Thinking Out Loud

January 21, 2019

Eyeing the Competition

While 99% of the people in Pastor Reynold’s congregation met with him at the church or in a coffee shop, Olivia was good friends with his wife which gave her somewhat unfettered access to the pastor at his home.

Dropping in one day while Mrs. Reynolds was out, they stood at the front door and talked for five minutes, and as usual, Olivia was going on and on about the latest podcast she’d heard from some U.S. preacher. “You should check him out sometime; it was absolutely awesome!”

It wasn’t just her; there were a bunch of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings in the church who seemed to trade teaching links the way his generation traded baseball cards. It was as though everyone is looking for the next big thing.

Finally he decided to state the obvious, “So did you like my sermon this week?”

“It was okay.” She seemed to be reluctantly volunteering that assessment.

“Would it be better if I got some skinny jeans?” he asked her, but she just laughed.

So he tried it another way, “Would it be different if I had a podcast?”

“You do have a sermon podcast; the tech team posts your message every Monday.”

“Oh right…” at which point he had to admit to himself that he’d forgotten that; in fact, he’d never even been to the page where the sermons were posted.

Olivia got a text back from Mrs. Reynolds saying she wouldn’t be home for an hour, so Olivia texted back that they’d meet the next day instead.

Pastor Reynolds went back to his computer and tried to find an email he’d received several weeks ago from Jordan, Olivia’s husband. Jordan had recommended that the pastor watch and listen to a particular speaker but the email had sat ignored.

“Where did he say that guy was from?” the pastor asked himself. “Bismark? Boise? Bakersfield?” He found the email, clicked the link and started listening. He’d set the expectation bar quite low and wasn’t prepared for what he saw and heard.

After about four minutes, out loud to no one besides the cat, he said, “Oh my goodness… this ain’t the kind of preaching I was raised on.”

It was actually two hours before Mrs. Reynolds came home, and by then Pastor Reynolds had heard three sermons by three different next generation preachers, and had scrawled two pages of handwritten notes…


…Every healthy church has people of different ages who are being influenced by speakers and teachers online from their generation.  Someone who loves Charles Stanley is unlikely to develop an affection for John Mark Comer and vice versa. A fan of David Jeremiah is unlikely to convert to a steady diet of Judah Smith. A daily listener to Chuck Swindoll is unlikely to abandon him for Levi Lusko.

The point of today’s story however is that pastors would do well to invest some time listening to those teachers who are influencing the people in their congregation. People like Olivia can’t get to John Mark’s or Judah’s or Levi’s church. If they live more than an hour from a major city, they might not even be able to get to one like it. Pastor, they worship at your church and they’re part of your congregation.

But they have these other influences, just as certainly as the older people take in In Touch, Turning Point and Insight for Living. Furthermore, the older members of the church often listen to these radio and television preachers on a daily basis, whereas they only come to church once a week. Media preaching has a greater impact on many churchgoers than what takes place at weekend services.

Shouldn’t pastors take some time every once in awhile to check out what it is people are hearing? In the story, Pastor Reynolds announces to an empty house not that the message is ‘Heresy!’ but rather that the communication style is exceptionally different; greatly engaging. The pacing is different; there’s less shouting; the messages are longer but the times seems to fly by. He makes notes.

I think the practice of listening to the group of rising pastors and authors should be part of a pastor’s occasional routine. I know people in vocational ministry are busy and groan under the weight of all the books people in the church tell them they should read, and podcasts they should watch or listen to, but if someone in your congregation is overflowing with excitement about a spiritual influence in their lives, wouldn’t one would want to know what it is?


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January 17, 2019

Our Summer Church-Visit Holidays: The Pattern

We wanted to hear Rob Bell in person. The first time we travelled to Grand Rapids he was away, but we went back again to have the complete experience. Not long after, Rob was gone from Mars Hill Bible Church over his view of hell, among other things.

I had some history visiting Willow Creek to hear Bill Hybels, but my wife had not. We went several times to South Barrington to hear him. Last year, in the wake of #MeToo, Hybels was no longer at Willow nor were the people he had chosen as successors.

I had been captivated listening to James MacDonald’s preaching on radio while driving to work every morning. The first time we drove there we didn’t know that Elgin was just a new Harvest Bible Chapel campus so James wasn’t there. The second time we drove to Rolling Meadows and he was at Elgin. So technically, I’ve never heard him in person. This week he took — or was placed on — an indefinite leave of absence over issues involving money and control.

The moral of the story is we need to stop visiting churches…

…Actually, the moral of the story is something my father taught me several decades ago: Don’t invest your confidence or admiration in an individual preacher; they will invariably let you down at some point. The megachurches are always the biggest blips on our radar and many of them got there due to the charisma of a key personality.

Many of these Bible teachers are great communicators with a style that local church pastors may try to emulate though not always successfully. Often however, the character strength by which they are able to get up and speak to thousands of people each weekend also masks a character weakness in terms of how they handle that power and responsibility…

…There are a couple of churches I would still like to visit to hear the lead pastors speak in person, instead of on a small window of my computer screen. In the wake of all that’s transpired, I’m thinking it might be best not to. 


Sidebar: Both Hybels and MacDonald ministered in the area of greater Chicagoland called the ‘Nortwest Suburbs.’ I wonder what the impact is there on both Christians and non-Christians alike in the wake of watching the fallout from leadership crises at two of the largest churches in the area. I can imagine doubters and skeptics saying, ‘See; I told you it was all a sham.’

While these two churches will continue to serve their congregations, no doubt some disillusioned people will take a step away from church, at least for a season. It may also be the case the smaller, local churches are left to pick up former members at Harvest and Willow who want to escape the megachurch environment.

The people — and pastors — in this part of Chicago really need our prayers.

January 8, 2019

Melding the Church Categories

Last year the academic books division of InterVarsity Press (IVP) released a title which intrigued me.  Gordon T. Smith is the President of Ambrose University in Calgary. Evangelical, Sacramental, Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three struck me as an ecclesiastic and doctrinal equivalent to what the late Robert Webber was trying to move us toward; the idea of blended worship. The idea is to move from a polarized, either/or approach to incorporating the best from different traditions.

At least I think that’s what it’s about. I don’t, after many attempts, get review books from IVP, be they academic or otherwise. (I’ll admit a lack of full qualification to review scholarly titles, but at 160 pages, I’d be willing to look up the big words!) For that reason, I’ll default to the publisher’s summary:

Evangelical. Sacramental. Pentecostal. Christian communities tend to identify with one of these labels over the other two. Evangelical churches emphasize the importance of Scripture and preaching. Sacramental churches emphasize the importance of the eucharistic table. And pentecostal churches emphasize the immediate presence and power of the Holy Spirit. But must we choose between them? Could the church be all three?

Drawing on his reading of the New Testament, the witness of Christian history, and years of experience in Christian ministry and leadership, Gordon T. Smith argues that the church not only can be all three, but in fact must be all three in order to truly be the church. As the church navigates the unique global challenges of pluralism, secularism, and fundamentalism, the need for an integrated vision of the community as evangelical, sacramental, and pentecostal becomes ever more pressing. If Jesus and the apostles saw no tension between these characteristics, why should we?

I mention the book now only because today is the release day for another book that I think offers a similar challenge and has a similar title.

Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor of King’s Church in London, part of the Newfrontiers network of churches. His book is titled: Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship (Zondervan). Full marks for the adjective — eucharismatic — which I’d never heard before. (Google produced 5,700 results, but the first page results were all for this book.)

Even though it’s only 140 pages, because the book just arrived late yesterday afternoon, I’ll again refer to the publisher summary:

Spirit and Sacrament by pastor and author Andrew Wilson is an impassioned call to join together two traditions that are frequently and unnecessarily kept separate. It is an invitation to pursue the best of both worlds in worship, the Eucharistic and the charismatic, with the grace of God at the center.

Wilson envisions church services in which healing testimonies and prayers of confession coexist, the congregation sings When I Survey the Wondrous Cross followed by Happy Day, and creeds move the soul while singing moves the body. He imagines a worship service that could come out of the book of Acts: Young men see visions, old men dream dreams, sons and daughters prophesy, and they all come together to the same Table and go on their way rejoicing.

Two sentences from the précis of both books:

  • “..the church not only can be all three, but in fact must be all three in order to truly be the church.” 
  • “…an impassioned call to join together two traditions that are frequently and unnecessarily kept separate. It is an invitation to pursue the best of both worlds in worship.”

Hopefully people are listening.


Read an excerpt from Andrew Wilson’s book at this link.

 

 

January 6, 2019

The Church Today Viewed Through the Lens of Tomorrow

I have strongly come to believe that if Jesus Christ’s second coming does not otherwise interrupt the trajectory of Evangelicalism in North America, Australia/New Zealand and Western Europe, that something like the following will be written about us in the not-so-distant future:

They allowed music to be an all-important feature of their gatherings to the point where it became a dominant factor in shaping their view of God and His ways and attracting people to their churches. They did so at the expense of songs of testimony, songs of proclamation, songs of commitment, songs of assurance, songs narrating the history of God’s people, and songs after the pattern of the Psalter which reiterate passages from the scriptures.

They created a generation with an incomplete picture of the work of the Church and the purposes of God; trading this to sing platitudes often distant from their hearts.

…At least that’s my opinion.

November 19, 2018

The Future of Reverence at Church

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:13 am

I arrived, admittedly, two minutes late.

I started to open the double door leading into the sanctuary/auditorium/big-room, and immediately realized the pastor was in the middle of the opening prayer. I quickly closed the door.

I started quietly talking to the woman at the door handing out bulletins in the lobby.

I was effectively blocking the door.

A young woman, who I know, walked up to the door.

“They’re praying;” I told her.

And then, the unthinkable.

She replied, “I don’t care about that.”

She opened the door which sent some noise from the lobby into the auditorium. Some people in the back two rows turned toward the door to see what was causing the distraction.

I looked at the woman I had been talking to.

“I don’t care about that?” I whispered.

…Telling my wife the story later I realized what she meant was basically, ‘The fact he’s praying does not affect me. I don’t mind walking in and heading to my seat in the third row. His praying will not inconvenience me, because I don’t plan to wait for him to finish.’

But this is church.

Waiting is exactly what we once did in these situations.

Not any more, I guess.

At least for her.

November 8, 2018

Preempting the Sunday Morning Service

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:03 am

Yesterday I heard about a third church in my area which is replacing the normal worship time and sermon with a concert. That’s right, a concert.

While this is nothing new, it certainly is becoming more prevalent. In the case of the one I just heard about, I know the band in question and have no doubt that some good ministry will take place that Sunday morning; and I recognize that the Sunday Evening service has become extinct, so realistically, only one opportunity is available to do this sort of thing on a day when the church family is guaranteed to be present.

Still, I wonder about this.

I’m trying to picture a Roman Catholic, or an Episcopalian showing up for church and instead of the familiar liturgical call to worship, a band starts playing a song. And then one more. And then another. They would probably feel their worship service had been hijacked. While one or two might like the creative change, I suspect that most simply value their order-of-service too much to see it removed; even for a single week. Those forms simply offer too much spiritual benefit to be sacrificed, even for a single week.

But Evangelicals don’t approach church that way. In the modern, megachurch-mimmicking church service there are three elements:

  1. Worship
  2. Announcements/Offering
  3. Teaching

Apparently, it’s okay to take a week off from the formal teaching time or the teaching plus the worship time. Hopefully the concert serves as a drawing card that is part of a coordinated evangelism effort to which people are inviting their friends and the pastor will indeed deliver a short challenge.

Often the concert is actually a set-up for a pitch from a relief and development organization.

My wife finds this a rather consumerist mentality. People will come to be entertained. She also wonders why the people in the band want to miss participating in their own church’s worship service that morning. Many of these same people, if asked to work at their job on Sunday morning, would tell their boss they cannot because they attend church.

It’s also worth noting that this year with November 11th falling on a Sunday, many churches in our area are rearranging their worship service time to accommodate attending the service at the local war memorial or cenotaph. In Canada, we don’t have both Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, so our Remembrance Day takes on greater importance.

One church, which normally has two services is only doing the early one. Another church has shifted their worship to a 12 noon “Café Service.”

I don’t recall any Evangelical church rearranging their schedule when this day was also a Sunday, but admittedly it takes anywhere between 5 and 13 years (because of Leap Years) for this type of thing to repeat, and by then the memory isn’t as accurate.

And don’t get me started about what happens when Christmas Day is a Sunday. (Relax, it’s a Tuesday this year.)

August 31, 2018

Christian Celebrity is Fleeting

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:58 am

by Drew Dyck

A few years back I interviewed Tim Keller and mentioned it to my parents. I thought they’d be impressed since they were in ministry for 40 years, but they were like “Tim who?”

Then they asked me about some of the big leaders in their generation, and I only faintly recognized a few of the names. It was a good reminder that this silly thing we call Christian celebrity rarely extends beyond a generation.

Also, your great grandchildren probably won’t even know your name. So chill about your “legacy.”

from Twitter

 

Drew is a Canadian living in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and works for both Moody Press and Christianity Today. He is the author of Yawning at Tigers (Thomas Nelson). I got to know him online when he was tasked for a time with editing my weekly column for CT.

August 2, 2018

Breaking the Repetition Factor in Worship

A few days ago, our friends at Flagrant Regard posted this question at Worship Leader’s Collective:

 

Does anyone else feel the 7/11 treatment of songs (7 words, 11x in a row) can get a bit taxing if you’re standing, have ADHD or just want to sing worship songs that render its message in 4 minutes or thereabouts?
 
We took the nearly 8-minute version of Elevation Band’s great song ‘Resurrecting’ and rejigged it down to a comfortable 5 minutes (example below). Anyone else doing the same or feel the need to?”

We asked if we run this larger response for readers here at Thinking Out Loud.


Hey there. It’s the Original Poster (Flagrant Regard) here. So, after reading the many responses to the question asked above, the first thing I’d like to say is thank you all for taking the time to answer/reflect. Much appreciated!

I think from the many responses, the idea of the worship leader/team having to cut back on a Hillsong/Bethel/Elevation song’s length during worship time seems to be out of sync with the modern worship trends and not a favorable action with the majority here.

You know, if it were just young people in your services who are into the whole Bethel/Hillsong/Elevation Worship thing that has come to dominate the ‘industry’ of worship music in this century, I’d be like, “Yeah, that’s fine. Don’t cut back on your song lengths and repetition of choruses.”

But the church is made of many parts and many peoples. People who give a fig about older hymns, people who don’t. People who like songs from the 90’s and 00’s, people who don’t. People who like to sing and people who’d rather read the lyrics on the overhead projections and just ‘soak’ while the worship band does their shtick.

What bothered me in this thread was how some of the reasons for not wanting to trim some songs (in attempts to accommodate many people’s comfort-levels in the church body) came across as rather snobbish or selfish even. And musical snobbishness is a reflection of worship leadership that is more concerned with elevating one’s self or one’s musical agenda rather than attempting to meet many people where their at in an oft-diverse congregational body. We are taught in Scripture to ‘be all things to all men’. One good way to do this, as a worship leader, is to not just play the music YOU dig or get into. To honour one another above yourselves is sometimes playing that old hymn for those 10 or 11 folks there who would so much appreciate the effort that you’d take to do so. Maybe play only 1 longish song with multiple layers/choruses and then play others from the 90’s or the 00’s even that are less repetitive. Not everyone in the congregation is ‘bent’ toward meditative worship music that constantly refrains things for up to 8 or 9 minutes. This does not make them less spiritual than you. This does not make them less deserving of your respect or outreach or occasional accommodating their comfort-levels.

What’s wrong with a balance of song styles/lengths to reach a whole congregation and not just the Bethelites/Hillsongians among the crowd?

Listen to how much of your ‘SELF’ came out in your responses to the question.
“Gets ME into a meditative state”

“Sometimes it takes a little time and repetition for ME to really set aside MY day …”

“I THINK they can stand for 25 minutes once a week”

So it’s about you is it?

And then some of the reasoning for playing longer songs had me going, “Uh, really?”

“Why don’t we feel the same way when Scripture gets repetitive? Psalm 136 is a good example. … I wonder if we can’t stand as long because we just don’t want to. We like things our way because we feel entitled to things being done our way.”

“people who complain about repetitive lyrics, ask them if they like the Hallelujah Chorus”

“that whole idiotic 7/11 thing is what many of the prominent reformed guys use to smear the entirety of the charismatic church, while still being fine with the eternally repetitive ways that the angels are projected to be worshiping God in heaven.”

1. Psalm 136. Reminds me of my Roman Catholic days. You know, where every Sunday you’re made to say the same prayers over and over again in a ‘call and response’ fashion till it became lip service. Who warned us against ‘repeated prayers’ because of their inherent nature to disengage us from reality and make us think we’re doing something spiritual when we’re not? (Matthew 6:7)

Not saying that this Psalm isn’t wonderful. But I was able to read it aloud comfortably in under 2 MINUTES – TWO MINUTES folks … Not eight.

2. The Hallelujah Chorus … is not a congregational piece. It’s a highly designed performance piece. Doesn’t fit in with Sunday mornings now does it? Silly example.

3. People of a certain age (you’ll get their friends, trust me) will be sore. Yes, the ‘whole of Israel’ (hyperbolically speaking) was there for the reading of the Decalogue in Nehemiah, but Israel would not be telling a crippled old widow, “Stand up, you lazy serf. We’re worshipping God here.” Unless you believe in a God who would expect that, our role is to accommodate the suffering and struggling in our midst. People struggle with attention spans when they’re very young and very old and long, repetitive songs DO NOT ASSIST in their attempts to become more spiritual!

4. The angels in heaven … are in heaven. They are angels and not humans. They praise God because they are self-aware in a way that you and I could never comprehend (in this life) and feel compelled to worship our Mighty God in ways that you and I could never fathom.

Not all raise their hands in praise. Are they less worshipful? Not all have a singing voice, is it right to compel them to sing or hear things over and over again that do not centre their minds on God, say, the way a well-worded sermon does?

My wife was right yesterday when she noted that the modern worship service seems to be moving in this direction: its structure is being dictated by the worship music or leadership … not the pastor, not the preaching, not the theology, not the disciplining efforts.

She was right, I began to conclude. Is it because the whole ‘paid worship pastor’ thing (which is rather new in the history of the modern church) forces the worship pastors to ‘earn their salt’ by making sure they’re ‘performing’ to expectations? That their singing long enough songs … playing extended musical sets?

I wonder how many of those here in favour of the longer songs and longer sets are the same people who start looking at their watches when the pastor begins to go ‘overtime’ with his message? If you’ve ever done that … do you see the duplicity you’ve just found yourself chewing on?

I guess what it all comes down to is this:

Who are you serving? Why are you serving? How could your serving best meet the variety of souls that have to listen to you for 25 minutes or so? Old music is not bad. I used to be one of those ‘hymn haters’ … “Why can’t they do the new stuff here? They’re such FUDDY-DUDDIES!” But that was because my agenda was to make them – the less ‘with it’ folks – get with the program. Yeah, that’s what Christianity is about – making the people bow to YOUR preferences.

Christian worship leading is not about fulfilling YOUR preferences. It is about ‘being all things to all men/women’ and ‘honouring another above yourselves’ VIA YOUR GIFTINGS.

So before next Sunday, think about your congregation – the blue hairs, the young, the middle aged, the smart/the not so smart, the attentive, the less talented, the seeking … are you doing everything in your power (in the Spirit’s power, rather) to lead them closer to the Throne by meeting them where their at by way of the many songs available to you from the many glorious eras of Christian song that are wonderful as well and often succinct in their message/presentation?

Worship the Lord with your love and humble-heart, and love others with your various giftings. Play well and professionally of course. But love others – as many others as you can – with your gifts.

That is the true Worship Leader’s calling.

June 11, 2018

Becky Goes to Church

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:24 am

I introduced this graphic less than 90 days ago when we were discussing Christian radio playlists.

[M]y wife pointed out something that the more I thought about it, the more profound it seems. She said something like, “There’s more variety on any given contemporary Christian music album than what is played on Christian radio.” In other words, the songs chosen to be the single off the albums tend to get chosen because they all match the station sound and therefore they all sound alike.

In my mind, I envisioned the diagram where each line represents the range of the songs on any given artist’s album — some exploring a greater number of musical genres — and the dots representing the songs selected to be featured on the radio.

Wouldn’t you like to hear some of the songs from the edge of each artist’s collection?

The article then proceeded to introduce Becky, the imaginary customer for what Christian radio has to offer.

But the hard reality is that Becky does indeed park the minivan once a week as she and her family attend church. There, the decisions being made about which songs to sing are being made along similar criteria, and in fact, there is currently an all-time high in overlap between the recurring songs at churches doing modern worship and what the Christian radio industry is promoting.

It’s basically about which songs work and the chosen few songs are those which are compressed into a narrow range stylistically, but also compressed into a narrow range vocally because, without the SATB parts breakdown of hymnbooks, everyone is being compelled to just sing the melody…

…In our community there is a church which broke away from the Roman Catholic Church many years ago. I’ve visited on many occasions and have described their worship as a blend of songs drawn from Catholic folk liturgy and modern worship. Recently however, the pastor corrected me and said, “Actually, we’re mostly just doing modern worship now.”

I felt a little sad. The diversity of music offered at churches in our area now stands as a binary choice: The hymns still sung by Mainline Protestants and the modern worship of Evangelicals.

A worship leader I spoke with yesterday described the pressure to do a song, “just because it’s popular;” despite his theological misgivings about some of the lyrics. We also talked about songs which need a spoken introduction describing the background and how a church might do this the first week, but if it fails to continue this in successive weeks, people don’t understand what they are singing; necessary in some cases as songwriters seek out fresh language or metaphors to describe scriptural truth.

In terms of style, full marks to those churches that continue to pursue a greater variety of music. The ones that still have solo pieces. The ones which include an occasional string quartet. The ones which reassemble a choir for Easter Sunday.

Unfortunately, in order to do that, you need a large pool of talent to draw from, which is why we see this type of thing at North Point or Willow, but not at the church around the corner from where you live. Mostly now it’s a matter of having the basics: A guitarist, a bass player, a drummer and a keyboard. For whatever reason, God did not distribute the gift of drumming equally around all the churches. Perhaps we’re meant to do more sharing in this department…

…I’m sure somewhere in this blog I’ve championed the value of doing pieces familiar across all Evangelicalism. It’s great if you’re visiting to know a few of the songs which are, after all, now ‘the music of the church.’ I don’t agree with going great distances off the path for an entire set, or only doing songs which are original compositions by members of your own band.

But I think we need to avoid blandness or sameness.  We need to look at the lyrics and say, ‘What sound best captures what the lyricist is saying?’ The original word I heard used for this is prosody. I can’t find the particular definition now among the several offered, but I was taught it implied “a marriage of lyrics and music.” In other words, let the music fit the words. Go beyond the fast song vs. slow song dichotomy.

I think Becky would appreciate it.

 

 

 

June 3, 2018

My Favorite Worship Song Doesn’t Work Congregationally

The blue Pacific on a summer’s day
Rushing in to meet the yellow sand
The view’s terrific I see Monterrey
Lookin’ mighty fine from where I stand
The water dances in the sun’s reflection
A thousand silver birds fly in my direction
Now isn’t it beauty, isn’t it sweet perfection?

If someone were to ask me my favorite worship song, I suppose I could easily think of songs like “Shout to the Lord,” “Majesty,” “How Great Is Our God,” “Revelation Song,” and a number of hymns including “Our Great Savior,” which you may or may not know.

But not every praise song is meant to be sung congregationally, and we do ourselves a disservice when we try to take every great worship chorus and force congregations to sing songs that perhaps don’t match up with their personal expression of adoration to God. Sometimes we’re just meant to listen to someone else’s thoughts.

The song embedded below is an example of that. The late Tom Howard wrote “One More Reason” with a first verse that expresses the beauty of God in creation that he is familiar with growing up in California, with its references to the Pacific Ocean and Monterrey; the spirit of which was captured by the person who made the tribute video. To sing this in our church, the first thing I would want to do is make that verse more generic, but I’ve never got around to writing different lyrics because I rather enjoy the song just the way he wrote it.

The sky is singing, the earth proclaims
Always one more reason to praise Your name.

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