I keep a number of Biblical and theological reference books on my shelves, I recognize that the average reader here does not. Still, there are people who want to go deeper in their understanding of Christian theology as well as people who have taken, are taking, or plan to take some formal courses from a Bible College or seminary. For them, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology has always been the standard text. You can read more about it at this page.

But this morning, a little hyperbole on Twitter got my attention. Filling out past the 140-character limit, someone wrote:

The world would be a better place if Grudem’s work was composted and replaced with Evangelical Theology by Michael F. Bird.

Composted? That’s a bit harsh. I decided to investigate the title. You can read more about it at this page, or continue below:

Evangelical TheologyEvangelical Theology is a systematic theology written from the perspective of a biblical scholar. Michael F. Bird contends that the center, unity, and boundary of the evangelical faith is the evangel (= gospel), as opposed to things like justification by faith or inerrancy. The evangel is the unifying thread in evangelical theology and the theological hermeneutic through which the various loci of theology need to be understood.

Using the gospel as a theological leitmotif — an approach to Christian doctrine that begins with the gospel and sees each loci through the lens of the gospel — this text presents an authentically evangelical theology, as opposed to an ordinary systematic theology written by an evangelical theologian. According to the author, theology is the drama of gospelizing — performing and living out the gospel in the theatre of Christian life. The text features tables, sidebars, and questions for discussion. The end of every part includes a “What to Take Home” section that gives students a run-down on what they need to know. And since reading theology can often be dry and cerebral, the author applies his unique sense of humor in occasional “Comic Belief” sections so that students may enjoy their learning experience through some theological humor added for good measure.

Ironically, both are published by Zondervan, and both at $49.99 US. The Michael Bird work was published in November of last year and runs 912 pages. (Grudem’s released in 1995 and is 1,296.)

Traditionally, the first purchase anyone was encouraged to make when building a Bible reference library was a concordance, but Bible software has rendered them somewhat obsolete. A Bible handbook (overview) is still helpful to have as is a single-volume Bible commentary. Bible dictionaries have lost some market share to their online counterparts, but some people still like to have a Bible atlas, which is probably still the toughest content for your computer to present fully, hence the need for print. 

The next step, to show you’re really committed, would be to purchase a theology textbook of the type described here; one that deals with the individual doctrines, and shows how they all, like puzzle pieces, fit together to form a functional and logically consistent theology.

I looked up “leitmotif” for you and added to the publisher blurb, but you’re on your own with “gospelizing.” 

With files from Ingram Book Company

October 16, 2013

Wednesday Link List

Follow Me

Sometimes people say I don’t share enough personal stuff on my blog. Fine. Here we go.  As I compile this link list, my wife is frying fish in the kitchen. There. Is that the kind of thing you mean?  For the link list with the actual links in them, click over to the Wednesday Link List’s new owner, Leadership Today’s blog Out of Ur.

  • Ever wondered how the Catholic Church ended up with an amended Ten Commandments? Maybe there were Fourteen Commandments to begin with.
  • Think it’s bad where Malala Yousafzai is from? One writer thinks it’s just as bad in the United States where the daughters of homeschooling parents are being held captive and denied higher education.
  • Is it possible that we’ve missed a major nuance of a most-familiar story because of the placement of the chapter division?
  • Because it would be nice to know ahead of time, here’s six signs you’re dealing with a toxic person.
  • Programs, growth strategies, and ministry tools can all be helpful, but in this piece, a well-respected church blogger apologizes for seven years of misplaced emphasis.
  • The Hour of Power telecast is now airing fresh programs from their new home at Shepherd’s Grove, with pastor Bobby Schuller.
  • Facebook isn’t just posting your cat pictures, they’re also running the stats on info you provide, including your odds of getting engaged at a Christian college…
  • …But from a pastor’s viewpoint, what does a wedding ceremony look like when God isn’t invited?
  • CNN doesn’t so much interview Sarcastic Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Webber as it does ask for a guided tour of her various tattoos.
  • Stop the Presses! It’s a Justin Bieber photo album with pics of  J.B. with Pentecostal and Charismatic pastor friends.
  • Most Concise Reponse: Shane Claiborne on Texas’ capital punishment record.
  • September’s Best Object Lesson: Spiritual Warfare: What To Do When You Encounter a Lion. (Don’t miss page two!)
  • Essay of the Week: This week it’s another look at the (sometimes contentious) issue of infant baptism…
  • …while another writer suggests that errant doctrinal positions that led to the Protestant Reformation are slowly creeping back into Protestantism.
  • Most Linked-To Everywhere Else: An interview with Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell on the reigniting of his faith while working on David and Goliath.
  • From the Land of Unusual Allegories: Preaching is Basically a Hail Storm. (Are you making a dent?)
  • “Are we doing the right thing?” A prolific Canadian Christian author and mom to four boys on refusing to feel guilty in six different parenting departments.
  • Open Letter Department: Tony Jones to Marcus Borg: Jesus rose from the dead.
  • When writers Tweet older blog pieces: Michael Patton on reasons for and against the inclusion of the Apocrypha. (December, 2012)
  • And it came to pass that See You At The Pole begat Fields of Faith.
  • 25 Years Ago on this date (give or take several months) before we had the word ‘tween,’ the children’s music sounds of Prism Red.
  • Does your church dim the lights when the worship time begins? Lee Grady wishes you would leave the lighting alone.
  • If you’re in Atlanta on Thursday night, you can always catch the pairing of Ravi Zacharias with Jeff Foxworthy (and radio host Dennis Prager) but you’ll need tickets.  (Can’t wait to see if the next one is Hank Hanegraaff and Billy Ray Cyrus.)
  • When I say “Darlene Zschech” you say “Hillsong,” but more recently the word you want to remember is hope.
  • As wooden pews are slowly facing extinction in favor of chairs, this trend in church furniture has attracted the attention of The Wall Street Journal.
  • Married? Here’s a great checklist: Five Questions to Ask Your Spouse Every Week.  (Okay, I added the italics.)
  • Magic Musical Moment: Sam Robson’s acapella O Love That Will Not Let Me Go. Like that? Here’s a bonus: It is Well With My Soul.
  • Weird Video of the Week: Hosanna by Hillsong for Synthesia (Don’t think Michael W. Smith learned piano this way.)
  • Those “Get Inside Rob Bell’s Brain” mini conferences (my title, not his) must be going well, since there are two more events scheduled.
  • Last week was the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Tolerance aka the Edict of Milan. (Sorry I didn’t get you anything.)
  • Before you click the link, take a guess as to the Top 5 Bible translations in the U.S.
  • The Boy Scouts in the UK now have an alternative pledge for atheists.
  • King James Only advocates have a problem with the fact that HarperCollins publishes both the NIV and The Satanic Bible. So whatever you do, don’t show them this page.

Without giving away his age; Paul Wilkinson spent his formative years in Toronto’s Peoples Church at a time when it was Canada’s only megachurch, and attended their horse ranch, where one of the beasts once stepped on his foot. (More amazing personal details to follow…)

The upper image is from Church Funnies where it got 1,000 likes.  The lower image is from Christian Funny Pictures, where they’re trying to locate the artist.

vegan feeding 5000

September 16, 2013

Destroying the Idol of Absolute Certainty

…each one of us needs to be developing a personal, systematic theology so that we can respond when asked what we believe. We should know the ways of God; truly know what Jesus would do. But we should write our theology in pencil, not pen; remaining open to the possibility that what we see as through frosted glass will become clearer over time and therefore subject to change…

– me, Thinking Out Loud, 2/24/13

There are going to be those, on seeing this is a review of a Greg Boyd book, who will immediately dismiss everything that follows. While perhaps not as high on the controversy scale as Rob Bell, Boyd’s writings, sermons, and YouTube videos posted on his blog often reference the radical pacifism of his Anabaptist leanings; his belief that the American Church should be apolitical, not seen to be supporting candidates of either major party; and his teaching of ‘open theology,’ which offers the idea that for any given persons or group, the future could contain a range of possible outcomes among which God has not committed himself to knowing the final choice in advance.

Benefit of the Doubt - Greg BoydWith his newest book, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Baker Books), Gregory Boyd presents the thesis that far too many Christians — at least in North America and western Europe — are committed to a set of spiritual propositions more than they are committed to Christ; and that in fact the thing they worship and place their faith in are these ‘certainties,’ far more than they worship and have their faith secured in “Christ, and Him crucified.”

At this point, I want to step out and say that I while I believe this book has great potential for both seekers and skeptics, this is must-reading for every seasoned or veteran Christ-follower. Furthermore, I want also step out and, to use a cliché, that if the Lord tarries, I think Greg Boyd will be remembered as one of the great thinkers of our generation, even if he is not heretofore accorded such honor.

While the book clearly intends to shatter the idol of theological over-confidence, its equal purpose is to give some peace and comfort to people who, although they are long on the journey with Jesus, still don’t feel they have all the details of the contract worked out. He is writing to those of us who perhaps know people for whom all doctrinal and theological matters are settled once and for all, while we ourselves, as in the above quotation from a previous column here, feel our theological understanding is better jotted down in pencil rather than indelible ink and therefore feel our relationship with God is somewhat lacking.  He writes,

Think about it. If I was confident that God unconditionally loves me because of what he did for me on Calvary, then wouldn’t I be confident that his love for me does not increase or decrease based on how accurate or inaccurate my other beliefs are? So too, if I was confident God ascribes unsurpassable worth to me on the basis of Calvary, then wouldn’t I be confident that my worth can’t be increased because I hold correct beliefs and can’t be decreased because I hold mistaken beliefs? These questions answer themselves.

Unlike other books I review here, the chapters of Benefit of the Doubt must be considered sequentially, not only for the progression of thought the book entails, but also because of the many autobiographical sections that are introduced then later referenced. This book is Greg Boyd at his most personal, most transparent; even as he writes of weightier things.

While Boyd admits in a couple of places that he tends overall to lean to the conservative position on many doctrinal issues; and that he believes in the inspiration of scripture and even a version of inerrency; the book will resonate with people who wrestle with many of the more difficult parts of the Bible, or those who are stuck in a place overshadowed by past unanswered prayers. He gets into this in describing an upcoming conference based on the book:

There are those who might falsely infer that with a title such as this, the pastor of Minneapolis megachurch Woodland Hills is slowly moving away from orthodoxy. Based on my reading, I would say with deep conviction, don’t think that for a minute. This is a book about the value of doubt; a book that espouses the concept that perhaps in an atmosphere of doctrinal fragility, our ultimate faith in Christ is perhaps stronger, more enriched, and more able to withstand the realities of life. As the publisher blurb suggestions, “Let your questions lead you to a stronger faith.”

January 19, 2013

Weekend Link List

Weekend List Lynx

Weekend List Lynx

Lots of stuff that can’t wait until Wednesday!

  • This one is must reading. Matthew Paul Turner asks former Mars Hill Bible Church pastor Shane Hipps all the questions I would have asked about the church, hell, Love Wins and the man he succeeded at MHBC, Rob Bell.

    “This is one of the biggest misunderstandings.  Rob doesn’t have a position or a concept of hell, he is an artist exploring possibilities and making unexpected connections, not a theologian plotting out a system.  In other words there is nothing to agree or disagree with.  It’s like saying I disagree with that song or that painting.”

    Read more at MPT’s blog.

  • CT’s story of the week concerns gay students at Christian colleges. That’s not a typo.

    “Leaders at Christian colleges and universities around the country told Christianity Today their schools are rethinking the way they address the needs of [same sex attracted] students on campus.”

    Read more at Christianity Today.

  • If you’ve been around the church for any length of time, you might remember “visitation” by pastors and church elders. These days, you’re more likely to get a house call from your doctor.  David Fitch’s guest author Ty Grigg thinks you might not have anybody drop in these days:

    “It is not a cultural norm to have neighbors or even friends over to our homes for dinner.  If we want to be with people, we go out.  The restaurant has replaced the space that home once occupied in society.  Typically, for younger generations (40’s and under), a visit will be at a coffee shop or to grab lunch.  In our suburban isolation, the home is too much of an intimate, sacred space for most non-family members to enter.”

    Read more at Reclaiming the Mission.

Other links:

  • Canadian readers will remember a national pre-Christmas story involving the theft of $2M worth of toys from a Salvation Army warehouse in Toronto. Here’s a follow-up on how the organization is working to protect itself by having a solid ‘whistle-blower’ policy
  • Want a taste of that theological educational experience you missed? RegentRadio.com, the internet broadcasting arm of Regent College, frequently offers free lectures by its professors. Currently it’s wrapping up a twelve-part series with Gordon Fee on the Holy Spirit in Pauline Theology with a new lecture available each day.
  • We linked to this about six months ago, but it’s worth a revisit. Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed links to a 9-minute video where an orthodox priest explains various theories of atonement.
  • Sarnia is a Canadian city across the river from Port Huron, MI.  Pastor Kevin Rodgers blogs at Orphan Age and reminds us how a shared meal is a great way to build community.
  • USA Today religion editor Cathy Lynn Grossman looks at the larger religious issues in Monday’s Presidential inauguration ceremony.
  • A New Jersey substitute teacher is fired for giving a student his personal Bible as a gift after the student kept asking where the saying, “the last shall be first” came from.
  • New blogs we’re watching this week — okay new to us:
  • Talk about California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day: Our closing shot this week is from a Facebook page dedicated to books. The picture combines two of my favorite passions: a day at the beach and reading.

Beach Library

December 28, 2012

Why Mere Christianity Still Works: An Analysis

Mere Christianity C. S. LewisYou’re expected to review current books online, and this review is therefore 60 years too late. However, John Stackhouse has saved the best wine (so to speak) for the last (of the year) with a landmark analysis of the continuing popularity of the C. S. Lewis bestseller Mere Christianity.

I know not everybody clicks through, so I’ll include a few highlights here, but if you treasure good writing, you need to read the article now, because it is every bit as delightful as the book itself. 

john_stackhouseStill here? Okay, those highlights include:

  • A somewhat disjointed set of C. S. Lewis’s views on a wide range of theological, philosophical, and ethical matters, the book became the most important and effective defense of the Christian faith in its century.
  • The first reason why MC should not have worked is rather basic: It doesn’t deliver what its title promises. It does not do even what John Stott’s classic Basic Christianity does—namely, outline at least the basics of evangelicalism’s understanding of the gospel.
  • A second reason why… it is, after all, an extended set of philosophical and theological arguments. Even worse, it is front-loaded with its densest material, a reworking of the moral argument for the existence of God…
  • MC works because Lewis was a master at two rhetorical arts, which he combined fluently: argument and depiction.
  • Lewis can both show and tell. He can tell us what he thinks we should think, and then make it appear for us in an image that usually lasts long after the middle steps of the argument have vanished from memory.
  • What seems effortless for Lewis is actually extraordinarily difficult to emulate. The market is now flooded with books by Ph.D.s who cannot write an interesting and intelligible paragraph, and by wannabe pop apologists who just aren’t very smart.
  • People today do want arguments, but they want them the way Lewis delivered them: in plain language, about issues that matter, in a methodical step-by-step fashion, and with illustrations that literally illustrate and commend the point being made. For scholars to write this way today is at least as much of a challenge as it was in Lewis’s day.

Okay, that’s enough bullet points (aka spoon-feeding!) You really do need to read the article.

C. S. LewisBut then, if you haven’t already had the pleasure, you need to read Mere Christianity. I would suggest taking a chapter at a time; no more than one per day and don’t try to rush through it. Even better, if you can find an interested friend or relative, read it out loud to them daily for several days. (It was, after all, originally a radio broadcast.)

It may also whet your appetite for apologetics, a subject frequently discussed here, that is simply too foreign to too many Christ-followers. I encourage you to develop a taste for it.


If you make it through MC and do indeed find yourself wanting more, I would suggest your next stop be Classic Christianity by Bob George, a man who also knows the power of a good illustration.  Review here.  Excerpt here.

Images: I figured it rather obvious which one is John Stackhouse, Jr. and which one is C. S. Lewis, but, for the record, they appear in that order.  (Actually, the first image is the book in its most recent North American paperback edition from HarperCollins.)

September 13, 2012

Complete Links To Christian Century’s “Gospel in Seven Words”

So what if someone asked you to summarize your faith in seven words (or less)? That was the challenged faced by 23 writers at Christian Century. So… why bother listing all the articles here? Why not just link to the page? Because statistically, you guys drop by here — by the hundreds daily — but don’t click. (You don’t want to know what’s on, you want to know what else is on!) So I’m hoping a few of the answers here entice you to at least read a couple of the original articles. Or perhaps you’ll recognize a familiar name.  As to subscribers, I apologize; I don’t have a clue what you’ll get today.  Continue reading after the break.  You can at least click that, right?  As for the formatting, sometimes WordPress doesn’t play nice with other platforms…

(more…)

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